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The Great Code, a review.

Northrup Frye’s The Great CodePaul Gosselin 2018

I’ve just finished reading Northrup Frye’s The Great Code, and his book reminds me of advice C.S. Lewis once offered his students regarding books by the ancients.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. (...) This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. (C.S. Lewis, On Reading Old Books[1] – 1944)

I think in the case of the Bible, Lewis’ advice here is even more significant. Anyone wondering: “What does the Bible say?” or “How should we interpret the Bible?” would do well to ignore Frye’s book and read the Bible itself and then make up their own minds regarding such questions. However, anyone looking for an erudite perspective expressed by an Enlightenment devotee (someone with a modern perspective, that is someone who’s worldview finds it’s basis in the materialistic origins myth) attempting to force the Bible into the Enlightenment Procrustean bed, then Frye’s book will serve that purpose admirably. They should look no further.

Now Frye might have made a valuable cultural contribution had he simply stuck with analysing the Bible from a strictly literary perspective, but the Mythos chapters immediately begin the book with a frontal attack on the authority of the Bible. Why Frye feels this seems necessary is not clear. Perhaps at some point reading the Bible threatnened Frye’s own belief system. In any case, being an Enlightenment devotee, it seems Frye simply cannot leave the Bible’s claim to Truth unaddressed and one is left with the impression that this is of primary concern with him (and likely his main motivation for writing this book). As the book unfolds however, it becomes noticeable that Frye has an auxiliary (and somewhat more subtle) strategy for undermining the authority of the Bible. This strategy involves a constant mixing of pagan and Biblical concepts, continually implying their equivalence. As a result, most university students, who generally will never have read the Bible on their own, will swallow such disinformation entire… it appears Frye is counting on such ignorance.

Now when Frye does, for a moment look at the Bible as a story, he does get things relatively right. For example, in chapter 8, while he cannot step away from the condescending attitude for even a minute, he does provide us with a relatively informative nutshell view of the Bible as story (1982/1990: 224-225):

Literally, the Bible is a gigantic myth, a narrative extending over the whole of time from creation to apocalypse, unified by a 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 who is one Logos, the grain of sand that is the world. We also traced a sequence of manifestations of this reality, echo one a stage more explicit than its predecessor. First is the creation, not the natural environment with its alienating chaos but the ordered structure that the mind perceives in it. Next comes the revolutionary vision of human life as casting off of tyranny and exploitation. Next is the ceremonial, moral, judicial code that keeps a society together. Next is the wisdom or sense of integrated continuous life which grows out of this, and next the prophecy or imaginative vision of man as somewhere between his original and his ultimate identity. Gospel and apocalypse speak of a present no longer finds its meaning in the future, as in the New Testament’s view of the Old Testament, but in a present moment around which past and future revolve.

Well that seems to be the best Frye can do.

But as Frye addresses the issue of the authority of the Bible, he is clearly caught up with the postmodern “death of the author” fad (or at very least finds it convenient), claiming on p. 205-206 (chapter 8) that Isaiah and Peter were not the actual authors of the texts attributed to them in the Bible. Fine, but then once this principle is admitted, one must then consider that the same logic applies to The Great Code itself. It of course cannot have been written by a (fictitious) man called Northrup Frye. While we may concede that perhaps some evidence can be marshalled to support the claim that a editor called Frye may have written the Preface and/or Introduction, one must accept that at best this book with Frye’s name on it is little more than collated material drawn from more legendary (and more prestigious) sources such as Rudolf Bultman, Renan, Nietzsche, Albert Schweitzer, The Jesus Seminar and a few others. Calling The Great Code an original work by Northrup Frye is thus misleading at best and very likely dishonest… One would think that the Frye estate should refund all those who bought books purportedly by this fictitious Frye persona… Perhaps a class-action suit would be in order to sort things out…

The issue of authorship is one that C.S. Lewis previously addressed in his 1959 Fern-seed and Elephants essay (later published in the Christian Reflections collection of papers). Lewis makes some very instructive comments (based on empirical observations about post-hoc speculations promoted by over-confident literary critics regarding the real author of ancient texts or the author’s real intent in said texts (196-197).

What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why — and when — he did everything.

Now I must record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as the miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.


FRYE, Northrup (1982/1990) The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Penguin Books Markham ON xxiii – 261 p.

LEWIS, C.S. (1959) Fern-Seed and Elephants. (Ebook)

LEWIS, C. S. (1967/2014) Christian Reflections. Wm. B. Eerdmans 240 p.

LEWIS, C. S. (1970/2002) God in the Dock. (Walter Hooper ed.). Eerdmans Grand Rapids MI 347 p.


[1] -Later republished in the collection of essays, God in the Dock.