Category Archives: Secular Scripture



Helen Mirren as Elizabeth delivering her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, 19 August 1588.

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603).

Frye in Notebook 8 reflects on the consequences of the defining moment of the Elizabethan Age upon Elizabethan culture:

Before the Armada the best brains, Spenser and Sidney, thought in terms of a Protestant United Front, hence the Duc d’Alencon business.  Spenser never really got over this stage.  The Armada itself shifted the emphasis: true, it had sailed with the Pope’s blessing to destroy a heretic kingdom, but it had banked heavily on a religious revolution in England, & it must have been difficult for the Protestants who had lived through that hideous period to forget that the Catholics had turned out to fight for England & had thereby placed their religious liberties in the hands of Elizabeth.  So it seems probable that the theatre represented a Catholic-Anglican truce against Puritans, the idea being that Protestantism had come not to destroy but to fulfill Catholicism by allegorizing its literalism, as in Spenser.  This truce, if it existed, could hardly have lasted long after the Gunpowder Plot.  Then a strong anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic middle-class nationalism comes up (Middleton, B & F [Beaumont and Fletcher]); the king-fool appears more frequently, possibly because bourgeois insistence on plain sense is breaking down the allegorical synthesis based on the King & Queen; but I think the theatre stands fundamentally for the national establishment.  Cassius, the Puritan revolutionary, love not plays & hears no music.  Aramado in L.L. is the Armada: the date means the word would irresistibly suggest that to an audience.  (CW 20, 110)

Frye on Elizabeth, the Armada and myth in The Secular Scripture:

Myths are usually assumed to be true, stories about what really happened.  But truth is not the central basis for distinguishing the mythical from the fabulous: it is a certain quality of importance or authority of the community that marks the myth, not truth as such.  The anxiety of society, when it urges the authority of a myth and the necessity of believing it, seems to be less to proclaim its truth than to prevent anyone from questioning it.  Thus the Christian myth of providence, after a battle, is often invoked by the winning side in a way which makes its truth or secondary importance.  The storm that wrecked the Spanish Armada was a providential event to the English, but a natural event to the Spaniards.  Elizabeth I issued a medal quoting the Psalms, “God breathed with his winds, and they were scattered”; Philip of Spain said to the survivors, “I sent you forth to fight with men, not with the elements.” (CW 18, 14-15)

The Demonic and Desire


Responding to Michael Happy’s post

I am glad you posted on demonic modulation, Michael, because I think demonic parody is integral to Frye’s conception of Romance, which itself seems integral to his view of literature in relation to primary concerns.

It may be useful to consider demonic modulation in terms the Anatomy’s description of demonic imagery and parody. The apocalyptic world, Frye writes, “present, in the first place, the categories of reality in the forms of human desire, as indicated by the forms they assume under the work of human civilization.” Demonic imagery embodies what desire rejects, and “one of the central themes of demonic imagery is parody, the mocking of the exuberant play of art by suggesting its imitation in terms of ‘real life.’”. In The Secular Scripture he points out that, as the conventions of myth and Romance become gradually displaced into “realist” modes, there is also a parallel gradation of parody serving to assimilate those conventions.

This might provide for an alliance between demonic modulation, which relates to the inversion of customary associations, and the Promethean Furnace in Words with Power. “The world of titans,” Frye writes, “has usually been regarded as simply evil, and the word ‘demonic’ is normally used… to mean a death-centered parody of human life.” (pg. 276). However, “Prometheus is the patron of the attitude, which has sporadically appeared in literature ever since Lucretius, of ignoring the gods on the ground that even if they exist they can only be alien beings unconcerned with human life.” (pg. 277). In this modulation, what would customarily be associated with the demonic is in fact an affirmation of life through desire, over a world that more closely resembles our own.

That is to say that there comes a point when what is displaced in the text, because it is repressed by the ascendant moral values it flaunts, becomes in fact a life affirming principle. Prometheus becomes Christ-like, the demonic becomes apocalyptic. This may inform the simple and more humane Robin Hood motifs that run through Literature, and our experience, from Huckleberry Finn protecting Jim from the slave “masters”, to what makes it obscene for certain ideologies to speak against aid for suffering countries. And it is why, for example, the homophobic (and perhaps homicidal) work of Christian evangelicals in Uganda has been so repellent a parody of the Christian exhortation to good works.

More on Frye and Otherness


I wanted to respond just briefly to Michael Dolzani’s excellent “Necessary Angels” post. I have quoted the passage below in a previous post, and even though it appears in the closing paragraph of the second chapter of The Secular Scripture, a book devoted not to the Bible but to the romantic tradition, it still seems one of the most pertinent passages touching on the relationship between literature and otherness. Interestingly, Frye uses the image of the human struggle with an angelic dimension to describe this relationship, in which the mythological universe created by the human imagination is also an uncreated reality or revelation coming from elsewhere. Thanks to Sarah Tóth for the beautiful formulation of metaphor from Ricoeur, but surely the dialectic Frye points to here (and elsewhere) is just as balanced in its paradoxical formulation. Frye is contrasting the secular and the sacred scripture, the story of the creature and the story of the creator, and he casts back to his earlier evocation, in the same chapter, of none other than Wallace Stevens discussion of “imagination and reality” in The Necessary Angel:

Reality, we remember, is otherness, the sense of something not ourselves. We naturally think of the other as nature, or man’s actual environment, and in the divided world of work and ego-control it is nature. But for the imagination it is rather some kind of force of power or will that is not ourselves, an otherness of spirit. Not all of us will be satisfied with calling the central part of our mythological inheritance a revelation from God, and, though each chapter in this book closes on much the same cadence, I cannot claim to have found a more acceptable formulation. It is quite true that if there is no sense that the mythological universe is a human creation, man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase. But 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 suprass himself. Somehow or other, the created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter, have to keep fighting each other like Jacob and the angel, and it is through the maintaining of this struggle, the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative, that our own mental evolution grows. Meanwhile we have on principle to go on with. The improbably, desiring, erotic, and violent world or romance reminds us that we are not awake when we have abolished the dream world: we are awake only when we have absorbed it again.

I love this baleful image of man as Narcissus, “staring at his own reflection” and unable “to surpass himself ” as long as he deprives himself of this sense of an otherness, of a revelation that transcends him even though it is also a human creation. The Narcissus image speaks volumes to the ultimate dilemma of so much of the criticism and theory of the last decades in its obsession with ideology and the incapacity of human beings ever to imagine anything that is not simply a shadow or projection of their own self-interested social constructions. God and the imagination are one, which is why we are really asleep when we have “abolished the dream world” of literature, and why we “are awake only when we have absorbed it again.”

The Doubled Heroine Device, or Betty and Veronica


In response to the “virginity” thread started by Jonathan Allan’s post, I think it wrong to suggest that Frye himself has gendered virginity: he is simply describing what he finds in literature, and he is obviously well aware of the value put on virginity as a commodity in a patriarchal culture, as his allusion to the danger of losing one’s bargaining position indicates. In romance this aspect of virginity is naturally enough prominent because the female protagonist is headed for marriage and must keep herself intact for Mr Right. As Frye says, the G-string comes off last. This can mean not just outwitting pirates and other villains but also keeping her true love, when he acts like a pirate himself (as in Pamela and Jane Eyre), from treating her as a slave or social inferior and trying to take her virginity before he has married her. But this is precisely what makes virginity a structural principle in romance, as the heroine uses her wiles to escape, survive, and attain sexual union with the right man at the end of the story. This is all of course discussed in The Secular Scripture.

Where virginity comes to take on another dimension is the point of the epigraph from Frye that Bob used in his post: “virgnity means a transcending of sex.” Jonathan Allen commented in this regard on the device of the two heroines, quoting the pertinent passage from The Secular Scripture: “the virgin who marries at the end of the story, we saw, represents the structural principle of the cycle and accommodation of it. The virgin who is sacrificed, or escapes sacrifice and remains a virgin, similarly symbolizes the other principle, the separation or polarizing of action into two worlds, one desirable and the other detestable” (83; CW XVIII: 56).

The two heroines can also represent what Frye calls the two cadences or “creative moods” of romance, the comic and the tragic or romantic, the social and the withdrawn, the world of ritual and the world of dream. The device is, in general terms, part of the general structure of doubling in descent narratives, a milder form of the doubling that you get in a tale like Poe’s William Wilson. An important prototype is Milton’s two muses in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the one sociable and light-hearted, the other withdrawn and pensive.

Scott used the device in several of his novels and brought it into into popular use in the nineteenth century where it is all but ubiquitous, at least in the Anglo-American tradition; it does not seem, as far as I can tell, to have the same prevalence on the Continent. Stendhal–an early and avid reader of Scott–uses a version of the device in his two great novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma: Julien Sorel is torn between the withdrawn and pensive Louise de Renal and the more political and theatrical Mathilde de la Mole; Fabrice del Dongo is torn between his socially adept and politically astute aunt, Gina Sanseverina, and the withdrawn and melancholic Clelia Conti.

The device is now known in my classes, thanks to a student wit, as the Betty-and-Veronica device. By the way, I was told by the same young woman that the problem of the two heroines is beautifully solved in the Archie comics: in a recent issue of the comic book Archie marries both of them, thanks to the possible futures of Borges’s garden of forking paths.

A romance device, the doubled heroine is a central structural principle in realist novels as well: George Eliot uses it in a number of her novels: Lucy Deane and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (where the device itself is a meta-fictional theme in the novel: Maggie says she cannot finish novels in which the “dark unhappy ones” are doomed from the beginning); Dorothea Brooke and Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch; and Gwendolyn Harleth and Mirah Cohen in Daniel Deronda. The latter breaks with the tradition, which goes back to Scott and the two heroines of Ivanhoe, by having the hero marry the dark Jewish heroine, the Rebecca figure, and reject the Rowena figure, Gwendolyn. As Russell Perkin noted in a previous post, there is a good example of it in Mad Men: Don Draper is torn between his uptight conventional blond wife, Betty, and the dark and alluring Jewish businesswomen, Rachel Menken.

There are of course male versions of the same thing (Wuthering Heights and Gone with The Wind being obvious examples), and Frye even gives an example of an unhappy male virgin who is sacrificed: “the martyrdom of Sydney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities.”

The device, which is first briefly discussed in Anatomy, is one of those conventions that Frye draws attention to as part of a much larger argument, but which is really worth a book-long study in its own right. I wonder, Jonathan, if your “virginity” project might not be turned more fruitfully in the direction of the doubled heroine convention itself.

Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye’s Virginity


Millais’s Ophelia, 1852

Jonathan Allan, a doctoral candidate in English at University of Toronto, will be joining us as a byline correspondent

As I complete the closing chapters of my dissertation and begin an extensive revision, I realize that I have an ongoing debate with Frye in my own notebooks: a debate that unfortunately does not unfold in the dissertation.  There is one point of contention that I run up against over and over again.

Frye writes of the “magical emphasis on virginity [in romance], the fact that virgins can do things others can’t” (CW XV:219, 236); he adds that “virginity is somehow in tune with an unfallen version of the world itself” (CW XV:219).  More specific to my own concerns is Frye’s observation that “this prudery [about virginity in romance] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187).  Most of these notions find their way into The Secular Scripture in which Frye writes that “apart from the idealizing of the pre-sexual state, there is a sense in which virginity is an appropriate image for attaining original identity: what is objectively untouched symbolizes what is subjectively contained so to speak” (153; CW XVIII:101).  Earlier in The Secular Scripture, Frye writes: “one can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds.  In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance” (73; CW XVIII:49-50).  It is clear that virginity becomes a central aspect of the romance structure and that the role of virginity is not moral.  However, if this is really indeed the case, why has Frye gendered virginity?  Why is virginity uniquely concerned with the female subject?

The romance as a generic model does not preclude the hero from being a virgin or virginal; thus, it seems imperative to ask why this model of purity is not ascribed to both the male and female if it only serves a structural goal?  Indeed, if one looks to contemporary fiction, it might be demonstrated that the “virginal” male is certainly present: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight goes to great pains to ensure the virginity of its hero; likewise, in a recent review of Dan Brown’s latest opus, The Lost Symbol, Maureen Dowd notes: “[e]ven though Katherine seems like [Robert] Langdon’s soul mate – she even knows how to weigh souls – their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.”  There are surely dozens of examples of this virginal behaviour that extends beyond the female to the male.  It is likely there is debate about whether the male virgin even exists – two recent books on the subject would certainly cast doubt upon such a notion; Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007) and Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History (2007) seem to evade the question entirely and only refer to it when absolutely necessary.

If virginity affords the heroine “magical powers,” what is the source of the “magical powers” of the hero?  In upcoming work, I aim to reconsider the question of virginity in Northrop Frye’s theorisations of romance; however, such a study, as I am quickly learning, requires a re-reading of the very notion of virginity precisely because cultural historians seem not to recognize the very possibility of such a notion.  In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Frye should not have considered the question of the hero being virginal.  This question of virginity, of course, is not unique to the amorous romance novel alone; one need only think as far as Treasure Island wherein one could define the island itself as virginal – though most of the male characters seem rather virginal as well.  One might also consider a tale like Peter Pan as yet another example of the virginal hero; however, in the case of Peter Pan there is a movement towards asexuality or a sexless identity.   

Thus, the question that I keep returning to is: how can virginity be structural alone and not also part of a greater moral concern?  The romance need not offer a defence of abstinence – as is the case of Meyer’s Twilight – but virginity must, and I would argue does, serve some purpose beyond the structure of the narrative.  The only way, I would imagine, that virginity could serve some structural purpose alone – one that allows for magical things to happen – is if this virginity existed in both hero and heroine.  For this virginity to exist, it must also be recognized, and therein lies the problem – how does one account for this seeming paradox in Frye’s theory of romance?  Thus, the question that now haunts my current research (and as I begin to finish my dissertation with better questions than when I started) is about the nature and theory of virginity in the romance.

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.”

Continue reading