Daily Archives: August 27, 2009

Video: “A Tribute to Northrop Frye”

This is pretty funny. This video claims to be part of a high school student seminar on chapter 3 of The Educated Imagination, “Giants in Time.”  As far as I can tell, it’s really just three guys looking for a reason to perform a card trick:


Now, to be fair, the boys themselves have this to say about the video:

This was a video made for a seminar analyzing Chapter 3: Giants In Time, of Northrop Frye’s “The Educated Imagination.”
We linked his concept of poetry with a “voodoo” magic illusion for the visual aspect of our seminar.
– Andre, Jay, and Josh.

I’m just psyched that high school kids are still reading The Educated Imagination.  Although I’d really have to hear the rest of their presentation on the “voodoo magic” qualities of “Giants in Time.”

A Note on C. S. Lewis and Northrop Frye


“…the sophisticated allegories of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in our day . . . are largely based on the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper”  (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Second Essay

My reading was now mainly rubbish. . . .  I read twaddling school-stories in The Captain”  (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 2)

Northrop Frye attended C.S. Lewis’s lectures during the time he spent in Oxford in the late 1930s; much later he would recall Lewis as the only lecturer in Oxford worth listening to.  The two men would not seem to have much in common: Lewis took a leading role in the revival of a consciously orthodox form of Christianity that is poles apart from Frye’s visionary Blakean Protestantism.  Nor does Frye seem to care for Lewis’s fiction: in the diary for 1949 he expostulates against Charles Williams, noting that “C.S. Lewis must be an influence too, & a bad one” (Feb. 26).  The passage from the Anatomy quoted above, identifying the fiction of the Inklings with the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper, is hardly complimentary.  But the lectures Frye heard at Oxford were later published as The Discarded Image, a study of medieval cosmology that outlines a “Model” that persists until the end of the seventeenth century.  The affinities with the cosmological schemes in Frye’s work are readily apparent. 

Recently I was struck by another passage in Lewis, this one in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Lewis gives a fascinating account of his development as a reader, and in so doing he assumes something very like Frye’s conception of all of literature comprising a single system, an idea that was most extensively formulated in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  Lewis writes of his time at Campbell College in Belfast:

Much the most important thing that happened to me at Campbell was that I there read Sohrab and Rustum in form under an excellent master whom we called Octie.  I loved the poem at first sight and have loved it ever since. . . .  Arnold gave me at once (and the best of Arnold gives me still) a sense, not indeed of passionless vision, but of a passionate, silent gazing at things a long way off.  And here observe how literature actually works.  Parrot critics say that Sohrab is a poem for classicists, to be enjoyed only by those who recognise the Homeric echoes.  But I, in Octie’s form room (and on Octie be peace) knew nothing of Homer.  For me the relation between Arnold and Homer worked the other way; when I came, years later, to read the Iliad I liked it partly because it was for me reminiscent of Sohrab.  Plainly, it does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry.  Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else in the end.  (Chapter 3) 

There are also, of course, similarities with T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” For Eliot, “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”  In the Introduction to the Anatomy, Frye calls this passage from Eliot “very fundamental criticism.”

Today in the Frye Diaries, 27 August


 1942: The recent Dieppe raid, which was soon to be an acknowledged disaster, continues to preoccupy Frye (Canadian prisoners pictured above).

[84] I resolved today to (1.) keep up my diary (2.) read all the books I own, before reading much else (3.) write Blake (4.) practise Byrd. Saw Beverley Burwell, who looks taller & older & tells me Jerry Riddell has gone to Ottawa for [censored]. He’s pessimistic about the war. Bickersteth’s letters home are mimeographed & circulated & contain many vicious comments about the War Office: full of antiquated crocks hanging on to their salaries & avoiding being pensioned off on various pleas of emergency. He seems to feel that the German account of Dieppe as a foozled invasion attempt was correct: I’m not sure; it’s too symmetical. Of course if it proved only that Canadians are not cowards it didn’t prove much.

1950: A day trip to Salisbury Beach, Mass., with Frye’s U of T colleague, Ruth Jenking. 

[576] I find the Newburyport turnpike a bit dull, as a road, but Ruth talked easily, she was so relieved to get through with Harvard. The one thing she got from her summer is some understanding of [John C.] Pope’s study of The Rhythm of Beowulf, which, incidentally appeared in 1942, the year of my Music and Poetry article, and if I reprint my essays I may say that this article is a footnote to Pope’s book. Or, in the words of the oracular cliche, I may not. Anyway, the proper way to read Old English is crystal clear to her now, and as it’s a revelation in itself she feels it almost makes up for a very dull summer.

Tomorrow: the formal causes of literature and a young woman in a bathing suit