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The Great Code: The Bible and Literature

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  454 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Canada's world-renowned critic and scholar examines the Bible as the single most important influence in the imaginative tradition of Western art and literature. Northrop Frye rejects both the dogmatic and literal interpretations while celebrating the uniqueness of the Bible as distinct from all other epics and sacred texts. His highly original analysis shoes the Bible as r ...more
Paperback, 261 pages
Published 1990 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1981)
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Scriptor Ignotus
Northrop Frye takes a neo-Viconian approach to what many would call the foundational text of western civilization. Vico identified three general stages of culture, each with its own unique way of using language. In the hieroglyphic stage, there is no distinction to be made between the word-concept and what you might call external reality. Reality, as the culture understands it, is derived from the words of hieroglyphic texts, and those texts are always heavily symbolic; they never attempt to wri ...more
John David
“The Great Code” really re-configured the way that I conceive of the Bible as a literary document. After two centuries of historical criticism (or narrative criticism as it’s called when applied to the Bible), it is refreshing to see a whole new interpretive methodology which looks inward at the Bible, instead of trying to test its significance by how well it correlates to something outside of itself. And that is the central thesis to Frye’s argument – that the Bible is a unified mythology, repl ...more
Jul 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bible Scholars and Literary Critics
Recommended to Chris by: Alice Mills
This book changed my life. I'm not just saying that. It really did. I learned how to read, watch, and consume literature in a whole new way. It's like, before I read this book I was gulping down literature as if it were water, somewhat bland at times but necessary for life, and now after I've read the book I've realized that it's more like a fine wine that deserves to be savored and that there's different, subtle notes to it to that deserve to be discovered. The Great Code brings to life not onl ...more
Our final two weeks in Dr. Watson's "Reading the Bible as Literature" course were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic. His book is devoted to an examination of the biblical material from a literary perspective. The title comes from William Blake: "The Bible is the great code of art and literature."

I absolutely loved the book, but almost no one else did. Gallagher was my only fellow Frye fan. The response of others in the class ranged from "I haven't read it" to
Kirk Lowery
This book is Frye's take on the Bible and its meaning. As a literary critic, he's clearly out of his element tackling the Bible: he makes egregious mistakes, is dependent upon biblical scholars for essential ideas, and presents his own without a context. And this lack of context shows. His views on typology are arbitrary and uncontrolled by any hermeneutical principle that I could detect. And since linguistic meaning is created by juxtaposition, his association of type and anti-type produced lud ...more
Czarny Pies
Aug 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Christians of all stripes
Recommended to Czarny by: Northrop Frye was a charming person and a noted diety at my undergraduate institution.
Shelves: criticism
Northrop Frye liked to tell his undergraduate classes that the Bible was edited more than it was written. As a result, this work which was composed over a 1500 year period in three different languages and which has been under revision for over 3000 years now possesses a wonderful unity of language and thought which has allowed Professor Frye to analyze it as an integrated whole much as Bullfinch allows us to view Greco-Roman mythology as a single corpus.

Northop Frye identifies four types of lang
Dec 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
'If we insist that the Bible is "more" than a work of literature, we ought at least to stick to the word "more," and try to see what if means.

'What I think it means is that we have to turn again to the traditional but still neglected theory of "polysemous" meaning. One of the commonest experiences of reading is the sense of further discoveries to be made within the same structure of words. The feeling is approximately "there is more to be got out of this," or we may say, of something we particul

Brandon Hawk
Dec 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biblical-studies
This review may reveal how traditional I am in my literary theoretical approaches, but I love Frye's book. It is often cited as one of the most provocative literary discussions of the Bible, and with good reason: in his estimation, the Bible rests at the heart of the "rhetoric of religion" and is the fundamental "imaginative influence" that pervades Western literature and thought (xxi). The structure of the book itself also lends a helpful approach, as Frye offers discussion of the Bible in term ...more
Martha Anne Davidson
The distinguished Canadian scholar Northrop Frye published The Great Code: The Bible and Literature in 1981, but the study still speaks to this reader all these years later. Frye declares his subject and purpose clearly at the beginning: "This book attempts a study of the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic." The description of the Bible as "The Great Code" comes from William Blake, Frye's subject in his 1947 study entitled Fearful Symmetry, and many of the ideas in The Great Code ...more
Jan 28, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is in many ways a brilliant book but more difficult than I am accustomed to reading at this point in my life. Academic in nature, by a respected literary scholar, an analytical look at the Bible as literature amongst the world's literature. Literary criticism often leaves me feeling like the dissection of the frog was well done but I really liked the frog better before it was cut up. I think though, that my approach to the Bible is forever altered by the questions he raises and answers and ...more
H Wesselius
The subtitle should have set the Bible and literary theory. Lots of theory not enough literature and, thus, disappointing. I prefer more historical approach to the Bible and literature. Karen Armstrong is better for that.
Su Carter
Jan 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really, really enjoyed this book, so many wonderful ideas and explanations...Northrop Frye is now one of my favourite authors.
Oct 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Joke: "What is an epistle?"
Punchline: "The wife of an Apostle!"

I chose well, when I selected this work of scholarly criticism; my purpose was to gain some more firmer traction under-my-feet when it comes to Biblical references, metaphors, and allusions. (Not for the least of which reason: because doing so, helps one better understand authors like Faulkner and Hemingway and Steinbeck--writers who toss Biblical similes around like pizza dough).

But as you know, the Christian Bible is one of the wo
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Frye's second-most-famous book of criticism explores the ways the Bible is literature and has influenced literature. There are so many things Frye does skillfully, not least of which is providing incisive critical analysis into a text that carries such cultural and spiritual weight without impinging on the religious role of the Bible. This is not a spiritual book by any measure; it's a literary one, but Frye shows great respect for the spiritual impact of the Bible. Perhaps people who believe in ...more
Jul 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Undoubtedly more enjoyable than reading than the Bible itself, however much Frye might require the reader to have at least a passing familiarity with virtually all of both OT and NT to understand his take on it. A caveat for the reader, as he puts it himself: "Mythical and typological thinking is not rational thinking...." (p.174, chp 7 "Myth II") Let that serve as a warning, so you know what sort of thing you'll be getting into, as you delve in. (view spoiler) ...more
James P
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Frye is as excellent a critic as he is a writer. The Great Code takes its reader on a secular journey through the bible. It twists and turns, and reads as part literary criticism, and part exegeses. Written contemporaneously with Strunk and White, though, Frye doesn’t dispose with weighty (and little-known) and confusing words printed in their mother tongue—an exercise that, in academia, we are advised against these days. So, he uses the original German where the English would do much better, an ...more
Paul Gosselin
Sep 10, 2018 rated it did not like it
Anyone wondering: “What does the Bible say?” or “How should we interpret the Bible?” would do well to ignore Frye’s book and read the Bible itself and then make up their own minds regarding such questions. However, anyone looking for an erudite perspective expressed by an Enlightenment devotee (someone with a modern perspective, that is someone who’s worldview finds it’s basis in the materialistic origins myth) attempting to force the Bible into the Enlightenment Procrustean bed, then Frye’s boo ...more
Michael Joosten
There is a lot of value in The Great Code in the nuts and bolts of identifying parallels and structures in the Bible, but it can be dry slogging to get through. Its Ring Composition method, I found, was boring in the first half--the book got better once it flipped to the second side of the ring (perhaps it is not coincidental this is where the shift occurs from writing more at the level of theory to more at the level of instances).
Barry Medwid
A tough slog. Especially the first half. Most pages had a few words I didn't know the meaning of. I have no classic literature or theological formal education. Enough interesting insights to keep me going though. Not sure why I occasionally pick books like this up. Above my level. I suppose a sense of mystery is a nice change. Possibly hoping some of the wisdom of these learned authors rubs off. If any of this has any resonance for you you might want to give it a go.
William Tarbush
Jan 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has added to my understanding of the Bible as literature. I took Christian Ministry as an undergraduate and this book fulfills gaps I had forgotten or never learned. Professor Frye has added to my love of Scripture.
Tom Greentree
Jun 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed Frye’s insight, though much of the technical language was new to me. It’s always fun to read someone who approaches the BIble with such enthusiasm from a literary perspective.
Apr 04, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bible, literature
Northrup Frye's work on T.S. Eliot was well-received and, as a literary critic, he is one of the few that quote Wallace Stevens regularly. When I was struggling to write my "Rhetorical Critical Analysis of the Balaam Oracles," I read some early Frye but was much more enamored with his contemporary, Wayne Booth. However, I wish I had been aware of this book (published one year after my book on Balaam) and Robert Polzin's Moses and the Deuteronomist when I had been pursuing my effort to examine th ...more
Jonathan Gill
Jul 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-theory
The title is a reference to William Blake, not Dan Brown. Northrop Frye, a leading scholar in the New Criticism movement, has set out to apply his literary theory to the Bible. Why? His answer is that the Bible has been the primary influence on Western culture and that culture cannot be understood without knowing the framework that the Bible has provided.

He specifically states at the start that his book won't touch the question of faith. Despite my doubts, he pretty much stays true to this prin
Feb 12, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the worse books I have ever read and if it were possible, I would in fact give it no stars at all. Northrop Frye hides his vain and superfluous thoughts behind the cloud of scholarly literary criticism when essentially, he has added nothing to literary criticism, hermeneutics or exegesis. The whole basis of the book is the false idea that the Bible is not historical, and that it's "mythology" and metaphors are more important than its revelations. In sum, Jesus did not literally ge ...more
Mar 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book on the Bible and its literary force. This book should be read carefully, then re-read by anyone who takes seriously the Bible. Reading this book illuminated three important things for me: first, creationists and Biblical literalists seem to have no clue what they're reading when they pick up the Bible; Christian evolutionists seem to have no clue what they're reading when they pick up the Bible; and the rest of us seem to have no clue what they're reading when they pick up the Bib ...more
Jan 04, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: commentary
This was a very important book to me. I began to look upon language differently after reading this book. Metaphors became very important. I began to collect similes and metaphors used in everyday speech that my patients used to describe their symptoms.
Favorite quotes: "The causal thinker is confronted with a mass of phenomena that he can understand only by thinking of them as effects, after which he searches for their precursors. These causes are antitypes of their effects, that is, revelations
Sep 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An accessibly erudite yet lively book on Bible and literature covers a rich and vast landscape of Bible, Greek mythology and literature, Dante, Milton, Gibbon, among many others.

Need to re-read it again soon.

*** reading notes ***
Vico's 3 types of verbal expressions: the poetic (about gods/mythic), the heroic (about hero/aristocrats) and the vulgar(people). The author calls them: hieroglyphic(poetic), hieratic(allegorical), demotic(description). The usage of language has gone from a "subject-ob
Mark Kellermeyer
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been thinking about this book nearly every day since I finished reading it a month or so ago. I don't know if I would care as much if I didn't already care about the Bible. I also found it interesting that he tended to end his chapters by alluding to Eastern thought.
Welwyn Wilton Katz
I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a decided mind on the revealed nature of the Bible. But it's as fabulous as Graves' on a book that has been read by more Westerner's than any other. I love it that a fellow Canadian has opened so many eyes to the concept that the Bible can be read less than literally, yet never losing its value. Again, I read it here and there, now and then. Someday I'll read all these books front to back.
Sep 03, 2010 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: set-aside
The scope of Northrop Frye's vision and learning is scary. The guy seems to have read everything the in the British and American canon plus more, and than more from different literary traditions on top of that. His explanation of the relationship between the Bible and Anglo-American literature is a helpful resource for literature students or for anyone trying to figure out the full scope of the Bible's legacy in English.
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Born in Quebec but raised in New Brunswick, Frye studied at the University of Toronto and Victoria University. He was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Canada and studied at Oxford before returning to UofT.

His first book, Fearful Symmetry, was published in 1947 to international acclaim. Until then, the prophetic poetry of William Blake had long been poorly understood, considered by

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