Chapter 3: Theory of Myths

“Standing back” from the Anatomy, as Frye urges us to do when looking at a literary work, reveals that his theories of myths and genres are extensions of the last two phases of his theory of symbols. Figure 6 presents the organization diagrammatically. This asymmetry is a logical outcome of both Frye’s aim and his prior assumptions. His purpose is to give an account of the structural principles of literature, and he has assumed that these principles cannot be derived except as literature is conceived as a total order of words. Since archetypal and anagogic criticism are the only kinds which assume this larger context, Frye explores them in his search for the most basic structural principles.

Figure 6. General structure of Anatomy of Criticism. {p. 58}

Figure 6. General structure of “Anatomy of Criticism.”

Frye says in the “Introduction” to the Third Essay:

In this book we are attempting to outline a few of the grammatical rudiments of literary expression, and the elements of it that correspond to such musical elements as tonality, simple and {59} compound rhythm, canonical imitation, and the like. . . . We are suggesting that the resources of verbal expression are limited, if that is the word, by the literary equivalents of rhythm and key, though that does not mean, any more than it means in music, that its resources are artistically exhaustible. (AC, 133)

Rhythm and key are Frye’s metaphors for the conventions of literature; and the particular conventions he explores in the Third Essay are archetypes.1 

Another analogy Frye draws is between literature and the pictorial arts. When speaking of a painting, he observes, we often make the distinction between its design or stylization, on the one hand, and its content or subject, on the other. The former categories are analogous to the structural principles of literature, and we are better able to observe them when some distance separates us from the realistic details of content. “In looking at a picture,” Frye says,

we may stand close to it and analyze the details of brush work and palette knife. This corresponds roughly to the rhetorical analysis of the new critics in literature. At a little distance back, the design comes clearer into view, and we study rather the content represented: this is the best distance for realistic Dutch pictures, for example, where we are in a sense reading the picture. The further back we go, the more conscious we are of the organizing design. At a great distance from, say, a Madonna, we can see nothing but the archetype of the Madonna, a large centripetal blue mass with a contrasting point of interest at its center. (AC, 140)

Similarly, if we “stand back” from works of literature we can observe their archetypal shapes and mythopoeic designs.2 

Frye’s starting point in the Third Essay is the principle that archetypal patterns are most clearly discernible in myth, for in mythical stories we are in a world of pure and abstract literary design. Myth is the first of three organizations of archetypal symbols; it lies at the pole of total metaphorical identity, and it assumes the form either of a desirable apocalyptic world or an undesirable demonic one. At the other extreme is the world of verisimilitude or naturalism, embodying the same archetypes found in myth, except they are now displaced in the direction of plausibility. Lying between these two poles is the whole area of romance. Here the archetypes of art resemble human experience more closely than in myth, although at the same time the content of art is more conventional, having been analogized to the ideal, mythical world (AC, 136–40). The term “romance” does not refer here, as it {60} did in the First Essay, to a historical mode. It refers rather to the dialectical tendency, inherent in those forms of literature which are neither undisplaced myth nor pure naturalism, to move toward the real or the plausible, in one direction, and toward the ideal or mythical, in the other. Whenever this tendency is present, we have romance.

Frye’s analogy between the structural principles of literature and their equivalents in music (key and rhythm) provides a convenient means for seeing the bipolar organization of the Third Essay. The literary equivalent of musical key is the structural pattern of imagery. To apply Frye’s terminology to the structure of archetypal meaning, the literary equivalent of musical key is the dianoia or static pattern formed by imagery, as well as its pattern of ideas. Corresponding to musical rhythm, at the other pole, is the mythos of imagery, or the narrative movement from one structure of imagery to another (AC, 136, 140, 158). The organization of the Third Essay therefore rests upon the formulation of the now-familiar distinction between dianoia and mythos.

The Dianoia of Archetypal Imagery

Frye’s analysis of archetypal meaning is organized along two axes of reference. The first might be called simply “types of imagery.” Although he divides archetypal imagery into three basic kinds—apocalyptic, demonic, and analogical—there are in effect five basic categories, since analogical imagery is further divisible into three types. Located along the other axis are the “categories or levels of reality,” metaphorically referred to as “worlds.” There are seven of these, forming a kind of paradigm of the Great Chain of Being. We conceive of reality, according to Frye, as existing on various levels: the divine world, the human world, the animal world, and so on. These two axes can be seen as forming a matrix on which it is possible to locate the different kinds of archetypal imagery. Figure 7 represents a simplified version of this matrix. While such a literal charting makes Frye’s thought appear simpler and more rigid than it in fact is, the diagram has the advantage of providing a quick overview of the categories he uses to distinguish archetypal images.

ApocalypticRomanticHigh MimeticRealisticDemonic

Figure 7. Structures of archetypal imagery. {p. 61}

Divine world

Society of gods


Parental, wise old men with magical powers



King idealized as divine

Mistress of courtly love as goddess

Spiritual vision anchored in empirical psycho­logical experience

Stupid powers of nature, machinery of fate

Blake’s Nobodaddy, etc.

Human world

Society of men

Men as members of one body

Children and innocence


Dante’s Matelda

Spenser’s Britomart

Idealized human forms

Common, typical human situations, parody of idealized romance

Society of egos in tension



Animal World

Lamb of God

Sacrificial horse


Pastoral lamb, horses and hounds of romance, ass, unicorn, dophin, birds

Eagle, lion, horse, swan, falcon, peacock, phoenix

Ape, tiger

Beasts of prey, tiger, wolf, vulture, dragon

Vegetable World

Paradisal garden and tree

Arcadian imagery of green world

Rose, lotus

Garden of Eden (Milton, Bible)

Spenser’s Garden of Adonis

Locus amoenus

Formal gardens (in background)

Farms, painful labor of man


Sinister forest or enchanted garden

Tree of forbidden knowledge

Mineral World


Highway and road

“The Way”

Tower, castle

Capital city with court at center

Labyrinthine modern city

Stress on loneliness and lack of commun­ication

Deserts, rocks, waste land

Fire World

Seraphim and Cherubim

Ritual sacrifice by fire

Saint’s halo

Burning trees

Fire as purifying symbol

Spenser’s castle of Busirane

Dante’s purgatory

King’s crown

Lady’s eyes

Fire as ironic and destructive


Malignant demons, will-o’-the-wisps, spirits broken from hell

Burning cities

Watery World

Water of life

Fourfold river of Eden


Fountains, pools

Fertilizing rains


The disciplined river (Thames) ornamented by royal barge

Sea as destructive element

Humanized leviathans

Moby Dick, Shelley’s open boat

Water of death

Spilled blood

Sea monsters

Since apocalyptic imagery exists at the level of undisplaced myth, we can expect the principle of radical metaphor to figure importantly in Frye’s discussion. This principle, when applied to apocalyptic imagery, will yield the concrete universal, which means, as we have already observed, that any apocalyptic image is not only unique in itself but also potentially identical with any other apocalyptic image. The argument here is difficult and needs to be examined in some detail.

{62} In the Second Essay, Frye maintains that unlimited individual thought and action, existing at the conceivable boundaries of desire, are most likely to be encountered in apocalyptic revelation. The central poetic image for expressing this concept is in classical mythology a god or society of gods, and in the Christian tradition one God. Since both a society of gods and one God are, anagogically, symbolic forms of the same unlimited human desire, they can be said to be identical. Everything at the divine level, we recall, is identical in the sense of being unified. Therefore, in the Third Essay Frye’s own tabular equation among the divine world, a society of gods, and one God (AC, 141) follows from his theory of anagogic metaphor.

This, however, is but half of Frye’s argument. He makes the additional and even more paradoxical claim that, at the apocalyptic level, a relation of identity also exists among the seven different categories of reality (divine, human, animal, vegetable, etc.). This means, to take only one example, that the sheep, or the “human form” imposed upon the animal world (the sheep having traditional priority as a domesticated animal), is identical at the apocalyptic level with the city, which, as built from stone, is the traditional image imposed by human work upon the mineral world. It is possible to understand this relationship of identity only at the level of apocalypse or revelation, and the perfect conception for illustrating the idea of radical identification is Christ, who is metaphorically God, man, the lamb, the tree of life, the temple, and the light and water of life, all at the same time. The doctrine of transubstantiation also illustrates the identification of apocalyptic images. This doctrine is nothing less than a radical metaphor which identifies the bread and wine of the vegetable world with “the body and blood of the Lamb who is also Man and God, and in whose body we exist as in a city or temple” (AC, 143).

Once Frye has established the categories which constitute his vertical axis, he then lists the various kinds of images which can be discovered in apocalyptic, demonic, and analogical works. Examples of archetypal imagery are represented in Figure 7. The general pattern of Frye’s discussion, however, is not linear, as the outline in Figure 7 implies. Archetypal criticism, Frye says in his analysis of fourth-phase symbolism, “rests on two organizing rhythms or patterns, one cyclical, the other dialectic” (AC, 106). We should therefore expect to find Frye using these patterns in his theory of myths. Indeed, both are present. The cyclical pattern underlies the second half of this theory, whereas the dialectical rhythm organizes the first.

The dialectic of archetypal dianoia, which is our present concern, is most obviously apparent in the two pairs of opposite categories underlying Frye’s chapter headings: apocalyptic versus demonic, romantic versus realistic. Thus we find apocalyptic imagery, representing the world of unlimited desire and projected as Paradise or Eden, opposed by demonic imagery, symbolizing the world of existential hell, “the world of the nightmare and the scapegoat, of bondage and pain and confusion; the world as it is before the human imagination begins to work on it and before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established; the world also of perverted or wasted work, ruins and catacombs, instruments of torture and monuments of folly” (AC, 147). Apocalyptic imagery, because it recreates a visionary or divine world, is associated with myth. Demonic imagery, on the other hand, because it so often depends upon parody (cannibalism as a mocking image of the Eucharist, for example), is associated with irony and satire. Thus Frye is making a correlation between the archetypal imagery of his apocalyptic and demonic worlds and the first and last categories in his theory of modes. He completes the correlation in his analysis of analogical imagery, introducing his discussion in these terms:

Most imagery in poetry has of course to deal with much less extreme worlds than the two which are usually projected as the eternal unchanging worlds of heaven and hell. Apocalyptic imagery is appropriate to the mythical mode, and demonic imagery to the ironic mode in the late phase in which it returns to myth. In the other three modes these two structures operate dialectically, pulling the reader toward the metaphorical and mythical undisplaced core of the work. We should therefore expect three intermediate structures of imagery, corresponding roughly to the romantic, high mimetic, and low mimetic modes. (AC, 151)

This passage implies what Frye means by “analogical imagery.” If there is a dialectic which pulls us toward the world of myth, it will represent those kinds of literary works in which the dianoia is but an analogy of an undisplaced world. Or, to put the matter in different terms, it will represent a human form of myth. And since there are three modes of literature lying between the two undisplaced worlds, there are three kinds of analogical imagery. Moreover, each form can be said to embody what Frye calls “organizing ideas.” This triad of relationships is outlined in Figure 8.


Figure 8. Categories of analogical imagery. {p. 63}

ModeRomanceHigh mimeticLow mimetic
AnalogyInnocenceNature and reasonExperience
Organizing ideasChastity and magicLove and formGenesis and work

{64} The kinds of imagery which are typically found in each of these intermediate structures are indicated in Figure 7. Regarding the procedure of Frye’s argument, his method of classifying these images characteristically begins at the level of literary mode. This permits him to isolate certain types of works. At the romantic end of the continuum, for example, he selects a series of works from the medieval age, the Renaissance, and the nineteenth century. Having done this, he searches for certain clusters or “significant constellations” of romantic imagery, which he then lists as characterizing the analogy of innocence. In actual practice, Frye’s method was certainly more inductive than implied by this outline. I mean only to call attention to those stages of the argument which the sequence of his discussion suggests.


To this point Frye’s account of indirect mythologizing, or what he calls “displacement,” has been in terms of credibility. Writers adapt or modify their stories so as to make them follow the laws of probability; thus the movement away from myth is a movement toward verisimilitude. As a result, these stories appear to us as plausible forms of undisplaced myth. But displacement can also move in the direction of moral acceptability. At the level of radical metaphor, there is no correlation between what is desirable or undesirable and what is moral. The imagery of the demonic vision, for example, is sinister not because it is morally unacceptable but because it cannot be made an object of desire. Or, to put the matter differently, in apocalyptic symbolism human lust and ambitions are projected onto the gods and thereby identified with them. At this level there is no concern for making the moral and desirable coincide; thus we find such things in mythology as the creation of the world by masturbation. As we move away from the apocalyptic world, however, imagery tends to follow the laws of what is morally acceptable. In other words, civilization, or the human form of desire, tries to collapse the distance between the moral and the desirable. Thus in the analogy of innocence we find that apocalyptic sexual imagery, to take one example, has been displaced as the matrimonial or the virginal (AC, 155–57). But this kind of displacement is typical only of poetry which is closely associated with religion, as in Dante. Frye says that literature “continually tends to right its own balance, to return to the pattern of desire and away from the conventional and moral” (AC, 156). We are most likely to encounter this tendency in the analogy of experience, where morally undesirable imagery often finds its rightful expression “only through ingenious techniques of displacement” (AC, 156).

What function can an understanding of these relationships {65} between poetry and morality serve? On the one hand, it can show us that literature is more flexible than morality, and thus we are prevented from making easy equations between the two. An archetype with typically immoral connotations can be deliberately reversed by the poet through the technique that Frye calls “demonic modulation” (AC, 156). This means that an image or concept from the demonic world, like a serpent or incestuous relations, can be displaced in the direction of the moral. It means also that symbols take their meaning from their context.

The serpent, because of its role in the garden of Eden story, usually belongs on the sinister side of our catalogue in Western literature; the revolutionary sympathies of Shelley impel him to use an innocent serpent in The Revolt of Islam. Or a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; by a homosexual passion (if it is true love that is celebrated in Virgil’s second eclogue) or an incestuous one, as in many Romantics. (AC, 157)

This kind of modulation, Frye would claim, should make us aware that the meaning of imagery, because displaced, can violate its customary moral associations; it follows, then, that the failure to take displacement of this sort into account can cause faulty interpretations, based on the incorrect notion that the moral reference of archetypes is inflexible.

This is but half of Frye’s claim, for he suggests also that a “full critical analysis” (AC, 158) will always want to take account of the latent content lying behind the manifest (i.e., displaced) content. As in Freudian analysis, the latent content is likely to be, if not repugnant, at least morally disagreeable. Frye’s illustration is from tragedy. This form shows, among other things, that man’s acceptance of inevitability is a displacement of his bitter resentment against the obstacles that thwart his desires. “A Christian who believed the Greek gods to be nothing but devils would, if he were criticizing a tragedy of Sophocles, make an undisplaced or demonic interpretation of it. Such an interpretation would bring out everything Sophocles was trying not to say; but it could be a shrewd criticism of its latent or underlying demonic structure for all that” (AC, 157–58). In other words, the manifest content of Sophocles’ plays is a morally plausible form of what our latent, and therefore deepest, desires are. And it is this latent content which is structurally important for Frye because it lies in or near the realm of undisplaced myth. To be able to see this is to see “the factor which lifts a work of literature out of the category of the merely historical” (AC, 158). Thus {66} Frye has made two claims about the value of seeing displacement as moral plausibility. On the one hand, it can help us to understand the meaning of individual archetypes, especially when their relation to some moral norm is unconventional. On the other hand, it can help us to see the mythical patterns, both apocalyptic and demonic, which are structural principles of entire works.3 

The Mythos of Archetypal Imagery

We have seen that the bipolar organization of the Third Essay is based upon the distinction between dianoia and mythos. To use Frye’s musical analogy once again, the structural pattern of imagery is the literary equivalent of key, whereas the narrative pattern of poetry corresponds to musical rhythm. Thus we find that in the second half of Frye’s theory of myths, movement or process is the fundamental category. His major concern here is to make explicit the structures of archetypal imagery from the perspective of mythos. Movement, as one of the distinguishing traits of mythos, has already been anticipated in the analysis of analogical imagery, where there is a dialectical tendency for imagery to be pulled toward one or the other pole of the apocalyptic-demonic continuum. This is one form of process. But an even more basic form, as we shall now see, is cyclical movement.

Frye first shows how the seven categories of imagery, viewed in the previous section from the static perspective of dianoia, can also be seen as process. The basic shape of this movement is cyclical, showing “the alternation of success and decline, effort and repose, life and death which is the rhythm of process” (AC, 158). The cyclical form of each category of imagery is outlined in Figure 9.

Figure 9. Cyclical imagery for each level of “Reality.” {p. 67}

Divine World

Death and rebirth of a god, associated with cyclic process of nature

Birth-death-rebirth continuum of identity

Fire World of Heavenly Bodies

Day-night cycle (sun god)

Solstitial cycle of solar year

Lunar cycle

Human World

Imaginative cycle of waking and dreaming life (experience and innocence)

Ordinary cycle of life and death (generic rebirth)

Animal World

Usually a tragic process (violent death by accident, sacrifice). Continuity comes through the life itself

Vegetable World

Annual cycle of seasons

Adonis, Proserpine

Water World

Cycle from rains, to springs, to rivers, to sea, to clouds, to snow or rains

Mineral World

Assimilated to organic cycle

Golden age, wheel of fortune, meditations over ruins, collapse of empires, ubi sunt elegy, etc.

Moreover, within the several cycles, Frye observes four main phases:

Seasons of the year:SpringSummerFallWinter
Periods of the day:MorningNoonEveningNight
Aspects of water:RainsFountainsRiversSea, snow
Periods of life:YouthMaturityOld ageDeath

It is even possible to quadrisect the periods of Western culture into the Medieval Age, the Renaissance, the Eighteenth Century, and the Modern Period (AC, 160). The fourfold division has important consequences for the subsequent structure of Frye’s argument. Schematically, the cyclical paradigm is located within the order of nature, whereas the dialectical one moves from the order of nature toward or into the higher apocalyptic realm.

{67} The existence of these broad cyclical and dialectical movements within mythos leads Frye to conclude that there are “narrative categories of literature broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genres” (AC, 162). He calls these pregeneric elements mythoi, another fundamental distinction in Frye’s master design, for the cyclical and dialectical movements of mythoi underlie the entire second half of Anatomy of Criticism. In terms of the origin of his most basic categories, mythoi derive ultimately from poetic imagery or, more accurately, from the movement of poetic imagery which is a part of our experience of literature.

Frye’s method of argument at this point is based upon the similarities of “movement” between the seven categories of reality and the cyclical and dialectical processes of archetypes. Cyclically, the analogy produces four mythoi: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony or satire (this latter also called “realism”). Dialectically, it produces an upward and downward movement between innocence and experience, apocalypse and nature, the ideal and the actual, the comic and the tragic. A {68} diagrammatic representation of these movements is found in Figure 10. We have already encountered a rudimentary form of the dialectical part of this design in the First Essay, where Frye uses “comic” and “tragic” in a similar pregeneric sense to describe aspects of mythos in general.

Figure 10. Cyclical and dialectical pattern of the four mythoi. {p. 68}

Figure 10. Cyclical and dialectical pattern of the four “mythoi.”

Figure 10, showing the quadrantal and cyclic pattern of the four mythoi and the dialectical arrangement of the mythical and realistic worlds, provides only the skeletal outline for Frye’s taxonomy. The mythos of archetypes is a complex theory, the fullest and most elaborately conceived section of the Anatomy. While it accounts for but one-half of Frye’s theory of archetypes, it comprises practically one-fourth {69} of the entire book. The elaborateness of its design results chiefly from the theory of phases, the word referring in this context to the variety of literary structures which can be isolated in any one mythos.4 Frye is able to discover six phases for each of the pregeneric mythoi; this yields, of course, twenty-four separate structures.

The argument is made more complex, however, by the fact that adjacent mythoi tend to merge. “If we think of our experience of these mythoi,” Frye says, “we shall realize that they form two opposed pairs. Tragedy and comedy contrast rather than blend, and so do romance and irony, the champions respectively of the ideal and actual. On the other hand, comedy blends insensibly into satire at one extreme and into romance at the other; romance may be comic or tragic; tragic extends from high romance to bitter and ironic realism” (AC, 162). To this should be added the fourth possible relation, namely, that irony merges insensibly into tragedy and comedy. We shall examine these correspondences in more detail below.

The procedure used to define each of the mythoi—comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony and satire—follows a similar pattern throughout and derives from Frye’s attempt to answer three questions: What is the structure of each mythos? What are the typical characters of each? And what are the six phases within each category?5 It is more convenient, I think, to look at the method and structure of Frye’s argument from the viewpoint of these three questions than from the perspective of the mythoi considered seriatim. My aim is not to summarize the content of his lengthy exposition but to observe the kinds of criteria he employs to define such concepts as plot and character and to see how he uses these categories to differentiate the mythoi. Underlying his definitions of each of these is a method which remains fairly constant throughout. The procedure can be illustrated by a passage from the discussion of comedy. The passage refers to dramatic comedy simply because Frye, for convenience (AC, 163), has restricted his discussion of comic theory chiefly to drama.

In drama, characterization depends on function; what a character is follows from what he has to do in the play. Dramatic function in its turn depends on the structure of the play; the character has certain things to do because the play has such and such a shape. The structure of the play in its turn depends on the category of the play; if it is a comedy, its structure will require a comic resolution and a prevailing comic mood. (AC, 171–72)

The main presupposition in this passage is that pregeneric categories like comedy and tragedy do exist, their existence depending, as we {70} have observed, on Frye’s analogical and dialectical arguments (AC, 158–62). The next assumption is that this general category will determine the resolution and mood of a given work. Together these constitute its structure, which is the central concept Frye uses to discuss the typical form of each mythos. Character, finally, in Frye’s Aristotelian argument, does not determine structure but is determined by it.

Structure The following analysis of the archetypal structure of the mythoi is based on two of the four typical patterns that Frye isolates: his treatment of comedy and romance. The normal pattern for comedy, he says, comes from the “plot structure of Greek New Comedy, as transmitted by Plautus and Terence. . . . What normally happens is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will” (AC, 163). The action of this simple comic pattern has two centers of interest: the obstruction of the hero’s desire by certain usurpers or blocking characters who dominate the internal society of the play; and the overcoming of these obstacles in the comic resolution, out of which is created a new society, often signaled by such festive rituals as weddings, dances, banquets, and the like. The way a comedy is developed depends on which of these two centers of interest is heightened. If the interest falls mainly upon the blocking characters, and therefore upon the conflict, then ironic, satiric, realistic, or mannered forms of comedy tend to result. On the other hand, if the emphasis moves toward the comic anagnorisis and the reconciliation, then the resultant form is romantic comedy of the Shakespearean kind (AC, 164–67).

Whichever ethical interest predominates, the typical comic structure shows the triumph of reality over illusion. In defining this theme, Frye draws upon two terms from the Tractatus Coislinianus, the fragmentary Greek treatise in which, he says, are set down “all the essential facts about comedy in about a page and a half.” The terms are pistis (opinion) and gnosis (proof), and they “correspond roughly to the usurping and the desirable societies respectively” (AC, 166). The author of the Tractatus subdivides the latter term into five categories (oaths, compacts, witnesses, ordeals, and laws)—the five material forms of legal proof in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. This leads Frye to draw an analogy between the action of comedy and the action of a lawsuit, for in both actions a judgment is made which separates the real from the illusory. Thus, he says, “the movement from pistis to gnosis, from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom is fundamentally, as the Greek words suggest, a movement from illusion to reality” (AC, 169).

{71} What is real in the comic ending, then, is actually the ideal, even though the nature of the ideal is seldom precisely specified. We can best understand this, Frye says, as the negative of whatever the now-defeated blocking characters have stood for, which is some form of the absurd. This is why our reaction to the typical comic ending involves not so much a moral condemnation of these characters (they are not villains) as it does a social judgment against their absurdity (AC, 167–68). The question of dramatic resolution, then, lies at the heart of Frye’s analysis of comic structure; his discussion keeps returning to the issue of what the comic action moves toward: the new society created al the end. We shall see the reason for this emphasis on the anagnorisis shortly.

A final and important principle of comic action is that what we actually see presented in a given work is but a part of the total mythos of comedy, an idea which Frye compares to the ternary form in music. Just as a comic action leads toward a Saturnalia, the birth of a new but undefined world, so it also leads from the memory of a golden age in the past. This memory is not represented in the action itself: “The audience simply understands an ideal state of affairs which it knows to be better than what is revealed in the play, and which it recognizes as like that to which the action leads” (AC, 171).

Frye’s analysis of romance draws upon the same criteria to define the typical romantic form: plot, conflict, development, theme, resolution, and total mythos. The essential element in the plot of romance, he maintains, is adventure, and what gives shape to the adventure, thus preventing it from becoming a series of endless repetitions, is the quest. Moreover, the most complete forms of romance show a successful conclusion to the plot, which is typically represented in three stages: “the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero” (AC, 187). These stages are called respectively the agon (conflict), the pathos (death-struggle), and the anagnorisis (recognition). In Frye’s definition of the typical romantic plot, the first two stages assume a central importance, for they relate to the conflict between the hero and his antagonist; and the agon, as we shall see, is the basis (i.e., the archetypal theme) of romance.

Frye sees the typical form of the quest-romance as embodying the dragon-killing theme. His discussion of this draws heavily upon illustrations from the Bible, where metaphorical identifications are readily observed because of its highly mythopoeic form. Thus the dragon, {72} appearing as the antagonist in romance, is a displaced archetype of Satan. Satan is identified in the Bible as the leviathan, the serpent, the behemoth, these in turn being identified as the source of social sterility (Egypt, Babylon), the fallen order of nature, death—everything, in short, which is opposed to Christ the hero.6 

An important qualification enters Frye’s argument at this point. “If the leviathan,” he says, “is the whole fallen world of sin and death and tyranny into which Adam fell, it follows that Adam’s children are born, live, and die inside his belly. . . . If we are inside the dragon, and the hero comes to help us, the image is suggested of the hero going down the monster’s open throat, like Jonah” (AC, 190). The hero, in other words, disappears. Jesus, like his prototype Jonah, descends into hell. Theseus disappears into the labyrinth. Moses gets lost in the desert. Or, to take a more displaced version, Tom Sawyer climbs down into the cave. This disappearance of the hero is what leads to the qualification of Frye’s three-stage romantic plot; for there are not three distinguishable aspects of the quest-myth after all, bur four. Thus to the agon, the pathos, and the anagnorisis Frye now adds the sparagmos or the tearing to pieces of the hero—which is the form his disappearance frequently takes (AC, 190–92).

We have seen how the comic plot is but one aspect of the total mythos of comedy. In a similar though more expansive way the conflict of romance is but a part of a larger mythos which neatly binds together all the mythoi. It is not insignificant that Frye’s own version of the “monomyth” is presented in connection with his theory of romance:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may . . . be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypal theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvellous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or the recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy. (AC, 192)

That each of these four aspects of the “central unifying myth” appears also in the quest-myth, which has a romantic structure, indicates that Frye conceives of romance, formally speaking, as the fullest or most comprehensive literary type.7 We shall return to Frye’s predilection for romance later in this study. What is important to observe now is that {73} the definition of the structure of a given mythos depends essentially on isolating one part of its narrative movement: in comedy it is the discovery; in romance the conflict. While these are elements of the structure of plot, Frye also refers to them as “themes.” The two words are in fact synonymous at one level, the action of a comedy, for example, being embodied in the thematic movement from illusion to reality. In another context Frye says that “narrative in literature may also be seen as theme, and theme is narrative, but narrative seen as a simultaneous unity. At a certain point in the narrative, the point which Aristotle called anagnorisis or recognition, the sense of linear continuity or participation in the action changes perspective, and what we now see is a total design or unifying structure in the narrative” (SS, 164). This appears to be very close to what Aristotle means by plot, though Frye himself often uses the word in the un-Aristotelian sense of a typical scenario (e.g., AC, 163).

Throughout Frye’s analysis of the structure of the various mythoi, we can observe the familiar method of analogy at work. The action of comedy is like the action of a lawsuit; the action of romance like the cycle of nature; comedy like spring; romance, summer; and so on. The most consistently employed analogies, however, come from the dream-ritual opposition, derived in turn from psychoanalytic theory and anthropology. Thus we find Frye saying that the ternary action of comedy “is, ritually, like a contest of summer and winter in which winter occupies the middle action; psychologically, it is like the removal of a neurosis or blocking point and the restoration of an unbroken current of energy and memory” (AC, 171). Similarly, the quest romance, when translated into the terms of dreams, “is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality.” In ritual terms, it “is the victory of fertility over the waste land” (AC, 193). Insofar as the analogical method helps Frye to define a given mythoi, it does so by continually moving the frame of reference outward to a much larger context. The effect, as Frye recognizes, is to tell us not about an action in particular but about mythoi in general.8 

Character Frye’s second aim in this section of the Third Essay is to determine the typical character of each mythos. A typical character for Frye is a “stock type,” though this expression is not meant to imply the antithesis of the lifelike character. All lifelike characters, he says, “owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function. That stock type is not the character but it is as necessary to the character as a skeleton is to the actor who plays it” (AC, 172). The framework for Frye’s discussion of these types is a set {74} of two pairs of categories, three of which (alazon, eiron, and bomolochos) derive from the previously mentioned Tractatus. To these Frye adds the “character whom Aristotle calls agroikos, [one we] may reasonably accept . . . as a fourth character type” (AC, 172). We are most familiar with these kinds of stock characters in comedy, yet in each of the other mythoi Frye locates types which correspond generally to the two basic oppositions: alazon (impostor) versus eiron (self-deprecator), bomolochos (buffoon) versus agroikos (churl, rustic).9 

Characterization depends on function, Frye has said, and this principle underlies his differentiation of the four character types. An alazon, for example, is distinguished from an eiron on the basis of the separate roles they play in achieving a given narrative structure. However abstract the four general categories may appear, Frye’s discussion of them, in most cases, involves a wide range of particular illustrations. Moreover, the reference of each category, contrary to what the Greek label might imply, is not singularly restricted to some unambiguous prototype: alazon and eiron, for example, come to mean much more than simply impostor and self-deprecator, respectively. In fact, Frye develops a number of subtypes within each category. To illustrate the procedure he uses in denning these types and their variations, we turn once again to his analysis of the comic and romantic mythoi.

Alazons, the humorous blocking characters of comedy, are impostors in the sense that either they are hypocrites of some sort or, what is more frequently the case, they lack self-knowledge. The classic form of the alazon-eiron contest is the scene “in which one character complacently soliloquizes while another makes sarcastic asides to the audience” (AC, 172). The alazon type includes such characters as the senex iratus, the obsessed pedant, the learned crank, and the miles gloriosus. And there are variations, even, on these types: “Occasionally a character may have the dramatic function of [a senex] without his characteristics,” like Fielding’s Squire Airworthy (AC, 172). At the other pole are the self-deprecating characters, the central type of which is the hero. The technical comic hero or heroine is frequently a rather undeveloped, neutral type, especially in those works where the ethical interest centers on the blocking characters. But there are other types of comic eirons: the tricky slave of Roman plays, the scheming valet and mischievous trickster of the Renaissance, the Spanish gracioso, Beaumarchais’s Figaro, the amateur detective of modern fiction, and characters which embody the “spirit of comedy,” like Shakespeare’s Puck and Ariel. Frye calls the general type of comic eiron the “vice,” somewhat ironic itself since the vice is usually benevolent.10 A third variation is the retreating paternal figure, the old man who withdraws from the action at the beginning and returns at the end. Often this kind of character, as in {75} Jonson and Shakespeare, is the real architectus, the one who enables the comic ending to occur.

Characters in romance, to turn now to the second mythos, are seldom subtly drawn, since, in relation to the quest, they tend to be either for it or against it. “If they assist it,” Frye says, “they are idealized as simply gallant or pure; if they obstruct it they are caricatured as simply villainous or cowardly” (AC, 195). Such characters therefore follow the dialectical pattern of the plot structure they serve. Frye likens this opposition to black and white chess pieces. The white correspond to the eirons of comedy, insofar as their function is to see the quest successfully completed, and it includes such types as the hero, the potential bride, and the “wise old man” or magician who watches over and often controls the action. The counterpart of the comic alazon is any character who seeks to avert the hero’s goal. The blocking characters in this case are, of course, villains, and they assume such various forms as evil magicians, witches, traitors, monsters, and the like (AC, 195-96).

In a similar fashion Frye establishes a parallel between the buffoon of comedy and the Golux of romance. The former includes all those fools, clowns, pages, parasites, mad hosts, cooks, and masters of revelry whose function is to increase the mood of festivity (AC, 175). The romantic mood, on the other hand, is intensified by the Golux character (the term is borrowed from Thurber)—the various spirits and children of nature, such as nymphs, daughter figures, faithful giants, green men, and other sprites of mysterious origin.

The fourth archetypal character of comedy is the agroikos, one who functions in opposition to the festive buffoon, and in this category we find churls, rustics, and, in highly ironic comedy, plain dealers and malcontents—all refusers of festivity in one way or another. On the romantic side, and in opposition to the Golux and his kindred natural spirits, are the characters who “call attention to the realistic aspects of life, like fear in the presence of danger, which threaten the unity of the romantic mood” (AC, 197). The apotheosis of this character type is Sancho Panza, but it would include also figures like Spenser’s dwarf, “the shrunken and wizened form of practical waking reality” (AC, 197).

Frye proceeds to identify the four poles of characterization in the tragic and ironic mythoi as well. For our immediate purpose, however, the review of the comic and romantic characters is sufficient to establish the procedure of Frye’s argument. This method, as we have seen, depends on a series of dialectical oppositions. “If we are told,” Frye says in the introduction to his theory of mythos, “that what we are about to read is tragic or comic, we expect a certain kind of structure and mood” (AC, 162, italics added). These two concepts provide the basis for the most general opposition in the discussion of character. The first two {76} types (alazons and eirons and their counterparts) are isolated according to the structural functions they perform, whereas the last two (bomolochoi and the agroikoi) derive ultimately from the roles they play in creating the narrative mood. Having established the opposition between structure and mood and used it to distinguish the two general types, Frye proceeds at the next level to set up another pair of oppositions based upon the dialectical pattern within each mythos. Characters must fall on one side or another of the conflict of comedy and of the quest of romance. Structure and mood, in other words, determine character; and since for Frye each of these is seen as dialectical, there must be a double bipolar distribution of character types. Although the Tractatus seems to figure importantly in Frye’s discussion, his own schema does not necessarily derive from what the author of this brief treatise says about comic character. Frye simply takes the Greek terminology and adapts it to his own dialectical argument.11 The various levels of opposing categories, then, constitute the primary methodological principle behind Frye’s definitions here. Once the four main categories have been established, he relies chiefly upon the method of illustration, calling on a vast range of examples to define the various subtypes.

To define by illustration is one of Frye’s preferred methods. Because of the easy style of the Anatomy and because it is not burdened by unnecessary scholarly paraphernalia, it is perhaps sometimes easy to overlook the extent of the allusive method. But the prodigious range of Frye’s reading makes its way onto practically every page of the Anatomy; the result is extraordinarily demanding. To select one section at random—Frye’s brief (twenty-two-page) treatment of comedy in the Third Essay—we discover no fewer than eighty references to specific literary works; a host of general allusions to such things as Restoration comedy, Renaissance drama, Gothic romances, Old and New Comedy, and the like, and casual allusion to a number of writers without reference to particular works.

Phases We turn now to the third major category in Frye’s theory of mythos, recalling his argument that there are six phases to each of the pregeneric mythoi and also that the phases from adjacent mythoi tend to merge, or to blend “insensibly” into one another. This produces what Frye himself calls “a somewhat forbidding piece of symmetry” (AC, 177). He is referring to the fact that each of the phases of a given mythos is parallel to, but not coincident with, a phase in the adjacent mythos. To understand how he works out these relationships, we have to conceive of each mythos as containing two groupings of phases, three phases belonging to each group. The first three phases of one mythos are always related {77} to the first three of an adjacent mythos, but the relation is seen as occurring only within opposing halves of the major dialectic, whereas the relation between the last three phases of any two mythoi occurs only within the same half of the innocence-experience dichotomy. This means, for example, that there can be no merging between the first three phases of comedy and tragedy, or the first three of romance and irony since they are opposite, not adjacent, mythoi. It also means that there can be no relation between (say) the first three phases of tragedy and irony because both of these mythoi lie within the “realistic” half of the cycle. These correspondences have been charted in Figure 11, in which the shaded areas represent all the relations, and only those, which Frye sees as occurring between different phases. The intricacy of the design will become clearer as we examine the details of Frye’s argument.

Figure 11. Parallel relations among the phases of the four mythoi {p. 77}

Figure 11. Parallel relations among the phases of the four “mythoi”

{78} The word “phase,” as it is used in the Third Essay, refers to “one of six distinguishable stages of a mythos” (AC, 367). Since Frye’s discussion is still at the pregeneric level, the word should not be misconstrued to mean literary species or subspecies, even though part of his discussion invites this identification.12 Phases are more accurately seen in terms of Frye’s assumption that, structurally, each mythos has a standard or typical pattern. From this perspective, a phase is a degree of variation in one of two directions from the norm, dissociating this last word from any implications of value it has. The degrees of variation, however, are determined by a number of criteria, which is why the term phase is difficult to define precisely. Sometimes Frye distinguishes the phases from each other in terms of the total plot pattern; at other times it is chiefly in terms of plot ending. Sometimes it is character; at other times, imagery. Increasing the complexity of the discussion, moreover, is the fact that Frye’s model is cyclical as well as linear. These different procedures can be illustrated by comparing the criteria used to distinguish the phases within the comic and romantic mythoi.

As we have seen, the archetypal theme of comedy is anagnorisis: the comic structure leads toward the “recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride” (AC, 192). Frye arranges the phases of comedy according to their place in the sequence which leads to this new society. In ironic comedy, or the first phase, society is furthest from its ultimate transformation. The emphasis here is on the blocking characters and the entertainers rather than the hero; the buffoons triumph over the plain dealers. The result is that the humorous society, rather than the one that should replace it, wins out; and the eiron—technically the comic hero—either fades into the background or joins forces, at the end, with the alazons. Frye calls this phase of comedy “ironic” not because of the eiron’s role, which is only nominally heroic, but because a sense of the demonic world keeps appearing in the background. Imminent catastrophes narrowly averted and potential tragedies never quite actualized—what Frye calls “the point of ritual death”—are a part of ironic comedy, and they suggest that such works still lie very much within the world of experience. “We notice too,” says Frye, “how frequently the comic dramatist tries to bring his action as close to a catastrophic overthrow of the hero as he can get it, and then reverses the action as quickly as possible” (AC, 178). The imminent overthrow of the hero, then, is what makes such works ironic; the reversal of the action, coupled with the mood established by the alazons and buffoons, is what makes them comic.

In the second phase, or quixotic comedy, the hero runs away from the humorous society rather than transforming it; either this, or else the society constructed around the hero proves to be too weak to exist. {79} What we have then, as distinct from the first phase, is a separation of eiron and alazon, since neither of the forces they represent triumphs. There can be complex variations, however, on this simple pattern. The eiron, for example, may be partly an alazon, or “mental runaway,” in which case “we have either a hero’s illusion thwarted by a superior reality or a clash of two illusions” (AC, 180).

Third-phase comedy is the typical form. As we have seen in Frye’s discussion of comic plot and character, the normal pattern shows the triumph of the eiron over the senex iratus or other blocking character, a victory which creates, in the anagnorisis, the beginnings of the new society. We can observe in passing that these first three stages of comedy—its ironic phases—correspond to the first three (or the satiric) phases of irony.

In the fourth phase, which might be called green-world or romantic comedy, we have moved out of the lower world of experience into the analogy of romance and innocence. This phase can be seen as operating on two social planes: one is realistic, which explains the proximity of this kind of comedy to the ironic phase; the other is idealistic, which explains why this stage is seen as romantic. Shakespeare’s type of romantic comedy is Frye’s typical example, “We may call it,” he says, “the drama of the green world, its plot being assimilated to the ritual theme of the triumph of life and love over the waste land.” Its action “begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world” (AC, 182). The expression “green world” is meant to indicate the analogies which these comedies have to the world of ritual, like the rebirth of spring after winter, as well as to the world of dreamlike desire, as in the idealized but genuine “form of the world that human life tries to imitate” (AC, 184).

In fifth-phase comedy the ending is not so much a matter of the plot as it is the distanced perspective of the audience, who, looking down upon the action from a higher point of view, can distinguish the chaos of experience from the order of innocence. This phase, “less festive and more pensive” than fourth-phase comedy, can be called “Arcadian.” In it, says Frye, “the reader or audience feels raised above the action.” We look down on the plotting “as generic or typical human behavior: the action, or at least the tragic implication of the action, is presented as though it were a play within a play that we can see in all dimensions at once.” And what is seen is not merely the movement from winter to spring, as in green-world comedy, but one from “a lower world of confusion to an upper world of order” (AC, 184).

Now in the first five phases, according to Frye, we see a progressive movement toward the redeemed society. His own recapitulation of this grand scheme is as follows:

{80} Purely ironic comedy exhibits this society in its infancy, swaddled and smothered by the society it should replace. Quixotic comedy exhibits it in adolescence, still too ignorant of the ways of the world to impose itself. In the third phase it comes to maturity and triumphs; in the fourth it is already mature and established. In the fifth it is part of a settled order which has been there from the beginning, an order which takes on an increasingly religious cast and seems to be drawing away from human experience altogether. At this point the undisplaced commedia, the vision of Dante’s Paradiso, moves out of our circle of mythoi into the apocalyptic or abstract mythical world above it. (AC, 185)

In the sixth stage we see that the total comic mythos has now come full circle. This is the penseroso phase, in which “the social units of comedy become small and esoteric, or even confined to a single individual” (AC, 185). The resulting mood is diametrically opposed to the festive spirit of ironic comedy, for the sixth phase presents a world of imaginative withdrawal, of the marvellous and the occult, of the Gothic romance and the ghost story.

Although a given comic phase may be understood in terms of cyclic pattern, as in the winter-spring cycle of fifth-phase comedy, the phases taken together constitute a linear movement. The total comic mythos, in other words, runs its course and dies. In the romantic mythos, however, the basic paradigm is overtly cyclical. And since the archetypal theme of romance is a series of marvelous adventures, our attention is focused not upon the social order, as in comedy, but upon the hero himself. The phases of romance, Frye says, “form a cyclical sequence in a romantic hero’s life” (AC, 198). They begin with the myth of the birth of the hero in phase one, continue toward his mature exploits in phase three, and move finally to the level of purely contemplative adventure in phase six, where the cycle begins another revolution. The chief features in Frye’s discussion of each of the six comic and romantic phases are indicated in Figure 12. Listed below the diagram are the parallel relationships between the comic and romantic phases and those of their adjacent mythoi, a matter we shall take up shortly.

Comedy Romance

Figure 12. Phases of the comic and romantic mythoi. {p. 81}

(Phases 1–3 of comedy are parallel to phases 1–3 of irony; phases 1–3 of romance are parallel to phases 1–3 of tragedy; phases 4–6 of comedy and romance and parallel to each other.)

Ironic phase

The birth-of-the-hero phase

The infancy of the new society

Theme of mysterious origin, foundling

Example: The Alchemist, Tartuffe

Examples: Moses story, Nativity story


Quixotic phase

Pastoral innocence phase

Adolescence of the new society

Youth of the hero

Example: The Wild Duck

Examples: Adam and Eve in Eden, Blake’s Thel, Kubla Khan


Typical phase: the coming of age and the establishment of the new society

Typical phase: the quest of the hero

Examples: Greek New Comedy, Plautus, Terence

Examples: St. George and Perseus


Green-world phase

Continuous innocence phase

The maturity and triumph of the new society

Theme: the maintenance of the innocent world

Example: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Example: Faerie Queene, II & V


Arcadian phase

Idyllic phase

New society as a part of the settled order

Theme: reflective, idyllic view of experience

Examples: The Winter’s Tale, Pericles

Examples: Faerie Queene, III; Blithedale Romance


Gothic phase

Penseroso phase

Collapse and disintegration of the new society

Theme: contemplative adventure

Examples: Gothic thrillers, ghost stories, Huysman’s À Rebours

Examples: Morris’s Earthly Paradise, The Decameron

Irony Tragedy

Figure 13. Phases of the tragic and ironic mythoi. {p. 82}

(Phases 1–3 of tragedy are parallel to phases 1–3 of romance; phases 1–3 of irony are parallel to phases 1–3 of comedy; phases 4–6 of tragedy and irony and parallel to each other.)

Tragedy of dignity, based upon courage and innocence

Satire of the low norm

Central figure: the calumniated woman

Typical figure: the flexibly pragmatic eiron

Example: The Duchess of Malfi

Example: Erasmus’s Praise of Folly


Tragedy of innocence

Quixotic satire

Typical figure: young person

Typical figure: successful rogue

Example: Ibsen’s Little Eyolf

Example: picaresque novel


Tragedy of the hero’s achievement

Satire of the high norm

Typical figure: prototype of Christ

Typical figure: the giant killer

Example: Samson Agonistes

Examples: Rabelais, Petronius


Typical phase: Tragedy of the fall of the hero

Irony of explicit realism

Central figure: character of hybris and hamartia

Typical figure: the all-too-human hero

Examples: most Greek and Shakespearean tragedy

Examples: Tolstoy’s novels, Conrad’s Lord Jim


Tragedy of lost direction

Irony of fatalism

Typical figure: in lower state of freedom than the audience

Typical figure: caught on wheel of fortune

Examples: Timon of Athens, Oedipus Rex

Example: The Dynast


Tragedy of shock and horror

Irony of unrelieved bondage

Typical figure: humiliated or agonized hero

Typical figure: victim of misery, madness, or social tyranny

Examples: Prometheus Bound, Titus Andronicus

1984, The Penal Colony

Let us return now to the question of Frye’s method of definition. In my commentary on the comic phases, I abstracted their major characteristics in order clearly to isolate his differentiating criteria. The major criterion is, of course, the new comic society, and the phases vary in relation to their distance, in either the ironic or romantic direction, from this norm.13 Similarly, with regard to romance, the hero is established as the primary category, and each phase is seen therefore as a stage in the sequence of his life.

{81} When Frye elaborates each of the phases, however, he characteristically focuses upon one of several sets of principles. Character, for example, is central to his distinction between the two ironic phases of comedy. Both character and plot figure importantly in his definition of the third comic phase. But these categories largely disappear in his analysis of the last three phases, where the social plane of comedy is less displaced. Some of the important norms here are imagery, as in the green-world analogies of the fourth phase; the attitude of the audience, as in the Arcadian fifth phase; and the underlying mood, as in the pensive sixth phase of individual detachment. A similar procedure is apparent in Frye’s specific treatment of the romantic stages. References to the life of the hero, for example, all but disappear in his discussion of the last three phases, where theme and imagery emerge as the most important distinctions. A closer look at one of the phases will illustrate in more detail the kinds of criteria Frye appeals to.

In fourth-phase romance, he begins by noting, “the happier society {82} is more or less visible throughout the action instead of emerging only in the last few moments” (AC, 200–201). This observation permits Frye to establish the parallel to fourth-phase comedy, about which he has made a similar claim (AC, 182). Next he isolates the central theme of this phase, “that of the maintaining of the integrity of the innocent world against the assault of experience” (AC, 201). This is not an unexpected observation, given the two-storied universe within which the cycle of mythoi revolve: in the fourth phase we cross over the boundary where romance and tragedy merge into the upper level of innocence. What forms, then, might such a theme take? Frye’s answer is that sometimes it shows itself as moral allegory, as “in Milton’s Comus, Bunyan’s Holy War, and many morality plays, including The Castell of Perseveraunce.” At other times the form is a simpler scheme, intended merely to preserve the festive mood, as in the Canterbury Tales (AC, 201).

{83} Having identified the fourth-phase theme as “the integrity of the innocent world,” Frye then turns to specify its social and individual characteristics. In other words, his question now becomes: What is the nature of this integrated world which must be defended against the assaults of experience? Frye’s answers come by way of The Faerie Queene, which serves him throughout as the classic example of the quest romance in English literature. The individual aspect of the innocent world, Frye says, is the allegory of temperance, based upon continence, in Book II of Spenser’s poem; its social aspect is the legend of justice, based upon power, in Book V. He concludes his discussion by calling attention to several of the primary fourth-phase images: the beleaguered castle, the monster tamed by the virgin, the Gorgon’s head on Athene’s shield, among others.

What we observe in this brief review of Frye’s fourth-phase romance is a definition based upon several principles. Little is said about this phase as a stage in the cyclical sequence of the hero’s life. The hero, in fact, enters the discussion only obliquely in Frye’s comments about heroic innocence (AC, 201). His chief categories are much broader: the happier society, the world of innocence, and the individual and social aspects of fourth-phase allegory. The definition depends finally upon statements about theme and imagery in the context of these broad categories.

In summary, Frye differentiates the phases by appealing to the same categories he used to define the pregeneric mythoi in the first place: imagery, theme, plot structure, character, and mood. There are, of course, other principles, like the perspectives of the audience, which are introduced from time to time (see, e.g., AC, 184, 237), and we are always aware of the vertical dialectic which lies behind the phases of each mythos. The phases, that is, vary in relation to their distance from two poles. Those of comedy lie between the poles of irony and romance; those of romance, between tragedy and comedy; of tragedy, between romance and irony; and of irony, between comedy and tragedy (see Figure 11). But whatever combination of criteria Frye appeals to, it is clear that when he defines “phase” as a stage of a mythos, he is not referring to literary kinds, a topic reserved for the Fourth Essay. He is speaking rather of broad narrative movements which extend beyond, as well as cut across, individual literary works. A phase may be an isolable part of a whole work, like one book of The Faerie Queene or Dante’s vision at the end of the Paradiso, or it may encompass a group of writings by a single author, like Shakespeare’s romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter’s Tale). A phase may include works whose common feature is a particular rhetorical convention, like the symposium device (AC, 202–3); or its definition {84} may largely depend on the perspective of the audience, as in fifth-phase comedy.

As already indicated, Frye conceives of each phase of a given mythos as parallel to a phase in the adjacent mythos. To pose the issue as a question: What are the similarities between comic romance and romantic comedy, between tragic irony and ironic tragedy, between ironic comedy and comic irony, and between tragic romance and romantic tragedy? The distinction between any pair of these categories, Frye says, “is tenuous, but not quite a distinction without a difference” (AC, 177). Figures 11, 12, and 13, the last two of which outline the twenty-four phases, can serve as our framework for considering their parallels. Whereas Frye explicitly calls attention to some of the correspondences, others exist only by implication. Our concern is to determine the principles which underlie their similarity.

As indicated in Figure 12, phases four through six of comedy and romance correspond to each other. Frye establishes the correspondence by isolating one or more characteristics of each of the three comic phases and by showing how they also appear in the romantic ones. The thing which fourth-phase comedy and romance have in common is the fact that in both “the happier society is more or less visible throughout the action instead of emerging only in the last few moments” (AC, 200–201). We have already noticed how, in fourth-phase comedy, the vision of innocence represented by green-world imagery appears long before the ending, say, of a Shakespearean play and establishes itself as the norm by which to judge the comic resolution. A similar vision of the innocent world, as we have also seen, underlies fourth-phase romance, its thematic aim being to maintain the integrity of this vision against the encroachments of the world of experience.

The common factor embodied in fifth-phase comedy and romance is their tendency both to give prominence to the natural cycle and to take a reflective, detached, and idyllic view of .experience (AC, 184, 202). In the sixth, or penseroso, phase of the two mythoi, the similarity is in the nature of the comic society; in both phases, society is shown as having broken up into small, occult units, the smallest of which is the contemplative individual himself (AC, 185–86, 202).

Let us consider one more example in which we can observe still different criteria being used to establish the parallels. The similarity between second-phase romance and tragedy, Frye argues, is that both represent the innocent youth of the hero. In romance this phase is “most familiar to us from the story of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall. [It] presents a pastoral and Arcadian world. . . . Its heraldic colors are green and gold, traditionally the colors of vanishing youth. . . . it tends to center on a youthful hero . . . [and] in later phases {85} it is often recalled as a lost happy time or Golden Age” (AC, 199–200). The parallel phase of tragedy

corresponds to the youth of the romantic hero, and is in one way or another the tragedy of innocence in the sense of inexperience, usually involving young people. . . . The phase is dominated by the archetypal tragedy of the green and golden world, the loss of the innocence of Adam and Eve, who, no matter how heavy a doctrinal load they have to carry, will always remain dramatically in the position of children baffled by their first contact with an adult situation. (AC, 220)

Here the affinity is based on several distinctions. The stage in the life of the hero, the archetype of Adam and Eve, the vision of innocence or inexperience, the green- and golden-world imagery are all characteristics common to both second-phase tragedy and romance. Frye can thus establish the parallel relations between the phases by appealing either to a single criterion, like the size of the social unit in sixth-phase comedy and romance, or to a wide range of criteria like those just mentioned. The criteria can extend, moreover, from something as particular as imagery or the age of the hero to something as general as the vision of society embodied in a literary work.

Terminologically, many of the categories we have been examining are, even though borrowed, peculiarly Frye’s. Conceptually, however, the Third Essay treats principles long familiar in the history of criticism—principles such as imagery, plot and its various parts, character, theme, and mood. What is unique about the theory of myths is the ordered and schematic structure of its presentation. In his comments on the Anatomy in recent years, Frye keeps returning to this point. Reflecting on the book ten years after, he says he sees it primarily not as systematic but as schematic. “The reason why it is schematic is that poetic thinking is schematic. . . . The Anatomy, especially in its third essay, attempts to provide an outline of a schema which . . . I hoped would serve as a guide to practical criticism.”14 The same note is sounded almost twenty years after:

Anatomy of Criticism presents a vision of literature as forming a total schematic order, interconnected by recurring or conventional myths and metaphors, which I call archetypes. The vision has an objective pole: it is based on a study of literary genres and conventions, and on certain elements in Western cultural history. The order of words is there. . . . The fact that literature is based on unifying principles as schematic as those of music is {86} concealed by many things, most of them psychological blocks, but the unity exists and can be shown and taught to others. (SM, 118)

The analogy to music carries us back to the point where our analysis of Frye’s theory of myths began. It is reminiscent of another mythographer who relies upon analogies from music to articulate his arguments, Claude Lévi-Strauss. There are, in fact, some striking similarities between the framework Frye uses to analyze archetypal forms and the one Lévi-Strauss has developed for the study of myth.15 These similarities also take us back to beginnings—to the principles of mythos and dianoia.

To initiate his discussion of imagery, we recall, Frye engages in an abstract account of spatial and temporal form. The form of a poem can be seen either “as stationary or as moving through the work from beginning to end.” Whichever perspective we choose, the form remains the same, “just as a musical composition has the same form when we study the score as it has when we listen to the performance” (AC, 83). When Frye relates these principles to pattern and rhythm, he turns once again to music: “The average audience at a symphony knows very little about sonata form, and misses practically all the subtleties detected by an analysis of the score; yet those subtleties are really there, and as the audience can hear everything that is being played, it gets them all as part of a linear experience; the awareness is less conscious, but not less real. The same is true of the response to the imagery of a highly concentrated poetic drama” (AC, 85–86).

The logical framework of Lévi-Strauss’s system is, like Frye’s, based on a series of opposing yet related categories, most of which derive from his study of structural linguistics and semiology. We know from what the brain can do with patterns of sound, according to Lévi-Strauss, that it can manipulate pairs of relations and make plus-minus distinctions as in matrix algebra. He believes that other elements of culture form similar sign languages which the brain uses to apprehend their forms. Corresponding to Frye’s idea of narrative, or mythos as movement, is Lévi-Strauss’s conception of the syntagmatic nature of myths: they consist of a series of details linked together in a chain, diachronically. In order to tell the myth we simply follow the temporal sequence of the story. But myths also have what he calls paradigmatic relations, entire units of meaning which have been superimposed on each other to form a synchronic pattern. To understand a myth, he argues, we have to disregard the diachronic dimension altogether and consider only the pattern formed by each unit. Something similar, he points out, occurs in music. Because patterns of musical notes recur at {87} intervals, an orchestra score must be read diachronically along one axis if it is to make melodic sense. But it also must be read synchronically, or vertically along the other axis, if it is to make harmonic sense. There is a close parallel, then, between Frye’s spatial-temporal and stasis-movement axes, on the one hand, and Lévi-Strauss’s synchronic-diachronic categories on the other. Once again we return to beginnings, for these universal axes form the ground plan upon which Frye erects the imposing and schematically intricate edifice of his Third Essay.16 


1. {240} “One of the central principles in Anatomy of Criticism” Frye remarks almost twenty years later, “is founded on an analogy with music. . . . I am by no means the first critic to regard music as the typical art, the one where the impact of structure is not weakened, as it has been in painting and still is in literature, by false issues derived from representation” (SM, 117–18).

2. AC, 140. On the metaphor of “standing back” as it relates to Blake’s poetry, see “Poetry and Design in William Blake,” in Discussions of William Blake, p. 48. The metaphor is also discussed in “Reflections in a Mirror,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, p. 139.

3. The influence of Blake on Frye’s entire conception of archetypal imagery should be noted. His essay on Blake’s Milton is strikingly similar to the first section of the Third Essay. In charting the structure of Blake’s symbolism, Frye relies on the same matrix of categories as in the Anatomy. The one difference is that Blake conceives of only four levels of vision (Eden or Paradise, Beulah or Innocence, Generation or Experience, and Ulro or Hell), whereas in the Anatomy there are five. It is perhaps significant that Frye attaches no name to his additional category. He says, in fact, that he will devote little attention to it “in order to preserve the simpler undisplaced structures,” that is, the apocalyptic and demonic ones (AC, 151). The inference seems to be that in Blake’s conception of the four levels of vision we have the source for the horizontal categories of Frye’s archetypal matrix. Certainly the seven vertical categories do not derive from Blake; they are much older than that. But Frye puts them to extensive use in outlining the symbolism in each of Blake’s four “worlds.” See “Notes for a Commentary on Milton,” pp. 108–29.

4. In the Second Essay “phase” is used to describe the different kinds of symbolic interpretation. Frye also uses the word to refer to the fourfold division of cyclical symbols. See AC, 160.

5. There is a slight variation on this pattern in Frye’s treatment of the fourth mythos.

6. Frye’s earliest account of the dragon-killing theme is his discussion of Blake’s Orc symbolism in FS, 207–26.

7. Twenty years after the Anatomy, Frye says: “Romance is the structural core of all fiction: being directly descended from folktale, it brings us closer than any other aspect of literature to the sense of fiction, considered as a whole, as the epic of the creature, man’s vision of his own life as a quest” (SeS, 15).

8. The contexts and themes of romance are given much fuller treatment in SeS, chapters 2, 4, and 5.

9. The fact that there can be tragic or ironic alazons has already been anticipated in the First Essay (AC, 39–40).

10. The name comes from those tricksters, like Matthew Merrygreek of Ralph Roister Doister, who are “generally said to be developed from the vice or iniquity of the morality plays” (AC, 173).

11. The Tractatus Coislinianus, in fact, has but one brief sentence about character: “The characters [ethe] of comedy are (1) the buffoonish, (2) the ironical, and (3) those of the imposters.” From Lane Cooper’s translation in his An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922), p. 226.

12. This is not to say, however, that within a mythos some literary kinds are not more likely to be found in one phase than in another.

13. William Righter maintains that the criteria for Frye’s definition of the comic phases “differ considerably from one phase to another.” He observes that “some phases are distinguished by the relational elements of plot, others by character type, others (perhaps especially the fifth) by a quality of tone, others such as the sixth by special psychological criteria as ‘oracular solemnity’ for is this tone?) and the desire to return to {241} the womb” (“Myth and Interpretation,” New Literary History 3 [1972]: 336). Although what Righter says is surely correct, he neglects to point out the one constant principle Frye uses throughout the discussion of comic phases, the nature of the comic society.

14. “Reflections in a Mirror,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 136-37.

15. “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 202–28.

16. The best account of Frye’s relationship to the Structuralist movement is Geoffrey Hartman, “Structuralism: The Anglo-American Adventure,” Yale French Studies, nos. 36–37 (1966), pp. 148–68, reprinted in Beyond Formalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 3–23. Hartman, like Harold Bloom in A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 30), finds that Frye’s theory of recurrence does not properly emphasize a theory of discontinuity. On Frye’s work in the context of structuralism, see also Ewa M. Thompson, “Structuralism: Some Possibilities and Limitations,” Southern Humanities Review 7 (Summer 1973): 247–60; and Evan Watkins, “Criticism and Method: Hirsch, Frye, Barthes,” Soundings 57 (Summer 1975): 257-80. Frye himself remarks that structuralism has made “a rather disappointing contribution” to our understanding of literature (SM, 106).