Category Archives: Secular Scripture

H. Rider Haggard


A clip from the very cheesy Hammer Films 1965 adaptation of She, with the imperious Ursula Andress playing “She who must be obeyed”

H. Rider Haggard died on this date in in 1925 (born 1856).

Frye in The Secular Scripture on the archetype of the earth-mother and Haggard’s She:

In the theme of the apparently dead and buried heroine who comes to life again, one of the themes of Shakespeare‘s Cymbeline, we seem to be getting a more undisplaced glimpse of the earth-mother at the bottom of the world. In later romances there is another glimpse of such a figure in Rider Haggard’s She, a beautiful and sinister female ruler, buried in the depths of a dark continent, who is much involved with various archetypes of death and rebirth. In the Xenophon of Ephesus the hero meets an old man who continues to love and live with his wife even though she has been embalmed as a mummy: similar themes are also in Haggard’s story. Embalmed mummies suggest Egypt, which is preeminently the land of death and burial, and largely because of its Biblical role, of descent to a lower world. (CW 18, 75-6)

Frye on Luck

Odysseus and Aeolus

Yet another charm to chase away the spirits of bad luck today. Luck, good and bad, Frye says in The Secular Scripture, is infectious:

The most basic term for this current of energy is luck (Icelandic gaefa). Luck is highly infectious: the lucky man can always form a comitatus or group of devoted followers around him. Once his he has lost his luck, he finds that bad luck is equally infectious: the unlucky man must be avoided like the plague, because he in a sense is the plague. When Ulysses in Homer returns to Aeolus to explain that through no fault of his own he has run into misfortune, Aeolus tell him to clear out, that an unlucky man is hated by the gods, and he will have nothing more to do with him [Odyssey, bk. 10, ll. 70-75]. (CW 18, 45-6)

Bernardo Bertolucci


The actual last tango from Last Tango in Paris (Video not embedded; click on the above image and hit the YouTube link)

Today is Bernardo Bertolucci‘s birthday (born 1940).

Frye on violence and sexuality in Secular Scripture:

In romance violence and sexuality are used as rocket propulsions, so to speak, in an ascending movement. Violence becomes melodrama, the separating of heroes from violence, angels of light from giants of the dark.  Sexuality becomes a driving force with a great deal of sublimation in it. In the traditional romance, where the heroine is so often a virgin reaching her first sexual contact on the last page, the erotic feeling is sublimated for the action of the story. (CW 18, 120)

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Oliver Twist”


Charles Dickens’s birthday passed the other day, so here’s the classic 1948 film version of Oliver Twist, with Alec Guinness as Fagin.

From The Secular Scripture:

There are said to be customs and rituals in ancient Greece that explain the child-exposing convention; but they do not explain why Victorian writers, fifteen centuries later, should be as preoccupied with it as ever.  With the archetype, at least: the actual exposure and adoption procedure is found only in stories with a strong folk tale feeling about them, like Silas Marner.  Scott and Dickens would often be helpless for plot interest without the motif of mysterious birth: in Dickens a hero’s parents, like those of Oliver Twist, may be triumphantly produced at the end of the story even though they were mere names, playing no part in the story itself.  (CW 18, 67)

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Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop reading “The Fish”

Today is Elizabeth Bishop‘s birthday (1911-1979).

I am lucky enough to have been in her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and her mountainside villa in Ouro Preto, Brazil.  In both instances, her bedroom was the smallest room in the house.

Frye never wrote about Bishop. (See Bob Denham’s correction in the post above.)  But he did meet her at Harvard in 1975, when she was writer-in-residence and he was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer (those lectures later became The Secular Scripture).  According to John Ayre, they were seated together at dinner one night and “swapped tales” of their Maritime upbringing, she in Nova Scotia and he in New Brunswick. (Northrop Frye: A Biography, 347)

After the jump, “First Death in Nova Scotia.”

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James Joyce and Ulysses


A lively reading of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from last year’s Bloomsday in Dublin

Today is James Joyce‘s birthday (1882-1941), and on this date in 1922 Ulysses was published.

From The Secular Scripture:

Ulysses concludes with the monologue of Molly Bloom who seems a pure White Goddess figure, the incarnation of a cyclical nature who embraces and abandons one lover after another.  And yet she too is an embodiment of the chaste Penelope, and at the end of her ruminations she goes back to something very like the dawn of a first love (CW 18, 113-14)

William James

Today is William James‘s birthday (1842-1910).

Frye in The Secular Scripture cites James to illustrate a familiar theme; the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion.

When we look at social acts as rituals, we become at once aware of their close relation to a good deal of what goes on within the mind.  Anyone reading, say, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience must be impressed by the extraordinary skill with which many people arrange their lives in the form of romantic or dramatic ritual, in a way which is neither wholly conscious nor wholly unconscious, but a working alliance of the two.  William James takes us into psychology, and with Freud and Jung we move into an area where the analogy to quest romance is even more obvious.  In a later development, Eric Bernes’s “transactional” therapy, we are told that we take over “scripts” from our parents, which it is our normal tendency to act out as prescribed and invariable rituals, and that all possible forms of such scripts can be found in any good collection of folk tales.  Romance often deliberately descends into a world obviously related to the human unconscious, and we are not surprised to find that some romances, George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example, are psychological quests carried out in inner space.  Such inner space is just as much of a “reality,” in Wallace Stevens’s use of the word, as the Vanity Fair of Thackeray: Vanity Fair itself, after all, is simply a social product of the illusions thrown up by the conflicts within the inner consciousness.  When we look back at the Cistercian developments of Arthurian legend, with their stories of Galahad the pure and his quest for the Holy Grail, we see that an identity between individual and social quests has always been latent in romance.  (CW 18, 41)

Northrop Frye as David Gilmour!

Courtesy of Bob Denham, this is the inside back cover of the Chinese translation of The Secular Scripture.  While it’s wonderful that Frye’s masterpiece on Romance is now available in Chinese, that is not, of course, Frye pictured above.  It is Canadian writer and critic David Gilmour.

I hope Gilmour gets to see this.  It’s about as flattering a case of mistaken identity as anyone could hope for.


Today is Virgil‘s birthday (70 BCE-19 BCE).

Frye in The Secular Scripture:

This attitude [of identification between authors] has recently revived as a form of existential criticism.  Its method is brilliantly satirized in Borges’ story of Pierre Menard, whose life’s work it was to rewrite a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, not by copying them, but by total identification with Cervantes.  Borges quotes a passage from Cervantes and a passage from Menard which is identical with it to the letter, and urges us to see how much more historical resonance there is in the Menard copy.  The satire shows us clearly that nothing will get around the fact that writer and reader are different entities in time and space, that whenever we read anything, even a letter from a friend, we are translating it into something else.  Dante tells us that he could never have gone through hell and purgatory without the instruction of Virgil.  Virgil, many centuries later, when interviewed by Anatole France in Elysium, complained that Dante had totally misunderstood him.  Without going in quite the same direction that some critics have done, I think it is true that this is how the recreating of the literary tradition often has to proceed: through a process of absorption followed by misunderstanding, that is, establishing a new context.  Thus an alleged misunderstanding of Ovid produced a major development in medieval poetry, and some later romance is bound up with such phrases as “Gothic revival” and “Celtic twilight,” misunderstandings of earlier ages that never existed.  (162-3)