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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, December 31, 2009


"In the St. George plays the hero dies in his dragon-fight and is brought to life by a doctor, and the same symbolism runs through all the dying-god myths. There are thus not three but four distinguishable aspects to the quest-myth. First, the agon or conflict itself. Second, the pathos or death, often the mutual death of hero and monster. Third, the disappearance of the hero, a theme which often takes the form of sparagmos or tearing to pieces. Some times the hero's body is divided among his followers, as in Eucharist symbolism: sometimes it is distributed around the natural world, as in the stories of Orpheus and more especially Osiris. Fourth, the reappearance and recognition of the hero, where sacramental Christianity follows the metaphorical logic: those who in the fallen world have partaken of their redeemer's divided body are united with his risen body."-- Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 192.

In DIVINING COMEDY I performed some corrective surgery on Frye's schema above, in that I excised Frye's comparison of the hero's "reappearance and recognition" in respect to the mythos of comedy. I'm probably the only comics-fan who would care if this operation killed the patient, but in my judgment the only thing Frye's system loses is his notion of forming all four mythoi into a closed "quest-myth," when what is more needed is an "open quest."

One reason Frye conflated the comedy-mythos with that of "rebirth" narratives was, as I discussed earlier, because he was a Christian, which meant that his religion's eschatology was oriented upon an "End of Days," to say nothing of the fact that the principle source of that eschatology is that of a book-narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. A second reason, touched upon in earlier essays, is that Frye's literary theory owes much (albeit with modifications) to the so-called "myth-ritual school" of early 20th century classicism. The four dramatic actions from Greek theater which Frye adapted as the four "themes" of his four narrative *mythoi* were derived from one prominent member of that school, Gilbert Murray.

I won't explore here the controversies surrounding the myth-ritual school, which isn't much in favor these days though it has received some academic re-evaluations of late. At worst, it was too much of a totalizing approach to mythology, assuming that everything in archaic mythology stemmed from some ritual religious act. It wasn't as far-fetched as Robert Graves' penchant to see all myth as recapitulated ancient histories, or (to cite the fellow who let the monocausal cat out of the bag in myth-studies) Max Muller's notion that all myths related to sun-worship. But like all monocausal explanations, pure myth-ritualism left a lot to be desired.

Frye was, as others before me have observed, careful not to let his exploration of literary myths spill over into an outright endorsement of this school. Thus his literary theory doesn't stand or fall with the fortunes of the myth-ritual school, since he was simply using their literal formulations in a figurative manner: to describe the ways in which literary myths paralleled religious ones. Only in one regard did Frye approach the literalism of the myth-ritualists, and that is in the schema quoted above, in which the four *mythoi* are imagined as four stages within the life of a single protagonist. However, even here the "quest-myth," which Frye imagines as beginning with the *agon* of the romance and ending with the *anagnorisis* of the comedy, is meant as a figurative teaching-tool, rather than actually expounding on how the respective *mythoi* evolved.

To me, each of the *mythoi* is a closed system, so there is no need to see them as part of some greater spectrum modeled on the career of a particular mythic/literary character, be it the Christian St. George, referenced above, or the pagan Perseus, also referenced in the same "Theory of Myths" section of THE ANATOMY.

Frye is on much stronger ground when he compares his four *mythoi* to the cycling seasons-- or rather, with the different emotional and expressive moods called forth in human beings by the seasons. He then uses the four terms-- agon, pathos, sparagmos and anagnorisis-- to describe the themes underlying this storytelling structures, but he fails in THE ANATOMY to note what he would later expound upon in A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE: the fact that colloquially the word "theme" can be used to mean either (1) what actually happens in the story, or (2) what the story's events signify. I suspect that in ANATOMY he feels that each theme carries both "narrative values" and "signficant values," to borrow the terms in he used in "Archetypes of Literature," an essay predating ANATOMY by about four years, and which I discussed here.

In *my* adapation of Frye's terms I wish to make clear this double-sidedness of the terms he called "themes." Thus in future I will identify the words themselves, which I call "radicals," purely as "narrative values." For instance, an *agon*'s narrative purpose is to sort out the conflict between hero and villain, apart from whatever significance the story as a whole may have for audiences.

However, the adjectival forms I mentioned in AGONISTIC AND OTHERS will serve to describe the "significant values" implied by the narrative radicals. Thus "agonistic" describes the emotional and expressive *dynamization* offered by the adventure-story to its audiences, and the other three adjectives describe the dynamizations appropriate to their types of stories.

Once it is clear that each *mythos* has its own unique expressive capability, it should be possible to ward off, as in archaic ritual, the baneful influence of Bloody Comic Book Elitists. If a Gary Groth insists that Will Eisner's SPIRIT is better than other superhero works because he Eisner didn't take the superhero genre "seriously," it can be clearly demonstrated that Groth simply wants to see some other *dynamizing* formula-- that of comedy, or more likely, of satire-- rather than the one appropriate to the superhero genre.

Maintaining this openness of mind is part of the "open quest" referenced in the title, but not all, as witness Part 2.

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