Daily Archives: December 1, 2009

Tom Willard’s Study Guide for The Educated Imagination


Tom Willard has generously given us permission to publish his study guide for The Educated Imagination, which he prepared for a freshman seminar back in the nineties and posted at his website; the page references are to the Indiana UP edition. Tom teaches in the department of English at the University of Arizona; you can visit his website, which features a beautiful photo of Frye taken by Tom’s wife.

Study Guide for The Educated Imagination

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) read his Massey Lectures over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC radio) in 1962. First published by Indiana University Press in 1964, the six lectures present key concepts from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957).

Chapter One. “The Motive for Metaphor.”

Frye begins by exploring the relation of language and literature. “What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature?” he asks (p. 16), and before he can give an answer, he has to explain why people use words. He identifies three different uses of language, which he also terms types or levels of language.

1. “The language of consciousness or awareness” is our means of “self-expression,” our means of responding to the natural environment: “the world as it is.” This language produces conversation.
2. “The language of practical sense” is our means of “social participation,” our means of taking part in our civilization. This language produces information.
3. “The language of literature” is our means of entering the world of imagination: “the world we want to have.” This language produces poetry, first of all.

Science and literature move in opposite directions. Science begins with the external world and adds imagination. (Mathematics is the imaginative language of science, Frye suggests in a later chapter.) Literature begins in the imaginative world and becomes involved in civilization.

Frye now deals with the distinctive feature of literary language. When language implies an identification of the speaker and the object, it becomes metaphoric. “The desire to associate,” and to find connections between inner experience and the external world, is what Wallace Stevens calls “The Motive for Metaphor.”

This chapter provides an introduction to the book. It raises questions that will not be answered until Frye has set out a general theory of literature. These include the question of education–“What is the place of the imagination … in the learning process?” (p. 16)–answered in chapter 5. They also include a series of questions about the social function of literature and literary education, to be answered in chapter 6:

“What good is the study of literature?” (p. 13)

“Does it help us to think more clearly, or feel more sensitively, or live a better life than we could without it?” (p. 13)

“What is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature?” (p. 16)

“What is the social value of the study of literature?” (p. 16)

What is “the relevance of literature in the world of today?” (p. 27)

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The Stages of Descent-and-Ascent Contest

Alice down the hole c Disney

I thought I might create a little game out of my last post on The Secular Scripture. I am going to call it “The Stages of Descent-and-Ascent Contest.” The point is to encourage anyone out there–regular and occasional contributors, or silent visitors and lurkers of any kind (we’d like to her from you!), whether scholars, teachers (of elementary school and beyond), just plain avid readers and thinkers, amateurs of literature, ideas, and the imagination–to take a look at the stages of descent and ascent (which I will post again here), and comment with any examples you can think of from literature (which includes plays and most definitely film and television as well) of the different stages I have sketched out in my summary. Feel free to elaborate on any examples you come up with, to develop or explain their particular significance. Also, any discussion, corrections or refinements of the scheme I have come up with are equally welcome.

And don’t worry if some of the examples you come up with happen to be ones Frye uses himself in The Secular Scripture or elsewhere (such as Words with Power where an analogous scheme is at play in the second part of the book). In fact, it would be helpful,  since his range is so great, to know of  good examples from his other writings, published and unpublished.

But the real fun is often in discovering examples in literature and film where you might not have expected.

I call it a contest, but it is really a co-operative game, and an ongoing research project, one that I have often played with my students when we read The Secular Scripture. The results are always stimulating, and invariably validate Frye’s remarkable insight into literature.  Eventually,  I’ll compile them and post the results.

Here, again, is the descent/ascent scheme:


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

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Re: Frye Was Different (4)


Further to Merv’s latest post:

Or younger than nineteen?

How about 15?  “Elementary Teaching and Elemental Scholarship”

The separation of images into the contrasting worlds or states of mind that Blake calls innocence and experience, and that religions call heaven and hell, is the dialectical framework of literature, and is the aspect of it that enables literature, without moralizing, to create a moral reality in imaginative experience. The full understanding of these two structures is complicated for the teacher, but their elementary principles are exceedingly simple, and can be demonstrated to any class of normally intelligent fifteen-year-olds. Analysis of this simple kind is, in my opinion, the key to understanding, not merely the conventions and the major genres of literature, but the much more important fact that literature, considered as a whole, is not the aggregate of all the works of literature that have got written, but an order of words, a coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason. If the teacher can communicate this principle, he will have done all he can for his student.

Or six?  “Criticism as Education”

I did not begin to believe in my own critical theories until I began to see ways of applying them to elementary education. In a book published over twenty years ago, I wrote that literature is not a coherent subject at all unless its elementary principles could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old [Anatomy of Criticism, 14]. Since then, Buckminster Fuller has remarked that unless a first principle can be grasped by a six-year-old, it is not really a first principle, and perhaps his statement is more nearly right than mine. My estimate of the age at which a person can grasp the elementary principles of literature has been steadily going down over the last twenty years. So I am genuinely honoured to be able to pay tribute to an educator who has always insisted on the central importance of children’s literature.