A Summary of Frye’s The Secular Scripture


A Summary of The Secular Scripture: the following is a revised and expanded version of the summary published in the introduction to The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-991. Volume 18 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Edited by Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. University of Toronto Press © 2005.

The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance was originally delivered in April 1975 as a series of lectures during Frye’s term as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. The occasion spurred Frye to develop more extensively his thoughts about romance as a literary form, a subject already central to the four essays in Anatomy of Criticism. At the end of his discussion of archetypal criticism in the second essay of that book, he observes that “archetypes are most easily studied in highly conventionalized literature: that is, for the most part, naive, primitive, and popular literature,” and he suggests “the possibility of extending the kind of comparative and morphological study now made of folk tales and ballads into the rest of literature” (104). In NB 56, one of the “Secular Scripture” notebooks, he remarks that after searching for some time for “a unified theme,” he now has “the main structure of a book [he has] been ambitious to write for at least twenty years, without understanding what it was, except in bits and pieces” (par. 157). His hope is to “make it the subject of [the lectures] at Harvard. After all, it’s fundamentally an expansion of the paper I did for the Harvard myth conference.” The latter paper, “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement” (FI, 21-38), outlines and develops a “central principle about ‘myth criticism’: that myth is a structural element in literature because literature as a whole is a ‘displaced’ mythology” (FI, 1).

The Secular Scripture explores three related areas of thought that will continue to preoccupy Frye: the dialectical polarization of imagery into desirable and abhorrent worlds; the recovery of myth in the act of literary recreation; and the struggle and complementarity between secular and sacred scriptures, between human words and the word of God.

The specific subject of The Secular Scripture is the study of sentimental romance, the literary development of the formulas found in the oral culture of the folk tale. It first appears in European literature in the Greek and Latin romances of the early common era. As a central form it surfaces again in the medieval romances and in the Elizabethan reworkings of the conventions of Greek romance, reemerging in the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, and forming the structural basis of a great variety of nineteenth-century prose fiction, most explicitly in writers such as Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Morris.

In the twentieth century and beyond it appears again most unabashedly in fantasy and science fiction. Recent examples of the recurrent appeal of romance can be seen in the long-term success of the Star Wars films, the spectacular popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (and films), and the renewed interest in the cinematic version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as well as in the widespread appeal of mystery novels, crime fiction, and Gothic horror fiction and “thrillers,” not to mention the remarkable pervasiveness of all these forms of romance in current film and television.

Frye observes that the forms of storytelling peculiar to saga, legend, and folk tale do not differ essentially from those of the Bible and certain other texts–the “epic of the creator”–which have had a sacred circle drawn around them by religious and cultural authority. The distinction between sacred and secular scriptures, as far as Frye is concerned, is primarily one of social context. Sentimental romance–the “epic of the creature”–has been vilified for centuries by the established cultural tradition, largely because of its unsanctioned preoccupation with sex and violence, and the disapproval of such “proletarian” or popular forms holds even today. Even when they become privileged objects of study, as is currently the case in cultural and film studies, the interest is often largely confined to their hidden ideological imperatives–what they tell us to believe or do.

The term “popular culture” has a widespread currency today, and its definition is often disputed. Frye offers what appears to be a very simple definition, at least of its literary form. It is that area of verbal culture–ballads, folk tales, and folk songs, for instance–which requires for its appreciation minimal expertise and education, and is therefore available to the widest possible audience. At the same time, by virtue of its wide-ranging appeal, popular literature often points the way to future literary developments, for with the exhaustion of a literary tradition there is often a return to primitive formulas, as was the case with Greek romance and the Gothic novel. Frye does not imply any value judgment in distinguishing popular from elite culture. He insists, instead, that they are both ultimately two aspects of the same “human compulsion to create in the face of chaos.”

Chapter 2 deals with the “context” of romance, the literary elements of abstract design that distinguish romance from more realistic and descriptive forms. In the last two centuries, the realist novel has had a privileged position, at least academically and among the intellectual elite, partly because of its causal logic and its perceived role as offering detailed insight into the social world and the psychology of individuals, which have given it an official seriousness and importance comparable to the mimetic forms of epic and tragedy, for example, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus the low mimetic — realism and naturalism–comes, in the nineteenth century, to inherit the prestige of the high mimetic of a previous age.

The opposing view of art is the romantic one. Opposed to the “hence” logic of realism is the discontinuous “and then” logic of romance. The suspense of wanting to know what happens next, however, not only drives us to the end of the story, but up or down the story as well. With less concern for verisimilitude and a much freer employment of mythological and metaphorical imagery, there is also the prominence of a “moral dialectic in desire,” as Frye puts it in Anatomy of Criticism, “a dialectic of desire and repugnance” (106). This dialectic is a part of all literature, but of all forms of fiction romance is the most explicitly shaped by ritual and desire, by patterns of both integration and expulsion, and by “both the wish-fulfilment dream and the anxiety or nightmare dream of repugnance.” These are the “two organizing principles or patterns” on which archetypal criticism “rests,” “one cyclical, the other dialectic” (AC, 106). Concerned with “universal” actions that express human wishes and fears, romance is made up of a sequence or procession of archetypes, the individual psychology of which has been explored in detail, as Frye notes, by Freud and Jung.

Frye invokes here Milton’s doubled muse of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the “happy” muse having affinities with ritual and social identity and the “pensive” or melancholic with the withdrawal into an inner world of dream and imagining. This polarity between dream and ritual is a good way of defining the different contexts of romance and realism. The “symbolic spread” of realism is from individual work to the life around it. The spread of romance is to its “literary context” and to “the reverberations that its familiar conventions set up within our literary experience, like a shell that contains the sound of the sea.” Its plotting and imagery thus bring into play, in a much more overt way than realist texts, the entire field of literary intertextuality, the vast echo-chamber of allusion, literary conventions, archetypes, and mythological themes of the imaginative universe.

Chapter 3 explores the conventional basis of characterization in romance, and through it the central structural principle of a moral dialectic or polarity. Frye opens with the principles of forza and froda–the two types of sin in Dante‘s Inferno–violence and fraud, or in terms of virtues, strength and deviousness, the way of Achilles or the way of Odysseus. Frye identifies the former with epic and tragedy, and the latter with comedy and romance, where the heroine, the “weaker sex,” must survive by her guile and deviousness. From the Greek romances on, the genre features female protagonists whose craftiness enables them to escape one tight spot after another and eventually triumph, their integrity intact, in the face of threats of rape and death. However, the predominance of poetic justice in romance, the triumph of virtue over villainy, is, Frye insists, primarily a structural matter, and only secondarily a social or moral statement. Virginity in a woman, and honor in a man, are the symbols of an integrity whose preservation is threatened and maintained against all costs in the course of the narrative. The impetus here is first of all a matter of narrative movement, not morality.

The heroine in romance often serves the role of polarizing and separating abhorrent and desirable worlds. In fiction of the nineteenth-century a variant of Milton’s happy and pensive muses is the device, first popularized by Scott, of the doubled heroine, one corresponding to the night world of dream and frustrated desire, the other to the daylight world of the social cycle. Rebecca and Rowena in Ivanhoe, Cora and Alice in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Maggie Tulliver and Lucy Dean in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Miriam and Hilda in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, or the male version of Heathcliff and Linton in Wuthering Heights, are some good examples of this particular convention. (Note: I have included some examples of my own here.)

In the course of the narrative the hero, if the story is comedic in structure, turns invariably to the light-haired heroine, while the dark-haired one is distanced or sacrificed in some way, as she may be desirable but in some way taboo or of the wrong race or cause, or otherwise represent some intense passion, dream, or vision that cannot be accommodated by existing social arrangements: Rebecca is Jewish; Cora is passionate and of mixed race; Maggie Tulliver’s desires conflict with the prevailing gender norms of her society; Miriam has a suspect background and sexual history; Heathcliff is a proletarian or Esau figure allied with forces of nature and hostile to a narrow social establishment. Such figures often throw a pensive shadow over the comedic society at the end, suggesting as they do compelling areas of human desire that the final “happy” society tragically excludes.

The polarity in such elements of design implies a vertically shaped imaginative universe, and an up-and-down, or, rather, down-and-up movement between different orders and intensities of experience. It is worth emphasizing, however, that Frye sees such archetypal elements of design in romance as both defining of it as a particular form of fiction recognizably distinct from the realist novel and as the matrix of all literary narratives. However displaced these archetypal structures may be in realism and naturalism, they are no less present as primary elements of design or shape, even when their presence, as in so many realist novels, is markedly ironic or takes the form of parody.

An encapsulated version of the journey through that mythological world is first outlined in an essay from 1960, “New Directions from Old” (FI, 52-66), while the basic structural principles of the cyclical and the dialectical are simply and clearly articulated in “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement” (FI, 21-38), an essay first published in 1961, which, as mentioned above, Frye identifies as the starting point for The Secular Scripture.

[T]he structural principles of a mythology, built up from analogy and identity, become in due course the structural principles of literature. The absorption of the natural cycle into mythology provides myth with two of these structures; the rising movement that we find in myths of spring or the dawn, of birth, marriage and resurrection, and the falling movement in myths of death, metamorphosis, or sacrifice. These movements reappear as the structural principles of comedy and tragedy in literature. Again, the dialectic in myth that projects a paradise or heaven above our world and a hell or place of shades below it reappears in literature as the idealized world of pastoral and romance and the absurd, suffering, or frustrated world of irony and satire. (FI, 34).

These descending and rising movements are the subject of next three chapters of the book.

Chapter 4 explores the “four primary narrative movements in literature. These are, first, the descent from a higher world; second, the descent to a lower world; third, the ascent from a lower world; and, fourth, the ascent to a higher world. All stories in literature are complications of, or metaphorical derivations from, these four narrative radicals.” They correspond, at least in a general way, to the four mythoi of Anatomy of Criticism— tragedy, irony, comedy, romance–which are organized in the same way around the movements of ascent and descent.

Chapter 4 begins with a brief examination of the four levels of the imaginative topocosm, which comprises “heaven” or “the place of the presence of God”; “the earthly paradise or Garden of Eden, where man lived before the fall”; “the world of ordinary experience we live in”; and “the demonic world of hell.” This scheme–a constant in Frye’s work–looks ahead to the four symbolic variations of Words with Power, similarly organized on the basis of a vertical axis and four quadrants, each identified with an archetypal image: mountain, garden, cave, furnace.

After a brief discussion of descents from above, chapter 4 turns to a detailed description of the journey to the world below our earth. This is without doubt one of the most popular thematic areas of romance. The structural core is always the same, beginning with a break in the continuity of identity analogous to the entering of a dreamlike world. As we descend, there is the theme of Ovidian metamorphosis–the transformation of humans into animals and other forms of nature–and the prevalent theme of double identity, often linked to the Narcissus theme and to the use of mirror images or worlds of reduced dimensions.

In the lower reaches of descent are, among other things, the doppelgänger motif and an increase in sinister objectifying imagery, such as mirrors (objectification of the self) and clocks (objectification of time). At very bottom of the night world loom the themes of human sacrifice and the cannibal feast, where the identification of human and animal worlds is complete. What follows is the point of nothingness that Frye discusses later in the last chapter of Words with Power, where what finally emerges is the counterabsurdity of an act of the creative imagination that defeats death: the narration of stories that begin and end somewhere and offer, ultimately, some vision of identity with the divine.

The following is a schematic rendering of the stages of descent:


Stage One (Departures from identity, turning on a loss of status, cognition, amnesia, or break in consciousness of some other kind):

Displaced or mysterious birth, hence removal from rightful parents

Mother and child threatened in various ways: shrouding and hiding of mother, flight and exile, birth in secrecy, oracular announcement to frighten the father or father-figure

Wrath of a god (or surrogate figure in fiction), usually incurred by boastfulness

Usurping of reason by passion, as in jealous, irrational anger, or in rash vow

Amnesia through drugs, love potions, catalepsy, etc.

Break in consciousness of some other kind: traumatic event that leads to a dramatic change in status, mental state, or identity

Falling asleep, entry into a dream world, forest (pursuit of false identity), close to metamorphosis or enchantment theme

Stage Two: (Loss or confusion of identity)

Disguise: woman as a man most commonly; man as a woman

Disintegrating of the family or blood connections

Separation of the two brothers, or friends


Change of name

Mirror selves or worlds, doubles, etc.; doubling of characters such as doubled heroine device

The undisplaced form of disguise is metamorphosis, human transformed into a “lower” or animal form of life (as in Ovid, or the fall into the ass of Apuleius)

Confusion of ranks, social strata: the king is disguised as a beggar, the hero as his own servant

Doubling patterns in general: two friends, two brothers, two sisters, two sexes: with contrast as well as similarity in doubling

Stage Three (Descent into lower reaches of the “Night World”)

Ritual Ordeal of suffering as rite of passage, part of cycle of death and rebirth

Increasing loneliness, alienation, calumny or false accusation

Sinking into silent, dumb world of unconsciousness: oracular animal helpers, mute figures

Doppelgänger motif, along with objectifying imagery (mirrors and clocks): world in which everything. is an object, including the human subject

Cannibal feast: human and animal worlds assimilated in world of human carnivores

Human sacrifice (to monster, dragon, or equivalent)

Lower world as cave resembling belly of monster or womb of earth mother

Excremental vision of Rabelais and Swift (material lower bodily substratum)

Bottom: scene of apocalyptic judgment: demonic parody of upper world judgment: false hostile accusers, accusing memory

Point of nothingness

Chapters 5, devoted to ascent themes, opens with a discussion of that moment of reversal when the “prevailing moods . . . of terror or uncritical awe” are broken by “a revolt of the mind, a recovered detachment, the typical expression of which is laughter.” (This is, significantly, the subject of one of Frye’s most important epiphanies and breakthroughs, the famous Seattle epiphany: “Ever since Seattle I’ve seen a point near the d.e. [demonic epiphany] where oracle becomes wit, where the visitor to Trophonius recovers the power of laughter” [The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 194]; for more on this see Bob Denham’s post on “Frye’s Epiphanies”.) With the reversal of the oracular into wit and and laughter the creative mind breaks free of paralysis. The is first step in the movement of ascent, which are now explored as essentially the stages of descent in reverse. They are: 1) escape, 2) remembrance, 3) discovery of one’s real identity, 4) growing freedom, and 5) breaking of enchantment.

The following is a schematic break-down of the stages of ascent:


1. Escape

Reversal of the terror or awe-struck state in lower world through a revolt of the intelligence, often accompanied by laughter

Houdini motif: convention of Escape or impossible rescue scenes that predictably always turn out happily, or the impossible riddle that is always solved

Recognition scene: in comedy hidden brought to light, true identity discovered followed by marriage

Conscious separation from the demonic as demonic, detachment from illusion/breaking of enchantment

Reversal of downward, Ovidian metamorphosis

Reversal of twins or doppelgangers

separation and polarization of double heroines

separation and polarization of progressive or regressive characters forwarding or retarding “festive conclusion”

2. Remembrance

Reversal of break in consciousness and restoration of “broken current of memory” and continuity of action following 1) recognition of demonic 2) separation from regressive elements

Higher themes of ascent: talisman of recognition theme, restoration of memory “total cycle of recognition” from descent to reunion

Theme of recovery from sea: birth of hero

3. Recovered Identity

Divergence of comedy and romance at this point of ascent–theme of comedy predominantly social, while world of romance (pastoral, Arcadia) suggests higher state of identity

World of recovered identity in romance not that of isolated individual but of society in higher world above ordinary experience

Polarization that transcends cycle of nature vs. “ironic” cyclical images of nature and human life

Eros theme that transcends cycle

Ascent imagery: climbing, flying, mountains, towers, ladders, spiral staircases, shooting of arrows, coming out of sea onto an island

Movement upward to self-recognition–reversal of Narcissus, twin, and doppelganger themes

Two forms of upward quest: 1) sublimated quest ending in virginity (sister or daughter figure) 2) sexual quest ending in marriage (identification of bride’s body with paradisal garden)

Virginity here is an image of attaining original identity

4. Growing Freedom:

Imagery of time and space:

1. transcending of fatality and destruction–energy, exuberance, genuine freedom identified with discipline–symbol of dance, identity of order of nature as dance;

2. similarly, space not “out there” but “here,” home–upper world garden of Eden– nature rejoined with human society as home

5. Breaking of Enchantment

Overcoming of ironic and tragic nature of natural cycle and frustrated Eros

Reversal of pictures, tapestries, statues, mirrors that are the threshold of descent narrative suggesting exchange of original identity for shadow or reflection

Chapter 6 shows how, in the higher stages of ascent, the predominantly social context of comedy makes way for the pastoral ideals of romance. Frye begins the last chapter by discussing the idea of “kidnapped romance,” the conservative tendency to identify the heroes and heroines of romance with a ruling or ascendant class. The naive reader tends to identify passively with such idealized characters as projections of a social mythology, and this quixotic form of day-dreaming is one of the things that has earned for romance the reputation of “escapism.”

Opposed to this, however, is an underlying anarchic and revolutionary impetus in romance as an unfettered expression of human desires that remain frustrated by any existing social state or ideal. Comedy ends with the renewal of the social cycle in the marriage of a hero and heroine around whom crystallizes a new, pragmatically free society. In contrast, the desiring and violent world of romance has “no continuing city as its final resting place.” Its settings are those of a disintegrated or atomized society amidst the natural world, and its ultimate ideals are human fraternity and a world reconciled with nature.

In romance’s ascending movement, the sexuality and violence which play such an alienating and repugnant part in descent narratives are now “used as rocket propulsions” in the upward lift of the story, as violence becomes melodrama polarizing “angels of light from giants of the dark” and sexuality “is sublimated from the action of the story” until the end. The cyclical imagery of nature and human life now points to a world of recovered identity above that of ordinary experience. In contrast with stories of descent, where the individual is an objectified and estranged unit in an increasingly inhuman order, ascent narratives are marked by metaphoric identifications leading to a progressive individualization and increasing participation with the world outside the self, the not-me of nature and the surrounding universe. Ultimately, the individual renounces the various projections that have estranged him or her from the world of identity and the source of human creative power.

The closing chapter concludes with the important theme of recreation that Frye will turn to again in Creation and Recreation, in “Typology II” of The Great Code, and in the last two chapters of Words with Power. In the context of literature, one that may be extended to the entire realm of human activity, creation requires both the creative work and the response to it, so that the responsibility for recovering the world of identity through an act of recognition now shifts to the reader. The ultimate goal of reading and criticism is, thus, the individual’s recreation in his or her imagination of the interpenetrating mythological universe, the “recovery of myth” which is the subject of this last chapter.

Frye argues that the conception of a model creation is essentially emancipatory. As a paradigm of a world that makes human sense and that is imposed on and transforms the natural world, it plants a social vision in the human mind that, breaking once and for all with the state of nature, also breaks with any social order that rationalizes as “natural” a hierarchy of oppression and injustice. Such a model world is often conceived as coming from elsewhere, from a divinity or a world above.

Significantly, chapters 2, 3, and 5 of The Secular Scripture all end by circling around and focusing on precisely this paradoxical necessity of maintaining a dynamic interdependency between a human and a transcendental creative power. The universe of romance, Frye concludes, discloses two aspects: the revelation of man to man through the human creation of stories–the so-called secular scripture–and revelation through the Word, God’s revelation to man, though God here may be more like a resisting otherness, such as reality or nature, against which the imagination struggles and tests its limits.

Our sense of the mythological universe as a human creation and our opposing sense of revelation as coming from something uncreated and transcendentally other, are, Frye insists, indispensable complementary poles of our mental evolution. For without the “sense that the mythological universe is a human creation,” as we see at the end of chapter 2, “man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase.” On the other hand, “if there is no sense that it is also something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere, man remains a Narcissus staring at his own reflection, equally unable to surpass himself.” We must, Frye argues, maintain this “struggle” between “the created scripture and the revealed scripture,” for it is through “the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative that our own mental evolution grows.”

Chapter 5 closes on a similar note, with an account of the Hymn of the Soul from the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. Adapting from that poem the figure of twins who descend from above with the soul’s lost garment and the message of its identity, Frye calls us back to the theme of de te fabula [narratur]–“the story is about you”–and concludes with a reiteration of one of his central concerns: the wisdom of seeing the two scriptures, sacred and secular, those “great twins of divine creation and human recreation,” not as conflicting but as complementary visions of the human quest for identity. Without the push and pull between the two, Frye suggests, the mirror of human narcissism can never be broken.

For the same reason, the recovery of myth, the articulate form of that transcendental power in human culture, is imperative, for without it we will find ourselves without the “models for human creation.” The idea that we can dispense with such models, or that they can be deconstructed endlessly, is the most naive illusion–“disillusion as the last illusion,” in Wallace Stevens’s words (“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”). Since Romanticism, creativity has been identified with a world of repressed innocence and visionary power, both part of us and other, an ambivalent creative energy associated, in Words with Power, with the myth of titanism and Prometheus–the earth-born hero who wrested from an oppressive natural order the wisdom and expanded consciousness with which to transform the objective order of creation. What begins, then, as a discussion of the literary structure of romance ends with an exploration of the ways in which imaginative culture and social vision are profoundly connected. Romance is the place where human beings dream, and, as Frye warns, a society that loses its imaginative life will find itself bereft of the models necessary for social transformation and, ultimately, civilized life itself.

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