Frye on Chess



Cross-posted in the Robert D. Denham Library

Frye often uses chess as an example of a rule‑governed game or set of arbitrary convention, which he likens to the conventions of literature.  But there are more than ninety references to chess scattered throughout his work.  A large number of these speculate on chess as an archetype.  Then there is the cryptic phrase “chess-in-Bardo,” which Frye associates with the theme of ascent and the world of romance––what he calls the Eros archetype.  Solving the “chess-in-Bardo problem,” he writes, “will give some indication of what it means to live in a totally mythical universe” (CW 9, 56).  Frye circles around the “problem” throughout his notebooks, associating chess-in-bardo with the agon or contest, with the recognition scenes in Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest, and Finnegans Wake, and with a vision opposite from that of the dice-throw in Mallarmé (the Adonis archetype).  Michael Dolzani’s reading of the chess-in-bardo problem focuses on its associations with the agon and the recognition.  See his Introduction, in CW 9, liv–lv.

By the time he came to write The Secular Scripture (1976) Frye had caught up with the ignis fatuus that he had been tracking since the 1940s.  In that book he provides a clue to the meaning of “chess-in-bardo” in a brief commentary on Alice in Wonderland:

Alice passing through the looking-glass into a reversed world of dream language is also going through a descent. . . . Before long however we realize that the journey is turning upwards, in a direction symbolized by the eighth square of a chessboard, where Alice becomes a Psyche figure, a virginal queen flanked by two older queens, one red and one white, who bully her and set her impossible tasks in the form of nonsensical questions. Cards and dice . . . have a natural connection with themes of descent into a world of fatality; chess and other board games, despite The Waste Land, appear more frequently in romance and in Eros contexts, as The Tempest again reminds us.  As Alice begins to move upward out of her submarine mirror world she notes that all the poems she had heard have to do with fish, and as she wakes she reviews the metamorphoses that the figures around her had turned into. (155–6)

Chess-in-bardo, then, involves a dialectic of two opposing forces: agon and anagnorisis, choice and chance, descent and ascent.  Neither of the opposite forces can abolish the other, for each has “its own centre” (CW 9, 288), as in the magic of Prospero and its renunciation.  Frye says that The Tempest leans in the direction of chess-in-bardo (CW 9, 340).  But at the same time, chess-in-bardo appears to be related to reversal, as in the ascent of Alice.  “Chess in Bardo?  Is it a modulation of dice in Bardo?” Frye asks.  “A chess move is a decisive choice that may not abolish chance, but sets up a train of consequences that forces it to retreat into the shadows” (CW 5, 318).  Chance may never completely disappear in chess, but each move works toward an eventual reversal.  The entry in Notebook 50 following the one just quoted appears to be related: “Perhaps sacrifice is the carrying out of death in reverse, identification through death to union with God–well, obviously it’s that.  This identity with death turns into an identity across death” (CW 5, 318).  This is another way of describing the movement from death to rebirth in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

But there are other meanings that attach themselves to chess in Frye’s writings, as can be seen in the passages that follow.


1.  Chess in the Notebooks and Diaries

The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye (CW 9)

[39]  Chess: I think in its normal context it’s an Eros symbol, a love game rather than a Kriegenspiel.  As it clear is in The Tempest, in some naive romance (including the Mabinogion, where it’s replaced by an unspellable & probably unpronounceable Welsh equivalent and perhaps in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where whatever game it is is translated “draughts” by Wallis Budge.  The Eliot one is ironic, of course, and there the 32 pieces of chess have some connexion with the poor creature’s teeth that have to come out in her 32nd year.  Poe was interested in chess (and in checkers) as well as in teeth—Berenice’s, that is: all 32 of them.  Going back to the Book of the Dead, I should remember that most Eros settings are, like Dante’s, on the other side of this world, which means often the underworld, a quite different world from the world of Thanatos, which is Hades or hell, a world of life in death.  In short, I have to remember that spatial projections are variable.  [CW 9, 138]

[40]  Remembering that Lewis Carroll is a very knowledgeable guide through certain parts of the labyrinth, it’s significant that the story about cards ends in a lawsuit and the story about chess (where the pieces are the Eros colors red and white) in a catechism (and banquet).  Chess is Platonic Eros, linked to the victory of dialectic (the Russians are the best chess players) and the symposium.  Cards have overtones of divination & fate (Pushkin’s Queen of Spades; the Methodist horror of them, etc.): it marks the victim or it’s the deus ex machina trump. [CW 9, 138–9]

[82]  Apparently mab is Welsh for youth, and eventually got to mean a story—in other words a quest-romance or Orc story.  Queen Mab would then be from the country of the young, the Irish Tirnanog, and as such she makes an appropriate appearance in Romeo & Juliet.  My Adonis quadrant is really a Percival quadrant: if I could crack the code of that legend I’d have it.  And how the Alice books do keep creeping back! It may have been wrong to have once made a WT [The Winter’s Tale] : cards :: T [The Tempest] : chess association, but something there is central.  The mock-battles of the red & white knights of Tweedledum & Tweedledee have something to do with the chess symbolism.  So chess has a war-and-love aspect, and the red & white (or black & white) opposition is part of it.  And of course there’s the Grail & cards business—note that in Alice no suits except hearts are mentioned, & of course the heart is the Grail suit.  I wonder if this damn book is going to turn out to be a gigantic preface to Shakespeare?  [CW 9, 150]

[84]  Chess is on the Eros side: the will co-operates with fate, and because everything’s displayed it can be a love game.  The medieval symbolism of chess, I understand, associated the Queen with the Virgin Mary & the King with her Son.  The castled king then is Amalthea hiding her florid son, & checkmate is not, or not only, the dead fisher king, but the disclosure of the infant divine child by the surrounding Titans.  Cards, on the other hand, are concealed from the opponent & so suggest fatality.  In Yeats’s terms, cards are antithetical and chess primary (the contrast Yeats draw, by the way, between an Oedipus going underground & Christ ascending from the standing position of crucifixion (ignoring the burial, but let that go) shows how he’s got his symbolism arsy-versy antithetical falls, primary rises.) The disclosure of the child of love by the Titans, or birth in a world which is hostile to it but temporarily awed & silenced because it doesn’t dare touch the frowning form, is certainly one form of the point of epiphany.  Only fully-developed chess could symbolize this, but any board game would be emblematical of love & war. [CW 9, 151]

[85]  Cards, on the other hand, are the parental figures, polarized by the movement of the seasons.  Lance & grail are the male & female sexual symbols of the solar centre or winter solstice: sword & dish, with the severed head, of the John the Baptist summer solstice & the Lammas night.  The first two are red, the second two black.  In chess white plays against black or red.  When black wins the babe is born a boy & the cycle turns: when white wins the female babe springs from the hearth.  I think I’m inheriting something here from the Nova Section Ledge.  Of course there’s demonic chess, associated with rape & 32 teeth by Eliot, and erotic cards, as in Alice in Wonderland, with gardeners painting white roses red.  [CW 9, 151]

[182]  The Logos vision exists as apocalypse or total metaphor, it exists as cosmic coherence (music & mathematics), & it exists finally as a coup de des or epiphany of coherence.  In between comes the discontinuous epiphanic Logos of the Gospels.  I suppose the cosmic coherence one reflects in part the intense schematism of the arts: music as arbitrarily conventional as a chess game, painting as the permutations of Euclid, etc.  In Mallarmé [Un Coup de Dés] the birth of a god from a virgin is transformed to the birth of a poem from an undifferentiated purity broken into, even defiled, by the creative act.  Azure & the white page are the most common images.  Also how epiphanic fragment breaks free of the encyclopedic synthesis.  In Mallarmé Victor Hugo is a kind of demonic leviathan who has swallowed all the themes of poetry in his rhetoric. [CW 9, 175]

[196]  I need to know something about the language of astrology (including numerology) for the Logos half & something more-considerably more, in view of Yeats & Rimbaud—of the language of alchemy.  Alchemy seems to run up the whole E side, from Rimbaud’s “seasons” in hell to Marvell’s “annihilation.” Also games: chess, like alchemy, runs up the E. side, or at least all board games do: card games go down the W. side, & dice, from mummer’s plays to Mallarmé, hovers around the south.  Some kind of labyrinth game-of-Troy dance belongs somewhere, I think.  [CW 9, 179]

[215]  The concealed eighth is the discovery or recognition of the thematic stasis of the sequence in the reader’s mind.  Sometimes a central emblem (white whale, scarlet letter) symbolizes this.  I must go back to my analyses of Between the Acts & Gryll Grange.  Note that six of these are three doubled (cf. the rovescio & binary patterns in music, the Narcissus-double theme in Poe, & the chess scheme where the queen & king are respectively peripety & recognition & the other three pieces are doubled).  [CW 9, 184]

[243]  If I go back to my hundred-sections idea, section 1 is the centripetal-centrifugal conspectus, with, perhaps, a note distinguishing the categories of literature from the mnemonic devices for grouping them.  Section 2 begins with the literature-inheriting-a-mythology stuff, the two creation myths, & the two worlds of upper & lower consciousness.  Somewhere along here I want to embark on a historical survey of the Logos myth: how the mathematical vision, for example, declines after Newton, & then either turns demonic (Blake’s Europe, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, Yeats’ Vision) or else gets reborn by way of some kind of games theory.  Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel & Mallarmé’s Igitur & Coup des Des belong here, though I don’t just know how yet.  I suppose chess in Bardo gets attached.  One of the things I find encouraging about this project is the way I’m being compelled to face things I’ve ducked in the AC: Poe’s Eureka, the epic circle, & the like.  Browne’s quincunx, too.  Because a lot of things seem to be converging on Yeats’ double gyre or hourglass figure, of which the X is one form: a conscious world where the mind is at the centre or top; a lower world where the mind is looking into itself below, “Poetic Cosmology”: it sounds like Vico.  [CW 9, 190–1]

[245]  Browne says of chess that in its original form it figured “the whole world, the motion of the planets, with eclipses of sun & moon.” Invented by Thoth, according to Phaedrus 270.  This is the GC [Gardenb of Cyrus] , where the quincunx takes the form mentioned above, an upper & lower pyramid representing perception from a centre & circumference respectively—close to Yeats’ hour-glass & Blake’s vortex, & one of the things I’m looking for.  [CW 9, 191]

[253]  Browne’s GC [The Garden of Cyrus] (the remark about chess, by the way, comes from Servidas, S.V. tabula, according to L.C. Maslin: cf. similar games in the Utopia, and, of course, the labyrinth-dance or game of Troy in Virgil) is about the quincunx, but is fascinated by the crux ansata or sign of Venus, the circle with a cross below it.  In me, the cross is the four forms of fiction & the circle the episodes of drama & lyric.  I kept trying to inscribe the cross in the circle in AC, with indifferent success.  Ultimately, I suppose, my [Liberal] is a circle & my [Tragicomedy] a cross, but I can’t think of that when I’m writing [Liberal]: I have to inscribe it within again.  [CW 9, 192–3]

[311]  Divination is part of the attempt to evoke a Logos vision, or something akin to it, out of a Thanatos one: a hidden order that the divination elicits.  Hence the catalogue in Rabelais.  So dice, Tarot cards, most chess, & for that matter astrology, conceived as a knowledge of the future, are all p.d.e. [point of demonic epiphany] visions.  [CW 9, 207]

[321]  This association of the upper world with a daughter-figure clears up a point or two: the descent of innocence, Alice & the Dickensian girl-child, Marvell’s drop of dew.  It would be wonderful if I could see AW [Alice in Wonderland] consistently as an Adonis descent, or parody of one, with the red & white roses, the beheading queen, the cards, & the final trial, & ATLG [Alice Through the Looking-Glass] as an Eros descent, I mean ascent, with chess, red & white queens, & the white knight as the melancholy Virgil-guide who can’t go all the way.  Even the mirror fits, Tui being a lake.  [CW 9, 210]

[367]  My zodiac, if I haven’t it already, starts at Nous (Aries) & goes around: low & high Eros are the Bull & the Twins, the Logos summer vision the backward moving Crab; high & low Adonis are the Yeatsian lion & Virgin; Nomos is of course the Balance; the scorpion & archer dominate Hermes; Thanatos is on the Tropic of Capricorn & the winter solstice; the water-bearer & the fish take us up Prometheus.  Now, if there’s a precessional reverse-movement to take care of, we sank into high Prometheus with Christ & our outlook has had something fishy about it ever since: the universe recedes on all sides like the ocean.  Alice goes into the mirror world & hears poems about fish: asks why & is given a riddling answer about undishcovering the fish or dishcovering the riddle.  Chess, by the way, is another mirror-image: one social establishment manoeuvering against another, its demonic shadow.  Maybe this precessional movement will account for some of my mirror-reversals.  Alice is a girl-child created queen in the mirror-world: the creation of the youngest daughter, la jeune parque, is SE, Lear being the tragic & failing version of that arch. [archetype].  Perdita & the winter solstice.  [CW 9, 221–2]

[541]  I still should do some thinking about the I Ching: 64 is the number of squares in chess, 32 of pieces.  The hexagrams would have to be in sequence, & no doubt I should study the sequence.  Of course they have a primary connexion with divination, oracle, knowledge of the future, & hence Thanatos.  But my six phases, each three overlapping with another three, indicates some connexion in my own mind.  [CW 9, 261]

[547]  Check Lydgate’s Reason & Sensuality, founded on Les Ecless Amoureux for erotic chess, not that I expect much. . . .  [CW 9, 262–3]

[551]  I suppose my original atomic notion of 32 points was influenced by my desire to have for once a piece of writing where I could isolate units, instead of going into my usual tizzy.  Probably I can’t, even though the Anatomy itself broke up into bits—large bits, it’s true.  I suppose I should introduce the archetypes on their “tonics”: the chess game seems to be in upper Eros with the earthly paradise and the associations with music & dance (Hyp, T [Hypnerotomachia, The Tempest]) though there are demonic forms in Eliot & Poe.  Similarly with the Alpha-Omega business associated with usually underground rivers (Coleridge, Kenneth Patchen, etc.) & the feast of languages stealing the scraps, where the tonic is lower Hermes.  There are games in all the quadrants, but the game of athletic contest (the epic game) has its tonic in Adonis, the game of fate (cards) in Hermes, the game of chance (dice, divination) in Prometheus, & the game of strategy (chess & board games) in Eros.  Note however the Adonis chess games in medieval romance (if so).  [CW 9, 263–4]

[555]  Two stitches dropped above: The chess game in Hyp [Hypnerotomachia], with its overtones of music & dance, suggests the dancing spirits on the palace floor in Yeats’ Byzantium; the “pagan” episode the Pan stage in Ash Wednesday.  Also the detailed vision of buildings & “mathematic form” in Hyp.: cf. Yeats’ Statues.  [CW 9, 264–5]

[92]  What is a speculative myth, the subject of Two?  It’s a myth designed to contain, and provide a vision for, experience.  Therefore the further it gets away from actual evidence the purer it is.  I’ve worked this out in some detail in my Bible lectures.  For metaphysical cosmology, a much tougher job, I need Alexander, McTaggart & Whitehead.  It may become Three, but wherever it goes, it’s the chess-in-Bardo one.  [CW 9, 21]

[172]  I have always distrusted what I call Reuben the Reconciler in thought: the syncretism that “reconciles” Plato & Aristotle or St. Thomas & Marx.  I think every great structure of thought or imagination is a universe in itself, identical with & interpenetrating every other, but not similar or harmonizable with any other.  Syncretism is Coleridge’s fancy playing with fixities & definites, & it leads to the net of relations, not to the archetypal universal unique.  My earlier notebooks, where I wanted to move all the big names in modern literature and thought around like chess pieces, were fanciful in this sense.  What I now want to do is pick epiphanies out of them for my own purposes.  [CW 9, 39]

[245]  I hope the Book of Luvah will solve such things as the chess-in-Bardo problem, and that it will give some indication of what it feels like to live in a totally mythical universe, where a dragon is literally “the seeing one.”  Note that I-IV is the progression from the mythical to the verbal universe, mythology to literature and what literature informs.   [CW 9, 56]

[289]  Huizinga’s book, Homo Ludens, doesn’t distinguish contest play, like a game of tennis, from construct play: only the latter (except for some kinds of argumentative rhetoric) belongs in lit. csm.  The opposite of play is (a) seriousness (b) work.  This distinction has to do with the form-content one.  Suppose I’m asked to give a Convocation address: I want to say something “serious” people will remember, & so I “work” on a speech.  But the form, the whole symbolic set-up of a Convocation, is ceremonial play, a symbolic let’s pretend.  Chess is contest play, so chess in Bardo is the repetition of agon, specifically the Oedipus agon or killing of the king.  [CW 9, 66]

[12]  Anyway, this type is closer to Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale—I had a strong feeling when doing the Bampton Lectures that the four romances corresponded to four primary types of mythos.  The Tempest starts beckoning in the direction of that chess-in-Bardo will-o-wisp I’ve been chasing for thirty years.  Also Lear’s search for the natural man. [CW 9, 340]

[66]  Prometheus symbolism for Eight comes mostly out of Rabelais.  It begins in the oracular message, the deciphered code, & the “symbol-essences” of Endymion concealed in the scraps of languages.  This in turn is connected with divination, the coup de Dés, the game of chess in the lower world.  Cannibal giants, the paradox of stupid power & articulate intelligence, anal imagery, Dante shat out of Satan, the piss-floods in Rabelais, all belong–Birds & frogs.  Ariel & Caliban.  The soul & the sleeping body vs. the rising body.  [CW 9, 287]

[73]  If I could arrive at a suggestion about that the commedia would have four parts after all, an Ulro of images on a cave wall, a Generation of the attainment of freedom, a Beulah scherzo of fourteen sections taking me to 78, the Tarot number & a favorite of the Rabelais, & then a Last Twilight of 22, in which the different languages of the arts (V) might suggest a way of climbing up Babel again.  The scherzo might not only deal with but be the chess in Bardo problem: the opposed forces each with its own centre.  I talk as though I were about seventeen years old: actually I feel more like a bull in the ring, learning fast but therefore soon to die.  [CW 9, 288]

[254]  Also Egyptian is the boxes-of-Silenus mummy cases, of one inside another: Rabelais.  Anointing the body for burial: Mark 14:8,[“She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying”—Jesus’s words about the woman from Bethany who poured a precious ointment on his head.] so it survives.  Evidently it was dice games that were found in T’s tomb.  Cards are Adonis & Hermes; dice is Thanatos; chess & the like Prometheus & Eros.  [CW 9, 335]

[29]  There’s some connexion between chess or cards and the alphabet of forms.  Chess in The Tempest is an Eros mingling, Miranda, like Alice, becomes a queen and the king dies [(shahmot?) this phrase also in notebook 8].  In Thanatos visions they’re emblems of fatality & enmity: the chess & Tarot pack of The Waste Land.  Wonder if it has something to do with the triumph of the female will that goes all through Eros, & is parodied by the femme fatale.  [CW 9, 112]

[50]  The S to E quadrant is the progress toward the new built city.  Aeneas leaves the burning Troy (W), then wanders W to S until he reaches Carthage (S) and Dido.  The sixth bk. recapitulaes this journey, as he meets Dido again.  The Tempest is founded on the same journey, & its action has two levels: the Prometheus S to E one for Prospero and the court party, and the Eros E to N one for Ferdinand & Miranda.  The Waste Land combines the two, adding Augustine.  The first section is W to S descent, substituting desert for forest, then the Dido chess world & death by water (Carthage & Phoenicia), then the final exit from the world of falling towers & the fisher king & Teiresias with the risen Christ.  It also absorbs the Dante escape from hell through the center of the earth (upside down in air were towers).  Thus this Carthage-Italy progress is a Classical parallel to the Egypt-to-Jerusalem Hebrew one, the escape from Africa, vs. the Rasselas descent into it.  Thus once again the Exodus prefigures the Resurrection.  The content of all this is old, but the overall shape is getting clearer.  I see more clearly why “Sicily” haunts Shakespearean romance: it’s the land of the two levels of Proserpine, and of Arethusa.  For the action of WT [The Winter’s Tale] exists on an old Leontes-Hermione level & a young Florizel-Perdita one even more obviously than that of The Tempest does.  Perhaps this is the reason, not only for Shakespeare’s anxiety to have the parental figures taken care of, but for the change that the romances make in the green world symbolism.  [CW 9, 117–18]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance (CW 15)

[35]  There’s a chess metaphor on p. 149 [of Parzifal], & with the four suits of cards the whole Parzival-Alice-Waste Land-Frazier complex is in front of me, if I could only read it.  [CW 15, 176]

[40]  Book 8 hasn’t much of interest except a curious episode where Gawain is caught unarmed & his girl friend takes him upstairs in a castle where he grabs a chess board for shield & she throws chess pieces down on the besiegers, every hit being a knockout.  As I think I’ve said, there’s a Bardo link in the fact that so many of the fights lead to reconciliations.  [CW 15, 178]

[33]  Yeats hasn’t really any brain, & like many non-intellectuals (Poe, for instance) he turns to mathematical symmetry, as others turn to chess, cards & detective stories. . . . [CW 15, 102]

[63]  Deirdre, Yeats’ Tristan story, I can’t make much of: young king, old king & female will destroy themselves in a sterile C of L [Court of Love] situation: the dragon images have overtones, the chess game none that I can see.  Cathleen ni Houlihan illustrates the pathetic muddle of the Irish confusion of national & radical ideals, acquiescing in a French invasion (why not a German one?) to drive the English out.  The false position of Yeats as an English poet is pathetic, but the play shows how Maud Gonne addled his brains.  In The Hour-Glass, besides what I have, the net appears both as the net of love (SW [The Shadowy Waters] & “The Fish” in WR [The Wind Among the Reeds]) & the net of reason & morality (“Into the Twilight” & Deirdre).  In The Unicorn from the Stars, besides what I have, note the harvest & vintage imagery.  [CW 15, 114]

[94]  Coleridge’s distinction between imagination & fancy is of great importance for allegory.  All allegorical interpretation consists of drawing analogies.  Some analogies are imaginative, or, as we say, have a “real” relationship to the work of art.  Others are fanciful, & then we say the reltionship is strained or far-fetched.  In one case we are relating something else to the work of art, in the other we’re treating the work of art as a pattern in a prefabricated universe, & matching it to other patterns. Fanciful analogies produce coincidences, mentally unusuable designs (see above).  I might work out an elaborate analogy of King Lear to a game of chess, yet everyone would say it was an exercise in ingenuity, not an interpretation of King Lear.  In pure anagogy, of course, there are no analogies at all, and the distinction disappears.  This may be the point about alchemy.  It’s certainly the point of a hell of a lot of things.  [CW 15, 159–60]

[41] I have previously thought about the detective story: the main themes are as follows.  It is primarily a dramatization of law, & therefore turns on the rightness of sacrifice, which is possible only in terms of moral justification.  A detective story is regularly a murder story, in which a criminal murder at the beginning is polarized by a judicial one at the end–usually offstage, & sometimes barely indicated, depending on the author’s priggishness & his relish for hanging.  Suicide often does as well.  The sacrificial pattern is made more explicit by the regular device of throwing suspicion on one character & then making him the victim of the next murder.  The general shape is like a chess problem: white to mate (i.e. kill) the black king in so many moves from a given situation.  But the real appeal is a gambling one: of a group of characters, the reader picks his, the roulette wheel spins, & if the reader’s number is called he feels he’s been completely logical & has beaten the system.  The nearer the story comes to justifying his choice as mysteriously & not obviously right, the better it is.  The gambling instinct is closely connected with the sacrificial one, where the victim is chosen by lot, & all through the story the reader watches the vacillating handwavering about among a group of characters until it stops & indicates one.  In this, as I’ve said elsewhere, we reach pure caricature of the novel form.  The novel is designed to reveal character, the detective story to conceal it, as the fact that one of the characters is capable of murder is the concealed clue.  Hence there must be a general woodenness of character–in short, poker faces.  [CW 15, 75]

[17]  About this business of logical patterns: that’s what explains the fascination of cards, where the logical pattern is part of a haphazard chance chaos with fitful glimpses of pattern—runs of luck, etc.—running through it.  Gambling is an exact symbol of what man does with nature, especially in card games requiring a degree of skill.  Pure gambling of course is fate-worship, & its devotees become superstititous. The association of card-playing with the “witch,” the ancient female will, comes out in many places—in Pope, in [Lamb’s?] Essay, & in various novelists’ observations on the passion of old women for cards.  Old men, too, for backgammon & chess.  [CW 15, 30–1]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism”

[131]  The romance patterns in Shakespeare that he has in common with the grail romances are, or rather include, the substituted bride (Lancelot & Elaine) & of course the chess game.  I’m as much in the dark as ever about the latter, & as the bride is in the former (Rachel & Leah): I started off with it, & it still tantalizes.  Note that Eliot’s Middleton references are better than I suggest, especially the WW one: [The reference is to Eliot’s own note to Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women in The Waste Land, pt. 2, l. 138] they’re part of the ironic pattern, as The Tempest & Grail ones are the romance ones they parody.  [CW 23, 294–5]

[117]  Hunch: Meaning, as I say, is equivocal or univocal.  Univocal meaning is logical meaning, & is the logical or sensible formulation of the common field of experience.  Hence logic is the art of commentary.  Equivocal meaning is formal (in literature verbal) meaning, & is that autonomous comprehension of the world where form & content are one.  It is integritas & claritas, anterior & posterior to logic.  Wittgenstein seems to make a place for equivocal meaning, in a somewhat paradoxical way, but the Carnap people who lump together all non-univocal meaning as “emotional” or “affective” are merely ignorant.  They cannot, to begin with, distinguish art from rhetoric.  As all meaning is ultimately equivocal, I suspect that logical positivism may be just a game of chess.  I don’t believe really that criticism is really a universal translation of art, though I don’t know what else it is at the moment.  [CW 23, 52]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (CW 13)

[186]  Card symbolism seems to have an affinity to Mrs. Battle’s “quadrate or square,” whereas chess, as Alice discovered, is a mirror game.  There’s the major mirror of red & white, & the minor mirror of the doubled bishops & knights & castles.  The curious ambiguity of seven & eight recurs: chess, like the I Ching, is ogdoadic: 8 powers, 16 pieces, 32 total pieces, 64 squares.  The Tempest chess game is an Eros breakout of the mirror; the Waste Land of course is the demonic narcist kind.  Maybe it’s the hermaphroditism of the lovers, though.  Tarot symbolism recurs to sevens; also to π, the 22–7 proportion (the Fool being 0, it isn’t quite 22).  Note the septenary principle in card-playing, preserved in bridge: four are playing but only three play.  Similarly with the medieval Tarot, I understand.  The total number, 78, is often mentioned by Rabelais.  [CW 13, 173]

[574]  I’ve thought of Six as perhaps in part the core of the next book, which will probably have to start with the Shakespeare romantic comedies & unravel the whole complex of Cupid & Psyche, Perdita lost & found, Miranda and Alice playing chess, Marina rising again from the sea, the Dickensian girl-child among grotesques.  Not especially Biblical, except for S.S.  This little girl is a daughter-figure, & daughters don’t seem to get much of a play in the Bible: the Gnostics seem keener on them.  [CW 13, 247]

If you distinguish work and play, I think you may see that work is energy expended for a further aim in view; whereas play is the expression of energy for its own sake, or the manifestation of what the end in view is.  A tennis player or a chess player may work very hard to win a match or to improve his game, but what he is doing when he actually comes in contact with chess or tennis is playing.  As I have tried to show in dealing with Biblical imagery, the images of the revealed world in the Bible are the images of human work: the city, the garden, the sheepfold, the farm, and so on.  But the word “play” as associated with wisdom is the living in a way which is a manifestation of these forms when they are completed.  Whenever a thing exists for its own end, rather than as a means to a further end, that thing is associable with play rather than with work.  That is why even such terrible and horrifying works as King Lear and Macbeth can still be called “plays”: because they manifest the way human life is as it is, and are not presented to you with any further end in view.  [Bible Lectures, CW 13, 549]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature (CW 20)

[1]  I still don’t know what the significance of the game of chess is in The Tempest, and I find Eliot’s Waste Land notes and his references to Middleton somewhat less than helpful.  But I wonder if it has anything to do with a possible symbolism connected with shah mat: “the king is dead.”  Cards no doubt have similar affinities: Lewis Carroll deals with both in parallel terms, & the card game in The Rape of the Lock comes I think from a Latin Ludus Scacchia (by Vida?).  Wilson Knight notes the black and white character of the dramatis personae in Lear.  Cf. the dice-playing in mumming.  [CW 20, 99]

[141]  In Irish legend (cf.  Yeats, On Baile’s Strand) Cuchulain when he kills his son & goes mad fights the waves,& in a sense Lear does too.  I have always believed in the essential identity of the storm in Lear & the tempest in T [The Tempest], & just as the T is under water, the analogy or mirror-world, so Lear goes as far under water as drama can represent him.  T is a looking-glass world concerned with a game of chess, as W is an underground world: an old hunch of mine, founded on grotesquely inadequate & wrong information, may have something.  [CW 20, 154]

[150]  Spenser’s British symbolism is Arthurian; but Elizabethan drama avoided Arthur, &, like Blake, dealt with Geoffrey’s pre-Arthurian material: Locrines Lears & Cymbelines & Gorboducs, but no Modreds or Guineveres or Tristans, & when Milton turns to drama his reference(Sabrina) is also pre-Arthurian.  Also, like Blake & the 18thc. generally, they left out the creeping Saxon & started in the “Gothic” period: Alfred went unsung, & Edgar, who’s important in Hakluyt.  Wonder why.  I think Merlin (one of the forms of Marlowe’s name, as his contemporaries noticed) may have got in through a popular taste for magicians, & I seem to remember an Edmund Ironside, & there are a couple of references in Hamlet to Danish suzerainty over England.  The question of Roman ascendancy is complicated by the number of Roman Emperors, including Constantine & in a sense Caesar, who came from Britain.  See “The Dream of Maxen Wledig” in the Mabinogion, where there’s a game of chess too, as there frequently is in Celtic stories.  Note here how Cy [Cymbeline] symbolism expands into T [Tempest] symbolism.  [CW 20157–8]

Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks (CW 5 and 6)

[10]  Wilson: epigraph: it’s an ill wind that blows nobody’s mind.

McLuhan’s point is that multiple models are the great 20th c. discovery.  Like Ulysses.  (I’d say it was really the rediscovery of the variation form (ideally 32 or 33).[)]

He makes a lot of 23: 24 & 33 are closed cycles, because you say twelve o’clock or north time.  23 and 32 have the open spark gap I mentioned in FS.  Maybe this is the 7-8 relation too.  And my 15 (16)—And the climacteric 63 (64 I Ching, chess, etc.).  Blake-Jung’s 3 & 4. (No: 7 > 8 won’t work: it would have to be 8-9 diagrammatically, although 7 > 8 has a lot of tradition going for it.  As I’ve known since Blake, 7 is an event number in time, which includes space by turning 8.[)]

Note the close paranoia links: if you get fixated on 23, you develop a “that’s for me” feeling about every 23 you see.  He’d be nowhere without Jung’s “synchronicity.”

At present only the real nut books, Wilson’s & Bentov’s, are interesting to me.  I get nothing out of Marilyn’s [Marilyn] Ferguson’s goo-goo books on the Aquarian conspiracy or Fritjof Capra’s two books on the Tao of Physics.  Commonplace mind.  David Bohm I did get something from.  [CW 6, 713]

[192]  In Through the Looking Glass the alchemical marriage is celebrated between the Red King and Alice the White Queen, where it’s symbolized by a mutual dream. [See WP, 208.]  As Alice is the second white queen, in something like a filial relationship to the bumbling and scatterbrained earlier queen who turns into a sheep, her reaching the Eighth Square is also an anabasis of Kore.  The Alice books are inexhaustibly suggestive, one with cards & one with chess, one ending with a trial and the other with a banquet, and the riddle in the second: Why are all the poems about fish?  They’re a source of the kind of mad and unprintable intuitions that supply most of the real power in this myth game: too bad people are so stupid I have to keep them secret.  [CW 5, 293]

[313]  Chess in Bardo?  Is it a modulation of dice in Bardo?  A chess move is a decisive choice that may not abolish chance, but sets up a train of consequences that forces it to retreat into the shadows.  [CW 5, 318]

[443]  Considering what I’ve learned from Shakespeare, there isn’t much from him so far.  Leontes kills the anima inside him, but she revives at the words “our Perdita is found” [The Winter’s Tale, 5.3.121] although Perdita, like the second female in MT [The Mental Traveller], has to come to the man she loves [l. 49].  Each man kills the woman he loves, but finds her alive again after she’s been hidden.  The Tempest world is submarine & temporal: the renewal of the previous world, symbolized by Milan, doesn’t amount to much, except for the seed of something genuinely renewed in the F-M [Ferdinand-Miranda] marriage, the vision of the world saved from the flood, and the chess game, whatever that is.  Perhaps chess, like the sword-mirror-purple flower complex in Yeats’s dialogue, is “emblematical of love & war” [A Dialogue of Self and Soul, l. 19], the Adonis world caught up & sublimated.  [CW 5, 345–6]

[178]  Then again, he’s [Rabelais] full of all the choice-and-chance stuff at the bottom of the imaginative world: the long lists of divination devices [bk. 3, chap. 25], games of chess in the fifth book [chap. 24], and the like.  The bottle-oracle is partly that too [bk. 5, chaps. 34 ff.]. [CW 6, 458–9]


The Diaries of Northrop Frye (CW  8)

[504]  My Canadian mail is beginning to trickle through now, & I’ve had two letters reacting to my radio talks.  One was from an English teacher in Buffalo, who said he’d made tape recordings of them, and had listened to them several times to use for teaching purposes.  He’s a Catholic, & disagrees with me on Swift’s view of original sin as orthodox.  The other was from a poor mad creature in Sydney who’d been fired from a high-school teaching job in 1916 & had woven it into a complex occult fantasy.  Some sort of numerology connected with chess and some Chinese thing she calls wun-tzu—I wonder if someone’s playing a joke on her, as it sounds like the “Wun hung” type of joke.  I always try to reply to such people, as they’re dreadfully lonely, and usually I can catch a glimmer of reason, or at least something I can put into a sane formula, but this time I can’t get even a glimmer.  Poor old soul.  I wonder why they seek me out.  [CW 8, 418–19]

2.  Chess in Frye’s Own Published Writings

Northrop Frye on  Modern Culture (CW 11)

Of poets, perhaps Auden in English has given us most clearly the sense of creation as play, an expression of man as homo ludens. The contrived and artificial patterns of his verse are consistent with this, just as the light verse they resemble is more contrived than heavy verse, and play‑novels like detective stories more contrived than “serious” fiction. Valéry’s view of poetry as a game bound by arbitrary rules like chess is similar, and Valéry remarks that “inspiration” is a state of mind in the reader, not in the writer—another example of the modern tendency to turn as much activity as possible over to the reader.  [CW 11, 38]

A generation ago many people plunged into radical politics in the hope of finding a total programme of this kind, but all forms of politics, including the radical form, seem sooner or later to dwindle into a specialized chess game. Many others at various times have sought the same total activity in religion, a more promising place, but often a disappointing one, with rather second rate cultural rewards. It would simplify my argument considerably at this point if I could say that the leisure structure was the missing piece of society, that it is what we can give an unqualified loyalty to, and that it does fulfil the entire range of non material human needs. There is however no reason to suppose that the leisure structure, as it grows in social importance, will produce a social institution any better (if no worse) than business or politics do: the most we can hope for is a system of checks and balances which will prevent any one of our new three estates from becoming too powerful.  [CW 11, 56–7]

Anatomy of Criticism (CW 22)

The characterization of romance follows its general dialectic structure, which means that subtlety and complexity are not much favoured. Characters tend to be either for or against the quest. If they assist it they are idealized as simply gallant or pure; if they obstruct it they are caricatured as simply villainous or cowardly. Hence every typical character in romance tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces in a chess game. In romance the “white” pieces who strive for the quest correspond to the eiron group in comedy, though the word is no longer appropriate, as irony has little place in romance.  Romance has a counterpart to the benevolent retreating eiron of comedy in its figure of the “old wise man,” as Jung calls him, like Prospero, Merlin, or the palmer of Spenser’s second quest, often a magician who affects the action he watches over. The Arthur of The Faerie Queene, though not an old man, has this function. He has a feminine counterpart in the sybilline wise mother-figure, often a potential bride like Solveig in Peer Gynt, who sits quietly at home waiting for the hero to finish his wanderings and come back to her. This latter figure is often the lady fox whose sake or at whose bidding the quest is performed: she is represented by the Faerie Queene in Spenser and by Athene in the Perseus story. These are the king and queen of the white pieces, though their power of movement is of course reversed in actual chess. [CW 22, 181–2]

Northrop Frye on Education (CW 7)

The word “convention” expresses one very important kind of similarity that we find in our reading. A detective story is a simple example of a conventional form: we know before we start reading it that there is going to be a corpse, a number of suspects, police called in, an inquest, and the eventual discovery of the murderer just at the end. If we bought a detective story and didn’t find this kind of material in it we’d feel cheated. Of course every individual work of literature has to be just enough different from all the others to make reading it a distinct experience. But the similarities within the type are equally important. A radio or television serial will use the same characters, the same incidents, the same turns of speech, and if these familiar features didn’t turn up, that programme’s ratings would go down fast and far. So there are aspects of literary experience that are very like games. Each game of chess or bridge may be different, but the conditions within which the game is played do not change. We notice too that it is in popular forms like the detective story where this rules-of-a-game feeling is strongest. The word “genre,” like the word “convention,” expresses a similar sense of classification or type in the things we read. If we are told in advance that what we are going to read is a comedy or tragedy or romance or novel, we expect certain features that we should not expect if the indication were different.  [CW 7, 434–5]


Books where the conventions are very clear remind us a good deal of games: each game of chess or tennis will be different, but there is a controlling set of rules that remains the same for every type of game. In the book trade this means that there will always be a constant pressure to turn out the predictable and highly professional product, whatever its category. [CW 7, 584]

Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (CW 17)

When a sympathetic character dies, a strongly religious projection of this power often appears: the “Judgement” expected shortly by Miss Flite in Bleak House, for instance, stands in apocalyptic contrast to the Chancery Court. Dickens’s Eros world is, above all, a designing and manipulating power. The obstructing humour can do only what his humour makes him do, and toward the end of the story he becomes the helpless pawn of a chess game in which black can never ultimately win.  [CW 17, 307]

Notice that we speak of “playing” the piano, just as we speak about playing tennis or chess, and just as we call dramas, even the most terrible tragedies, “plays.” In ordinary speech we distinguish work and play, work being energy expended for a further end in view, play being energy expended for its own sake. Doing any kind of playing well, whether on the stage or at a piano or chessboard, takes an immense amount of work, but when the work has its end in play we can see the point in it much more clearly. Nothing gives greater pleasure than spontaneous activity, but the spontaneous comes at the end of a long discipline of practice. It never comes early except when it is something we have inherited as part of our previous evolutionary development—something our ancestors have practised before us. [CW 17, 350]

The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory (CW, 18)

In the general area of romance we find highly stylized patterns like the detective story, which are so conventionalized as to resemble games. We expect each game of chess to be different, but we do not want the conventions of the game itself to alter, or to see a chess game in which the bishops move in straight lines and the rooks diagonally. Whether we consider detective stories worth reading or not depends on our willingness to accept the convention.  [CW 18, 32]

We saw that Alice in Wonderland, for all its lightness and humour, preserved some of the traditional imagery of a lower-world descent. Alice passing through the looking-glass into a reversed world of dream language is also going through a descent; the incidents are largely suggested by nursery rhymes, but we may note the twin theme in Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Before long however we realize that the journey is turning upwards, in a direction symbolized by the eighth square of a chessboard, where Alice becomes a Psyche figure, a virginal queen flanked by two older queens, one red and one white, who bully her and set her impossible tasks in the form of nonsensical questions. Cards and dice, we said, have a natural connection with themes of descent into a world of fatality; chess and other board games, despite The Waste Land, appear more frequently in romance and in Eros contexts, as The Tempest again reminds us. As Alice begins to move upward out of her submarine mirror world she notes that all the poems she had heard have to do with fish, and as she wakes she reviews the metamorphoses that the figures around her had turned into. [CW 18, 103]

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (CW 19)

The Preacher is not recommending activity for its own sake, but pointing to the release of energy that follows the giving up of our various excuses for losing our way in the fog: “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire” (6:9), as he says. But the phrase “work ethic” suggests the question of what is not work, and our normal habits of language tell us that one opposite of work, at least, is play. Work, as we usually think of it, is energy expended for a further end in view; play is energy expended for its own sake, as with children’s play, or as a manifestation of the end or goal of work, as in “playing” chess or the piano. Play in this sense, then, is the fulfilment of work, the exhibition of what the work has been done for. [CW 19, 145]

Northrop Frye on Twentieth‑Century Literature (CW 29)

The recognition scene in The Tempest discovers Ferdinand playing chess with Miranda, a game which ends either in checkmate, the death of the king, or in stalemate, like the two unions in the second section of The Waste Land which is called “A Game of Chess.”  [T.S. Eliot, CW 29, 227–8]

A James novel is “really” a story of forces of demonic evil and angelic innocence sweeping across fully articulate and intelligent beings who are largely unaware of them. It is just as “really” a story of chess pieces moving through an endgame that can result only in checkmate or stalemate. One has to read James by a stereo vision that brings the two realities into focus. [“Henry James and the Comedy of the Occult,” CW 29 364]

Northrop Frye on Shakespeare

It is not until the scene at the end of the second act, with its repeated “shut up your doors,” that our sympathies definitely shift over to Lear. Regan says, “He is attended with a desperate train,” meaning his fifty (or whatever their present number) knights, but they seem to have sloped off pretty promptly as soon as they realized that they were unlikely to get their next meal there, and Lear’s “desperate train” actually consists only of the Fool. When we catch her out in a lie of that size we begin to see what has not emerged before, and has perhaps not yet occurred to them: that “his daughters seek his death,” as Gloucester says. It is during and after the storm that the characters of the play begin to show their real nature, and from then on we have something unique in Shakespeare: a dramatic world in which the characters are, like chess pieces, definitely black or white: black with Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall; white with Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, and eventually Albany. [104]

The action of the play seems to be proceeding to a conclusion that, however sombre and exhausting, nonetheless has some serenity in it. But just as we seem about to reach this conclusion, there comes the agonizing wrench of the hanging of Cordelia and the death speeches of Lear. Naturally the stage refused to act this down to the nineteenth century: producers settled for another version that married Cordelia off to Edgar. We act the play now as Shakespeare wrote it, but it’s still pretty tough even for this grisly century. I said that in the course of the play the characters settled into a clear division of good and bad people, like the white and black pieces of a chess game. The last of the black pieces, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, have been removed from the board, and then comes the death of Cordelia. Part of this is just the principle that the evil men do lives after them, Edmund’s repentance being too late to rescind his own order. But there seems to be a black king still on the board, and one wonders if there is any clue to who or what or where he is. [119]

A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance

The perspective taken in these lectures is also, I hope, uncommon enough to be of some value. Each play of Shakespeare is a world in itself, so complete and satisfying a world that it is easy, delightful, and profitable to get lost in it. The result is that the bulk of Shakespearean criticism consists, rightly, I think, of commentary on individual plays. The present book retreats from commentary into a middle distance, considering the comedies as a single group unified by recurring images and structural devices. From this point of view they seem more like a number of simultaneous chess games played by a master who wins them all by devices familiar to him, and gradually, with patient study, to us, but which remain mysteries of an unfathomable skill. More important, the reader is led from the characteristics of the individual play, the vividness of characterization, the texture of imagery, and the like, to consider what kind of a form comedy is, and what its place is in literature. It is hoped that this will help him to understand more clearly the relation of his experience of Shakespeare to his experience of other literature and drama. [viii]

A final few words to explain the title of this chapter and to introduce the theme of the next one. All myths have two poles, one personal, whether divine or human, and one natural: Neptune and the sea, Apollo and the sun. When the world of sea and sun is thought of as an order of nature, this polarization becomes a god or magician who controls the natural machine at one end, and the natural machine itself at the other. Tragedy, irony, and realism see the human condition from inside the machine of nature; comedy and romance tend to look for a person concealed in the mechanical chess player. When Ben Jonson speaks disapprovingly of dramatists who are afraid of nature, and run away from her, we find his meaning clear enough. When he says of himself that he is “loath to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and such like drolleries,” the reversal of the phrase is more puzzling, although the implied comparison with Shakespeare is equally evident.  [70]

Northrop Frye’s Student Essays (CW 3)

Medieval science was inclined to regard the world as complicated rather than complex, because a world in which universals were real would be one which could be explained in very simple formulae, such as the cardinal numbers.  And we should expect this tendency to association of ideas, as shown in the endless attempts to interrelate all possible groups of three, four, seven, and twelve, to find counterparts in literature.

Thus, we find in Chaucer’s poetry standard symbolic patterns like the game of chess and the elaborate anatomical description of the beloved lady which meet us in The Book of the Duchess [614–69, 939–60: 273, 276], and the astrological and mythological frameworks of such poems as the Complaint of Mars. [CW 3, 438]

The extremely conventional lament, with its many stock patterns—the succession of oxymorons leading into the tirade against Fortune [617–709: 273–4], with the rather tedious conceit of the chess game, the detailed description of the lady’s soul and body, and the extremely varied lists of references—all lead us to suspect that the formalizing of personal grief characteristic of the great elegies of the language is a virtue made of necessity.  Death is so impartial and commonplace an event that it is difficult to describe a particular death in particular terms. [CW 3, 441–2]

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