The Great Code

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Northrop Frye is recognized as one of the world’s greatest living scholars, and his body of work one of the most impressive in the recent history of criticism. More than thirty years ago, when he was a junior instructor at the University of Toronto, where he still is on staff, the chairman of his department suggested that he teach a course in the English Bible. The reasons were obvious: professors could no longer anticipate that many of their students would have a working familiarity with the Bible, the cornerstone of Western culture, a principal contributor to man’s visionary account of the universe and of himself within it. Without some such familiarity, one simply cannot understand English literature or appreciate the West’s imaginative heritage. The Great Code is based on a series of courses given by Frye at his university and on lectures given at various universities throughout North America.

Being the holder of a degree in theology and an ordained minister as well as one of the world’s leading literary theorists, Frye is in a unique position to approach the Bible. In this book, his “own personal encounter with the Bible,” Frye suggests principles around which the Bible becomes intelligible to those who have studied it as well as to those who have never read it. He takes his title from an aphorism by William Blake—“The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.” Frye’s book may be read as a long meditation on that remark.

The Great Code is divided into two parts: “The Order of Words” and “The Order of Types.” Part 1 is an inquiry into the language of the Bible; Part 2 is an inquiry into its structure, narrative, and imagery. It is a schematic book, in which the first section—“Language I,” “Myth I,” “Metaphor I,” and “Typology I”—is mirrored in the second section—“Typology II,” “Meta phor II,” “Myth II,” and “Language II.”

No book could have had so specific and concrete a literary influence without possessing literary greatness. Part of the Bible’s greatness lies in the fact that it has traditionally been read as a unit, and this is the way it has influenced Western culture. Its narrative begins where time begins, with the creation of the world, and ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse. In between, it surveys human history under the names of Adam and Israel. Thus, while the material contained within its pages is remarkably diverse in subject matter, style, and viewpoint, it still has an underlying unity.

A second remarkable feature of the Bible is its translatability. How is it that the Scriptures have retained such force in their transformation from Hebrew and Greek (sometimes via Latin) into countless vernaculars? This question in particular attracts Frye’s interest, and his approach to it combines his longstanding attention to archetypes with some of the principles of Structuralist hermeneutics. Frye adopts the French distinction between “the langue that separates English and French and German” and “a langage that makes it possible to express similar things...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)

The Great Code Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

America. CXLVII, August 21, 1982, p. 96.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XXV, October 27, 1982, p. 19.

Georgia Review. XXXVI, Winter, 1982, p. 900.

Library Journal. CVII, June 1, 1982, p. 1097.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, June 9, 1982, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 11, 1982, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LVIII, May 31, 1982, p. 104.

Times Literary Supplement. July 2, 1982, p. 712.