Category Archives: Typology

Todd Lawson, “Frye and the Koran: Typology, Apocalypse & Epic”

Todd Lawson is professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

In several, scattered places in his later writings, Frye treats the Koran as a text that deserves to be read very carefully as both literature and “more than literature”.  For example, in The Great Code he points out that those who see in the Koran’s version of the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus a confusion of Biblical material have simply got it wrong and are deaf to the music of typological figuration.

The third Sura of the Koran appears to be identifying Miriam and Mary; Christian commentators on the Koran naturally say this is ridiculous, but from the purely typological point of view from which the Koran is speaking, the identification makes good sense. (GC 172, italics added)

Several similar instances demonstrate Frye’s characteristic perspicacity and even unto a text as foreign in cultural presuppositions, form and content as the Koran. I am studying Frye’s relationship with the Koran through both printed and unpublished works where he either explicitly refers to the text or where his remarks on other texts are equally apposite in the case of the Koran. I am also exploring, with the able and valuable assistance of Rebekah Zwanzig (who actually also discovered this blog), the Frye archive to study his marginalia and notes on related texts, such as English translations of the Koran and of Rumi’s poetry.  Results so far suggest that Frye’s faith in the “sacrament of reading” allowed him to develop a remarkably open, if critical, attitude towards the Koran, something in which he was certainly then – and may still well be – ahead of his time.

My interest in Frye’s Koran began in the early ‘80’s when I was working on a PhD thesis at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. My subject was a particularly challenging unpublished manuscript of an Arabic Koran commentary. In taking a break, reading the newly published Great Code, I saw that Frye had solved one of the problems that had been eluding me. His discussion of the above-mentioned typological figuration and its persuasive power and efficacy was in fact a revelation and provided a key I had not found elsewhere. When I started teaching at U of T in 1988 I secretly held the hope that I would one day be able to meet the great man and express to him my gratitude for his unbeknownst help. Of course, I also hoped of thus being able to search further the Frygian experience of the Koran. Alas, this meeting never happened. In fact, and in the context of the present research, a rather ironic signal brought the possibility to a clear, cold end . . . it was the evening of January 23, 1991. In those days I was in the habit of listening to the radio about the Gulf War while I worked in the evening in my office at Robarts Library. The bombing of Baghdad — home and scene of the great efflorescence of Arabo-Islamic learning and culture from the 8th to the 13th centuries — had begun five or six days earlier and was commencing apace.  The reports of this massive (and in retrospect perhaps phobic) attack were interrupted on the CBC to announce the passing of Northrop Frye. He had just been there, virtually across the street. Now he was gone. But, it seems, not forever.

Fifteen years later, I decided to have our conversation anyway. Having returned to the University of Toronto from McGill, and encouraged in my general research by a SSHRC award to study the Koran as an example of literary apocalypse, I decided to weave Frye’s very illuminating work into my methodology. In order to be as rigorous as possible about this, I organized two successive, year-long graduate seminars, entitled the Koranic Apocalyptic Imagination, around the above-mentioned later works of Frye, which included the Double Vision. It was as if the students recognized a long lost friend. It is amazing the way these young Islamicists became excited and encouraged by Frye’s remarks about the structure and content of the Bible because they could apply many of them to their own reading of the Koran, a text which for many of the students was certainly more than literature. And they also discovered how it was literature as well.

The current project, bringing into some kind of order the various aspects, apparent contradictions and other problems of a Frygian Koran, is meant to be background for a chapter in the eventual monograph on the Koran as apocalypse, a topic that has thus far attracted an astonishing lack of attention. Why this lack of attention? It is an interesting question, but one which I will forbear from addressing here. I look forward to hearing from scholars who may be interested in or actually working on Northrop Frye’s reading of the Koran and his understanding of Islam. I am grateful to Bob Denham for the extremely helpful postings here on Frye and the Koran and for general encouragement. And I am grateful to Michael Happy for passing along my initial note to the blog to Bob and, of course, for all of his hard work and creativity that has gone into this invaluable website.

Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism

On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

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More Frye and the Bible


Blake’s Plato

Reponding to Nicholas Graham’s post

I certainly agree that Frye’s reading of the Bible is guided by typology and that there is a certain prophetic power in his biblical criticism. I was by no means trying to give a full account of Frye’s reading of the Bible. My remarks were in the context of the earlier posts about the meaning of the phrase “literary criticism of the Bible.” All I was trying to suggest was that Frye’s approach relies on two fundamental literary principles, myth and metaphor or narrative and image––the mythos and dianoia that Frye devoted so much space to in Anatomy of Criticism. Typology and prophecy, as I understand those terms, are terms from biblical, rather than literary, criticism. I agree also that “vision” is also absolutely central to Frye’s enterprise, and I wrote a fairly long chapter in my book on Frye and religion (89–125) trying to make a case for its centrality and relating it to terms such as “insight,” “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” “recognition” and (the central visionary faculty) “the imagination.” But again “vision” is a term that does not spring from the vocabulary of literary criticism, though it is perhaps obliquely connected to Aristotle’s opsis. No one would want to reduce Frye’s reading of the Bible to myth and metaphor. But they are literary principles, and so no one would want to ignore them either. As I understand Frye, “vision” and “prophecy” belong to what I called the Bible’s centrifugal, kerygmatic thrust.

Nicholas Graham: Frye and the Bible


Giovanni di Paulo, Dante and Beatrice Leaving Heaven, ca. 1465

Responding to Bob Denham’s post

I like and agree with all that you say about Frye and the Bible, Bob, but feel there are a few things missing, like typology and prophecy. To say that Frye is looking at the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic is correct but seems to me to be a far too cold and detached statement–Frye as a scientific anatomist.

In Fearful Symmetry Frye is learning from Blake and teaching us that the Bible is a complete book of vision. With my philosophical and theological frinds I have enjoyed many heated and lively conversations, but we always seem to reach an impass when we come to the word “vision”. Their favorite word is “insight”, the eureka moment, and this seems to be pretty well an established occurrence in consciousness, and the title of a major work by that other great Canadian thinker, Bernard Lonergan.  This “insight” is the basis for an alternative to faculty psychology, dealing with the soul and its attributes, which has now been abandoned in the wake of scholasticism. The nearest scholasticism comes to Blake’s “vision” is with the word “emanation”, as in Aquinas’ “intelligible emanations”, our participation through the act of “insight” in the light or mind of God. Understanding is what we achieve each time we have an “insight”. The historian Herbert Butterfield states that the rise of modern science outshines everything since the birth of Christianity. Modern science comes with the Enlightment and philosophers like Paul Ricoeur, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss are now trying to dismantle its stranglehold and go beyond it.

In this sense, Frye does not approach the Bible as a scientist or literary critic but, instead, as a prophet and poet. What emerges from Fearful Symmetry is Blake’s universal cry that we find at the opening of his poem Milton: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.” Numbers XI. ch. 29 v.

To go beyond either/or, Frye approaches the Bible both as a literary critic where he suspends value judgements but also as a prophet like Jeremiah where he uses value judgments to tear down and to build up. [See Jean O’Grady’s brilliant article “Re-valuing Value“.] The key to prophecy is typology, the Medieval approach to the Bible, displayed to us splendidly in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In “Paradiso” Canto 6, Justinian is the only speaker, and here we deal with the Law; canto 10, the Circle of the Sun, the Circle of the Sages, we deal with Wisdom; canto 17 deals with Prophecy. His great, great grandfather tells Dante must go back to earth and assume the mantle of the prophet and poet. Armed with the phases of revelation: Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Etc., Dant must construct for us The Divine Comedy, which is nothing less than a recreation of the Bible.

Frye’s engagement with the Bible brought about a fundamental change in him as it did in Dante, and it was this change into prophet and poet that was necessary before he could present us with his lasting emanation, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, which we must learn to read as the Bible for our time.