Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Imaginative and the Imaginary: Northrop Frye and Tolkien

For goodness sake, has it really been two weeks since my last post?! I’m terribly sorry about that. :)

Part of my silence of late is explained by the fact that I’ve been busy organizing and selecting from my notes, doing satellite reading for, and then writing a book review. I haven’t been working on it for quite six months, but it almost feels like it. Anyway, the review is finished, and at almost 4,000 words, it’s pretty substantial.

I’m not going to dig any deeper for now (you’ll have to wait for it to appear in print), but I wanted to share some related findings, specifically on Northrop Frye’s view of Tolkien. In the book I was reviewing, the author bases part of his analysis on Frye’s theory of literary modes (as systematized in Anatomy of Criticism), so I’ve found myself reading Frye again.

Tom Shippey was probably the first to invoke Frye in Tolkien studies, though several others have done so since (and with varying degrees of success). I don’t have a first edition of The Road to Middle-earth, but I’m assuming the short discussion of Frye’s modes goes all the way back to 1981. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know. In any event, Shippey pointed out that “[t]here is another way of approaching the question of the trilogy’s literary status, which has the further merit of concentrating attention on its prose style as well as on poetry. This is via Northrop Frye’s now-famous book, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), a work which never mentions The Lord of the Rings, but nevertheless creates a literary place for it with Sibylline accuracy.” He goes on to explain: “Mr. Frye’s theory, in essence, is that there are five ‘modes’ of literature, all defined by the relationship between heroes, environments, and humanity. [...] Clearly the mode intended [to characterize The Lord of the Rings] is the one below ‘myth’ but above ‘high mimesis’, the world of ‘romance’ whose heroes are characteristically ‘superior in degree [not kind] to other men and to [their] environments’.” [1]

Shippey is correct: Frye does not mention Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings in Anatomy of Criticism. (However, he does mention C.S. Lewis and other writers related to Tolkien studies.) Who would have expected him to? Frye’s book was published only two years after The Return of the King. But ... As part of my research for the book review, I came across a couple of very interesting items which, together, tell a somewhat different story.

First, I learned that Victoria University Library (in the University of Toronto system) holds first edition copy of The Lord of the Rings personally annotated by Frye — among some 2,000 other similarly marked volumes! Apparently, Victoria is to Frye was Marquette and the Bodleian are to Tolkien. According to VU, the copies Frye read are British impressions from 1956. I am unaware of any definitive proof he read and annotated them in that year or the early the next, but I suspect he did (more on why in a moment). If he did, it would have given him a hypothetical opportunity to have included Tolkien in Anatomy of Criticism. I would love to get a look at the scholia with which Frye illuminated his copies! It’s possible there is some date evidence there as well, which would also be valuable.

As a short sidebar, there’s a slight question in my mind about the date of 1956 – because there was no impression of The Return of the King in that year. The second impression dates from November 1955, and the third, January 1957. But it could simply be an oversight. Assuming the date is correct for the other two volumes, Frye’s set was most likely a 5th or 6th impression of The Fellowship of the Ring, a 4th impression of The Two Towers, and a 3rd impression of The Return of the King. A valuable set, even without Frye’s annotations! And I’ll just leave it there for now. </geekOut>

As I hinted above, there is a little more evidence to place Frye’s reading as early as 1956. The University of Toronto Press has been systematically publishing the hundred or so personal notebooks Frye kept on his academic research, and from which he produced most of his published scholarship. Last year, Volume 23 in UTP’s Collected Works of Northrop Frye, imaginatively entitled Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism, hit the scholarly circuit. My local library doesn’t own a copy, but I managed to get one from Texas Tech University through interlibrary loan. And hwæt to my wandering eye should appear?

Frye mentions Tolkien three times in the material from which (in part) he assembled Anatomy of Criticism. The raw material for Anatomy published here consists of some eighteen notebooks — now that is some meticulous work! Frye continued adding notes to some of these after the publication of his book, but the internal evidence (as I make it out) suggests that Frye’s comments about Tolkien date from c. 1956–8. In a couple of cases, it’s pretty apparent to me that the notes antedate publication of Anatomy of Criticism. The bottom line? Frye apparently had read The Lord of the Rings before publishing his watershed book, and he had even imagined where it fit into his theory of modes! Shippey was correct on both counts: that Frye never mentioned him in Anatomy (a mere technicality, as it transpires), but also that the “romantic” is the most applicable mode. By the way, for those keeping score, Frye did mention Tolkien a number of other times in other books — e.g., The Secular Scripture (1976) and in the Notebooks on Romance (2004). The point here, though, is the evidence to connect Frye’s thinking about Tolkien to the early and seminal Anatomy of Criticism, published immediately on the heels of The Lord of the Rings.

In two of the three instances where Frye mentions Tolkien, it is in the context of laying out his theory of modes (six of them, rather than five, in these drafts; in itself, probable evidence to antedate the notes). Tolkien is connected in both cases to a mode Frye calls “sentimental romance” — in the company of writers such as Goethe, Hugo, Scott, Hawthorne, Melville, Morris, and MacDonald. Sounds about right. In the first of these two, Frye just happens to mention “Faerie” on the same page! [2] He also mentions “mythopoeia” elsewhere (in association with William Blake).

The third Tolkien reference is of a more subjective nature. Here, Frye writes: “I thought I had this in: in reading Tolkien, which I did with great & almost uncritical pleasure, it nevertheless struck me, somewhere around Appendix VI, that there was a point at which the imaginative turns into the imaginary.” [3]

Some thoughts:

1) “Had this in” — what? Does Frye mean to say he thought he had included the observation in the manuscript of Anatomy of Criticism, but then realized he hadn’t? Or is he referring to another notebook? There’s no immediate context to clarify that. And herein lies the difficulty in trying to interpret personal notes! 2) “Appendix VI” must be Appendix F; the appendices in The Lord of the Rings are represented by letters, not Roman numerals. Assuming he does have Appendix F in mind, unless his memory lapsed, what would he mean by identifying it (i.e., the very end of the book) as the point at which he questioned the imaginative vs. imaginary? Any theories? 3) It appears here pretty unequivocal that Frye enjoyed reading Tolkien. Elsewhere, I have seen mildly disparaging comments (e.g., The Secular Scripture) reported to suggest Frye did not. 4) And what about that larger assertion he makes here, that “there was a point at which the imaginative turns into the imaginary”? Any comments, anyone? I’ll save mine for another day; I’ve rambled on too long already. I know that Frye wrote a relevant essay, “The Imaginative and the Imaginary”, but I haven’t managed to read it yet. Obviously, much food for thought — and a cud to last a good while longer still.

It is fascinating to see this early discussion of Tolkien, even at such brevity, and especially associated with Frye’s most important work. And the irony of finding the needle in this haystack of notebooks is hardly lost on me. Frye’s voluminous notebooks are indeed not unlike Tolkien’s own mountain of drafts, recensions, and scribbled notes. The History of Middle-earth, too, stands analogous to (and a mere shadow of) the “notebooks project” at UTP. That both these Zettelkasten are now available should keep scholars busy for many years to come.

[1] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2003, p. 210, 211.

[2] Northrop Frye. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, Volume 23: Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, pp. 111, 274.

[3] Ibid., p. 284.


  1. Read Glen Gill's _Northrup Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth_. Besides being a pretty cool guy, Gill is someone who has probably already spent a lot of time thinking about the issues you've raised.

  2. You had me at “phenomenology” ... ;) Seriously, though, thanks very much for that suggestion! I’ll put Gill’s book on my reading list. It sounds like an excellent study.

  3. Since Scott has conjured me, I’ll speak up.

    Actually, I don’t refer to Tolkien much in Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, except for a reference to Gandalf in the chapter on Jung; but I have done a fair bit of work on Frye and Tolkien elsewhere. I take Shippey to task for his application of Frye’s theories in the Anatomy to The Lord of the Rings in a paper called “The Biblical Structure of The Lord of the Rings” (forthcoming in The Ring and the Cross: Tolkien and Religion. Ed. Paul Kerry. Zürich: Walking Tree, 2009); my central point there is that Shippey neglects Frye’s theories of biblical typology, and if he hadn’t it would have settled questions he raises about how Tolkien sublimates religious symbolism.

    I’ve also searched out most of the other references to Tolkien in Frye, including the one you mention from the Anatomy notebooks; the references to Tolkien crop up here and there in places like The Secular Scripture, as you say, but they actually go all the way back to 1938, when Frye wrote a letter to his wife from Oxford, where he was studying, and spoke of one of Tolkien’s lectures on Beowulf as:

    “dealing with a most insanely complicated problem which involves Anglo-Saxon genealogies, early Danish histories, monkish chronicles in Latin, Icelandic Eddas and Swedish folklore. Imagine my delivery at its very worst: top-speed, unintelligible burble, great complexity of ideas and endless references to things unknown, mixed in with a lot of Latin and Anglo-Saxon and a lot of difficult proper names which aren’t spelled, and you have Tolkien on Beowulf."

    All told, Frye was fascinated by Tolkien, but he did see him, as many critics did, as somewhat outside the mainstream of modern literature (I know this better than most because I have just finished editing vol. 29 of the Collected Works, Northrop Frye’s writings on Twentieth-Century Literature, and amid all the discussions of the ironic mythopoeia of Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce, there are no references to Tolkien). Now, this was not a shortcoming in his view: in fact, he appreciated how Tolkien was following rather in the tradition of Romantic English mythopoeia that you find in Spenser, Blake, and William Morris. But this did make him somewhat belated; not that this was a problem, either, because Frye saw such writers as continuing to the fly the flag of Romanticism so that the high modernists would have something to ironize.

    The closest Frye comes to criticizing Tolkien is actually the remark you mention about how Tolkien comes close to blurring the line between the imaginative and the imaginary. These two words, from the title of Frye’s 1962 essay “The Imaginative and the Imaginary,” are his terms for writing that creates in order to illuminate and transform our reality by contrast versus writing that is purely escapist. He was loath to apply that latter critique, the mainstay of so much ham-handed Tolkien criticism, because he felt that all literature was in a critical dialectic with reality; but he felt that at some point in Tolkien’s many appendices he may have crossed a line where he was no longer revisioning European myth and history, but was now accumulating detail for its own sake.

    I count Frye among the many great critics who appreciated Tolkien but who, for various reasons, never got around to writing about him specifically. This is particularly regrettable in Frye’s case, since he was such an über-theorist, but then I suppose some of us are picking up the task for him now.

    Incidently, the imaginative-imaginary remark, while appearing in the Anatomy notebooks, actually originates in marginalia that Frye wrote in his copy of The Lord of Rings, in one of the appendices. Frye was an obsessive margin-writer, and many of his ideas and books were actually sketched out in the margins of his library. Unfortunately, unlike the marginalia he wrote in his copies of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance (the latter of which may actually be published), he actually wrote very little beyond the remark above in his copy of The Lord of the Rings: if I remember correctly from my perusal of it some years back, there are a few spottings of parallels with Arthurian myth, an observation connecting Shelob to Echidna from Greek mythology, a musing on the similarity of the Ring to Jung’s autoerotic cycle, and some associations with Spenser and Walter Scott.

    Sorry about the lengthy miscellany, but I thought it was a great post you made, and a worthwhile subject overall.

  4. Excellent post -- and what a follow up by Glen Robert Gill! All I can add is a little trivia.

    Tom Shippey was probaby the first to invoke Frye in Tolkien studies...
    I think Christine Brooke-Rose discusses Frye in the introductory sections of of her 1981 book, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in narrative and structure, especially of the fantastic. However, she does not mention Frye in "The evil ring: realism and the marvellous", the chapter specific to Tolkien (which was discussed in the Reading Room forum in 2006).

    I don't have a first edition of The Road to Middle-earth, but I'm assuming the short discussion of Frye's modes goes all the way back to 1981.
    Actually, I think Shippey's book first appeared in 1982. But your assumption holds at least as far as the first American edition of 1983. Even in that edition, Shippey in a footnote mentions The Secular Scripture, "where some remarks on Tolkien are made" (p. 241, n.20) -- that's Shippey's emphasis, which is missing in the third edition of Road. (I find it odd that Shippey, who leans on Frye for a scheme to place Tolkien, never responds to Frye's actual comments on Tolkien. He does reply to Brooke-Rose's difficult and bizarre analysis, in his third edition.)

    Assuming he does have Appendix F in mind, unless his memory lapsed, what would he mean by identifying it ... as the point at which he questioned the imaginative vs. imaginary? Any theories?
    One guess: Appendix F is where Tolkien, for some readers, goes too far with his subcreation by overplaying the translation conceit. For instance, one commenter in TORN's February 2005-June 2006 serial discussion of The Lord of the Rings complained that turning Sam Gamgee, a hobbit of the Shire, into "Banazír Galbasi", a "kûd-dûkan" of the "Sûza", makes a familiar character suddenly ridiculous.

    Speaking of Appendix F, I'll note now that you're leading a discussion of that text in March, to close out the current LotR series.

    [G.R. Gill] Unfortunately, unlike the marginalia he wrote in his copies of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance...
    The Bodleian reportedly holds notes that Tolkien wrote about Finnegan's Wake; it would be interesting to compare those to Frye's marginalia. As for Dante: Tolkien was for ten years a member, though perhaps a reluctant one, of the Oxford Dante Society.

  5. To Glen: thank you so much for the insightful comments. It is very interesting to learn that the comment Frye wrote into Notebook 18 actually came from his marginalia in The Lord of the Rings. Also interesting to get the highlights of those marginal notes from you. I suppose I can save myself a special trip to VU now. :)

    I was also very intrigued to learn about The Ring and the Cross. I don’t think there is anything about this forthcoming title on the Walking Tree website. Can you tell me anything more about it? For example, who else is being published in the collection? If you have a table of contents, I would love to see it. (And were you or Paul Kerry aware that there is already an Italian collection with the same title?)

    Sorry about the lengthy miscellany, but I thought it was a great post you made, and a worthwhile subject overall.

    Thanks, and no need for you to apologize. Your comments have added much to the discussion. I would have happily read twice as much, or more, and I’ll be looking forward to your essay in the new Walking Tree collection. :)

  6. To N.E. Brigand:

    Excellent post -- and what a follow up by Glen Robert Gill! All I can add is a little trivia.

    Thanks much. I’m gratified to have sparked such a conversation, and I hope there may be more to come.

    I think Christine Brooke-Rose discusses Frye in the introductory sections of of her 1981 book [...]. However, she does not mention Frye in “The evil ring: realism and the marvellous”, the chapter specific to Tolkien [...]

    I haven’t read her book. I only know of it from Shippey’s responses to it in The Road to Middle-earth (p. 319–22 in my copy, for those who want to look it up). You mentioned this in your comments also, and I imagine it was the catalyst for the Reading Room discussion to which you referred.

    Actually, I think Shippey’s book first appeared in 1982. But your assumption holds at least as far as the first American edition of 1983.

    Ah yes, I should have double-checked my memory. It isn’t what it used to be. :)

    One guess: Appendix F is where Tolkien, for some readers, goes too far with his subcreation by overplaying the translation conceit. For instance, one commenter [...] complained that turning Sam Gamgee, a hobbit of the Shire, into “Banazír Galbasi”, a “kûd-dûkan” of the “Sûza”, makes a familiar character suddenly ridiculous.

    That’s a fair point, and it brings me back to Shippey’s paraphrase of Christine Brooke-Rose, that she “has a point. She feels that The Lord of the Rings, viewed as fantasy, is weighed down by ‘hypertrophic’ realism” (Road 321). With which assessment it seems likely Frye would have agreed.

  7. Wonderful post and comments! I always learn so much by reading your blog. I have such a long way to go in my Tolkien studies. SIGH.


    RTFL! Can I steal this expression from you? :)

  8. Sure you can steal it, Cat. :) In fact, I probably stole it from someone myself. Thanks for the kind comments.

  9. Robert Denham12/20/2008 1:41 PM

    Frye on Tolkien: A Sourcebook from some of the references in Frye's works:
    In medieval literature we often meet the conception of the chivalric ring, the group of knights united by some circular symbol like the Garter or the Round Table, who are dedicated to the service of the prince and to the social ideals of the church. The theme of the chivalric ring, which usually dissolves in some tragic or elegiac conclusion, has run through English literature from the comitatus groups in the earliest heroic poetry to Tennyson—in fact to T.H. White and Tolkien. In some respects the humanists formed a civilian and intellectual counterpart to the chivalric ring, and the connection between them is the theme of the greatest English poem of Renaissance humanism, Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Here a group of knights go through the regular chivalric routines of rescuing maidens and killing dragons and giants, but all this activity really symbolizes the ideal cultural and religious education of the ideal Christian and Renaissance prince. (The Critical Path)

    Some time ago when I was in Oxford, I thought that a place as old as this ought to have some particular kind of genius loci, that there should be something more or less in the key of Oxford which would indicate the quality of work that had been produced there. I soon realized that Oxford people are extremely proud of their record of eccentric bachelors, and that when one examines the great imaginative productions of Oxford, such works as The Anatomy of Melancholy and Alice in Wonderland, one sees exactly this kind of thing, that is, a hyperlogical fantasy which teeters on the brink of normal mental processes. That, of course, throws a flood of light on a number of other Oxford geniuses, such as Pater and Hopkins. And when I read in Newman’s Apologia that so-and-so taught him the doctrine of the apostolic succession in the course of a walk around the Christ Church meadows, I mean no disrespect to the doctrine of apostolic succession when I say that this seems to be in exactly the key of slightly nutty fantasy which has been the characteristic of Oxford from time immemorial, and which was still going on when I was there as a student in the kind of work associated with C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Tolkien. (“Universities and the Deluge of Cant”)

    But within the last quarter century or so there has been a quite unexpected development in the area often (and very inaccurately) called “science fiction.” Some of the best selling works in this area are Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, Zelazny’s Amber trilogy, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The frequency of the trilogy form is doubtless due to the sensational success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and these works are routinely compared to Tolkien in the blurbs, although Eddison’s trilogy of Memison books was in the field earlier than Tolkien. Morris wrote no romance that was formally a trilogy, but some of them are long enough to have been arranged in that form. In any case the genre itself seems clearly to have begun with Morris, apart from the fact that Morris was at least one significant influence on Tolkien. (“The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris”)

    The theme of the renunciation of a heroic quest, which runs all through Parsifal, had already appeared in the Ring, because the whole titanic struggle started by Alberich’s theft can only end when the stolen gold is put back where it was. The effectiveness of this theme for romance was demonstrated in the next century by the sensational success of Tolkien, who retells the story of a ring that must not be won but lost, the Nibelung story interpenetrated with the spirit of redeeming simplicity in Parsifal, symbolized by his “hobbits.” Parsifal is much more explicitly the drama of a renounced quest, to the point of being something of an anti drama. This is because the central theme of the spiritual growth of Parsifal himself is so closely connected with the theme of temptation. (“The World as Music and Idea in Wagner’s Parsifal”)

    I think of [Tragicomedy] as more continuous, & in the Tolkien area, a recreated world of the deep consciousness: the kind of symposium world, where the characters are romantically projected but not manipulated, that all prose romance gropes for. The world of the Decameron & of Castiglione, of the London club where romance radiates, the Faerie Queene’s court, perhaps Paulina’s chapel. It’s clear from all this how completely I’m still a critic. But I’ve always felt that the only kind of book I’d want to write in fiction would be the one I’d most like to read for relaxation. And that book would go straight down to this dream of the red chamber at the heart of a fairy world full of golden lamps in a green night. (Notebooks on the Bible)

    In the nineteenth century this society, at least in England, became a liberal group. The Mill & Arnold developments I have. Arthur’s court is still going in Tennyson, and as an undergraduate I used to play around with the “ring” idea which I felt was lurking even in Browning’s Ring & the Book symbolism—this was long before Tolkien’s romance appeared, of course. [On Frye’s interest as an undergraduate on the ring symbolism in Browning, see “Robert Browning: An Abstract Study,” in Student Essays, 106.] Still, I suppose that the chivalric or crusading ring is something else: it’s more a symposium of the Eros-Adonis hemisphere, not the Nomos-Nous axis. Conspiratorial & esoteric groups belong to the lower semicircle—my Yeats & Fabian society links. (Notebooks on the Bible)

    This conception of the cycle is quite different from the cycle of the Nostos or return home—the Odyssey theme, repeated at the end of Tolkien. (Notebooks on the Bible)

    There are two literary genres that have been interesting me lately. One is the science-fiction trilogy (that is, it’s usually the creation of a world, with a story that occupies three volumes). Examples are Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, Zelazny’s Amber world, Farmer’s “Riverrun” books (not up to the others, in my view), Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, and a number of others. They derive, of course, from the huge success of the Tolkien trilogy, and the blurbs routinely compare them to Tolkien. But the Eddison series was written before Tolkien, to say nothing of the Morris ends-of-the earth series. (Notebooks on the Bible)

    HARRON: The wilderness is a very strong image, as is Freud’s notion of an id and an ego and a superego. Is that a kind of cosmology of its own?
    FRYE: Oh, yes, it’s the same old cosmology that’s been around since before the Book of Genesis. Man has always lived in the middle earth. That’s not Tolkien’s discovery. It’s one of the most ancient myths we have. There’s always been a world up there, symbolized by the sun and the moon and the stars, and there’s always been a world down there, which is symbolized by the underworld or the world under the sea. Man has always lived his life between the things that he’s associated with what’s up there—the ideals, the superego—and what’s down there—the id, all the sulphurous devils running around and stinking. (Interview with Don Harron)

    My system begins and ends with history. Anatomy of Criticism had to be in part a history of literature, and I have conceived it as a history of the various genres and literary traditions as well as of their transformations. These traditions and genres are continually renewed, especially vis à vis the function of the class structure of society in which these transformations take place. This seems to be a naive conception of literature but it is not so. When I stated that the ironic stage of literature would lead to a stage of myth and later of romance I did not know anything of Tolkien and other contemporary writers. In the “ironic” stage there is a mistrust of norms, traditions, and literary myths. In the “mythic” stage, structure is usually explicitly used by writers and a new freedom flourishes and leads to a new stage of romance where fable and science fiction prevail.
    REID: What will be the new tendencies at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s?
    FRYE: I think that the neo-romantic period in which we live with personalities like Ginsberg and Tolkien is very different from the first half of the century, dominated by such giants as Joyce, Pound, etc. Now literature has become more democratic and collective. Poetry is often sung and read in public, something that was inconceivable during the first half of the century. Today there is a literary conscience. (Interview with Gilbert Reid)

    Man is asleep and fantasizing in the ladder, garden and seed worlds. His central activity there is quest, the projection of Word into Deed that enables him to go on sleeping. In the fire world he’s compelled to wake up, hence the first thing he does is withdraw the quest. Paradise Regained, Prometheus Unbound, Parsifal, Tolkien, etc. (Late Notebooks)

    Turning away from quest (Faust’s Erdgeist, Dante’s three beasts) recurs in the Job climax. (Turning away from past & Satan but seeing leviathan after all.) Wagner & Shelley, Tolkien & the renounced cycle I perhaps don’t need, as I’ve got them elsewhere. (Late Notebooks)

    Similarly, what most historians would consider crackpot or paranoid history may be useful to a romance writer (Tolkien’s appendices form a comprehensive pseudo-history) or a satirist (e.g. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo). (Late Notebooks)

    Chasing the siddhis, the will o’ the wisps of magical powers, is what a lot of technology does. The real drive & energy of myth is clearer in music, with its allegro fugues & their imitative entries. In literature there’s the cyclical quest where we either come home again (Sam in Tolkien) or attain Kierkegaard’s repetition, recreating the original form. (Late Notebooks)

    Certainly the Albion-Finnegan all-men-as-one-man though that’s more like Tolkien’s Return of the King. (Late Notebooks)

    Well, the Grail romances may be, as Waite suggests, a mythical history with its own kind of authority—though this seems to be verging on the next chapter. Anyway, my hunches about the Tolkien trilogy as a genre (Eddison before him, then Frank Herbert, Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin and others) which is within the Ariosto conventions may go here. (Late Notebooks)

    If one looks at the various long romances which have followed upon the sensational success of Tolkien, however, one finds a tradition developing which was quite obviously initiated by the prose romances of Morris (who was among other things a major influence on Tolkien himself). (“Myth as the Matrix of Literature”)

    Let me give one fairly extended example of how narratives lead up to some sort of visualizable emblem, myth or narrative frozen into a complex metaphor. Mythology from primitive times to Tolkien and beyond has always thought of the world we live in as a “middle earth,” with two other theatres of reality above and below it. “Above” and “below” are once again spatial metaphors, but they are no less pervasive for that. So we get the image of climbing to a higher sphere of existence, represented usually by a ladder, sometimes by a mountain or tree. (“the Koine of Myth”)

    The later Victorian William Morris marks a further development of romance. Morris collected a great number of traditional romances, which he versified or translated or adapted, most of them in the book called The Earthly Paradise. Later in his life he turned to a form of prose romance in which the setting, though vaguely medieval, was in fact purely imaginary, both the history and the geography being invented, as the titles suggest (The Wood Beyond the World; The Well at the World’s End, and so on). These stories were out of fashion at the time, but after a remarkable mid twentieth century success in somewhat the same idiom — Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — a good deal of what is sometimes known as SCIENCE FICTION began to take on romance themes. A strange, magical, even miraculous setting seems appropriate enough when the setting is another planet, and what relation the story still has to our own experience contributes the allegorical dimension. (Harper Handbook to Literature)

    The cyclical framework for the journey may have different emotional overtones. In a pure cycle the hero is trapped in a squirrel cage: there is nothing for him to do except to do it all over again. A rather silly example of this is in one of the romances that had some vogue in the wake of the success of Tolkien, Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. (“The Journey as Metaphor”)

    However, when empires start building walls around themselves it is a sign that their power is declining, and “the great tradition” is now not much more than a tradition. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings came out in the mid 1950s, to the accompaniment of a chorus of readers saying “of course I can’t read fantasy,” usually with an air of conscious virtue. The success of Tolkien’s book, however, indicated a change of taste parallel to the post Ginsberg change in poetry, towards the romantic, the fantastic, and the mythopoeic. (“The Renaissance of Books”)

    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a quest romance that leaves me with a great deal to think about that I’ll record in due course, as it’s an extraordinary performance. On the appendixes I have two notes: getting slightly fagged by all the donnish pedantry of lists of kings & etymologies & calendars, I said there was a point at which the imaginative turned into the imaginary. At the same time I recognized that every great imaginative effort, especially in fantasy, has to conquer a whole kingdom: either you repudiate everything or you go along with everything, but anything that comes clear has to emerge from a colossal structure of realized detail. Hence the pedantry of Scott—even of Lewis Carroll, as against the vague & shadowy effect of William Morris. (Romance Notebooks)

    a) naive romance. Folktale patterns of the quest or Two Brothers variety; the medieval stories of Tristran, Parsifal, the Nibelungenlied, the Romaunt of the Rose (though that’s really more an Eros vision, at least in the de Lorris part), the Sagas, & so on.
    b) sentimental romance, running from Scott through Poe, Hawthorne, (Melville), George Macdonald & William Morris to Tolkien, along with German parallels and the 19th c. ghost story convention. (Romance Notebooks)

    When Tolkien first came out a lot of people would say “I can’t read fantasy,” with an air of conscious virtue. But when he became popular it became evident that a tradition was behind him. The basis of this tradition was George MacDonald and William Morris, and while my enthusiasm for Tolkien himself was never white-hot, Morris was the man after Blake who most interested me, just as Spenser was the man before. But gradually it became clear that the whole tradition of what I call sentimental romance, Scott, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan LeFanu, even Rider Haggard, was involved. Now there’s a flourishing industry in reprinting works of “adult fantasy,” of which I’m availing myself. It’s also clear that the whole development of science fiction, and the kind of writing on the periphery of that (e.g. [Kurt] Vonnegut) attaches itself to sentimental romance, not to realism, and makes the tradition of the former important to grasp. (Romance Notebooks)

    After that I go on to the main body of the discussion, which is centred in nineteenth-century sentimental romance. I treat this as a series of displacements towards realism. Least displaced are such things as George Macdonald, William Morris, and Tolkien. Next come Poe, Wilkie Collins, and the like; then Scott, Hawthorne, Le Fanu (Rider Haggard is in the earlier group); then, closer to realism, or at least to psychological analysis, Melville, Conrad, Virginia Woolf. (Romance Notebooks)

    Norna in The Pirate is quite an interesting character: she doesn’t really believe that she can control the weather, and talks about rebellious skeptical notions inside her mind. But she’s not only sane enough to ask herself whether she’s sane; she’s even sane enough to decide to stay mad, because it’s more fun that way. She gets “cured” at the end, because in romance all magicians have to renounce their magic some way or other, but that doesn’t count. Well, Norna’s a Shetlander, so Scott has no language to give her as he has for his Scottish sibyls (Meg Merrilies, Madge Wildfire, Elspeth), so he decks her out in a gruesome rhetoric compounded of Ossian and a contorted version of standard English. And yet synthetic languages, however absurd they sound, do belong in romance: Tolkien and his invented languages are another way of indicating the connection. (Romance Notebooks)

    Still on FIVE: I’m still not quite sure how to tackle the elemental-spirits theme, which is obviously pretty central. I have the silent companion to the lower world in the various dumb figures in Scott, Tobit’s dog, and the like, whom I see as fundamentally post-metamorphosis elemental spirits. In the area covered by FIVE these spirits all return, which is why they’re so prominent in Comus, The Tempest, and, in our day, in Tolkien. (Romance Notebooks)

    First of all, I notice that in science fiction there’s a frequently repeated form of a trilogy (usually) in which a new world is created: Frank Herbert’s Dune books, [Isaac] Asimov’s Foundation, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea or something, [Roger] Zelazny’s Amber books, and a set by Philip Jose Farmer called “Riverrun,” hardly up to the others. These trilogies owe a great deal to the prestige of Tolkien, and are rather routinely and drearily compared to Tolkien in the blurbs. (Romance Notebooks)

    Then there’s George MacDonald, another old favorite of mine, and I suppose Morris again, early as well as late. Tolkien’s essay I might look at, but he doesn’t interest me so much as the others, though there is great power in the Lord of the Rings (incidentally there was a goof group in California that regarded the book as a secret history, which would link it with Spenser). (Romance Notebooks)

    The Lady’s chastity, like invisibility in Tolkien, attracts elementals, both good and bad. So they seem to belong to a kind of cosmic symphony. (Romance Notebooks)

    While contemporary literature, music, and visual art confine themselves to a coterie audience to the degree that they become conceptualized, ironic, and self-referential, an explosion of popular art-forms all around us is either denigrated or reduced to being cannon fodder in the interminable culture wars. In literature and film, romance lies at the center of this popular efflorescence, and Canadians have been at the center of the romance revival. This includes not only writers from the “high culture” context, such as Robertson Davies and (in poetry) Jay Macpherson and James Reaney, but also a burgeoning generation of Canadian fantasists. One of the most eminent and successful is Guy Gavriel Kay, whose career began when he was asked by Christopher Tolkien, at the age of only twenty, to help edit J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous The Silmarillion. Kay became a fantasist in his own right with a trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, modelled on Tolkien but with roots also in “urban fantasy”: the opening scene is set in Convocation Hall of Frye’s own University of Toronto, where Kay had been a student. While a speaker (who was based on Joseph Campbell but who easily could have been Frye) lectures on myth and reality, a demon-like creature eavesdrops, clinging unseen to the outer wall. The scene could stand as an emblem for the interplay between the world of ordinary reality, the unseen “other” world of wonder and terror, and the scholarly world whose task is to mediate between the two. (From Michael Dolzani’s introduction to the Romance Notebooks)

    In the Volsunga Saga and elsewhere we have heroes taking on wolfskins and becoming wolves, Fafnir, Regin’s brother, turning into a dragon, and the brother of both of them being an otter and being killed in that form. I suppose this is the kind of thing that totemism also symbolizes. The Dragon in Tolkien’s Hobbit guarding his hoard is an allegorical development of Fafnir, not that that matters. (Romance Notebooks)

    There is a story by E.R. Eddison called The Worm Ouroboros which is the most Nietzschean book I have ever read in English literature. It’s also a completely pagan book. In this story, there is a war of light and darkness like the one in Tolkien. The ouroboros is the emblem of the powers of darkness. They are ruled by a series of kings who are all the same king, reborn as soon as he dies. (Romance Notebooks)

    In Shelley the quest appears in the still more paradoxical form of the renounced quest. Similarly in Wagner’s Ring, the quest has to be given up and the stolen ring put back where it was before man can outgrow the gods and the palace of Wotan can go up in flames. The popular Anglicized rifacimento of Wagner, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, does not have quite this theological dimension, but it uses the same renounced quest theme. (A Study of English Romanticism)

    William Morris is to me the most interesting figure in this tradition for many reasons, one of them being his encyclopedic approach to romance, his ambition to collect every major story in literature and retell or translate it. In the twentieth century romance got a new lease of fashion after the mid 1950s, with the success of Tolkien and the rise of what is generally called science fiction. (The Secular Scripture)

    As soon as a defensive wall is in place, the movements of the barbarians on the frontiers, in this case the readers of romance, Westerns, murder mysteries, and science fiction, begin to take on greater historical importance. These movements assumed a more definite shape after the appearance of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the mid 1950s. On the T.S. Eliot principle that every writer creates his own tradition, the success of Tolkien’s book helped to show that the tradition behind it, of George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll and William Morris, was, if not “the great” tradition, a tradition nonetheless. It is a tradition which interests me rather more than Tolkien himself ever did, but for a long time I was in a minority in my tastes. (The Secular Scripture)

    Closely related is the use of special language, often with a large amount of the antiquated in it, which helps to enclose a romance like a glass case in a verbal museum. The invented languages of Tolkien come at the end of a long tradition which includes the synthetic Gothic of Ivanhoe and the yea verily and forsooth lingo in which William Morris wrote his later prose romances and translations. Yet synthetic languages, however absurd they often sound, do seem to belong to romantic decorum: two very different contemporary examples are the Nigerian story of The Palm Wine Drinkard and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. (The Secular Scripture)

    We have already found expressions of this in the “penseroso” cadences of romance: it also comes into the theme of the renounced quest, the story for example of Shelley’s Prometheus, who becomes free as soon as he stops trying to fight the tyrannical Jupiter whom he has created himself, and keeps in business by resisting. The same theme dominates the story told by Wagner and retold by Tolkien, of a stolen ring that has to be given back, a return that achieves its recreation by a creatively negative act, a cancelling out of a wrong action. (The Secular Scripture)

    Sentimental romance is my old notion of a pattern of imagery and quest structure (Hopkins’ under-thought & over-thought) running through Scott, Poe, Hawthorne, George Macdonald, William Morris & Tolkien, with ghost stories & German parallels & miscellaneous Gothic (LeFanu & Brockden Brown). (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    I’ve been reading a science fiction novel called The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson. Silly book in many ways, which is a pity, because its central idea is a genuine Promethean archetype, the Gospel driving out of the devils symbolized as malignant small creatures like insects (Beelzebub as lord of flies, the Q1 [The Faerie Queene, bk. 1] & P.L [Paradise Lost] 1, rats in Poe references; Lilliput, Wyndham’s Triffids, Tolkien). (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    Re the Hermes question: this goes with, & is a part of, the theme of abstaining from action: don’t touch food in the underworld, etc., & so on to the renounced quest of Shelley & Tolkien (also Blake’s forgiveness of sins: the action of Jerusalem takes place in Albion’s guts). (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    I must look up Tolkien’s Beowulf article: he says something about the Scandinavian gods: they fight the forces of chaos & lose, but this doesn’t invalidate their cause. Clue here to something profound in the North & the furor Teutonicus: the renounced quest in Tolkien himself & Wagner: the Nazi cult of loss (cf. the Gothen linie business); the medieval adoption of the Troy legend, etc. (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    I wonder why I’ve always thought sentimental romance so central a hinge of the argument? S. r. [sentimental romance] begins with Scott & more particularly with the Germans (Hoffmann, Novalis). In America it runs through Poe, Hawthorne & Melville; in Britain through George Macdonald & William Morris to the Godly Church: Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Tolkien. I suppose Scholes’ Fabulators (?) is about them. It’s often considered a branch of science fiction, but it isn’t: it’s predominantly anti-scientific. The popularity of Tolkien has caused two other “trilogies” to be reprinted, Eddison’s [Zimiamvian trilogy] & Mervyn Peake’s [Gormenghast trilogy]. (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    Well, I did read The Worm Ouroboros, & am very glad I did. It knocks the pins out from under Tolkien as far as originality goes. Its date is 1926: Tolkien has taken his war-of-light-and-darkness theme, his return-of-the-king theme, his elves-orcs etc. characterization theme (though he improves it a good deal), his mock-chronological apparatus, all straight from the earlier book. Tolkien is more intelligent, I think: there’s a silly streak in Eddison, but there’s a genuine imaginative focus that I kept missing in Tolkien. (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    Doesn’t look so impressive now I’ve got it down, but it may grow. Eddison’s “demons” & “witches” mean nothing, but Tolkien’s Orcs & hobbits & the like do mean something. What they mean is something connected with elemental spirits I haven’t yet all got. Religion often begins with numinous animals, plants, etc., which survive as nymphs & fauns & satyrs. The next stage is elemental spirits, as in Comus. (“Third Book” Notebooks)

    Two: Sentimental Romance (Scott, Wilkie Collins, Poe, Hawthorne, George MacDonald, LeFanu, William Morris, Tolkien, etc.). The formulas of popular fiction (detective story and science fiction formulas coming out of Poe and Collins, e.g.). (“Third Book” Notebooks)

  10. Great stuff, Bob. Your usual thoroughness.

    The remarks that really interest me here are the ones from the Romance Notebooks where Frye virtually takes back his near-criticism of Tolkien as crossing the line between the imaginative and the imaginary by commending his "great imaginative effort", or in the Third Book NB's where he speaks of his "great imaginative focus."

    These references leave little doubt, in any case, that Frye had thoroughly incorporated Tolkien into his critical cosmos.

  11. To Robert Denham: Many thanks for a comment that I will be pondering and digesting for quite some time to come. Not just a comment, really, but a 4,500-word collection of invaluable thoughts and raw material on Frye’s thinking about Tolkien — to which I will undoubtedly refer back often in the future. I appreciate the investment of time and effort very much! :)

    And to Glen: Thanks again for the follow-up. I’m fortunate indeed to have merited the thoughtful replies from two such eminent experts on Frye. I had no idea when I set out to compose this post that two of the editors of the Collected Works of Frye would be dropping in. The conversation has been immeasurably enriched by your contributions.

  12. I have little to add to this discussion save a note of thanks to Jason and Glen Robert Gill for their post and comment, respectively. I do have one question, however: where can I find more information about The Ring and the Cross: Tolkien and Religion? Googling brings up only this page, and the Walking Tree site only has information about one book. and have nothing.

  13. Hi Jake. I wish I had more information for you, but I don’t know any more about The Ring and the Cross than you see above. But I can at least tell you that you’ve discovered the wrong Walking Tree, judging by your link. You want this one. Not that what you found doesn’t also look interesting. :)

  14. Good digging, Jason... As an editor I was thinking that maybe we can use some of this earth in the upcoming Spanish edition of the book you're reviewing?

    By the way (and veering a bit off the track here), as a Texan and linguist maybe you read Spanish? If so, you might want to take a look at the following book by Spanish Tolkien scholar Eduardo Segura:

    The essays centre on "Mythopoeia" and Tolkien's renewal of the Romantic tradition.

    Last but not least, congratulations to this excellent blog!

  15. Hola Raúl. I do read Spanish (sometimes with a little help ;), so thank you for the link. I’m familiar with Eduardo Segura by name, but I haven’t read much of his work (yet). Thanks also for the kind words about my blog. Very nice to be appreciated!

    As to the question of whether any of this material might be used in the translation to which you refer (and I assume you are thinking of the raw material in the comments above), I would say it might be possible, but I assume the proper permissions would need to be sought from the publisher. Good luck!

  16. Thanks, Jason; I think it would be interesting to include these references in the revised edition of the book, though it's in Spanish. We'd naturally mention both your name and the original sources - I'll get back to you on this further on, when the translation process is more mature!

    Best wishes,


  17. Muchas gracias, Raúl. I’ll look forward to hearing more about this, in time.

  18. Hello Jason.

    My name is Robert and I am one of the contributors to the book coordinated by Paul Kerry, "The Ring and the Cross" (forthcoming soon). If you have not yet received information about this massive work (it contains studies and essays written by 30 authors), I will send you a provisional "Table of Contents".

    Best wishes,

  19. Robert, I would definitely be interested in seeing the provisional TOC to which you referred, thank you! You’ll find my email address in my profile (which may be above and to the right, depending on how you’re viewing this). I’ve pieced together some of the contributors and their contributions, mainly by a combinataion of word of mouth and web-trolling, but I know of no more than maybe half a dozen of the thirty or so. I believe it’s being published in two volumes, is that right?