Words With Power

By Northrop Frye

342 pages



Myth and Metaphor

By Northrop Frye

Edited by Robert D. Denham

386 pages

University Press of Virginia


Though three more Northrop Frye books are due this spring, Words With Power, the long awaited sequel to The Great Code (1982), is really the end of a tetralogy which starts with Fearful Symmetry (1947) and Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the most encyclopaedic study of literature and literary criticism since Aristotle’s Poetics.

Like Aristotle, Frye adopts a theory of unity as a heuristic principle in his criticism. In Fearful Symmetry Frye shows how William Blake’s poems are not the work of an inscrutable madman but rather a typical poet, and how the consistent vision and unity in Blake’s poems reflect the consistent vision and unity in all poetry, a vision of the world we want to live in and the world we don’t.

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye demonstrates the unity in literature and literary criticism. Literature is not an amorphous, miscellaneous, discrete pile of books. Just as Greek and Roman myths order and collect themselves into a mythology, so do books collect themselves into conventions and genres, what Frye calls an order of words.

In The Great Code Frye establishes the unity of the Bible based on its metaphors and myths: the many metaphors group and culminate themselves into the one figure of Christ and the many myths retell the Exodus story.

Words With Power completes his study of the influence of the Bible on Western literature. Frye shows how the Bible provides the framework for all Western literature — not only poetry and prose, but also the verbal disciplines like history, philosophy, political science, and other verbal constructs we now call ideology.

For Frye, ideology, like literature, derives from mythology. The Bible is vital to Western culture because it, like one giant sponge, absorbed various myths from different cultures like Babylonian and Sumerian, consolidating the myths into one place, one comprehensive mythological framework. The Bible’s framework—myths about nothing less than the creation, fall, redemption, revelation, and restoration of humanity—informs all of Western literature and culture.

Frye divides Words With Power into two parts. The first part defines and defends the role of literature and the writer in society. To provide a glib review of Frye’s ideas here, he sees writers producing an infinite number of myths but only producing a finite number of species of myths. He outlines two of these species: myths of primary concern and secondary concern. Myths of primary concern are about our need for food, water, shelter, sex, property (as in Aristotle’s definition of what is proper for human life), and freedom of movement in body and mind. Secondary concerns are myths applied or used in ideology, and really appeal to a particular belief or loyalty — politics or religion, for example.

Secondary concerns are secondary because we can go a lifetime without believing in God, but only a few weeks without meeting the primary concerns of food and water. For Frye, “the axioms of primary concern are the simplest and baldest platitudes it is possible to formulate; that life is better than death, happiness better than misery, health better than sickness, freedom better than bondage, for all people without significant exception.”

But history, Frye reminds us, is a record of primary concerns being subordinated to secondary concerns.

We want to live but we go to war; we
want freedom, but permit in varying
degrees of complacency, an immense
amount of exploitation of ourselves as
well as of others; we want happiness
but allow most of our lives to go to
waste. The twentieth century, with its
nuclear weaponry and its pollution
that threatens the supply of air to
breathe and water to drink, may be the
first time in history when it is
really obvious that primary concerns
must become primary, or else.

In the second part of Words With Power Frye explains how primary and secondary concerns are expressed in the Bible and all of literature through the axis mundi or world tree symbol. The axis mundi is that symbol in literature, a tree, a ladder, tower, winding staircase, beanstalk, which connects humanity’s traditional cosmology.

The Bible and literature present the human being as living on a middle earth between a metaphorically higher world (paradise) and lower world (hell). Consequently Frye examines four movements up and down the axis mundi:

  1. an ascent from a lower world to this
  2. an ascent from this world to a
    higher world
  3. a descent from higher
    world to this world
  4. a descent from
    this world to a lower world.

Frye explains, “The interest of modern poets in ladders and spirals is not nostalgia for outmoded images of creation, but a realization that because such images stand for the intensifying of consciousness through words, they represent the concern of concerns, so to speak, the consciousness of consciousness.”

Words With Power is the work of a scholar and teacher. Frye tries to recapture for us a necessary way of thinking, namely, to think metaphorically.

Some metaphors are illuminating; some are merely indispensable; some are misleading or lead only to illusion; some are socially dangerous. Wallace Stevens speaks of the ‘metaphor that murders metaphor.’ But for better or worse it occupies a central area—perhaps the central area—of both social and individual experience. It is a primitive form of awareness, established long before the distinction of subject and object became normal, but when we try to outgrow it we find that all we can really do is rehabilitate it.

Frye’s work is, to be cliché, a tour de force. Like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Frye is trying to make complex theories understandable to the layperson. Frye does write as simply as he can, but just as first year physics students struggle with Hawking’s book, so will some first year English students struggle with Frye’s.

Readers equipped with intellectual honesty, goodwill, and a glossary of literary terms will get through Words With Power and find their personality transformed in the meantime. Neophyte readers should start with Myth and Metaphor, a collection of public lectures delivered while Frye was working on The Great Code and Words With Power. Many paragraphs and ideas from lectures are also important for Frye’s rebuttal to deconstructionists, the critical method antithetical to Frye’s.

Despite its complexity, Words With Power is written for the widest possible audience. In our time of teacher-bashing, Frye shows that the secret to improving education is not to prod the educational bureaucracy but to write educational books that meet the cultural needs of the public. This indicts the publish-or-perish assembly-line scholarship now going on, where scholars lose the perspective of what they study because their work is out of touch with the world. In short, to avert a processed education, students must learn on their own from the best books how to read and write critically.

Frye’s criticisms of the Bible and literature guarantees his position as this century’s greatest and most ambitious critic. His canon also makes him one of this century’s greatest storytellers, for Frye’s story is about the heights and depths of the imagination, the sum total of what all writers of English have said and are still trying to say.