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Frye: The Archetypes


Northrop Frye was born in Canada in 1921 and studied at Toronto University and Merton College, Oxford University. Initially he was a student of theology and then he switched over to literature. He published his first book, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake in 1947. The book is a highly original study of the poetry of Blake and it is considered a classic critical work. Northrop Frye rose to international prominence with the publication of Anatomy of Criticism, in 1957 and it firmly established him as one of the most brilliant, original and influential of modern critics. Frye died in 1991. On the whole, he wrote about twenty books on Western literature, culture, myth, archetypal theory, religion and social thought. The Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology is a critical work published in 1963. The present essay, “Archetypes of Literature,” is taken from the book. In the essay Frye critically analyses literature against the backdrop of rituals and myths. He interprets literature in the light of various rituals and myths. Frye has divided the easy into three parts. The first part deals with the concept of archetypal criticism. The second part throws light on the inductive method of analysis of a text. The third part focuses on the deductive method of analysis. All the methods fall under structural criticism.

Literature can be interpreted in as many ways as possible, and there are different approaches to literature, and one among them is the archetypal approach. The term “archetype” means an original idea or pattern of something of which others are copies. Archetypal approach is the interpretation of a text in the light of cultural patterns involved in it, and these cultural patterns are based on the myths and rituals of a race or nation or social group. Myths and rituals are explored in a text for discovery of meaning and message. In recent times this type of critics. approach to a text has gained popularity. James George Frazer and Carl Gustav Jung are the two great authorities who, have greatly contributed to the development of archetypal approach. Frazer was a social anthropologist and his book The Golden Bough makes a study of magic, religion and myths of different races. Jung was a psychologist associated with Freud. The “collective consciousness” is a major theory of Jung. According to Jung, civilized man “unconsciously” preserves the ideas, concepts and values of life cherished by his distant forefathers, and such ideas are expressed in a society’s or race’s myths and rituals. Creative writers have used myths in their works and critics analyze texts for a discovery of “mythological patterns.” This kind of critical analysis of a text is called archetypal criticism. T.S. Eliot has used mythical patterns in his creative works and The Waste Land is a good example of it. Northrop Frye in his essay does not analyze any particular myth in a work and in fact, he presents an analysis of “mythical patterns” which have been used by writers in general.

Two Types of Criticism and the Humanities
Like science, literary criticism is also a systematized and organized body of knowledge. Science dissects and analyses nature and facts. Similarly literary criticism analyses and interprets literature. Frye further says that literacy criticism and its theories and techniques can be taught, but literature cannot be taught, rather it is to be felt and enjoyed. Indeed, literary criticism is like science and it can be creative. There are two types of literary criticism: a significant and meaningful criticism, and a meaningless criticism. A meaningless criticism will not help a reader in developing a systematic structure of knowledge about a work of literature. This kind of criticism will give only the background information about a work. A meaningless criticism will distract the reader from literature. Literature is a part of humanities and humanities include philosophy and history also. These two branches of knowledge provide a kind of pattern for understanding literature. Philosophy and history are two major tools- for interpretation of literature and archetypal criticism is based on philosophy and history of a people. Archetypal criticism is meaningful criticism.

Formalistic Criticism & Historical Criticism
There are different types of criticism and most of them remain commentaries on texts. There is a type of criticism, which focuses only on an analysis of a text. Such a criticism confines itself to the text and does not give any other background information about the text. This type of formalistic or structural criticism will help the readers in understanding a text only to some extent. That is, a reader may understand the pattern of a text, but how the pattern is evolved, he cannot understand without the background information, which may be called historical criticism. Structural criticism will help a reader in understanding the pattern of a text and historical criticism will make the reader’s understanding clearer. What the readers require today is a synthesis of structural criticism and historical criticism. Archetypal criticism is a synthesis of structural criticism and historical criticism.

Literary Criticism is a Science
Science explores nature and different branches of science explore different aspects of nature. Physics is a branch of science, which explores matter and natural forces of the universe. Physics and Astronomy gained their scientific significance and they were accepted as branches of science during the Renaissance. Chemistry gained the status of science in the eighteenth century, and so did Biology in the nineteenth century. Social Sciences assumed their significance as part of science in the twentieth century. Similarly, literary criticism, today, has become systematic in its analysis, and therefore it could be considered as a science. Based on this concept, a work of literature may be critically (or scientifically) evaluated, says Northrop Frye. Among the tools of criticism, he uses the two methods: structural criticism and historical criticism. The two concepts, he explains in detail in the second and third parts of this critical essay respectively.

THE INDUCTIVE METHOD OF ANALYSIS Structural Criticism and Inductive Analysis

Towards the close of the first section, Frye contends that structural criticism will help a reader in understanding a text, and in his analysis, he proceeds inductively. That is, from particular truths in a work, he draws forth general truths. Owing to jealousy, Othello, in the Shakespearean play, inflicts upon himself affliction and this is the particular truth of the drama from which the reader learns the general truth of life that jealousy is always destructive. This is called the inductive method of analysis under structural criticism, and Frye discusses this in detail in this section of the essay. An author cannot intrude into his text and express his personal emotions and comments. He should maintain absolute objectivity. A critic studies a work and finds out whether an author is free from textual interference. This is a sort of psychological approach also, and this method of criticism helps the reader in understanding an author’s personal symbols, images and myths which he incorporates in his works. At times the author himself may be unconscious of the myths, symbols etc., which he has exploited in his works, and the critic “discovers” such things.

Historical Criticism and Inductive Analysis
Under the second type of criticism called historical criticism, a critic interprets the birth of a text and resolves that it is an outcome of the social and cultural demands of a society in a particular period. The social and cultural milieus are the causes responsible for the creation of a work. Quite evidently the historical-critic plays a major role in the understanding of a text. In fact, both structural criticism and historical criticism are a necessity in archetypal criticism and neither can be dispensed with. But either of them alone does not explain a work completely. A historical critic discovers common symbols and images being used by different writers in their works, and resolves that there must be a common ‘source from which writers have derived their symbols, images and myths. The sea is a common symbol used by many writers over the years and therefore it is an archetypal symbol. Not only symbols, images and myths are archetypal; even genres are archetypal. For example, the genre of drama originates from Greek religion. Thus the historical inductive method of criticism helps the readers in understanding not only symbols, images and myths, but also the very genre itself.

The Collective Unconscious or Racial Memory
Archetypal criticism dissects and analyses symbols, images and mythologies used by a writer in his works, and these symbols, myths and rituals have their origin in primitive myths, rituals, folk-lore and cultures. Such primitive factors according to Jung lie buried in the “collective unconscious” which may otherwise be called “racial memory” of a people. Since a writer is part of a race, what lies in his “unconscious” mind is expressed in his works in the form, of myths, rituals, symbols and images. Archetypal criticism focuses on such things in a work. In archetypal criticism, under the reductive method of analysis, a critic, while elucidating a text, moves from the particular truth to the general truth. A particular symbol or myth leads to the establishment of a general truth. Works of art are created in this way and their origin is in primitive cultures. Literature is produced in this manner over the years.

Archetypal Criticism and Its Facets
Archetypal criticism is an all-inclusive term. It involves the efforts of many specialists, and at every stage of interpretation of a text, it is based “on a certain kind of scholarly organization.” An editor is needed to “clean up” the text; a rhetorician analyses the narrative pace; a philologist scrutinizes the choice and significance of words; a literary social historian studies the evolution of myths and rituals. Under archetypal criticism the efforts of all these specialists converge on the analysis of a text. The contribution of a literary anthropologist to archetypal criticism is no small. In an archetypal study of Hamlet an anthropologist traces the sources of the drama to the Hamlet legend described by Saxo, a thirteenth century Danish historian in his book entitled Danes, Gesta Danorum. He further traces the sources of the drama to nature myths, which were in vogue in the Norman Conquest period. Thus an anthropologist makes a threadbare analysis of the origins of Hamlet under archetypal criticism.

Part - III
DEDUCTIVE METHOD OF ANALYSIS Rhythm and Pattern in Literature

An archetypal critic, under the deductive method of analysis, proceeds to establish the meaning of a work from the general truth to the particular truth. Literature is like music and painting. Rhythm is an essential characteristic of music and in painting, pattern is the chief virtue. Rhythm in music is temporal and pattern in painting is spatial. In literature both rhythm and pattern are recurrence of images, forms and words. In literature rhythm means the narrative and the narrative presents all the events and episodes as a sequence and hastens action. Pattern in literature signifies its verbal structure and conveys a meaning. In producing the intended artistic effect, a work of literature should have both rhythm (narrative) and pattern (meaning).

Rhythm in a Work
The world of nature is governed by rhythm and it has got a natural cycle. The seasonal rhythms in a solar year are spring, winter, autumn and summer. This kind of rhythm is there in the world of animals and in the human world also. The mating of animals and birds rhythmically takes place in a particular season every year and the mating may be called a ritual. A ritual is not performed frequently, but rhythmically after a long gap and it has a meaning. The mating of animals has the meaning of reproduction. In the world of nature also rituals are rhythmic. Crops are planted and harvested rhythmically every year and they have their seasons. At the time of planting and harvest, sacrifices and offerings are made and they have a meaning: fertility and consummation of life. In the human world rituals are performed voluntarily and they have their own significance. Works of literature have their origins in such rituals and the archetypal critic discovers and explains them. He explains the rhythm of the rituals, which are the basis of literature in general.

Pattern in a Work
It has already been established that in literature pattern is recurrence of images, forms and words. Patterns are derived from a writer’s “epiphanic moments.” That is, a writer gets the concepts of his work or ideas of his work in moments of inspiration and he looks into the heart of things. Then he expresses what he has “perceived” in the form of proverbs, riddles, commandments and etiological folktales. Such things have already an element of narrative and they add further to the narrative of the writer in his works. A writer expresses what he has “perceived,” and he uses myths either deliberately or unconsciously, and it is the critic who discovers the archetypes, the myths, in a work and explicates the patterns in the work. Both pattern and rhythm are the major basic components of a work.

The Four Phases of the Myth
Every myth has a central significance and the narrative in a myth centres on a figure that may be a god or demi-god or superhuman being or legend. Frazer and Jung contend that in the development of a myth the central figure or central significance is the most important factor and many writers have accepted this view. Frye classifies myths into four categories:

1. The dawn, spring and birth phase. There are myths dealing with the birth of a hero, his revival and resurrection, defeat of the powers of darkness and death. Subordinate characters such as the father and the mother are introduced in the myth. Such myths are the archetypes of romance and of rhapsodic poetry.

2. The zenith, summer and marriage or triumph phase. In this phase, there are myths of apotheosis, (the act of being raised to the rank of a god), of sacred marriage and of entering into Paradise. Subordinate characters in these myths are the companion and the bride. Such myths are the archetypes of comedy, pastoral and idyll.

3. The sunset, autumn and death phase. These are the myths dealing with the fall of a hero, a dying god, violent death, sacrifice and the hero’s isolation. The subordinate characters are the traitor and the siren. Such myths are the archetypes of tragedy and elegy.

4. The darkness, winter and desolation phase. There are myths dealing with the triumph of these powers. The myths of floods, the return of chaos and the defeat of the hero are examples of this phase. The ogre and the witch are the subordinate characters here and these myths are the archetypes of satire.

These are the four categories of myths, which Frye identifies and they recur in different types of works written by different writers. Indeed they constitute the bases of many great pieces of literature.

Quest - Myth
In addition to the four categories of myths mentioned above, Northrop Frye discusses the quest-myth also which was supposed to have been developed from the four types of myths. In the quest-myth, the hero goes in quest of a truth or something else, and this type of myth recurs in all religions. For example, the Messiah myth is a quest myth of the Holy Grail (a Christian myth) in the last part of The Waste Land. Sacred scriptures of all religions have their own myths and an archetypal critic will have to examine them closely for an appropriate interpretation of texts. From an analysis of the archetypes of myths, a critic can descend to make a study of the genres and from the genres he can further descend to the elucidation of a text in terms of myth. This type of dissension in criticism is called the deductive method of analysis. That is, the critic moves from the general truth (a myth) to an elucidation of the particular truth (the truth of why a character behaves so) in a text. In this way a critic can analyse from myths how a drama or a lyric or an epic has been evolved. Frye further says that, almost all genres in every literature have been evolved from the quest-myth only. It is the duty of an archetypal critic to analyse myths and establish the meaning and message of a work.

Literary Criticism and Religion
There is a close relationship between literary criticism and religion. In his analysis, a literary critic considers God as an archetype of man who is portrayed as a hero in a work. God is a character in the story of Paradise Lost or The Bible, and the critic deals with Him and considers Him only as a human character. Criticism does not deal with any actuality, but with what is conceivable and possible. Similarly religion is not associated with scientific actuality, but with how things look like. Literary criticism works on conceivability. Likewise, religion functions on conceivability. There can be no place for scientific actuality in both, but what, is conceived is accepted by all. Both in religion and literary criticism, an epiphany is at work. It is a revelation of God or truth and it is a profound insight. It originates from the subconscious, from the dreams. In human life there is a cycle of waking and dreaming and in nature also, it could be seen and it is the cycle of light and darkness. Waking and dreaming, and light and darkness are two antithetic factors, which bring about epiphany in a person. It is during the day that man develops fear and frustration, and it is in the dark of the night his libido, the strong force of life, awakens and he resolves to achieve. It is the antithesis, which resolves the problems and misunderstandings of man and makes him perceive truth both in religion and literary criticism.

The Comic Vision and the Tragic Vision in a Myth
Both art and religion are alike and they aim at perfection. Perfection is the end of all human efforts. In art it is achieved through dreaming (imagination) and in religion it is through visualization. Perfection can be achieved in literary criticism also and it is the archetypal critic who does it through an analysis of the comic vision of life and the tragic vision as well in a work. The central pattern of the comic vision and the tragic vision in a myth is detailed below:

1. In the comic vision of life, in a myth, the “human” world is presented as a community, or a hero is portrayed as a representative of the desires of the reader.

Here the archetypes of images are symposium, communion, order, friendship, and love. Marriage or some equivalent consummation belongs to the comic vision of life.

In the tragic vision of life, in the “human” world, there is tyranny or anarchy, or an individual or an isolated man, or a leader with his back to his followers or a bullying giant of romance, or a deserted or betrayed hero. In addition to these, there will be a harlot or a witch or other varieties of Jung’s “terrible mother” in the tragic vision of life.

2. In the comic vision of life in a myth, the “animal” world is presented as a community of domesticated animals, usually a flock of sheep, or a lamb, or one of the gentler birds (usually a dove). The archetypes of images are pastoral images. In the tragic vision of life, in the “animal” world there are beasts, birds of prey, wolves, vultures, serpents, dragons and so on.

3. In the comic vision of life, in the “vegetable” world of a myth, there is a garden, a grove or park, or a tree of life, or a rose or lotus. The examples of the archetypes of Arcadian images are Marvell’s green world and Shakespeare’s forest comedies.

In the tragic vision of life, in the “vegetable” world of a myth, there is a sinister forest like the one in Milton’s Camus or at the opening of Dante’s Inferno, or a heath or wilderness, or a tree of death.

4. In the comic vision of life, in the “mineral” world of a myth, there is a city, or one building or temple, or one stone, normally a glowing precious stone. These are presented as luminous or fiery. The example of the archetype of image is a “starlit dome.”

In the tragic vision of life, the “mineral” world of a myth is seen in terms of deserts, rocks and ruins, or of geometrical images like the cross.

5. In the comic vision of life, in the “unformed” world of a myth, there is a river, traditionally fourfold, which influenced the Renaissance image of the temperate body with its four humours.

In the tragic vision of life, this world usually becomes the sea, as the narrative myth of dissolution is so often a flood myth. The combination of the sea and beast images gives us the leviathan and similar water-borne monsters.

After discussing the central pattern of the comic vision and the tragic vision in a myth, Frye introduces W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as a befitting and famous example of the comic vision which, in the poem, is represented by the city, the tree, the bird, the community of sages, the geometrical gyre and the detachment from the cyclic world. It is either tragic or comic vision of life which determines the interpretation of a symbol or myth, says Frye.

Of the different approaches of literary criticism, Northrop Frye has established the validity of the archetypal approach and its relevance in the elucidation of a text. Like works of literature, criticism is also creative and an archetypal critic discovers the meaning of a text and the motives of a character. No human endeavor is independent and the work of an archetypal critic is inclusive of formalistic criticism (or structural criticism) and historical criticism. Both J.G. Frazer and C.G. Jung opened up new vistas in archetypal or mythical criticism and Frye has obviated the impediments in the appreciation of a text. In mythical criticism, both the inductive method and the deductive method are effective tools and neither can be dispensed with, according to Frye. If one method explains a text based on the derivation of a general truth from the particular, the other method does it the other way round. Both the methods are complementary, and if either of them is unexploited, archetypal criticism will be incomplete. Archetypal approach to a text has contributed to the establishment of a systematic and comprehensive concept of literary criticism.
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