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  • Reading Northrop Frye Reading François Rabelais
  • Robert D. Denham

In a 1935 letter to his girlfriend Helen Kemp, the twenty-two-year-old Northrop Frye wrote, “When I get time to read anything I read Rabelais. Swell guy” (CW 1: 446). Fifty years later, he said in one of his notebooks, “I’ve picked up my copies of Rabelais again, as I always do when I get to thinking about a book on the verbal universe. Rabelais is probably the writer who most clearly grasped all the dimensions of language and verbal communication” (CW 6: 458). By “copies” Frye is apparently referring to the two editions of Gargantua and Pantagruel that he owned and annotated: The Heroic Deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1933) and The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, edited by J.M. Cohen (1955). By a “book on the verbal universe” Frye is referring to Words with Power, for which he began taking notes after The Great Code was published in 1982. There are close to 250 references to Rabelais in Frye’s writing: he makes an appearance in twenty-seven of the twenty-nine volumes of Frye’s Collected Works.1 Although Frye never offers anything like a sustained commentary on Rabelais, how might we understand the Frye-Rabelais connection from these many scattered references?

The present essay is part of a larger project in which I am examining the relationship between Frye and writers who are scattered throughout his work but about whom he never wrote anything extensive, such as a book or article or review. One volume of these studies has already been published: Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking (2015). The second volume, The Order of Words: Northrop Frye and Others, Second Series is in press, and the third, Mythos and Logos: Northrop Frye and Others, Third Series is under review. Altogether there are thirty-one “others,” and a thirty-second essay is under way. With the thirty volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye having now been published, it is possible [End Page 203] to track down all the references to a given writer, to examine these as a unit, and to speculate on the links that tie “Frye” and “Others” together.

The implication here is that Frye was a comparatist, and it is true that early on he participated in several comparative literature conferences. His 1959 essay “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas” (CW 16: 24-34) was presented at the Second Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, and ten years later, he read a paper entitled “Tradition and Change in the Theory of Criticism” (CW 10: 243-52) at the Eleventh Triennial Congress of the Fédération Internationale des Langues et Littératures Modernes in Islamabad. In 1974, Frye presented a paper, “The Rhythms of Time,” at a Comparative Literature Colloquium on “Time and the Poetic Self,” at the University of Toronto. It was published in Myth and Metaphor (157-67), and reprinted in CW 27 (358-68). Frye reviewed books for the journal Comparative Literature,2 and he published essays in several comparative yearbooks.3 Perhaps most significantly as a comparatist, in 1969 he founded the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. These things did not mean, however, that Frye viewed comparative literature as a distinct and separate enterprise within the humanities.

In “Literature and Language,” a 1974 address to the Canadian Comparative Literature Association (CW 10: 190-95), Frye’s gambit is briefly to search for some principle that would give “comparative literature” a special place in literary study. He finds none, except “the rarefied aspect of translation,” which means that comparative literature must, in practice, be reserved for graduate programs. Once he has concluded that there is no difference between a theory of comparative literature and a general theory of literature, he sets out to sketch some of the principles of the latter. These are, to begin with, the two principles involved in reading literature: its narrative movement (mythos) and its structure of images (dianoia). We then get an explanation of centripetal and centrifugal meaning. This is all territory that Frye had traversed in Anatomy of...


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