“The Key to all Mythology”



In one of the notebooks for his first Bible book Frye writes, “For at least 25 years I’ve been preoccupied by the notion of a key to all mythologies. I used to call this the ‘Druid analogy,’ & its components included Atlantis, reincarnation, cyclical symbolism.  But surely that’s all in the Bible, & the Bible as is (Atlantis-flood, reincarnation = historical repetition, etc.).  I think I have to make this book [The Great Code] the key to mythologies” (CW 13, 198).  By “Druid analogy” Frye means the religious myths and rituals of natural religion in its most primitive forms.  In another of his Bible notebooks he calls it the “pagan synthesis,” which is an analogy to the Biblical and Christian mythology.

In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the myths of inspired bards of the ancient Druid civilization and the earlier myth of Atlantis, combined with the myths of the giant Albion and of Ymir, as containing “the key to all mythologies, or at least to the British and Biblical ones” (CW 14, 178).

In The “Third Book” Notebooks Frye writes that “Part One of this book, the Book of Luvah, to some extent recapitulates AC [Anatomy of Criticism] by taking the mythos of romance as the key to all mythical structure.  This incorporates the epic & the sentimental-romance speculations that got squeezed out of AC.  From here one could go either into Urizen, speculative mythology in metaphysics and religion, by way of Dante & the church’s thematic stasis of the Bible & the Druid analogy, or (as I favor now) into the applied mythology of contracts & Utopias (Tharmas) by way of Rousseau, William Morris,  & various second-twist prose forms, including those of St. Augustine. (CW 9, 63)

Frye made a valiant effort to provide a key to all mythology, trying to fit everything into what he called the Great Doodle, which was primarily his symbolic shorthand for the monomyth.  Originally Frye conceived of the Great Doodle as “the cyclical quest of the hero” (CW 9, 214) or “the underlying form of all epics” (ibid., 241).  But as he began to move away from strictly literary terms toward both religious language and the language of Greek myth and philosophy, another pattern developed, one with an east-west axis of Nous-Nomos and a north-south axis of Logos-Thanatos.  At this point the Great Doodle took on an added significance, becoming a symbolic shorthand for what he called the narrative form of the Logos vision: “the circular journey of the Logos from Father to Spirit” (ibid., 260) or “the total cycli­cal journey of the incarnate Logos” (ibid., 201). But the Great Doodle is never merely a cycle.  Its shape requires also the vertical axis mundi and the horizontal axis separating the world of innocence and experience.  These, with their numerous variations, produce the four quadrants that are omnipresent in Frye’s diagrammatic way of thinking.  In Notebook 7 he refers to the quadrants as part of the Lesser Doodle (par. 190), mean­ing only that the quadrants themselves are insufficient to establish the larger geometric design of the Great Doodle.

The Great Doodle has still further elaborations.  In the extensive notes he made for his Norton Lectures at Harvard (The Secular Scripture) Frye remarks self-referentially that in book 14 of Longfellow’s Hiawatha the heroine “invents picture-writing, including the Great Doodle of Frye’s celebrated masterpieces” (Notes on Romance, weblog).  The reference is to Hia­watha’s painting on birch-bark a series of symbolic and mystic images: the egg of the Great Spirit, the serpent of the Spirit of Evil, the circle of life and death, the straight line of the earth, and other ancestral totems in the great chain of being.  Frye elaborates his Great Doodle in a similar way, the Hiawathan “shapes and figures” becoming for him points of epiphany at the circumference of the circle—what he twice refers to as beads on a string (CW 9, 241, 245). The beads are various topoi and loci along the circumferential string.  They can be seen as stations where the questing hero stops in his journey (CW 5, 416) or as the cardinal points of a circle (CW 9, 147–8, 159, 177, 198, 200, 204, 249, 254).  Frye even over lays one form of the Logos diagram with the eight trigrams of the I Ching, saying that they “can be connected with my Great Doodle” (ibid., 209), and one version of the Great Doodle recapitulates what he refers to throughout his notebooks as “the Revelation diagram” (CW 13, 193), the intricately designed chart that Frye passed out in his Bible course.

The Great Doodle, then, is a representation, though a hypothetical one, that contains the large schematic patterns in Frye’s memory theatre: the cyclical quest with its quadrants, cardinal, and epiphanic points; and the vertical ascent and descent movements along the chain of being or the axis mundi. It contains as well all of the lesser doodles that Frye cre­ates to represent the diagrammatic structure of myth and metaphor and that he frames in the geometric language of gyre and vortex, centre and circumference.

There are other large frameworks that structure Frye’s imaginative uni­verse, such as the eight-book fantasy—the ogdoad—that he invokes re­peatedly throughout his career, or the Hermes-Eros-Adonis-Prometheus (HEAP) scheme that begins in Notebook 7 (late 1940s) and dominates the notebook landscape of Frye’s last decade.  The ogdoad, which Michael Dolzani has definitively explained (“The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky [Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999], 19–38), is fundamentally a conceptual key to Frye’s own work, though it is related in a slippery and often vague way to the Great Doodle.  The HEAP scheme, in its half-dozen variations, is clearly used to define the quadrants of the Great Doodle, and there are countless other organizing devices, serving as Lesser Doodles, that Frye draws from alchemy, the zodiac, musical keys, colours, the chess board, the omnipresent “four kernels” (commandment, aphorism, oracle, and epiphany), the shape of the human body, Blake’s Zoas, Jung’s personality types, Bacon’s idols, the boxing of the compass by Plato and the Romantic poets, the greater arcana of the Tarot cards, the seven days of Creation, the three stages of religious awareness, numerological schemes, and so on.

All of these schematic formulations are a part of the key to all mythologies.  But where did they come from?  The came, of course, from Frye’s extensive knowledge of the literary tradition, the myths of literature arranging themselves in his expansive memory theater.  But they also came from Frye’s reading of the mythographers.


In 1956 James Reaney signed up for Frye’s course in Spenser, which was now called Literary Symbolism.  Frye did eventually get around to lecturing on Spenser, but the bulk of the course consisted in Frye’s lecturing (without notes) on the principles that would appear the next year in Anatomy of Criticism.  Reaney’s notes for the course, which he called Frye’s “Poetics course,” have been preserved.  In May 1999 he sent me a photocopy of his notebook for the course, which had “FRYE” printed in large letters on the top of the cover and, at the bottom, the cryptic note “+Romanesque pattern of Regardie.”  (There are several pages of notes on Israel Regardie, a popularizer of the legacy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Whether these came from Frye’s lectures or are Reaney’s reading notes is uncertain.)  The notebook contains a variety of material, including notes for Reaney’s own creative productions, a complete fair copy of Dylan Thomas’s A Winter’s Tale, notes on Hrólfr Kraki and The Saga of Grettir the Strong, an opening lecture on Eliot’s Four Quartets and Reaney’s whimsical doodling.  The bulk of the notebook, however, is devoted to Frye’s theories of symbols, myths, and modes––material he had been working on for ten years and which had been accepted for publication by Princeton University Press in October 1955.

On the first day of this course, 3 December 1956, Frye provided the students with a “Bibliography,” after which Reaney wrote “archetypal patterns.”  But the list is actually the most complete account we have of the scope of Frye’s reading in the mythological tradition.  The Anatomy might be seen as providing what George Eliot’s Casaubon could not––a key to all mythologies.  Some of the mythographers in the bibliography are familiar: Sir James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Carl Jung, and Robert Graves.  Others are less so.  Two are mentioned in only a single place in Frye’s writing: Edward B. Hungerford’s Shores of Darkness (1940) (CW 16, 282) and Edward Davies’s Celtic Researches on the Origin, Tradition, and Languages of the Ancient Britons (CW 14, 176–7)

Some enterprising student of Frye might be interested in tracing the sources of Frye’s own key to all mythologies by examining his debts to the books and writers that he provided on the first day of this class in Literary Symbolism fifty four years ago:


Bibliography for Literary Symbolism

Sir James Frazer, trans. and commentary, Pausanius’s Description of Greece (1898)

______, The Golden Bough

Vol. 6, pt. 3.  The Dying God

Vol. 7, pt. 4.  Adonis, Attis, Osiris

Vol. 13, pt. 7.  Balder the Beautiful

Vol. 11, pt. 6.  The Scapegoat

Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903)

______, Themis a Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion with an Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy by Gilbert Murray (1912; revised 1927)

Gilbert Murray, Aristophanes: A Study (1933)

______, The Rape of the Locks: The Perikeiromene of Menander (1942)

______, The Arbitration: the Epitrepontes of Menander (1945)

F.M. Cornford, Origins of Attic Comedy (1934)

E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (1903)

Bertha Philpotts, Edda and Saga (1931)

Theodore Gaster, Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East (1950)

Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance (1920)

______, The Quest for the Holy Grail (1913)

Colin Still:  Shakespeare’s Mystery Play, A Study of “The Tempest” (1921)

Robert Eisler, Orpheus––The Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian Symbolism (1921)

Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious: A Study of the Transformations and Symbolisms of the Libido (1915)

______, Symbols of Transformation (1952; revision of previous entry)

______, Psychology and Alchemy (1944)

Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticismand Its Symbolism (1915)

Ethan Hitchcock, Alchemy and the Alchemists (1857)

H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled (1977)

______, Secret Doctrine (1888)

Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948)

Dante: Helen Flanders Dunbar, Symbolism in Medieval Thought and Its Consummation in “The Divine Comedy (1929).

Natalis Comes, Mythologiae (1567)

Henry Reynolds, Mythomystes (1632)

George Sandys, translation and commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1632)

Francis Bacon, The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619)

Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and Others (1625)

Macrobius (395–423 A.D.)

Giovanni Boccaccio

Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 B.C.–A.D. 17)

Sir Walter Raleigh


After providing this list, according to Reaney’s notes, Frye said there were four periods of archetypal criticism:

Alexandria––Plutarch, Philo, Clement of Alexandria––biblical typology

Elizabethan favorites: Plutarch, Apuleius

18th century.  Blake, Shelley, Keats, Goethe.  What they read in Edward B. Hungerford, Shores of

Darkness (1940)

20th century

Other books mentioned in Reaney’s class notes, which are not a part of the initial bibliography, are:

Edward Davies, Celtic Researches on the Origin, Tradition, and Languages of the Ancient Britons, with Some

Intrductory Sketches on Primitive Society (1804)

Israel Regardie.  One of the twentieth century’s most significant popularizers of the occult, specifically

the legacy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

B.L. Manning, The People’s Faith in the Time of Wycliffe (1919)

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One thought on ““The Key to all Mythology”

  1. Faun Mark-Anthony Tostevin Trefusis Flynn

    This is really excellent. I have been doing my own research on the legendary ‘key to all mythologies,’ by way of Hamlet’s Mill and Robert Graves’ poetic grammar of myth. His methods of proleptic and analeptic reasoning are very similar to the abductive logic of C.S. Pierce and the ratiocination of Poe’s Dupin. Umberto Eco wrote on this with others in ‘Interpretation and Overinterpretation.’ Methods to derive possible ‘palimpsest histories’ via what amounts to fictive projection. Obviously these are bad ways to do history [you get stuff like the Holy Blood, Holy Grail fantasies] but good for generating plot and lots of labyrinthine backstory. Tall tales. But real meaning is in there. As shown in Bill Sullivan’s work on the myths of the Incas. [Some is on Youtube. A Channel 4 ‘To the ends of the earth’ from 11 years ago. A bit hacked up though.] The closest thing to this work by Frye, of which I knew nothing, is the library of Sir Thomas Browne. He of the Urn Burial. Thank you so much for your insight. This is a whole new take on it for me.


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