The Great Code: The Bible and Literature
by Northrop Frye
Harvest Books, 2002 (original printing, 1981)
288 pages (hardcover)
Studying the genius of Northrop Frye’s work is its own industry. The now deceased professor (1912-1991) from Victoria College has influenced generations of scholars and The Great Code: The Bible and Literature demonstrates why this giant figure commands so much attention. If humans are pattern seeking beings, as cognitive science tells us, Frye’s mind is definitely a prime specimen.
The Great Code is a tight, literary-critical look at the Bible. The long history of biblical interpretation saw a massive turn with the rise of higher critical methods over a century ago. Source critics, for example, approached biblical interpretation like an archeologist finding a vase submerged in the earth’s layers. Exhuming the original materials used by editors was a key to understanding the text. Literary criticism, or narrative criticism as it is known in the world of biblical interpretation, looked for meaning in the final form. Checks and balances could be put on the source critic’s understanding of the biblical text by whether it comported with the internal coherence of the final product. There is little concern with the ultimate source material or form criticism’s Sitz im Leben. The Bible is not a book waiting to be dissected into units, rather, as Frye would see it, it is a finished product and centripetal.
Frye’s examination of the Bible’s inner, literary logic and its connection to Western literature and culture makes this volume a fascinating read. As Frye reads it, the Bible is a narrative unity from Genesis to Revelation. Frye’s approach gives the Bible a plot and meaning that is internal, and so theoretically not reliant on the historical background. He readily admits that his volume is not a work of “Biblical scholarship, much less of theology,” and that, treating the Bible as a “kind of anthology of ancient Near Eastern literature” seemed to violate his “instincts as a critic.”
Frye also acknowledges that the Bible is more like a “small library than a real book,” but it has “influenced Western imagination as a unity” and this demands treating it as such. What allows the Bible to be taken as a unity?
Those who do succeed in reading the Bible from beginning to end will discover that at least it has a beginning and an end, and some traces of a total structure. It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or the aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adam and Israel.
With this in mind, Frye engages his literary investigation noting the powerful themes in Scripture that bring to the “small library” some structure. The Bible is self-referential and a self-contained unity that comes out in its shared mythology and metaphor. The focus is the world of the text—its language—not the real world of the authors.
Frye understands the soul of literature or the text world as mythological and the “mythological universe” of Western culture, according to Frye, is “derived from the Bible.” As Frye notes early on, “A mythology rooted in a specific society transmits a heritage of shared allusion and verbal experience in time, and so mythology helps to create a cultural history.”
This mythological universe is driven by metaphor connected to the Bible’s typological narrative. Typology is utterly important for Frye. The literary critic in Frye cannot miss the allusion and symbolism found in the rich biblical typology that harmonizes the biblical text. The literary unity of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, has a narrative movement following its types and antitypes.
From this, we discover that the Bible’s narrative structure is U-shaped. Much like the well-recognized Cycle of the Judges, there is a series of risings and fallings, or sins and redemptions. “The entire Bible, viewed as a ‘divine comedy,’” writes Frye, “is contained within a U-shaped story…one in which man…loses the tree and water of life at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation.” Frye gives at least seven U-shaped points, including the exemplary model of such U-shaped events, that is, the slavery of the Jews in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus. This serves as the primary source for Frye’s typology, after which all of Scripture’s many U-shaped events are modeled. As a result of this ubiquitous theme, Frye concludes that “mythically the Exodus is the only thing that really happens in the Old Testament.”
The Exodus is a type of Christ’s resurrection, and for the Christian, it is its antitype. Christ is the parallel to Moses, and Frye notes the many parallels to be found in the lives of both Moses and Christ, particularly as seen in Matthew’s Gospel. This is but one example of the type-antitype movement of Scripture.
One cannot describe the Exodus as mythical without running into serious questions, but Frye—who spent many years exploring the idea of myth, as it relates to literature—has a lot to offer on the subject. For those with an interpretive methodology driven by a strong literalism and an unflinching and strict inerrancy, myth in Scripture is often an unwelcomed category. For some, it implies untruth or falsehood. This is, however, a poor understanding of myth and Frye calls it a “vulgarism.” The “real interest in myth,” says Frye, “is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.”
The Great Code sits upon the shoulders of years of Frye’s work, and so it inherits his rather complex perspective on myth. A myth, from Frye’s view, must be connected to the literary context, leading Frye to adopt a foundational definition of the word as meaning, “mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential ordering of words.” A myth “takes its place in a mythology, an interconnected group of myths.” They are verbal structures, but “once a verbal structure is read, and reread often enough to be possessed, it ‘freezes’.” When we freeze a myth, “we get a single metaphor-complex; if we ‘freeze’ an entire mythology, we get a cosmology.” For the Christian, the metaphor comes in the form of Christ. As Frye writes:
Literally, the Bible is a gigantic myth, a narrative extending over the whole of time from creation to apocalypse, a unified body of recurring imagery that ‘freezes’ into a single metaphor cluster, the metaphors all being identified with the body of the Messiah, the man who is all men, the totality of logoi [“words”] who is one Logos, the grain of sand that is the world.
The identity of the messiah is what separates Christians from Jews, he reminds the reader. The Christian’s Bible pivots everything on Christ. (C.S. Lewis would add that Christ is the myth that really happened.) He is that single metaphor cluster, the antitype to Moses, the retold Exodus “myth.” Typology then, “is a specialized form of the repeatability of myth.”
What does this mean about the veracity of mythology? This, for Frye, would be asking the wrong question. There is an “inevitable relation between mythology and poetry.” When it comes to the Bible, “Biblical myths are closer to being poetic than to being history.” History, as Frye understands it, “makes particular statements” and therefore is falsifiable, but poetry is concerned with “the universal in the event, the aspect of the event that makes it an example of the kind of thing that is always happening.” This means that “a myth is designed not to describe a specific situation but to contain it in a way that does not restrict its significance to that one situation. Its truth is inside its structure, not outside.”
As I am on a constant pursuit of improving my understanding mythology’s role in society, I found The Great Code to be invaluable. There are, however, several potential places for weakness. As this is not a new book and as it has been examined many times in the past, I won’t cover them all here. There are a few worth noting, however. Frye has been criticized in the past for severing the relationship between the historical context and the text. In his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), he challenged the historical critical methodology for its own dissection of the text through an in-depth argument for literary unity. Yet, as can be seen in The Great Code, Frye’s own work suffers as a result of ignoring the original history of the text.
One particular example stood out to me and I discovered that it was among Robert Alter’s many criticism. Frye connects Jonah’s sea, sea monster, and the “foreign island” as meaning “the same thing.” But, as Alter points out, “Frye calls it, quite carelessly, ‘a foreign island’ because he wants to retain the metonymic contiguity with the sea, though a moment’s reflection surely would have reminded him that Nineveh is located in the Mesopotamian Valley, a few hundred miles from the sea” (Donaldson 2004, 145). Unless one takes into consideration the diversity and historical background of the biblical text and the possibility of two thing having no connection, aside from the reader’s perspective, there are going to be incongruities. The supposed connections may end up in the mind of the reader only.
Related to this, while I find literary criticism to be an extremely fascinating way to engage the text, I like narrative criticism—its close cousin—better when it comes to biblical studies. Narrative criticism, while being imminently more practical for times like Sunday morning, also has the added benefit of not separating the text entirely from his history. Better than presuming to read the mind of the real author, as many traditional interpreters have proposed, asking questions of implied author and implied reader help keep the interpreter from missing the more plausible readings. Having said that, however, I think a more integrated methodology of biblical interpretation is better, particularly one that recognizes the power of the reader and the necessity of having an informed reader, for successful communication. This would look something like Randolph Tate’s modified communication model found in Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (2008).
William Blake: Christ Nailed to the Cross: The Third Hour (1800-03): Wikimedia Commons
The Great Code is rich in interest, imagery, and speculation, and connects the biblical world of the text with its wider and later, Western cultural-literary descendents. Names like Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, and T.S. Eliot make their appearances in fresh and unexpected way, particularly when dealing with the poetic nature of Scripture. Even the structure of Frye’s book demonstrates his commitment to the internal form of literature and internal movement. For example, his chapter headings form a chiasm.
After reading this masterful work, it is clear that the mind of Northrop Frye is very much its own great code. For that reason, the many contributions of the highly honored and thought-provoking thinker will continue to grace my TBR list. Do you have any favorites?
Donaldson, Jeffery and Alan Mendelson, Eds. 2004. Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.