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Frye Secular ScriptureI started reading this book a few years ago, I believe on the recommendation of John Crowley, but I stalled out despite finding the subject-matter immediately fascinating. This is Frye's analysis of the romance, in the old sense of romance as an adventure story or tale of wonder, with myths, fable, and folktales in its roots. I picked it up again this weekend because I just read an ancient Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, which I'll write more about later.

One of the things about Frye's book that hooked me is that he saw modern science fiction and fantasy as a new incarnation of the old romances (which of course the genre had already acknowledged in earlier terms such as scientific romance or planetary romance). He doesn't actually talk much about science fiction, but he occasionally throws in examples from Tolkien or Arthur C. Clarke or whatnot. Interestingly he's slightly dismissive of Tolkien and much more fascinated by William Morris. But mostly he's talking about classics like Homer, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare, or the ancient Greek novels such as Daphnis and Chloe that are the earliest examples of the romance as a literary form.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, he really gets into the structure of these tales, and I have to admit that reading this anatomy of stories got me thinking about trying my hand at fiction again. It felt like he was giving me the keys to story-telling, and that all I really needed to do was steal the best stuff from Shakespeare and Homer. Well, easier said than done, as I learned long ago.

I found the first half of the book more interesting than the last half, although I'm not completely sure why. The second half is dedicated to themes of the descent to the underworld and the ascent to the upperworld. The former is the story of losing your self, the latter is the story of finding yourself. Somehow, however, I just didn't find the story samples as compelling as in, for example, the character analysis in the chapter called "Our Lady of Pain: Heroes and Heroines of Romance," which amongst other things analyzes the romance's seemingly silly obsession with female virginity.

Anyway, Frye was a tremendously lucid writer, and the book was a joy to read on the level of complicated ideas expressed clearly. The way he wove the stories of two millenia into a revealing tapestry was quite heady. I didn't completely follow his argument about what makes the romances a secular scripture as opposed to, say, Christian mythology, but I guess partly it was the ritual aspect to the stories -- the sense in which romances are initiation stories at their core, but initiation stories that have been rationalized or displaced into something non-religious.

Well, I started re-reading it from the beginning as soon as I finished it yesterday. I don't think I'll immediately read it all the way through again, but I think this book is something I could dip into again and again and find fresh insight in it.

Update: Here's Fry's own characterization of what he means by the title: ' Is it possible, then, to look at secular stories as a whole, and as forming a single biblical vision? This is the question implied in the ‘secular scripture’ of my title. In the chapters that follow I should like to look at fiction as a total verbal order, with the outlines of an imaginative universe in it. The Bible is the epic of the creator, with God as its hero. Romance is the structural core of all fiction: being directly descended from folktale, it brings us closer than any other aspect of literature to the sense of fiction, considered as a whole, as the epic of the creature, man’s vision of his own life as a quest.'


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2014 05:47 pm (UTC)
Tolkien was slightly dismissive of his own work, in the sense that he felt that readers who were blown away by it , considering it something unique or unprecedented, simply weren't very well read in the fields of epic fantasy and romance. But it is true that many of the criticism of The Lord of the Rings even by scholars of modern literature can be effectively countered by pointing out that the book is not really a novel, but a romance. This is where Frye's analysis has helped a great deal.
Jun. 16th, 2014 05:57 pm (UTC)
Yes, Frye is very good on the subject of why romances have always been devalued or ignored by serious literary critics. It has been interesting to me to discover that Daphnis and Chloe, for example, was looked down on by classics scholars until quite recently, even as it continued to influence poets and other writers. It has even been dismissed as pornography, which is pretty similar to the way science fiction has been dismissed over the years as well.
Jun. 18th, 2014 01:52 pm (UTC)
Frye was a student of Tolkien when he was at Merton Ciollege, Oxford, in the late 1930s.
Jun. 18th, 2014 02:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Frye/Tolkien
Wow, that's quite interesting. I wonder whether Tolkien planted any seeds in Frye's scholarly mind regarding the romance.
Jun. 18th, 2014 02:02 pm (UTC)
Frye's as yet unpublished notes on Daphnis and Chloe

Randy Byers,

Send me your email address and I'll send you the notes Frye took in preparation for writing The Secular Scripture. The first set of notes is on Daphnis and Chloe. The notes run to something above 95,000 words.

R Denham
Jun. 18th, 2014 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Frye's as yet unpublished notes on Daphnis and Chloe
Bless your heart! You can send them to fringefaan at yahoo.com. I'm reading a second translation of Daphne and Chloe right now and have ordered Bruce MacQueen's book.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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