Denham Intro: CW 13, Bible Notebooks

Preface and Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts

Robert D. Denham

[from Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 13]


This volume is a companion to the two previously published editions of Northrop Frye’s notebooks, The Late Notebooks (2000) and The “Third BookNotebooks (2002). The material in the present volume comes mostly from the decade of the 1970s when Frye was at work on the first of his books on the Bible, The Great Code. But the volume begins with an exceptionally rich notebook from the late 1940s (Notebook 3), in which Frye writes chiefly on religious topics, and it concludes with two notebooks not directly associated with The Great Code. The first of these is a notebook from the mid-1980s (Notebook 23), written after Frye had completed the first of his Bible books and had begun work on the second—Words with Power. The second is a notebook from the 1960s devoted in large part to Frye’s reading of Dante’s Purgatorio and the first ten cantos of the Paradiso. Altogether there are eleven holograph notebooks and three sets of typed notes. The volume concludes with a transcription of twenty-four lectures Frye gave in his course on “The Mythological Framework of Western Culture” in 1981–82. These lectures appeared originally in spiral-bound booklets that accompanied the videotapes of Frye’s lectures, entitled The Bible and Literature: A Personal View from Northrop Frye, a video series produced by Robert Sandler and issued by the Media Centre at the University of Toronto. These lectures are reproduced by permission of Victoria University, and with the cooperation of Robert Sandler and the Media Centre. The title given to the lectures in this volume, “Symbolism in the Bible,” is the one Frye used before the course was expanded in 1973–74 to include a complementary series of lectures on Classical and Near Eastern mythology taught by another member of the Victoria faculty (see headnote to the lectures, pp. 415–16). Frye’s career can be seen as falling rather neatly into ten-year intervals, each decade associated with a major writing project: the 1940s with Fearful Symmetry, the 1950s with Anatomy of Criticism, the 1960s with Frye’s titanic struggle to produce what he called the Third Book, the 1970s with The Great Code, and the 1980s with Words with Power. But the sweep of Frye’s grand vision is more seamless than this symmetry suggests, and one evidence for continuity comes from the various threads that connect Frye’s notebooks to each other. Frye’s “confiscated gods” (Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus), for example, appear in every major notebook he wrote following Anatomy of Criticism, and the issues Frye treated in The Critical Path receive their notebook formulations in both The “Third Book” Notebooks and those in the present volume. In fact, in Notebook11f Frye goes back and forth between notes for his Bible book and those for The Critical Path. Similarly, his extensive note-taking for the Birks Lectures at McGill (1971) appears in both Notebook 21 in the present collection and in Notebook 24, which is in The “Third Book” Notebooks: much of the material in these two notebooks was written concurrently. Notebook 23, which I initially identified erroneously as a Great Code notebook, properly belongs in one of the volumes of the Late Notebooks, but it does provide a transition between the present volume and the Late Notebooks. If Frye’s interest in sacred texts receives its fullest formulation in the two books on the Bible and The Double Vision at the end of his career, Notebook 3 (1946–48) is evidence that such texts were central to his speculations at the time he was completing his work on Blake: his regard for the centrality of the Bible in our cultural heritage spanned his entire career.

The principles that Michael Dolzani and I have used to organize the seventy-seven holograph notebooks, along with the expansive body of typed notes, are by and large thematic and chronological. Still, some notebooks do not fall naturally into a single period or thematic cluster. Notebooks overlap, dovetail, and change direction. For example, it was not until Frye had completed three-quarters of Notebook 34 (to be published in Frye’s notebooks on romance) that he discovered that his notes had evolved into a “free association of symbols around an exhaustive study of the Bible” (par. 70); and after 145 entries in Frye’s notes for a book on religion (Notebook 21), he abandons his intention to write that book and turns instead to notes for the Bible book, which would not be published until nine years later. In the present volume, the thematic principle is primary: while it is true that the notebook that focuses on Eastern religion and the notebook on Dante did not fit conveniently into any of the four or five notebook volumes that await publication, Frye himself often put Eastern and Western sacred texts side by side, and he did consider the Commedia to be one of the great examples of the religious quest. The present volume, then, focuses on religious texts, but it does have numerous links with The “Third Book” Notebooks, written at about the same time, and The Late Notebooks, written in the 19805. Except for the placement of Notebook 45, I have arranged the notebooks in chronological order, as best this can be determined. The notebook numbers themselves have no significance: they represent simply the order in which the notebooks were catalogued during the summer of 1992. As in Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks (2000), the typed material is referred to as “Notes” to distinguish it from the handwritten notebooks. A sequential numbering of the notebooks that have appeared to date is found on pp. xxi-xxii. The Chronology on pp. xxvii–xxix is a list of Frye’s addresses, publications, and travels that are referred to in the text and annotations of the present volume.

I have transcribed the notebooks with the intent of reproducing exactly Frye’s holograph manuscripts, retaining his own spellings, capital letters, and punctuation (including the absence of accents in typescripts), even when his practice on these matters varies. There are two exceptions: I have regularized his use of double quotation marks with periods and commas, following the usual North American practice, and I have italicized the words and phrases he underlined. Frye’s own emendations of his holograph texts are recorded in the notes. For the one previously printed typescript, “Symbolism in the Bible,” I have followed the conventions of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation used in the Collected Works for previously published typescripts. The substantive changes to these lectures are entered in a list of emendations at the end.

Frye will occasionally use an asterisk to mark the place where he wants to insert a later comment. These comments appear at the end of the entry itself, in a paragraph following the entry, at the end of the page, or in a separate paragraph several entries removed from the original asterisk. For ease of reference I have regularized these by putting all of the material marked by an asterisk at the end of the entry containing the original asterisk.

Editorial additions are in square brackets. These include brief citations, an occasional definition of a foreign word, paragraph numbers, and question marks for words that I have been unable to decipher (question mark only) or that are conjectures (question mark following the inference). I have also used square brackets to expand Frye’s abbreviations that are not immediately obvious, but abbreviations that are obvious to a native speaker of English, such as “lit. crit.” for “literary criticism,” have not been expanded, and when an abbreviation appears more than once in an entry, only the first instance is expanded. Frye’s abbreviations for books of the Bible have in most cases not been expanded. Quotations from the Bible in the lectures and the endnotes are from the Authorized Version (King James) unless otherwise indicated. From time to time Frye uses a symbolic code, explained in the endnotes and in the introductions to the notebooks already published, to refer to various parts of his lifelong writing project. He calls this project his ogdoad, the eight parts being Liberal, Tragicomedy, Anticlimax, Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox, Ignoramus, and Twilight. When Frye uses one of his shorthand symbols, I have given its name in square brackets following the symbol, though again I have not repeated the name if the symbol reappears within a single paragraph.

In citing the notebooks in this volume I have used a shortened form that incorporates the notebook number and the paragraph or note number. Thus, “NB 23.117” refers to Notebook 23, paragraph 117, and NB 3, n. 17 refers to note 17 of Notebook 3. References to material in published notebooks are to page numbers; references to unpublished notebooks and notebooks in the present volumes are to paragraph numbers. In the endnotes for a given notebook, references both to paragraphs and to notes within that notebook omit the notebook number. They are of the form “See par. 18, above” and “See n. 84, below.” I have replaced Frye’s own square brackets, which he uses sparingly, with braces: {}.


The full extent of Frye’s notebook writing, which began in the late 1930s, is uncertain. Some notebooks he discarded, and others disappeared. But what has been preserved is a considerable body of work—close to a million and a half words counting the typed material. Frye’s justification for this verbal torrent is that his note-taking provides the building blocks for his books: the writing itself is a matter of transforming into a continuous sequence the discontinuous entries that come to him aphoristically. The argument has already been made that Frye wrote at least a good portion of his notebooks with an audience in mind.[1] But the process itself, in spite of all of Frye’s dizzily intricate outlines, is seldom measured. His particular fear, he remarks in the earliest notebook in the present volume, is that his notebook speculations will not turn out to be definitive (NB 3.178), but this is a fear that he is soon able to vanquish. The pace may initially seem to be almost frenetic—the drive of a man possessed to record every nuance of the “obstinate questionings” of his active mind. But when we stand back from the notebooks as a whole the mood they convey is neither fear nor frenzy. It is rather a process of speculative free play, “of letting things come & not forcing or cramping or repressing them” (NB 3.120). Frye is in no panic to bring things to closure, moving as he does at a leisurely pace, releasing himself from all inhibitions, and not worrying that his schemes “go bust immediately.” “Perhaps that’s the reason I have them,” he muses (NB 21.203). Sometimes anxieties about the efficacy of the incessant scribbling arise: “Why do I try to keep notes like this, when forty years of experience shows me they don’t do me any good” (NB 33.80). At other times boredom sets in “because so much of what I put into [the notebooks] is just a form of masturbation: an empty fantasy life making the scene with beckoning fair charmers who don’t exist” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 332). But this sentence is followed by the single, telling word “however,” which signals, of course, that the doubts he might have about the value of recording his imaginative life do not deter him from moving on immediately.

In one of his notebooks from the 1960s Frye issues these tactical instructions to himself: “in beginning to plan a major work like the third book, don’t eliminate anything. Never assume that some area of your speculations can’t be included & has to be left over for another book. Things may get eliminated in the very last stage . . . but never, never, exclude anything when thinking about the book. It was strenuous having to cut down FS from an encyclopaedia, but . . . major works are encyclopaedic & anatomic: everything I know must go into them—eye of bat & tongue of dog” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 74-5). Frye goes on to say that all of his major books are essentially “the same book with different centres of gravity: interpenetrating universes. Give me a place to stand, and I will include the world” (ibid.). This “same book” theory means that we encounter many iterations and echoes of the same idea. Repetition was a feature of Frye’s published work, which, as he said, assumed the shape of a spiral curriculum, “circling around the same issues” in a way that produced a gradual continuity over time.[2] He justifies the repetition in his books and essays by noting that the principles he keeps returning to are the only ones he knows. Like thematic returns in music the same ideas can be presented in different contexts, and repetition can be a sign of a consistency of conviction: “repetition charges the emotional batteries & suspends the critical faculties. What I tell you three times is true. What I tell you three hundred times is profoundly true.”[3]

The repetition in the notebooks, however, is of a different kind. Like Daedalus, who set his mind to unknown arts, Frye uses his notebooks for invention and discovery, returning again and again to the archetypes of his mental landscape in an effort to get the architecture and the verbal formulation right. The repetition can be vexing, but it is nonetheless an example of Frye’s following the principle underlying his most important educational advice: develop the habit of Samuel Butler’s practice-memory. “The repetitiveness of the Koran would drive a reader out of his mind if he were reading it as he would any other book” (NB 21.294), and one could almost say the same thing about the discontinuity of Frye’s notebooks: they contain no linear argument, even though there are many occasions where sequences of paragraphs focus on a single, obsessively pursued issue. Still, the entire notebook enterprise is based on a theory of verbal meaning that turns Aristotle’s notion of causality upside down. Frye writes at one point that there is “a convergence causation founded on the analogy of space,” as opposed to linear causation, which assumes that writing is a temporal sequence of effect following cause (NB 21.616). Such convergent causation, which is close to the first-phase language of metaphor, is the kind that governs the notebooks.


If one abandons both linear causation and a concern for continuity, then the principles of the figurative use of words become more important than conceptual meaning. Frye’s fertile and energetic mind is always pursuing similarities or, as he is fond of calling them, links. Aristotle says that the ability to perceive likenesses is one of the marks of genius, and if that is true then the notebooks reveal the mental dance of a genius. Perceiving likenesses requires the free play, not of the imagination, but of fancy, as Frye writes in one revealing entry:

I am intensely superstitious; but there are two kinds of superstition, related as self-destructive melancholy is to penseroso melancholy. There is the superstition based on fear of the future: this is based also on my character as a coward & weakling, & is of course to be avoided. There is another kind which consists of removing all censors & inhibitions on speculation: it’s almost exactly what Coleridge calls fancy. It may eventually be superseded by imagination: but if there’s no fancy to start with there won’t be any imagination to finish with. Let’s call it creative superstition. It works with analogies!,] disregarding all differences & attending only to similarities. Here nothing is coincidence in the sense of unusable design; or, using the word more correctly, everything is potential coincidence—what Jung calls synchronistic. (“Third Book” Notebooks, 211)

Once the similarities Frye observes begin to organize themselves into patterns, then the imagination has taken over. One does not read far in his published work before encountering some spatial or linear form. In the notebooks this inveterate pattern-making is raised to another power. One of Frye’s more elaborate organizing schemes is in Notebook 21, where he develops a scheme based on the number seven that he labours over for more than two hundred entries. I t begins with what he recognizes as a correspondence between the chapters of his Bible book and a rather odd division of the Tarot pack. “My first chapter,” Frye writes, “corresponds to the Juggler, the second chapter to the four powers, the third, on the double analogy, to the four virtues in Adonis extending from Love to Justice, the fourth to the Hermes group, the fifth to the Prometheus death-of-nature lot, the sixth to the apocalyptic group. The seventh would be the book of the Fool” (par. 187). He then abandons the idea of a book of “sevens” in favour of several other schemes, one a four-part, twenty-chapter book, observing that “it’s not Tarot sequence, evidently, but the hell with that. Nor does it follow the seven days sequence. The hell with that too. Anyway, the exact sequence doesn’t matter at this stage” (par. 221). But then forty-seven entries later he returns to the principle of seven, saying that “the book is in 14 chapters, of which 5 & 6 are the analysis of Biblical imagery & Biblical narrative respectively” (par. 268). As he works out what is to be in the twelve remaining chapters, he discovers that a given theme will have to be restated in more than one chapter, and so the principle of seven begins to disintegrate: the math does not work out properly for the number seven. Undaunted, Frye suddenly declares that the book is a spiral curriculum: “The spirals are 1, 7, 11; 2, 8, 12; 3, 9, 13; 4, 10, 14. 2 & 4 make 22 & 28 respectively; 1 is the lucky number of the creature; 3 are the female lunar (Queen) numbers” (par. 326). In this somewhat cryptic code, we have three columns of four chapters each. Adding the chapters on narrative and imagery to these twelve still gives Frye his fourteen, and even though the Tarot has disappeared from the discussion, seven is still implicit in the three by four arrangement and in the doubling of seven. By saying that “2 & 4 make 22 & 28 respectively” Frye is referring to the sum of the numbers in the second and fourth horizontal axes (2 + 8 + 12 and 4 + 10 + 14). The lucky numbers are those in the first horizontal matrix: 1, 7,11; and the lunar numbers are those in the third matrix: 3, 9, 13. All this numerological musing does not lead to anything ostensible, but Frye devotes an astonishing amount of energy to working through what he sees as contained in each of the twelve chapters (the familiar narrative and imagery chapters, standard material that he need not elaborate for himself, are mostly put on the shelf). Sevens and twelves figure prominently in Frye’s schemes, and this is partially because of their connection with two temporal and two spatial categories: seven with the days of the week and the planets (in the ancient reckoning) and twelve with the months of the year and the signs of the zodiac. He does not actually chart the intricacies of his spiral curriculum, but most readers will have to work out their own diagram, such as the one on pages xxxvi-xxxvii [here omitted], to be able to visualize all of Frye’s categorizing.

Frye eventually declares that “the Tarot analogy may be all wrong” (NB 21.395), proceeds to develop another twelve-chapter outline, and then, about seventy entries later, announces that “maybe it’s a 14-chapter Tarot outline after all” (NB 21.466). But this is only half the story. All the while that he is working out his “spiral curriculum,” he has imposed on top of his four-by-three chart one of his more familiar circle-quadrant diagrams, saying that by tracing the circle he can perhaps “get by on one doodle” (NB 21.321). [See diagram, p. xxv]

Frye incessantly engages in this kind of fanciful schematic play, wandering freely through the labyrinth of myth and archetype. “Sooner or later,” he remarks, “a book of mine ought to fall into a traditional orbit, but I don’t know which book or which orbit” (NB 21.187). The “spiral curriculum” is just one of hundreds of Frye’s notebook schemes. There is, first of all, the Great Doodle, the somewhat mysterious diagram of diagrams. Frye writes at one point that he’s not revealing what it is, because he does not really know (NB 7.190), but his frequent references to it reveal that it is primarily his symbolic shorthand for the monomyth. Originally Frye conceived of the Great Doodle as “the cyclical quest of the hero” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 214) or “the underlying form of all epics” (ibid., 241). But as he began to move away from strictly literary terms toward both religious language and the language of Greek myth and philosophy, another pattern developed, one with an east-west axis of Nous-Nomos and a north-south axis of Logos-Thanatos. At this point the Great Doodle took on an added significance, becoming a symbolic shorthand for what he called the narrative form of the Logos vision: “the circular journey of the Logos from Father to Spirit” (ibid., 260) or “the total cyclical journey of the incarnate Logos” (ibid., 201). But the Great Doodle is never merely a cycle. Its shape requires also the vertical axis mundi and the horizontal axis separating the world of innocence and experience. These, with their numerous variations, produce the four quadrants that are omnipresent in Frye’s diagrammatic way of thinking. In Notebook 7 he refers to the quadrants as part of the Lesser Doodle (par. 190), meaning only that the quadrants themselves are insufficient to establish the larger geometric design of the Great Doodle.

But the Great Doodle has still further elaborations. In the extensive notes he made for his Norton Lectures at Harvard (The Secular Scripture) Frye remarks self-referentially that in book 14 of Longfellow’s Hiawatha the heroine “invents picture-writing, including the Great Doodle of Frye’s celebrated masterpieces” (NB 56.455). The reference is to Hiawatha’s painting on birch-bark a series of symbolic and mystic images: the egg of the Great Spirit, the serpent of the Spirit of Evil, the circle of life and death, the straight line of the earth, and other ancestral totems in the great chain of being.[4] Frye elaborates his Great Doodle in a similar way, the Hiawathan “shapes and figures” becoming for him points of epiphany at the circumference of the circle—what he twice refers to as beads on a string (“Third Book” Notebooks, 241, 245). The beads are various topoi and loci along the circumferential string. They can be seen as stations where the questing hero stops in his journey (NB 50.813) or as the cardinal points of a circle (ibid., 147–8,159,177,198, 200, 204, 249, 254). Frye even over lays one form of the Logos diagram with the eight trigrams of the I Ching, saying that they “can be connected with my Great Doodle” (ibid., 209), and one version of the Great Doodle recapitulates what he refers to throughout his notebooks as “the Revelation diagram” (NB 21.285), the intricately designed chart that Frye passed out in his Bible course.[5]

The Great Doodle, then, is a representation, though a hypothetical one, that contains the large schematic patterns in Frye’s memory theatre: the cyclical quest with its quadrants, cardinal, and epiphanic points; and the vertical ascent and descent movements along the chain of being or the axis mundi. It contains as well all of the lesser doodles that Frye creates to represent the diagrammatic structure of myth and metaphor and that he frames in the geometric language of gyre and vortex, centre and circumference.

There are other large frameworks that structure Frye’s imaginative universe, such as the eight-book fantasy—the ogdoad—that he invokes repeatedly throughout his career, or the Hermes-Eros-Adonis-Prometheus (HEAP) scheme that begins in Notebook 7 (late 1940s) and dominates the notebook landscape of Frye’s last decade. The ogdoad, which Michael Dolzani has definitively explained,[6] is fundamentally a conceptual key to Frye’s own work, though it is related in a slippery and often vague way to the Great Doodle. The HEAP scheme, in its half-dozen variations, is clearly used to define the quadrants of the Great Doodle, and there are countless other organizing devices, serving as Lesser Doodles, that Frye draws from alchemy, the zodiac, musical keys, colours, the chess board, the omnipresent “four kernels” (commandment, aphorism, oracle, and epiphany), the shape of the human body, Blake’s Zoas, Jung’s personality types, Bacon’s idols, the boxing of the compass by Plato and the Romantic poets, the greater arcana of the Tarot cards, the seven days of Creation, the three stages of religious awareness, numerological schemes, and so on.


Why all of this imaginative free play, with its incessant spatial projections and schematic doodling? As already suggested, it is an uninhibited form of free writing that eventually distills itself into Frye’s books and essays. But more importantly, it represents the many stages in his own religious quest. He remarks in Notebook 21 that his “particular interest has always been in mythology & in the imaginative aspect of religion . . . . The whole imaginative picture of the world which underlies both religion and the arts has been constant from the beginning” (par. 96). Notebook 21 begins by Frye’s announcing that while his immediate object is to collect ideas for his 1971 Birks Lectures at McGill University, his ultimate aim is to work through his “thoughts on religion” (par. 1). Religion for Frye is not a matter of belief, though it stems from the conviction that life has a point. “All attempts to find out what that point is are religious quests” (NB 21.205).

If the ubiquitous spatial projections of the notebooks form the dianoia of Frye’s critical and imaginative universe, his meandering quest is its mythos. But a quest for what? Well, for the great code and words with power. “For at least 25 years,” Frye writes in the early 1970s, “I’ve been preoccupied by the notion of a key to all mythologies” (NB 21.311), and what he really wants to discover, he writes at one point, is “the myth of God, which is a myth of identity” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 69). Identity is perhaps the ultimate principle in Frye’s universe, the principle he returns to again and again in his speculations on the paradoxes of literal meaning, metaphor, and the Incarnation. From the perspective of the imagination, the telos of knowledge comes from the ability to perceive not differences but identities. While knowledge is clearly not divorced from perception, Frye’s quest has to do more with seeing than with knowing; hence, the centrality of light and sight, of recognition and vision and illumination.

Frye often organized his categories in cyclical patterns, the most familiar of these being the specific forms of drama and the thematic convention of epos and lyric in Anatomy of Criticism, along with the phases of the four mythoi. But the quest itself for Frye, including his own, was not cyclical. He in fact disliked the implications of the cycle. The treadmill of endless repetition, the dull sameness in the myth of the eternal return, the Druidic recurrences of natural religion, the doctrine of reincarnation—all of these cyclic myths were not congenial to Frye’s belief in the Resurrection, one of his firmest religious convictions. The cycle always preempted what he called the revolutionary culbute or overturn in individual and social life—the possibility for a genuine reversal and a new beginning. One of the most powerful verses of Scripture for Frye is Revelation 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” These words at the very end of the Bible signal for Frye a new beginning, a new creation, and this new beginning is in the mind of the reader. To be able to see the possibilities in such a new beginning is another way of formulating the goal of Frye’s quest, but there are numerous other ways to phrase it: the Everlasting Gospel, Milton’s Word of God in the heart, the interpenetration of Word and Spirit.

The quest movement in Frye, then, is not cyclical. It moves rather up and down a vertical axis. At the top is the point of epiphany of the Logos vision, the transcendent moment of pure illumination. There is a strong tendency for Frye, especially in his earlier work, to move up the axis mundi to the point where Word and Spirit are identical, a place where space and time interpenetrate. The answer for Frye is not to be found in history, which is mostly a series of repeating nightmares. In the dialectic of his thought the search for the moment of pure illumination, the anagogic vision, represents his Platonic, Longinian, and Romantic inclinations. The movement is from Eros to Logos. But the katabatic movement down the ladder is equally important for Frye: in his later writings it appears to be even more important. The study of archetypes in Words with Power begins with the mountain and the garden but it concludes with the cave and the furnace.

There are numerous examples in the notebooks of the power that the katabasis had for Frye. One is related to what he refers to more than a dozen times as his Seattle illumination, an epiphany he had when he was teaching summer school at the University of Washington in 1951.7 The references to this epiphany are somewhat cryptic: they centre on what Frye calls the passage from oracle to wit. To understand what he means by that we have to unravel the definitions of the two terms, or at least the associations they had in Frye’s mind. The oracle was one of Frye’s four or five “kernels,” his word for the seeds or distilled essences of more expansive forms. He often refers to the seeds as kernels of Scripture or of concerned prose. The other microcosmic kernels are commandment, parable, and aphorism, and (occasionally) epiphany. Frye sometimes conceives of the kernels as what he calls comminuted forms, fragments that develop into law (from commandment), prophecy (from oracle), wisdom (from aphorism), history or story (from parable), theophany (from epiphany). There are variations in Frye’s account of the kernels (aphorism is sometimes called proverb, for example),[8] but those differences are not important for understanding the oracle-wit illumination.

Oracle is almost always for Frye a lower-world kernel. He never gives a concise definition of oracle, so we have to infer its meaning from its associations. It is linked with thanatos, secrecy, solitude, intoxication, mysterious ciphers, caves, the dialectic of choice and chance, and the descent to the underworld. The locus of the oracle is the point of demonic epiphany, the lower, watery world of chaos and the ironic vision. The central oracular literary moments for Frye include Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym diving for the cipher at the South Pole, the descent to the bottom of the sea in Keats’s Endymion, Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus, the Igitur episode in Mallarmé’s Coup de Des, the visit to the cave of Trophonius, and, most importantly, the oracle of the bottle in Rabelais, who was one of Frye’s great literary heroes.

As for wit, again, Frye’s gives no definitive exposition: we have to piece together the resonances of the word from several dozen hints he provides. Wit, in the context of the Seattle illumination, is related to laughter, the transformation of recollection into repetition, the breakthrough from irony to myth, the telos of interpenetration that Frye found in the Avatamsaka Sutra, new birth, knowledge of both the future and the self, the recognition of the hero, the fulfilment of prophecy, revelation, and detachment from obsession.[9]

Frye calls the Seattle illumination a “breakthrough,” and the experience, whatever it was, appears to have been decisive for him. He was thirty-nine at the time, literally midway through his journey of life. One can say with some confidence that the Seattle epiphany was a revelation to Frye that he need not surrender to what he spoke of as the century’s three A’s: alienation, anxiety, absurdity; that he realized there was a way out of the abyss; that he embraced the view of life as purgatorial; that, in short, he accepted the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride. “The door of death,” Frye writes, “has oracle on one side & wit on the other: when one goes through it one recovers the power of laughter” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 162). Oracles are, of course, ordinarily sombre, and wit is light-hearted. Pausanius tells us that the ritual of consulting the oracle in the cave of Trophonius was so solemn that the suppliants who emerged were unable to laugh for some time: but they did laugh (Description of Greece, bk. 9, chap. 39, par. 13). Similarly in Gargantua and Pantagruel, when Panurge and Friar John consult the oracle of the Holy Bottle, there is, if not literal laughter, an intoxicating delight that comes from the oracle’s invitation to drink; and we are told that the questers then “passed through a country full of all delights.”[10] But laughter here is more than a physical act. It is a metaphor for spiritual liberation. In Notebook 12 Frye writes, “Coming out of the oracular cave, where the Earth-Mother becomes the World Spirit or Anima Mundi (cf. Browne’s identification of this with the Holy Spirit), you have to form an inner spirit or anima…. If you sin against the Spirit, you’re left in the lower world” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 198).

Exactly what happened in Seattle and why it happened will no doubt remain mysteries. But there is no difficulty in accepting Frye’s judgment that the intuition was a breakthrough. Nor is there difficulty in understanding what he means when he says, “I’ve spent nearly eighty years trying to articulate intuitions that occupied about five minutes of my entire life” (Late Notebooks, 2:636). The Seattle illumination may not have involved laughing in the face of irony—the telling moment that Frye saw in Trophonius and Rabelais. It may have been closer to the vision of dice-throwing in Mallarmé’s Igitur, which Frye summarized some years later this way: “in Mallarmé the dice represent a world where, in Yeats’s phrase, choice and chance are one. Throwing dice is a commitment to chance that does not abolish chance, but is in itself a free act, and so begins a negating of negation that brings something, perhaps everything, into being again” (Words with Power, 292). Frye’s point is that one must not try to avoid or escape from the abyss, but to enter it and emerge triumphantly on the other side. It may not be for Frye, as it was for Heraclitus, that the way up and the way down are one and the same, but he sometimes comes close to suggesting that: “The principle of the higher or unfallen world is harmony or concord; the principle of the lower world is metamorphosis, the passing out of one state of being into another. But perhaps a sufficiently penetrating wisdom could see in metamorphosis itself a kind of harmony, a principle of change moving in correspondence with the worlds above.”[11] To pass through the door of wit permits one to embark on the purgatorial journey, that journey of spirit-making that figures so importantly in the notebooks and finally gets articulated in the final chapter of Words with Power. In any event, moving in both directions on the axis mundi is the double movement of Frye’s quest, and the present notebooks form a substantial part of the grand anatomy of the spiritual vision that defines and is defined by Frye’s religious quest.

This anatomy includes, of course, Frye’s expansive speculations on the Bible. His interest in the Bible can be traced to his childhood,[12] but The Great Code derived ultimately from the course on the English Bible that Frye taught for some forty years before the book was published. He was fond of telling interviewers the story of his complaining to his chair John Robins that he couldn’t teach Paradise Lost to students who knew little about the Bible, whereupon Robins suggested that Frye teach a course in the English Bible as a literary text.[13] Frye obliged, and by the late 1940s he was teaching the course as both a first- and fourth-year Religious Knowledge option.[14] But even before this, beginning in 1940, Frye had led informal discussions for small groups of students, sponsored by the Student Christian Movement, on Biblical symbolism and typology.[15]

In the Preface to The Great Code Frye remarked, “The book (with its successor) has been on my mind for a long time” (ix), and indeed his intention to write on the Bible can be traced to entries in his earliest extant notebooks. A study of the literary symbolism of the Bible was part of the plan Frye sketched for his first book in 1939, to which he gave the code name Liberal, antedating even Fearful Symmetry.[16] His intention to write a book on the Bible goes back, then, almost four-and-a-half decades before The Great Code finally appeared. In a notebook dating from 1946 to 1948 in the present collection Frye writes that he would “like to do a potboiler on the Bible in four chapters, outlining among other things my theory of its symmetry,” and he contemplates an article on Biblical symbolism that “conceivably could expand into a short book like the Spenser one” (NB 3.131,145).

Anatomy of Criticism contained a sketch of a typological study of the Bible in the context of epic forms (315–17, 324–6), and following the completion of Anatomy, Frye considered writing a book on the epic, its three parts being devoted to Homer and Virgil, the Bible, and Dante (NB 18.1, 27). Spenser later became part of the equation: Frye’s Guggenheim year (1950–51) was to be devoted to producing a book on Spenser. But as we know from the Preface to the Anatomy, his interest in a theory of criticism had displaced the study of Spenser he had intended to write after Fearful Symmetry. The plans for Frye’s third book went through numerous and complicated outlines, as we see throughout Northrop Frye’s “Third Book” Notebooks. “Should I do the Bible book after all?” Frye asks in Notebook 19 (“Third Book” Notebooks, 7), and during the 1960s he remains uncertain, speaking in his notebooks written during these years sometimes of a separate book and at other times of a section or chapter of the “third book.” Liberal was the code name that Frye attached first to Fearful Symmetry and then to Anatomy of Criticism, renumbering each of them zero once they were completed. By the late 1960s, Liberal had become attached to the Bible book, at least in one of the many ogdoadic schemes. ” Liberal” he writes, “is the Bible book as I’m now planning it” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 324). Frye saw it at the time as the first of four volumes of a large project he called The Critical Comedy.[17]

Frye was never able to write The Critical Comedy in the grand continuous form he had outlined it, but parts of the design, as Michael Dolzani has shown, did split off into smaller projects.[18] One of these was the 1971 Birks Lectures at McGill, a project he began planning in 1969. But sometime after April 1971 he began to see the book on religion that would issue from the Birks lectures as merging with his handbook on Biblical symbolism.19 He contemplates doing “a small book on the literary uses of the Bible” (NB 21.1), but eventually decides he really is “going to do a ‘big book on the Bible'” (NB 21.146), the Birks lectures book being now displaced by a seven-section book, the thirty-two chapters of which he outlines in some detail (NB 21.157). Twelve of the notebooks in the present collection are a record of Frye’s effort to formulate and fill in (in that order) the structure of The Great Code.


Frye was always forthright in acknowledging the significance of the “mythological framework” he inherited. He was inescapably conditioned, he says, by the “cultural envelope” of the Classical and Christian traditions of Western culture, the Methodist heritage of his upbringing, and his white, male, middle-class identity. But while the tradition of Western liberal humanism in its Classical and Christian forms was obviously central for Frye, he was more influenced by the East than is commonly imagined and thus able not only to engage worlds outside his own cultural envelope but also to assimilate their religious principles into his own world view.

Frye’s readers are aware of the occasional references to the religion and culture of the East—from his comments on Zen Buddhism in Fearful Symmetry at the beginning of his career to those on Eastern techniques of meditation in his posthumous Double Vision—but such occasional comments appear to lie on the periphery of Frye’s grand vision. Yet his knowledge of Eastern culture, especially Eastern religions, is not inconsequential, and his interest in Buddhism and yoga was at times a preoccupation. This interest appears throughout his previously unpublished papers, especially the diaries and notebooks, and the central text for this interest in the present volume is Notebook 3. As Frye’s Eastern connections are a little-known feature of his work, they deserve a brief commentary.[20]

It is difficult to say precisely when Frye first began reading Eastern religious texts. A few references to Buddhism appear in the papers he wrote as a student at Emmanuel College, but his knowledge of Eastern religions at this time came mostly from The Golden Bough and Spengler’s Decline of the West. The first Eastern text he seriously contemplated seems to have been the Lankavatara Sutra, a copy of which his student Peter Fisher gave him in the mid-9940s. It was also during this period that he was introduced to the Avatamsaka Sutra by way of D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism and Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra;[21] and during the 1940s Frye first read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras.

The Lankavatara Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist text, translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the fifth century, which stresses inner enlightenment, the erasing of all dualities, the concept of emptiness, and the truth of Cittamatra or “mind only.” The Avatamsaka Sutra, an extravagant and often ponderous text, provided the foundation for the Chinese Hua-yen school of Buddhism. In India the Avatamsaka was the central sacred book of the Yogacharins, and it eventually made its way to the sect known as Kegon in Japan. This sutra stresses the identity of all things or the interpenetration of all elements in the world, a paradox Frye found compelling. There are forty-eight entries in the diaries and notebooks where Frye records his observations on one or the other of the two sutras. For all their complexity[22] the Lankavatara and the Avatamsaka Sutras became for Frye, as he says in one notebook, “vade mecums of practical meditation” (Late Notebooks, 714). Both sutras advance a form of absolute idealism, which has a Western analogue in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but the Avatamsaka presents it in a mode that is often concrete and metaphoric, whereas the Lankavatara favours a more abstract mode of rhetoric.

Sometimes Frye seems to regard what he finds in the sacred texts of the East as analogies of Western ideas, as when he observes that the Protestant conception of conversion, different from the straight line of Dante’s Commedia or the parabola of rise and descent in tragedy, is like the vortex of transformation that he finds in the Lankavatara: they are not exactly identical, but they “point in the same direction” (NB 3.45). At other times Eastern and Western conceptions seem to be practically identical for Frye. In the Buddhist conception of maya (the illusion of the phenomenal world which the unenlightened mind takes as the only reality) Frye finds both an affirmation and a denial of the law of noncontradiction, and he remarks that the “Christian conception of evil as the product of original sin & a fallen world is really exactly the same [as maya]: the same combination of something that exists & yet cannot exist” (NB 3.105). When identity rather than similarity underlies the East-West conjunction the result is an insight that helps to define Frye’s own position: in such cases Eastern ideas are constitutive.

Frye is wary of framing the connections in philosophical terms. He is attracted to the Lankavatara idea of Cittamatra (mind-only), but he finds that it “suggests pantheism to a Western mind” and that its rival in the doctrine of Vijnaptimatra, put forth by the rival Yogacara school of Buddhism, is “very like Platonic idealism” (NB 3.111).[23] What draws Frye toward the Lankavatara is the presentation of its message, not in doctrinal terms, but in a kind of primary-phase language based on identity. The Lankavatara, he says, “does not teach a doctrine but inculcates a mental attitude” (ibid.). Thus, it stresses not just hearing or understanding the word but “actually possessing it” (NB 3.112), possession being one of the common metaphors in Frye for metaphor itself, the complete identity achieved when A internalizes B and becomes one with it. The ultimate Christian metaphor for Frye is the Incarnation, and the Lankavatara Sutra is “based on a conception of a divine-man” (NB 3.111). “I can take no religion seriously . . . for reasons I don’t need to go into here, that doesn’t radiate from a God-Man, & so Christ & Buddha seem to me the only possible starting points for a religious experience I don’t feel I can see over the top of. . . . I’m just beginning to wonder if Protestantism & Zen—not as churches but as approaches to God-Man—aren’t the same thing, possessed by the same Saviour” (NB 3.110). This, again, is not a matter of doctrine but of mental attitude (a good illustration of which can be found in NB 3.113).

Frye writes in Notebook 3 that he wishes he could get a good translation of “the Avatamsaka, or enough of it, & one of another Sutra, perhaps the one on the void [the Diamond Sutra], [so that he] might do a series of three essays called ‘certain wise men”’ (162). What so intrigued him about the Avatamsaka was, again, the idea of interpenetration, an idea that he called on repeatedly over the years, usually in an effort to explain the concrete universal or the unity of the one and the many. This idea takes many forms in Frye’s published and unpublished writings—philosophical, social, metaphorical—but its primary context is spiritual vision. He associates the paradox of interpenetration, as I have attempted to show elsewhere, “with anagogy, kerygma, apocalypse, spiritual intercourse, the vision of plenitude, the everlasting gospel, the union of Word and Spirit, the new Jerusalem, and atonement.”[24] In four different notebooks, spanning almost a decade, Frye refers to his “Avatamsaka hunch” (NBs 13.92,18.123; “Third Book” Notebooks, 30, 231), which is a hunch about the universal decentralized vision and identity of interpenetration.

The one reference to the Avatamsaka in Frye’s published work has to do with interpenetration. It appears in the context of Frye’s explaining what he means by “the expanding of vision through language” and what Blake means by seeing the world in a grain of sand. This, Frye writes,

would lead us to something like the notion of interpenetration in Buddhism, a type of visionary experience studied more systematically in Oriental than in Western traditions. The great Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki gives an account of it in his study of the Avatamsaka or Gandavyuha Sutra, the Buddhist scripture that is most fully devoted to it. Suzuki speaks of it as “an infinite mutual fusion or penetration of all things, each with its individuality yet with something universal in it.” As he goes on to speak of the “transparent and luminous” quality of this kind of vision, of its annihilating of space and time as we know them, of the disappearance of shadows (see Song of Songs 2:17) in a world where everything shines by its own light, I find myself reminded more and more strongly of the Book of Revelation and of similar forms of vision in the Prophets and the Gospels. (Great Code, 167–8)

As for the essays on “certain wise men,” Frye goes on to say that the “The Preface would explain that I know nothing first-hand about oriental culture, & that experts who do don’t need to read me. I’m just trying an experiment in the translation of ideas. That today we find both a lot of false antitheses about Eastern vs. Western thought & a general vague hunch that these antitheses are false” (NB 3.162). Perhaps the phrase “an experiment in the translation of ideas” best describes what Frye is doing in Notebook 3. He is trying to translate rather than reconcile. A good example of such translation is Notebook 3.127-9, where in a commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra Frye more or less equates his own project with what the Buddhist text is trying to reveal. The language he uses here—detached vision, the gift of tongues, imaginative totality, escaping the egocentric sphere, moving beyond subject-object distinctions, interpenetration, the three levels of understanding—signal the themes Frye circled around for the next forty-five years.


In Mahayana Buddhism, bardo, a concept that dates from the second century, is the “in-between state”—that period that connects the death of individuals with their following rebirth. The Bardo Thodol, literally “Liberation through Hearing in the In-Between State,” distinguishes six bardos, the first three having to do with the suspended states of birth, dream, and meditation and the last three with the forty-nine-day process of death and rebirth. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is the principal source for Frye’s speculations on bardo,[25] the focus is on the second three in-between states or periods: the bardo of the moment of death, when a dazzling white manifests itself; the bardo of supreme reality, in which five colourful lights appear in the form of mandalas; and the bardo of becoming, characterized by less brilliant light. The first of these, Chikhai bardo, is the period of ego-loss; the second, Chonyid bardo, is the period of hallucinations; and the third, Sidpa bardo, is the period of re-entry.

In recounting one of his Monday sessions with Peter Fisher in 1949, Frye writes, “we went on to discuss the life-Bardo cycle. Normally we are dragged backwards through life & pushed forwards through Bardo, & attempt to find some anastasis at the crucial points, or else go through a vortex or Paravritti which leads us, not to escape, but to implement charity by going forwards through life, as Jesus did, & withdraw in retreat from Bardo” (Diaries, 118).[26] Here we have the fundamental dialectic so often encountered in Frye: the raising up or removal to another level, represented by bardo, and the vortical descent or turning away from what bardo represents. Bardo is a subject Frye keeps returning to in his diaries (eighteen entries) and notebooks (sixty-five entries), even though he seldom mentions it in his published work.[27] But what exactly does bardo mean for Frye?

In the 1940s Frye entertained the notion of writing a bardo novel, the point of view being that of a dead narrator looking at the world—a supernatural novel, but one based on intellectual paradox and without morbidity (NB 30m.20). In the late 1940s he abandoned the project after discovering that Robert Nathan, Henry James, and Charles Williams had already attempted such fiction. The ambition, however, gets resurrected in 1962: “How the hell would one write a good Bardo novel?” Frye asks, and he then proceeds to outline in some detail the narrative of a character who prepares for death, does die, and wakes up in bardo not knowing that he has died but living in some vision of a liberated world. But just as Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve had dissuaded Frye earlier from pursuing the project, so now the appearance of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools makes him realize, again, that he has been pre-empted. Thus he concludes, “my Bardo novel is not something to write, but a koan to think about and exercise the mind” (NB 2.18).[28] And exercise his mind he does: once he has abandoned the novel project, he engages in a series of “translations.”

Two aspects of bardo proved to be enigmas for Frye: its relation to Purgatory, which he worries about in a dozen or so notebook and diary entries,[29] and what he refers to as “Bardo,” a “will-o-wisp I’ve been chasing for thirty years.” The in-between state of Purgatory is the obvious Christian link: “Purgatory was invented by the R.C.Ch. [Roman Catholic Church] to bring Bardo into Xy [Christianity]” (Diaries, 131). Frye appears to see Purgatory finally not as a translation but as an analogy. It turns out to be too Catholic, and Catholicism always raises a red flag for Frye. He says, in any event, that Purgatory is “an illegitimate adaptation of Bardo” (Diaries, 142) and that bardo as a “hyperphysical form of the Church” leaps over Purgatory by virtue of the vortex-creed of Protestantism (NB 31.52).[30] As for the cryptic phrase “chess-in-Bardo,” Frye associates chess throughout the notebooks and diaries with the theme of ascent and the world of romance—what he calls the Eros archetype.[31] Solving the “chess-in-Bardo problem,” he writes, “will give some indication of what it feels like to live in a totally mythical universe” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 56). Frye circles around the “problem” throughout his notebooks, associating chess-in-bardo with the agon or contest, with the recognition scenes in Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest, and Finnegans Wake, and with a vision opposite from that of the dice-throw in Mallarmé (the Adonis archetype). By the time he came to write The Secular Scripture (1976) Frye had caught up with the ignis fatuus that he had been tracking since the 1940s. In that book he clarifies the phrase “chess-in-bardo” in a brief commentary on Alice in Wonderland in which we see, again, the movement from oracle to wit:

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

Twice Frye writes that completing Anatomy of Criticism left him free to engage in free-wheeling speculations about bardo (NB 20.10; “Third Book” Notebooks, 190), which is a movement from structure to spirit and vision. What then is bardo? It is a link, to use one of Frye’s favourite words, to a number of features in what he calls his “metaphysical cosmology” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 21). It is a link with the reconciliation that emerges from the agon (NB 14.40; “Third Book” Notebooks, 150), with “the opportunity for the inspired act” (Diaries, 131), with the timeless moment (NB 14.31), with a “plunge into another order of being” (NB 2.19), with the point of epiphany (NB 31.85; “Third Book” Notebooks, 150), with “the archetypal dream-state achieved after death” (NB 33.20), and with Blake’s Beulah. Frye almost always refers to bardo in a telic sense. It is not the end of the quest, as the dozen linkages with Beulah indicate, but it is a stage toward that end. Frye ordinarily speaks of it as the stage before Eden or apocalypse (Diaries, 561; NB 11f.90). But if it is a stage in the universal story, it was also a stage in Frye’s own life. A good example of one of his early insights about what follows from the bardo flash of insight is in Notebook 3.15.


One of the forms of yoga that figures importantly in the notebooks, especially Notebook 3, is that of Patanjali, the founder of the Hindu yoga philosophy in the second century B.C.[32] In the 1940s Frye set out to follow Patanjali’s eightfold path so as “to codify a program of spiritual life” for himself (NB 3.78). He does not get beyond the fourth stage— pranayama, the control of breathing—but he outlines in some detail what he proposes to do in the first three stages— yama (withdrawal from negative habits), niyama (concentration and proper timing), and asana (meditative exercises and postures) (NB 3.78–88). Frye yearns for moments of withdrawal and concentrated attention, times when he can turn off what he later calls the incessant babble of the drunken monkey in his mind (Late Notebooks, 161, 326, 481). He looks to Patanjali for almost purely personal reasons, feeling that the Yoga-Sutras provide sound advice on how to cleanse the temple of his own psyche, to overcome the timidity and irritability of his cerebrotonic self (his own characterization), to repair the weakness of his body, to defeat inertia, and to establish a proper, relaxed rhythm in his life. Although he makes his way through only half of the eight stages (“genuine withdrawal, the pratyahara or fifth stage, is away out of my reach as yet” [NB 3.81]), Patanjali nevertheless provides him the occasion to engage in serious self-reflection and critique. Here the East-to-West translation has to do with his own physical, moral, and mental habits. Frye also finds analogues between certain Western ideals and Patanjali’s sattva (harmoniousness, uprightness, and composure). But there is a speculative side to Frye’s interest in yoga that goes beyond Patanjali’s raja or royal yoga, and his less personal speculations provide another example of the East-to-West recreation. “I seem to be trying,” Frye writes, “to interpret as much of the Gospels as possible in Yoga terms” (NB 3.29). Here is one such interpretation:

The Christian Gospel and Indian Buddhist systems associated with the word yoga seem to me to make sense of this process [of liberation from a fallen world], & perhaps the same sense. The advantage of using the latter is that Hindu Buddhist conceptions have for us fewer misleading associations of ideas left over from childhood, and the thunder of their false doctrines is less oppressive in our ears than the thunder of ours. . . . When Jesus speaks of “righteousness” the word is an English word . . . which in turn translates an Aramaic word I don’t know translating a concept with a Hebrew background. I have to recreate it into something more like “rightness,” but think how clear such a word as Tathagata is![33] (NB 3.4)

Frye is speaking here of Bhakti yoga, the path to the devout love of god. He associates Bhakti with both militant monasticism in Christianity and with Western mysticism, and finds Bhakti to be wanting because it is too partial and fragmentary, too much removed from the world (NB 3.29–33). It is “the expanded secular monastery I want,” Frye announces, adding that “there isn’t much for me in high Bhakti, & Jnana if not Mantra . . . is my road” (NB 3.34, 40). He says little about Jnana yoga, but unlike Bhakti, which relies on intuition and which for Frye remains on the Beulah level of existence, Jnana is the yoga of the intellect, in a Platonic or Shelleyan sense. “Jnana” in Sanskrit means “to know,” and it has to do with both general knowledge and spiritual wisdom or illumination. Mantra is the form of yoga that aims to achieve union with God through the repetition of God’s name. With the stress Frye puts upon the repetitive rhythm of practice and habit, one can understand how he would be drawn to the principle underlying Mantra yoga. “Yoga,” he says, “attaches great importance to ‘muttering’ ritual forms (dharani) and to the working word, the mantra or verbum unificum,” and the Western analogue he finds is in the discipline of listening to music without any sense of “panic & laziness” (NB 3.9).

The problem Frye has with the yogas of whatever school is, finally, that they have no place for art and no real theory of creation. He thus proposes to develop one, which he calls, reversing Patanjali’s terms, Sutra-Yoga. Such a yoga, Frye says, “would be identical with what I have been calling anagogy” (NB 3.47), a unifying principle that spiritualizes the law (NB 3.63). He explains the growing interest in poets such as Rilke and Rimbaud as stemming from their having made “a yoga out of art”; they “have employed art as a discipline of the spirit that takes one all the way. Rimbaud is the great denier & Rilke the great affirmer of this aspect of art” (NB 3.49).

Toward the end of Notebook 3 Frye returns to the sense of calm watchfulness he finds in Patanjali, combining it, in a rare third-person reference to his own approach to the life of the spirit, with the change in consciousness that is always for Frye the end of the universal quest:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the unconscious will is not on the same time clock as the conscious one, the S of U [Spectre of Urthona] which is always getting into a dither every time the clock strikes. We must not do things, but let them happen. This is the Chinese wu wei, Keats’ negative capability, which imitates Milton’s God in withdrawing from the causation sequence and simply watching with prescience. In Frye’s thought this faithful watching is the literal apprehension of art, the willing suspension of disbelief which is the prelude to all understanding (at least all detached understanding). What the consciousness can do, perhaps, is take out the obstacles hindering the union of life & consciousness, the Indian yoga, the Chinese Tao (which means “head-going”). (NB 3.151)

It is not without interest that in a time when criticism in the Anglo-American world shows signs of collapsing in on itself, Frye’s work more and more moves centrifugally out into the lareer world. A substantial part of the global movement is toward the East. There are now twenty-eight translations of Frye’s books in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese,[34] and three conferences on his work have taken place in Korea and China. Just as readers in the East have sought to assimilate Frye’s world, so Frye for more than fifty years sought to assimilate the East into his grand encyclopedic vision. This assimilation—what I have called the translation process and what Frye called variously interpretation and recreation—did not merely enrich his thought but helped to shape it as well.


As we saw earlier, Frye enjoins himself to “never, never, exclude anything,” and the range of what he does include in the notebooks is expansive. In the course of ten sequential entries in Notebook 21, for example, he rushes breathlessly from Faust to Karl Barth, pausing momentarily to meditate on Joyce, Yeats, death, Buddhism, an epigram from a newspaper column, Eliot’s French poems, Proust, reincarnation, a remark by a Hindu student, Bunyan, William James, ideology, escapist belief, ghost stories, Sir Thomas Browne, “art as secretion,” William Morris, Shaker furniture, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Christian heresies, Blake, and Milton. Sometimes the pace is more leisurely than this, but typically the stream of Frye’s consciousness runs swiftly, giving the impression of a man obsessed with recording every idea coursing through his mind. But whatever the pace, the discrete and discontinuous reflections in Frye’s notebooks are in the service of a larger two-fold unity—a unity of structure and a unity of vision. The difference is between what Frye calls at one point, when he is contemplating a book on religion, the Pisgah-view (the panoramic apocalypse) and the quest view (the participating apocalypse).[35]

As a deductive thinker, Frye, as we have seen, almost always designs a skeletal framework for the house he builds before he even thinks about furnishing its rooms. He writes that he “never started a book, even an essay, knowing exactly where it was going & how it would end” (NB 21.252). But as the notebooks reveal time and again, the book will never go anywhere until Frye has worked out its schematic shape or structure.[36] He is forever searching for unity, and what produces unity, first of all, is form, pattern, or structure. To take one of Frye’s typical formulations, “Structure is the total image the narrative makes when it freezes into a unit” (NB 21.565).

As for the unity of vision, this is, I remain convinced, fundamentally religious. One would expect to find Frye wrestling with religion in a series of notebooks on the Bible.[37] But even when he is not writing directly about the Bible, the religious themes are often in the foreground, as in Notebook 11f, where he keeps urging himself to write a book on religion after he completes The Critical Path. “I don’t want the reduction of religion to aesthetics,” he writes, “but the abolition of aesthetics & the incorporating of art with the Word of God” (NB 3.13). Or again, “You can’t ‘substitute art for religion’ without making art include religion, & so recovering it from the individual or ego-centric sphere. That’s really what I’m trying to do” (NB 3.128). The religious imperative, broadly defined, turns out to be the base on which Frye erects his superstructure. Its form is mythical: it shapes the mythos of Frye’s own quest. Its form is also thematic—the dianoia lying behind the total organization of the imagination (the Great Doodle). At the top of the axis mundi of the Great Doodle is what Frye calls apocalypse, and apocalyptic reality is also the end of the quest. The particularly religious form of both is the participating apocalypse, the myths we live by or the existential response to kerygma.

The participating apocalypse is what happens to the reader at the level of revelation, or what Frye calls the “eighth category of being” (NB l1b.56). “The apocalypse is the top of the spiral ascent of narrative in which the sequence in time, which is narrative, is seen as displaced and the undisplaced vision of a single interlocking metaphor succeeds it. The second or participating apocalypse descends from the mountain of transfiguration back into the valley of vision” (NB 11c.12). What happens to us when we descend back into the valley of vision is left up to us: it is our response to the invitation of the Spirit and Bride mentioned above. Frye calls this “the passage through vision . . . to what Milton calls the Word of God in the heart” (NB 11c.5). His grand narrative can show us the world from the top of Mount Pisgah, but it is we ourselves who have to become Joshuas, which is what Frye means by saying that seeing is believing (NB 3.179).

Frye records his reluctance to add a fourth chapter to his book The Double Vision, which issued from his three lectures on the double vision of language, nature and time. But he overcame his misgivings because he discovered that “the total argument implied by them was still incomplete” without concluding with the double vision of God (xvii; or Northrop Frye on Religion, 166–7). He records a similar hesitation in Notebook 11f. when he reflects on how to bring The Great Code to its proper conclusion: “Last chapter on belief: the fourth point is always the reader. The Second Coming starts where he is. Doubt & belief refer not to the events, which being myths are neither, but to one’s own capacity. One starts with doubt about one’s capacities; one believes only what one incorporates into one’s action. I’d like to make the book complete in itself without this last chapter, leaving it only for those who want it. Myth, of course, as the language of confrontation & the present tense. Oh, God, I’d like to say something new about religion & nobody really succeeds in doing so” (par. 20). For Frye belief is always in a dialectical relationship with vision. So while he often draws back from speaking of belief in an explicit way and is tempted even to call religion an intellectual and moral handicap (NBs 3.179; 21:21), the following question, which is about the relation between concern and action, is always in the margins of his large project: “what does religion as a whole say, when considered, not as religio or social observance, or as symbolism, which doesn’t say anything, but as doctrine, in the sense of an imaginative vision which is also existential and committed?” (NB 11f.161). Another variation of this is Frye’s “sense that religion moves from (a) religio & dromena to (b) belief & contemplation to (c) action & imagination—Homer-Dante-Blake” (NB 11f.259).

Much of what Frye says about vision, apocalypse, incarnational metaphor, and interpenetrating identity derives from and can be translated back into Christian terms. While there can be no doubt that Frye’s grand narrative is rooted in Christianity in its mythical and metaphorical traditions (though not in its institutional ones), it is constituted from other religious traditions as well—the dying god myths described by Frazer, the white goddess ones described by Graves, those embedded in Greek mythology and, as we have seen, in Eastern myth and metaphor. The notebooks are a rich source for arriving at a deeper understanding of these sources of Frye’s thought.

One final source, which is almost completely absent from Frye’s published work, is the esoteric tradition. Frye’s interest in esoteric spirituality extends from the German mystics at one extreme to what he calls “kook books” (NB 23.3) at the other. The latter are a group of highly speculative and often zany books, such as Robert Anton Wilson’s The Cosmic Trigger. Some of Frye’s reading in esotericism is Christian (Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Erigena, Joachim of Floris, Meister Eckhart, Ramon Lull, Nicholas of Cusa, Jacob Boehme), but much of it is not: neo-Pythagoreanism, Alexandrian hermeticism (Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes Trismegistus), Neoplatonism (lamblichus, Porphyry, Philostratus, Macrobius), Giordano Bruno, Schelling, William Law, Madame Blavatsky, alchemy, astrology, Rosicrucianism, channeling, new-age science and religion (Wilber, Bohm, Pribram, Chew, Capra, Grof, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Pauwels, Ferguson, et al.), mysticism, Gnosticism, and transpersonal psychology (transcendental and ESP, experiences, altered states of consciousness, meditation, and other such supersensory phenomena). There are close to five hundred paragraphs in Frye’s notebooks that relate directly to these writers, topics, and traditions, and the present volume provides a number of glimpses of Frye’s excursions into esoteric spirituality—his “kook books,” alchemy, the Tarot pack, number symbolism, kabbalism, mysticism, and the like. “I have long had the ambition,” Frye notes, “to write something in religion that would gain some new perspective on the subject. My particular interest has always been in mythology & in the imaginative aspect of religion” (NB 21.96). The esoteric tradition is a significant part of this unified imaginative vision.


[1] See my Introduction to the Late Notebooks, xxii-xxiii, and Michael Dolzani’s Introduction to “Third Book” Notebooks, xx.

[2] “Expanding Eyes,” in Spiritus Mundi, 100–1.

[3] NB 21.310. See also the prefaces to Spiritus Mundi, vii, and The Stubborn Structure, viii.

[4] See Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poems and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 2000), 228–30.

[5] This diagram is included on pp. 591–4 of the present volume.

[6] “The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye’s Notebooks,” in Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 19–38.

[7] In the present volume reference to the Seattle epiphany is in NBs 21.475 and 23.25.

[8] For NF’s accounts of the kernels, see NB 21.268, 292, 296, 300; NB 11f.44, 187, 188; NB 18.60; NB 32.102; NB 35.46, 52,70; NB 36.84,85; NB 7.213; “Third Book” Notebooks, 194, 239–40. See also Diaries, 330.

[9] For these associations, see “Third Book” Notebooks, 162, 178, 231, 254; NB 10.21; NB 30k.3.

[10] François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1955), 711 (bk. 5, last par.).

[11] “Rencontre: The General Editor’s Introduction,” in Literature and Society, 103 (pt. 4).

[12] NF’s mother taught him Bible stories at an early age, even introducing him to Josephus, and as a child NF himself read Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible, Self-pronouncing: The Complete Bible Story, Running from Genesis to Revelation, Told in the Simple Language of To-day, for Young and Old (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1904). See Ayre, 33, 37. Hurlbut’s well-travelled retelling of 168 Biblical stories is still in print.

[13] See, e.g., The Great Code, xi-xii, Northrop Frye in Conversation, 171; The World in a Grain of Sand, 221; and Ayre, 173.

[14] RK, as this course was called, was taught by members of the religious knowledge department at Victoria College, assisted by the staff of Emmanuel College.

[15] Ayre, 171–3.

[16] “I should like to collect notes, mainly on literary symbolism, in six major categories: 1) Biblical & Oriental 2) Classical 3) Medieval 4) Humanistic (Renaissance & Baroque) 5) Romantic 6) Contemporary. The main centres of gravity are 1) the Bible 2) Homer, Virgil, the Greek dramatists, Plato 3) Dante, 4) Spenser, Shakespeare & Milton (later Calderon) 5) Blake, Goethe, Keats, Shelley, de Nerval, Novalis, Hugo, etc. 6) Morris, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Rilke, etc. Out of this collection I hope to precipitate a tetralogy of four critical studies. The first (L [Liberal]) is a study of the first four areas in four major divisions: 1) Scripture 2) Epic 3) Encyclopaedic Poem 4) Romance—in other words Bible, (Odyssey) Virgil, Dante & Spenser.” This sketch comes from NB17, which is devoted mostly to an essay on William Byrd. This is the first entry following that essay, which appears to date from 1939.

[17] “Third Book” Notebooks, 332. In the late 1950s, when NF reorganized his plans for the last four books of his ogdoad, he conceived of the Bible book as the second book of the final four, which he called Paradox, the first being Mirage, which in this incarnation of the ogdoad was to be a study of prose forms. See NB 33.5, 10.

[18] See “The Book of the Dead,” Rereading Frye, 26–8.

[19] NF reiterates this intention in “Work in Progress,” written in 1972: “For a year or two it’s been becoming clear that the Liberal of the series, the first book [i.e., the first book of the revised ogdoad following Anatomy of Criticism], is a book on the Bible and its relation to literature, more particularly as the source of the mythical framework of the Western imagination” (par. 5). See “Third Book” Notebooks, 338.

[20] In what follows I borrow heavily from my essay “Frye and the East: Buddhist and Hindu Translations,” in Northrop Frye in a Global Context: Canada and China, ed. Jean O’Grady and Wang Ning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

[21] NF apparently did not have access to the Avatamsaka Sutra itself until forty years after his initial encounter with it in Suzuki’s two volumes. We do know from Late Notebooks, 153, that he was reading the Avatamsaka in the late 1980s. Then his text was The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, vol. 1 (1984), trans. Thomas Cleary, an annotated copy of which is in Northrop Frye Library. Cleary’s three-volume edition was not published until 1993.

[22] NF struggled with these dense texts. “I can’t make any sense out of these infernal Sutras,” he laments: “they seem designed for people who really can’t read” (Late Notebooks, 616). “The initial impression the [Lankavatara] Sutra makes on the candid reader [is] of an almost intolerable prolixity & obscurantism” (NB 3.112).

[23] NF draws his account of the similarities and differences between Cittamatra and Vijnaptimatra from Suzuki’s Studies, 278-82.

[24] Robert D. Denham, “Interpenetration as a Key Concept in Frye’s Critical Vision,” Rereading Frye, 154–5.

[25] NF had two editions of the Bardo Thodol, both of which he annotated: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or, The After-death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, 2nd ed., ed. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, trans. Kazi Dawa-Samdup (London: Oxford University Press, 1949); and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or, The Method of Realizing Nirvana through Knowing the Mind, ed. W.Y Evans-Wentz (London:: Oxford University Press, 1954).

[26] On the flyleaf of Notebook 3, NF wrote “Paravritti,” Sanskrit for the highest wave of thought,” but NF used the word to mean “a reversal” or “turning around.”

[27] I find only three references to bardo in NF’s books and essays: The Great Code, 137; Studies in Romanticism, 63–4, and Myth and Metaphor, 220-1.

[28] On NF’s bardo-novel fantasies, see NB 2.13–19, and Diaries, 129–34.

[29] See Diaries, 131, 132, 134, 142, and NBs 2.15, 2.16, 3.136, 31.48, 31.52, 31.97, and 35.118.

[30] The context of this point is Yeats’s view of Purgatory— what Yeats “dimly felt” about Protestantism. But it appears to be NF’s view as well.

[31] In the notebooks and diaries there are more than fifty references to chess, most of which speculate on the game as an archetype.

[32] Little is known of Patanjali. Whether or not he is the same Patanjali who wrote a celebrated commentary on Panini’s grammar is uncertain. He appears not to have authored the sutras but to have compiled them. The date of the Yoga-Sutras is also unknown, scholars dating the compilation as occurring sometime between the second century b.c. and the fourth century a.d.

[33] Tathagata = “the thus-gone one,” i.e., the one who has attained supreme enlightenment. See also NB 3, n. 7.

[34] There are even three editions of his work in English that have been published especially for Eastern readers: editions of Anatomy of Criticism for Korean and Taiwanese students and an edition of The Modern Century for Japanese readers.

[35] NB 11f.253. NF confesses he is really more interested in writing the latter.

[36] The words “shape” and “structure” appear more than one hundred times in the present notebooks. Practically everything for NF has a structure. The following is a partial list from notebooks in this volume: dialectic, power, symbolism, the Bible, language, class, causality, narrative, imagery, the ego, ideas, criticism, creativity, phenomenology, individual lives, myths, reason, experience, and of course literature.

[37] NF uses the word “religion” almost twice as frequently in the present notebooks as he does the word “literature,” a frequency that provides a rough index of his central concern.

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