Reconsidering Levels of Meaning

By Frye, Northrop | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Reconsidering Levels of Meaning


Frye, Northrop, Christianity and Literature


Prefatory Note

The present essay, which centers on Northrop Frye's interest in the Bible, derives from two lectures he gave in 1979, only a few years before his first book on the Bible, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature was published (1982). Frye's interest in the Bible can be traced to his childhood: his mother taught him Bible stories at an early age, even introducing him to Josephus, and as a child he read Hurlbut's Story of the Bible (1904), a well-traveled retelling of 168 Biblical stories which is still in print. But The Great Code derived ultimately from the course on the English Bible that Frye taught for some forty years before the book was published. Even before he began teaching "The English Bible" in the mid-1940s, he had led an informal discussion for a small group of students, sponsored by the Student Christian Movement, on Biblical symbolism and typology.

In the Preface to The Great Code Frye remarked, "The book (with its successor) has been on my mind for a long time" (ix), and indeed his intention to write on the Bible can be traced to entries in his earliest notebooks. As we learn from a 1939 notebook, as yet unpublished, a study of the literary symbolism of the Bible was part of the plan Frye sketched for his first book, antedating even Fearful Symmetry. His intention to write a book on the Bible goes back, then, almost four-and-a-half decades before The Great Code finally appeared. Anatomy of Criticism contained a sketch of a typological study of the Bible in the context of epic forms, and following the completion of Anatomy, Frye considered writing a book on the epic, its three parts being devoted to Homer and Virgil, the Bible, and Dante. The plans for the book that was to succeed the Anatomy--what Frye called his "third book"--went through numerous and complicated outlines: sometimes he speaks of a separate book and at other times of a section or chapter of the "third book"

Frye was never able to write this third book in the grand continuous form he had outlined, but parts of the design did split off into smaller projects. One of these was the 1971 Birks Lectures at McGill University, a project he began planning in 1969. But sometime after April 1971 he began to see the book on religion that would issue from the Birks lectures as merging with his handbook on Biblical symbolism. He contemplated doing "a small book on the literary uses of the Bible" but eventually decided he really was going to write a "big book on the Bible" the Birks lectures book being now displaced by a seven-section book, the thirty-two chapters of which he outlined in some detail. This plan, as was typical of Frye's major writing projects, went through numerous other schematic formulations during the next ten years, and in the present lectures these are distilled into two broad topics--language and meaning. The first lecture is an embryonic form of the theory of language that Frye developed in the opening chapter of The Great Code and to which he returned in the first chapter of his second book on the Bible, Words with Power (1990). The second lecture focuses on the theory of "levels of meaning" in Frye's title--a reconsideration of Dante's theory of polysemous meaning that formed the backbone of the theory of symbols in Anatomy of Criticism. Frye turns to Dante's ladder of meaning in the final chapter of The Great Code, and he turns to it again, eight years later, in the opening chapter of Words with Power. The present lectures, then, represent a fairly late, succinct, and informal account of Frye's thinking on the language of the Bible and its levels of meaning.

The two lectures were given on successive evenings at Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia, 15-16 March 1979. Frye spoke, not from a manuscript, but from a set of notes he had jotted down on two sheets of paper. In transcribing the lectures from an audio-recording, I have altered Frye's "radical of presentation" from an oral form into a written one, imitating the process of much biblical transmission itself and so preserving what would otherwise be unknown or forgotten.

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