MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Words to free the spirit

A teacher helps the world to understand how the truth in common myths can liberate the mind

NORTHROP FRYE December 31 1990
MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Words to free the spirit

A teacher helps the world to understand how the truth in common myths can liberate the mind

NORTHROP FRYE December 31 1990

Words to free the spirit

A teacher helps the world to understand how the truth in common myths can liberate the mind

MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

NORTHROP FRYE

In an upstairs corner classroom of Victoria College at the University of Toronto, more than 50 undergraduate students line the wooden writing benches for the final preChristmas lecture in Religion 320. From their questions, which begin halfway through the hour, it is clear that many of them are students of literature, language or philosophy. But their professor, Northrop Frye, has something to say for all of them. In the course of his class on “The Mythological Framework of Western Culture,” with the Bible as a basic text, he cites, among dozens of other references that day, the mysteries of Agatha Christie and the stories of Noah’s Ark, Moby Dick and John the Baptist. He traces common myths and structures that they share, linking worlds of thought into patterns of culture that both reflect and influence human behavior. His quiet statements are often

cryptic, his ideas challenging. But, after the class, a student barely one-quarter the age of his teacher’s 78 years remarks, “A chance to take a Northrop Frye course is a chance you do not skip.”

That reverence for Frye and his teachings is so widely shared that he ranks among the world’s great scholars. His major writings have been translated into more than 20 languages. His ideas have influenced the thousands of students who have taken his courses since he began teaching at Victoria more than 50 years ago, as well as those who have heard him lecture at more than 100 other universities, from Japan to Yugoslavia, or read his works. Since 1988, his most ardent devotees have exchanged information, even trivia notes, by or about their guru in a twice-yearly Northrop Frye Newsletter, a booklet edited by scholar Robert Denham at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

Frye’s own prodigious literary output includes 24 major books, from Fearful Symmetry, his classic 1947 study of William Blake, the English poet, artist and mystic, to the just-published Words with Power, a companion to his monumental 1982 work on the Bible’s influence on literature and life, The Great Code. In his new book—he describes it as “a summing up”—Frye pursues his central thesis: “Every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature.”

Frye is most commonly called a literary critic, but that is too narrow a definition. In an interview, Frye himself remarked with his usual self-deprecating wit and ambiguity, “I don’t know if there is a word for the kind of thing that I am, although what I am is what I’ve become.” He became what he is—a shy, unpretentious man, living quietly in a rambling home with his second wife, Elizabeth, a college classmate—after a bookish boyhood. Bom in Sherbrooke, Que., the son of a Methodist minister’s daughter and a hardware salesman, he grew up in Moncton, N.B.; learned to play the piano and to type; enrolled in Victoria College at 17; was ordained a United Church minister; discovered that being a preacher was not his calling during a summer as a student minister in rural southwest Saskatchewan; studied at Oxford; and returned in 1939 to his college to teach.

Frye took the title of his new book from a verse in the biblical Book of Luke: “They were astonished at his doctrine, for his word was with power.” The same may be said of the words of Northrop Frye, and of their liberating impact on the many people, in Canada and around the world, who have heard or read them.