Frye portrait
Copyright © 1982, 2012 University of Toronto.

In 2012, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye, a globally distinguished literary theorist and one of the 20th century's most important thinkers. Providentially, an academic treasure for students of the humanities has just been recovered in the renowned Robarts Library at the University of Toronto – video recordings from 1982-83 of all of Frye's famous lectures on the Bible and Literature. These recordings have now been digitally restored and will be made available for acquisition by educators, libraries, institutions, and individuals as part of the Frye Centennial.

"By great good fortune, Northrop Frye's famous Bible lectures were saved on video tape…. Everyone audited the course, even if they didn't take it. In those days it appeared that religion was fading as a political influence, but now that it is back, sometimes with terrifying consequences, these clear, sensible, erudite, and above all humane lectures have changed from a luxury to a necessity."

Margaret Atwood

Series outline

Part One

1. An Approach to the Bible and Translations of the Bible.

Prof. Frye's approach to the Bible through its narrative and imagery is determined by the Bible's mythical and metaphorical use of language. He gives a short history of English translations of the Bible and explains why he will use the King James (Authorized) Version for this course. (Note: AV=Authorized Version, OT=Old Testament, NT=New Testament).

2. The Shape of the Bible.

The containing narrative shape of the Bible is a repeated U-shaped curve of fall and restoration. Prof. Frye outlines six of these falls and rises and indicates that the images on the top are metaphorically identified as symbols of the ideal of human life, while those on the bottom are symbols of bondage and tyranny.

3. Images of Paradise: Trees and Water.

The lecture examines the imagery of the Bible, beginning with the category of the paradisal whose controlling images are the tree and the water of life, standing for the ideal form of human existence. They also form a framework for the entire narrative of the Bible: the first event is the loss of the tree and the water of life in the Book of Genesis; the last event is the regaining of the tree and water of life in the Book of Revelation. This lecture also introduces the principle of typology, whereby every event in the OT is a type of which the NT contains the fulfillment or antitype.

4. Parody and Manifest Demonic: Trees and Water.

Every image in the Bible has an apocalyptic (or ideal) and a demonic context. The demonic needs two forms in order to compensate for the prosperity of the heathen kingdoms. The parody demonic represents the prosperous appearance of those kingdoms; the manifest demonic is the deadly reality they will eventually become. The paradisal images of the tree and water of life have as manifest demonic counterparts the tree and water of death, whose parody demonic forms in history are 'the world tree' of heathen mythology and the rivers of the great empires.

5. Sexual Imagery: The Bride and the Bridegroom.

The Great Whore and the Forgiven Harlot. Apocalyptic or ideal imagery on the human level has three forms–individual, social and sexual. Sexual imagery, in which two become one, resolves the conflict of individual and social ideals of human life. The symbolism of Bridegroom and Bride expands to become the marriage of a king to his land or his people and the relationship of Christ with his Church. The demonic bride figure is the Great Whore, whose spouse is the Antichrist. There is also an intermediate category of female figures, both marital and maternal, representing humanity going through the process of sin and redemption. Another aspect of this human level of symbolism is the royal metaphor: the Bridegroom is also a king, who represents the unity of his people in a single body.

6. Pastoral and Agricultural Imagery.

Pastoral, agricultural and urban imagery provide a model for the goals of human work by creating a vision of the natural world transformed into the image of human desire. Harvest and vintage symbolism, with their imagery of bread and wine, were often connected in heathen rites with the figure of the dying god, who represented the renewing powers of nature. The sacrificial imagery of the dying god may also be associated with a king, whose strength was bound up with the fertility of the land. Eventually, instead of sacrificing the king, some kind of substitution was offered, his first born son, an animal, first fruits of harvest, etc. It is against this background that Israel's God emerges, a God who is not a god of fertility but of all creation, and who eventually rejects the idea of human sacrifice.

7. The World of Angels: Leviathan, dragons and the Antichrist.

Frye identified the following categories of Biblical imagery, together with their particular images: mineral (urban), vegetable (agricultural), animal (pastoral), human (sexual), and paradisal (garden, trees and water). There remains, in the Bible's mythological universe, the category that bridges the human and divine, that of the spiritual or angelic. There are two bodies of imagery associated with angels, those of fire and of air (including wind and birds): from these are derived two major orders of angels. But all angels are metaphorically united as one Spirit, to whom both categories of imagery attach.

8. Parodies and the Hero from across the Sea.

Every group of images has a demonic counterpart; one image in particular serves as a key to the whole symbolic complex, that of the dragon. The dragon is, first of all, the favourite demonic animal image in the Bible, expanding to cosmological dimensions in the creation myth that takes the form of the slaying of a dragon of chaos. The Bible uses this dragon as a poetic image, calling it 'Rahab' or 'Leviathan'. By an even further expansion of its symbolic dimensions, the Leviathan contains the entire fallen world of time and space: when we ask where we are in relation to the dragon, the answer is that we are in its belly: we have all been swallowed by Leviathan.

9. The Double Mirror: Exodus and Gospel.

At the centre of the Bible's typological organization of symbols is the life of Christ in the New Testament, considered as an antitype of which the story of the Exodus in the Old Testament is the type. There are two versions of this parallel. The long version is based upon Christ's ministry on earth, from his threatened birth to his death and resurrection, matched in the Exodus story by the order to slaughter the Hebrew firstborn males, the raising of the brazen serpent, and the assault on the Promised Land. The short version is an underground sequence in which the three days of the Passion correspond to the Passover, the drowning of the Egyptian army, and the passage of Israel through the Red Sea. Thus, the Bible is constructed as a double mirror: events in the Old and the New Testaments reflect each other, and not any historical reality outside the Bible.

10. The Metaphor of Kingship.

The royal metaphor, by which a person becomes the individual form of his class or society, unites the metaphorical identity with the categorical identity as. This third type of metaphor generates the institution of kingship. It gives the king a special connection with divinity on the one hand – in Egypt, he actually was the god; in Israel he was God's chosen or adopted son – and with his people on the other. And it establishes his two roles, as the glorified king and the humiliated one. The greatest instance of the latter is the 'suffering servant' of Second Isaiah. The humiliated king has two aspects: he is the pure victim put to death, and also the exile driven from the community, the scapegoat. Jesus as king is both glorified and humiliated; as the latter he is both the slaughtered victim and the scapegoat. 

11. King, Priest, and Prophet.

An unusual feature of Israelite society was the threefold division of authority into the figures of king, priest, and prophet. King and priest combine to represent the temporal and spiritual aspects of the law respectively; and so the Scriptures in Jesus' day consisted of two parts, the law and the prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, who consequently appear at Christ's side in the Transfiguration. The Bible in all its languages distinguishes between soul and spirit: at the centre of Christianity is not the immortality of the soul, which is a Greek idea, but the resurrection of the body.

12. The Question of Primogeniture.

One of the most significant narrative patterns in the Bible is the passing over of a firstborn son in favour of a younger brother. The tradition of primogeniture, according to which the inheritance goes to the firstborn son, is broken directly or implicitly in the cases of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Reuben and Manasseh. Saul, Moses, and the entire first generation of Israelites, and – according to Paul – the Jews, are other figures passed over in an expansion of this general pattern. Jesus fills both roles, representing both the inheritance of the line of David according to the genealogies of Mathew and Luke, and the breaking of that line of succession through the direct intervention of the Virgin Birth.

Part Two

13. Genesis: In the Beginning.

The idea of creation raises serious questions about the adequacy of our ordinary concept of time to comprehend what the Bible means by eternity. Eternity does not mean endless time: it means a condition that is free of time altogether. Consequently the Bible insists on an absolute beginning and end of time, in contrast to what is true of the order of nature, in order to assert that the category of time is not ultimate. The metaphorical kernel of the idea of a beginning is not so much that of being born as of waking up from sleep, thereby abolishing a dark world of chaos.

14. Genesis: Creating the Sexes; Exodus: A Revolutionary Heritage.

There are two recurring forms of creation myth, the sexual and the artificial. The sexual creation myth derives from the unending cycles of nature, and often focuses upon the figure of an earth-mother who is the womb and tomb of all life. The artificial creation myth derives from the cycles of the celestial bodies, and focuses upon the figure of a sky-father. The Bible insists upon an artificial creation myth because it resists the overtones of cyclical fatality implied by the inevitability of birth and death in nature. But the problem with an artificial creation myth is that it necessitates the idea of the fall of man, because the perfect model world it postulates as the result of divine planning and intelligence cannot be the world of death and corruption that we live in now. The original unfallen state is conceived in the Bible as a kind of lost sexual ideal, one of whose symbols would be an erect serpent in the tree of life, as contrasted with the cursed serpent crawling on the ground. Our own cultural traditions, derived from the Bible through Judaism and Christianity, have been powerfully affected by the revolutionary tendencies imparted in the Bible by the Exodus story. One characteristic of the revolutionary mind is the belief in a specific historical revelation; another is a dialectical habit of thinking; a third is a tendency to build up a canon of sacred writings. The kernel out of which the entire Biblical canon developed was apparently the core of the existing book of Deuteronomy.

15. Law: Ordering a Society.

Law, the third phase of revelation, becomes the crucial one for Judaism. But Christianity, and Paul in particular, formulated the view that the gospel set men free of the law, not by breaking it, but by internalizing it into an inner state of mind beyond the reach of a legal code. The confusion of natural law and moral law comes to us from the Greek tradition, where gradually the idea of an impersonal law of fate grew up in order to resolve the conflict of various divine wills in a polytheistic religion. In the Biblical tradition, on the other hand, natural law only subsisted by God's will; but nature was conceived as having two levels. The upper level was paradisal and yet civilized, the world God intended man to live in. The lower level of physical nature was what men fell into. Hence things were said to be natural to man that were not natural to animals, because man was 'by nature' a civilized being.

16. Law and Revolution: Wisdom: The Proverbs.

The root of wisdom is the internalizing of the law. It begins in the practical sense that preserves one's balance from day to day, of which the literary expression is the proverb. There are two kinds of proverbs, depending on social context: the popular proverb that is a counsel of prudence, and the series of maxims imparted by a king or gentleman to his son. Both are dominated by a conservative sense of custom and tradition and by a sense of the importance of institutions, as in the Assyrian story of Ahikar.

17. Wisdom: Playing before God; Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities.

Wisdom is originally founded on the preservation of continuity without change. But because experience is not permanent or continuous, a more subtle conception of wisdom emerges, of wisdom as potential, an ability to deal with the kind of situation that may occur. Thus, the particular regulation becomes internalized as a respect for principles and consistency; and the collection of particular facts external to the individual that we call knowledge is subordinated to an attitude or sense of balance in the mind of the wise man. This attitude, however, opens out into the community: in Proverbs 7-9, it is folly who says egocentrically that 'bread eaten in secret is pleasant'. In Proverbs 8, the vision of wisdom as a female child playing before God reveals to us another characteristic of wisdom: it is a spontaneous and unselfconscious expression of energy for its own sake, a complete integrity of thinking and acting, of the means and the end.

It is the touchstone of vanity that enables us to get through the forest of life without either going round in circles like 'realists' who assume that the forest is really there, and so end up following the cyclical rhythms of nature, or bumping into the trees like 'idealists' who assume that it is an illusion. The word translated 'vanity' has a metaphorical meaning of fog or mist: that is, of emptiness. This emptiness can be identified with the Bible's idea of an invisible world of the spirit, which, like its symbols of air and light, is the medium by which the world becomes visible. Out of this rejection of a real-or-unreal dilemma comes an ethic which rejects the traditional value judgement dilemma of wisdom-or-folly.

18. Job: A Test.

The opening of the book of Job with Satan present in the court of God illustrates a very significant fact: that only in the Book of Job are Satan and the powers of darkness and chaos treated as creatures of God rather than as his enemies. Satan in that court is acting as Accuser in a law suit, and Job expresses his faith that he will have an advocate or 'Redeemer'. Job's three friends are also thinking in terms of law and accusation, which is why they are certain Job is being punished for some infraction of the Deuteronomic Code. But Job's case goes beyond the legal perspectives of law and even wisdom, for the reason that nothing he could possibly have done could warrant such extreme punishment. Job is rather being tested by God. To turn God's actions into a puzzle, however, turns Job's suffering into an intellectual problem of theodicy. There can never be a satisfying answer to a problem so stated: its only value is to force us to question the assumptions beyond the question itself, so that by reformatting them, we might escape from the world or mental level which they consolidate.

19. Job and the Question of Tragedy.

Though the Book of Job is usually classified as one of the world's great tragedies, Job's restoration to prosperity at the end makes it structurally a comedy. As such, it follows the comic pattern of a sudden and improbable reversal of the action at a crucial point, so that the inevitable and ironic ending of tragedy is averted in favour of the kind of happy ending that is true of comedy but not true of normal human life. And, if we had seen Job in his restoration to prosperity, we might not have seen sheep and she-asses and beautiful daughters; we might have seen only a beggar on a dunghill. But that beggar would have been something we had not seen, of which his restored prosperity is only a symbol, something bound up with his statement that he has seen God. Despite the comic ending, however, Job' deprivations raise an issue often raised in tragedy: how much can a man lose of what he has before it begins to affect his sense of what he is? And the Book of Job also resembles tragedy in that no moralistic explanations will work to explain its catastrophe.

20. Job and Restored Humanity.

It would be fairly easy to think of Job as a defiant hero and God as a bullying tyrant. But a continuously defying Job would actually keep the Satanic part of creation in existence: it is Job's ego that perpetuates his trial and sufferings by its very nature, by its existence as an inherently-alienated consciousness, a subject split off from an objective world.

Therefore, when Job says, 'I abhor myself', he may really be saying that he has now stopped thinking of himself as a separate ego. This in turn resolves the problem of a malignant deity: no such being needs to be evoked to account for the evil and suffering that is simply built into the nature of the situation. Job transcends his limited consciousness partly because he doubts: doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its dialectical opposite, as despair is really the dialectical opposite of hope.

Doubt and despair tell us that all things we believe in and hope for are fictions. Faith and hope, by persisting in the attempt to make those fictions real, reveal the element of illusion that is present in reality and the element of reality that is present in our wishes and fantasies.

21. The Language of Proclamation: Style and Rhythm in the Bible: The Gospel: Rewriting the Commandments.

The King James translation of the Bible emphasizes a certain rhythm of authority that is one aspect of the Bible's language, a tendency to command without qualification or explanation; and it is in part this emphasis that gives the AV its celebrated simplicity. But the Bible's rhetoric is of a special kind that scholars call kerygma, proclamation, which suggests that the nature of its spiritual authority is different from the authority of a law or a military command. When one of the Ten Commandments says, 'kill not', the legal parts of the Mosaic Code respond with provisions about when it is permissible, if not desirable to kill after all. But we are left with the feeling that the original unconditional command may be referring to a more genuinely human world than the one we live in. Jesus' commentary on the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount in fact emphasizes a positive element in them, rather than the negative and legal element. Thus legalism and the Gospel are really two aspects or attitudes toward the same verbal formulation.

Because the gospel throws its emphasis entirely on the state of mind rather than the action, the attempt to make what might be immoral, like adultery, also illegal by passing laws against it results in the most fantastic tyranny. The gospel's conception is of a spiritual kingdom, which cannot be incorporated into legislation: the situation is the same at the end of Plato's Republic, where Socrates says that the just state could not exist, but that the wise man will live by the laws no matter what actual society he may find himself in. The implication is that the spiritual kingdom has dropped its connection with history and with a specific society and disappeared from the world of time and space. When Jesus says, 'the kingdom of heaven is entos hymon', he may mean 'within you' or 'among you' but those are subordinate meanings. What he means is that it is here, not there.

22. Revelation: Removing the Veil.

Each of the seven types of revelation is the antitype of the preceding phase. The sense of an intelligible order in creation points to the redemption of Israel from tyranny in the Exodus, which in a sense completes the action of creation. Revelation in turn points towards an intensified sense of law, and law is individualized in wisdom. Wisdom's ideals of continuity and stability are widened by prophecy's individualizing of the original revolutionary impulse. In the New Testament, it is prophecy in particular that is regarded as fulfilled by the gospel. The gospel is fulfilled by the apocalypse, whose antitype can only be a new creation. That new creation is a symbol for the recreation of the book in the mind of the reader, not by his ego, but by the Holy Spirit, the 'word of God in the heart'.

23. Revelation: After the Ego disappears.

The Bible is not concerned with the particular events studied by historians, but with the repeating aspects of events that indicate the universalized meaning of history, with what is called Heilsgeschichte by scholars. It is the same with the future as with the past: the Book of Revelation has been regarded as a literal prophecy of the future, with its symbols being applied to whatever the interpreter feared in his own time. It is perhaps closer, however, to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the terrifying visions are understood to be the dead soul's repressed thoughts. The implication is that the apocalypse is going on all around us at all times, but that our ordinary mental processes screen it out. There is also the idea of the sealed book, the book whose meaning is kept secret not by censorship but by the powers of repression in the mind. It follows that there are two kinds of apocalypse, the panoramic apocalypse and the possessed vision. It is the latter which Milton called 'the Word of God in the heart'.

24. The Language of Love.

In descriptive writing, truth means truth of correspondence: to be true a verbal structure must correspond to the body of facts it is describing. If there is no external structure to which the verbal structure is counterpart, 'meaning' becomes centripetal rather than centrifugal, and the verbal structure is a literary one, a fiction. Words can achieve descriptive truth only to a very limited extent, because the description has to be elaborated in a grammatical structure, and a grammatical structure is a fiction. The traditional view is that the Bible is literally true in the sense of descriptive truth; but this view ends up subordinating the Bible to an external body of historical facts or doctrines. The literal meaning of the Bible, as the word 'literal' suggests, is the pattern created by the words themselves. The Bible's kerygma, or proclamation, is contained in those patterns which are patterns of narrative or story (myth) and imagery (metaphor). This language bypasses the divisiveness of fact and argument, and opens into a world of shared vision. It is the language of love.