Words with Power

In WORDS WITH POWER, a sequel to THE GREAT CODE (1982), Northrop Frye continues his study of how myth in the Bible has been transmitted and diversified in literature. Although the book ranges over all Western literature, it focuses primarily on the American and British literary traditions.

The first of the book’s two major parts is devoted to critical and interpretive approaches. Frye explains the four major literary modes and distinguishes between rhetoric and ideology. He explains the difference between myth and history and distinguishes between biblical exegesis and mythic criticism. In addition he explores the role and scope of mythic criticism as it applies to the Bible and to literature. Implicit in his defense of myth is the view that spiritual truth is symbolic, not historical, even though it may have a basis in history.

In the second section, Frye analyzes four major mythic symbols from the Old Testament—the mountain, the garden, the cave, and the furnace. Beginning with images of ascent—mountains, ladders, towers—he demonstrates how poets such as Dante, Milton, T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats have displaced mythic symbols while preserving their original meaning. It is Frye’s contention that symbols such as towers and spirals intensify man’s consciousness, an idea that owes something to Carl G. Jung’s concept of archetypal symbols.

In exploring the second symbol, the garden from Genesis, Frye explains how the biblical concept became associated with femininity and with sexuality in later literature. Eve bears a resemblance to Ruth, to the Virgin of the New Testament, and to Earth Mother figures of ancient myth, each standing for the constructive role of femininity in creating psychic wholeness and ethical soundness.

The cave symbol, deriving from the biblical Hell and the classical underworld, embodies both destructive and constructive elements. In one sense it implies a fall; in another, a descent and reascent in which one obtains knowledge of the future, as in a dream. It reinforces a multilayered view of existence, with the lower level representing a source for renewal or alteration. The fourth symbol, the furnace, becomes an analog of the mythic hero who descends into a cauldron of suffering in order to achieve a moral or spiritual victory.