Book Review: Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (Northrop Frye)

I am a lit geek, admittedly so; more particularly, I enjoy reading about how to read literature. Which is why I read books like this one by Canadian Lutheran cleric and literary theorist Northrop Frye. I’m a real sucker for anything that will advance the discussion of literary typology and mythic archetypes. When I saw that a number of the essays in this book addressed just that very thing, I got a used copy to see if it would be helpful.

Full disclosure: I did not read the whole book. Fables of Identity is a collection of essays and some of them were on subjects I had no interest in, like the work of Lord Byron or Emily Dickinson or (dear God, no!) James Joyce. I might return to these essays at some later point if and when they prove themselves relevant to something I’m working on. Otherwise, life is just too short (and there are too many books) to spend slogging through everything.

Thus, this review covers chapters 1-8, 11, and 14, ranging from “The Archetypes of Literature” to “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism.” These selected essays were perfectly suited for addressing some ways of reading literature as educated and informed readers and critics. For example, in the essay “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas,” Frye addresses the central issue which Biblical critics have yet failed to understand:

The next principle is that the provisional hypothesis which we must adopt for the study of every poem is that that poem is a unity. If, after careful and repeated testing, we are forced to conclude that it [a work of literature] is not a unity, then we must abandon the hypothesis and look for the reasons it is not. A good deal of bad criticism of Lycidas has resulted from not making enough initial effort to understand the unity of the poem. To talk of “digressions” in Lycidas is a typical consequence of a mistaken critical method, of backing into the poem the wrong way round. (p. 123).

In “The Imaginative and the Imaginary,” Frye speaks of the causes of artistic inspiration:

The imaginative or creative force in the ind is what has produced everything that we call culture and civilization. It is the power of transforming a sub-human physical world in a world with human shape and meaning, a world not of rocks and trees, but of cities and gardens, not an environment but a home. The drive behind it we may call desire, a desire which has nothing to do with biological needs and wants of psychological theory, but is rather the impulse toward what Aristotle calls telos, realizing the form that one potentially has. (p. 152)

One of the best emphases Frye has in the book is emphasizing that symbolism is not an ill-defined mishmash, but a system of types and archetypes and themes. In “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism,” he writes,

just as the words of a language are a set of verbal conventions, so the imagery of poetry is a set of symbolic conventions. This set of symbolic conventions differs from a symbolic system, such as a religion or a metaphysic, in being concerned, not with a content, but with a mode of apprehension. . . . Just as the teacher of a language is a grammarian, so one of the functions of the literary critic is to be a grammarian of imagery . . . (p. 218).

In fact, it is the loss of this garmmar of imagery that has contributed to the decline in artistic quality and the reader’s ability to understand works of previous eras that made use of this grammar of imagery. Frye writes,

when critics forgot how to teach the language of poetic imagery the poets forgot how to use it . . . . We shall never truly fully understand the nineteenth century until we realize how hampered its poets were by the lack  of a coherent tradition of criticism which would have organized the language of poetic symbolism for them, (p. 220).

This goes double for the twentieth (and twenty-first) century in which symbolism seems to have been eroded to the point which each work, if it has symbolism at all, has a scattershot approach to them and not a cohesive tradition of them.

Overall, the book was technical, perhaps dense, but always full of fresh insight.

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