Northrop Frye:
What a guy!
Read more books
Than you or I.
--anonymous doggeral verse.

At the bottom of Dante's hell, which is also the center of the spherical earth, Dante sees Satan standing upright in the circle of ice, and as he cautiously follows Virgil over the hip and thighs of the evil giant, letting himself down by the tufts of hair on his skin, he passes the center and finds himself no longer going down but going up, climbing out on the other side of the world to see the stars again. From this point of view, the devil is no longer upright, but standing on his head, in the same attitude in which he was hurled downward from heaven upon the other side of the earth. Tragedy and tragic irony take us into a hell of narrowing circles and culminate in some such vision of the source of all evil in a personal form. Tragedy can take us no further; but if we persevere with the mythos of irony and satire, we shall pass a dead center, and finally see the gentlemanly Prince of Darkness bottom side up.
--Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism 239.

Professors in the Humanities rarely attain anything like celebrity status. Marshall McLuhan achieved widespread recognition and even managed a cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Camille Paglia successfully courted the media in the 90s; the arguably more-deserving bell hooks also has currency with the world beyond the Ivory Tower.

And then there's Northrop Frye (1912-1991), whose mythic view of literature may very well have influenced your understanding of the stories around you, whether you've heard of him or not.

Christened Herman Northrop Frye, he was born on July 14, 1912 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, but moved with his family to Moncton, New Brunswick in 1919, where he spent his formative years. He completed high school before his 16th birthday, while pursuing various outside interests, including music, boy scouts, and theology. He also read a great deal.

He first attended the University of Toronto in 1929; he would spend most of his life there, with his most significant affiliation to Victoria College (now Victoria University). He initially studied theology, and was ordained a minister in the United Church of Canada in 1936. He worked for a short time as a pastor in Saskatchewan, before receiving a scholarship to study English literature at Merton College, University of Oxford. In 1937 he married his wife, Helen; they would remain together until her death in 1986. The Fryes returned to Canada and Victoria College in 1939, where he began his lengthy career as a professor of English and, in 1978, chancellor.

Early in his career, he saw the need for a course on the Bible, because so many students of literature were no longer familiar with its stories, and therefore unable to grasp that book's profound influence on Western literature and culture. He argues in The Great Code that even if the Bible is "more like a small library than a real book," "a confused and inconsistent jumble of badly established texts... what matters is that 'the Bible' has traditionally been read as a unity, and has influenced Western imagination as a unity... and at least it has a beginning and and end, and some traces of a total structure." (xii-xiii). His interest in understanding the Bible as a coherent work would shape his understanding of literature.

Unlike many literary theorists in the latter half of the twentieth century, Frye preferred to examine literature as a totality, rather than dissect the diction, history, and political shadings. Of course these matter, and his prodigious body of work addresses all aspects of literature. Frye tried first to understand what literature is before examining what individual works say. He wanted to explore the myths and metaphors which underly stories. He found most interesting the fact that bodies of literature could be viewed as part of something larger, and that something could give insight into humanity. In his understanding of myth, he was very much like his contemporary, Joseph Campbell, and one clearly sees the influence of Carl Jung's theories and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

A brief article cannot do justice to Frye, but I will briefly address one of his most influential ideas. All works of literature, Frye argues, can be classified into four mythos which together form a cycle.

ROMANCE: Frye uses the word in its older sense, designating the literature of wish-fulfillment, stories of heroism and "extravagant adventures"(Webster 1913). Romance encompasses the entire mythic cycle, as it typically involves a quest downward into a dark world, a waste land, a city of the dead. If successful, the hero emerges from darkness and returns, or the world itself, plunged into a waste state, is revived.

TRAGEDY: Tragedy involves the downward movement, from a more romantic world into the realm of satire and irony.

IRONY and SATIRE: Ironic and satiric literature tries to "give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence" (Anatomy... 223). This mode is Romance in revearse; the characters' efforts lead not to renewal but rather "unrelieved bondage" (Anatomy... 238).

COMEDY: Comedy (again, see Webster 1913 for the more traditional definition of this word, which Frye uses) takes an upward movement. The plot involves the overcoming of a problem established early on, and the tale ends on some kind of positive note, back in the world of Romance. You might consider the ending to the original Star Wars trilogy when reading Frye's description of the pure comic form, which also references the Romantic world to which comedy returns:

At the beginning... the obstructing characters are in charge... and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end... the device that brings the hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystalize around the hero.... The appearance of this new society is frequently signaled by some kind of party or festive ritual.... Weddings are most common....
(Anatomy... 163)

The various parts of the entire mythic cycle correspond with a time in the life cycle, a time of day, and, in the Western tradition, with a particular season (Romance=youth, afternoon, and summer. Follow from there). Certain images and characters become associated with each. These patterns play out in a variety of ways, according to the author, the culture, and the level of realism or mimeticism. Frye brings an overwhelming number of examples to show how, say Sir Knight's journey into the waste land to face some legendary challenge resembles structurally Hagar Shipley's encounter with a strange man in an abandoned building on Shadow Point in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. Frygan theory does not represent the final end of literary criticism-- nor did the man himself make any such claim. His theories give one excellent understanding of literature's formal elements and structures, and these apply equally-well to sitcoms as to sacred texts.

Frye received honoured throughout his life and continues to be celebrated long after his death. In 1967 he was designated the First University Professor of the University of Toronto. His books were often nominated for prestigious awards and less frequently won them, but they have remained on academic bookstore shelves longer than many of their competiters. While some of his best work was nominated for Canada's Governor-General's Award, Frye actually only won in 1986 for Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, essentially a collection of lectures (They are, however, very good lectures).

In 1988, Victoria College at University of Toronto established the Northrop Frye center, to:

encourage research in the human sciences; to encourage the dissemination of humanist scholarship; to confirm and celebrate the role of Northrop Frye in Canadian scholarship and society.
(Northrop Frye Center Site).

Since April 2000, Moncton has played host to the annual Nothrop Frye International Literary Festival, which promotes authors writing prose, poetry, or drama, in English or French.

The character of Professor Kingfisher in David Lodge’s satiric novel Small World is a mythologized version of Frye. While the description and views are Frye's, Kingfisher's personal life is pure fiction. Lodge's great man lives with a young exotic grad student; this has little to do with Frye's relatively conventional personal life.

Perhaps Frye's oddest honour is his appearance in a Marvel comic, Defenders #133. Although the character, whom Hank "the Beast" McCoy recognizes and lavishes praise upon doesn’t look much like the noted scholar, the setting resembles Victoria College, the character is called "Professor Frye," and his book which the Beast has read and wants to discuss is Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. A grad student brought the comic to Frye’s attention; he was said to be pleased.*

Northrop Frye's published work includes:

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 1947
Anatomy of Criticism, 1957
The Well-Tempered Critic, 1963
The Educated Imagination, 1963
T. S. Eliot, 1963
Fables of Identity, 1963
A Natural Perspective, 1965
The Return of Eden, 1965
Literary History of Canada, 1965.
Fools of Time, 1967
The Modern Century, 1967
A Study of English Romanticism, 1968
The Stubborn Structure, 1970
The Bush Garden, 1971
The Critical Path, 1971
The Secular Scripture, 1976
Spiritus Mundi, 1976
Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature, 1978
Creation and Recreation, 1980
The Great Code, 1982
Divisions on a Ground, 1982
The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Comedies, 1983
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, 1986.
No Uncertain Sounds, 1988
On Education, 1988
Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988, 1990
Words with Power, 1990
Reading the World: Selected Writings 1935-1976, 1990
The Double Vision, 1991
The Eternal Act of Creation: Essays by Northrop Frye 1979-1990, 1993


Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

--The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Toronto: Academic Press, 1982.

Northrop Frye Center Site.

Nothrop Frye. International Literary Festival.

Richard Stingle. "Frye, Northrop." The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.

*The grad student in question told me this story in the 1980s. I cannot remember his name. The image may be found at

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