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Cover of issue #218

Current Issue: #218 Of Borders and Bioregions (Autumn 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 218 (Autumn 2013), Of Borders and Bioregions is now available. Guest edited by Anne Kaufman and Robert Thacker, the issue features articles by Tamas Dobozy, Laurie Ricou, Lisa Szabo-Jones, Magali Sperling Beck, and more.

Book Review

Fearful Dis-symmetry

  • Glen Robert Gill (Author)
    Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Thomas Hodd

The Collected Works of Northrop Frye is an ambitious initiative by the University of Toronto Press. Not only has the academic publisher produced important new editions of Fearful Symmetry (2004) and Anatomy of Criticism (2007), as well as the provocative Northrop Frye on Canada (2003), the project has also served as catalyst to scholarly activities such as the recent Frye Symposium at the University of Ottawa and, to some extent, the current book under review, Glen Robert Gill’s Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth.

Gill’s effort is an interesting artifact in recent Frye studies. His impetus for writing, he notes, was motivated by two factors: first, Frye’s theories “were both more potent and more tenable than those of [Mircea] Eliade, [Carl] Jung, and [Joseph] Campbell,” yet these writers became “more influential in twentieth-century mythography.” Second, the “branch concerned with archetypal theory and criticism . . . had been exiled from contemporary literary and cultural studies without due process” and as a result “the baby of Frye’s theoria had been thrown out with the disciplinary bathwater.” Thus, Gill set out to write his “doctoral thesis cum first book” in an attempt to remedy this critical lapse.

Although I do not disagree with his rationale, I’m not convinced Gill’s book has done anything to help resurrect this area of marginalized scholarship. On the one hand, it reflects the intellectual rigour required of any scholar wishing to illuminate Frye’s thought. Unfortunately, this book also demonstrates the extent to which academia has pushed the “specialist” agenda too far by promoting studies that are useful only to critics who speak, employ, and articulate the same rhetorical modes of inquiry.

His thesis is sound. He argues that as a young scholar Frye read myth through a phenomenological lens; that is, he interpreted myth as a manifestation of human consciousness rather than something created externally from it. And Gill demonstrates this approach, somewhat exhaustively, through his reading of Fearful Symmetry, Frye’s seminal book on William Blake, in which he argues that the poet’s vision is a form of “mythic consciousness.” Gill suggests further that such a reading makes Frye’s theory of myth more expansive than those of his contemporaries, Eliade, Jung, and Campbell, all of whom treat myth as an external notion that acts upon humanity instead of treating it as an internal force that emits from human consciousness. This radical perspective makes Frye “the unacknowledged visionary fourth of the Eranos group.”

Gill’s decision to develop a thesis around a single work of Frye is a risky intellectual investment that meets with limited success. His extrapolation of Frye’s reading of Blake quickly becomes laboured and, dare I say, generates more exposition than is required to prove his point. More frustrating is that in choosing this approach he invariably allocates too much space to defining Frye’s phenomenology instead of comparing it to the systems put forward by his contemporaries. The first meaningful comparison between Frye, Jung, and Campbell does not appear until page 149, three-quarters into the book; similarly, his best commentary on the topic does not appear until page 160. This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Gill’s study, because these two pages possess some of the most engaging and provocative ideas about mythological systems explored in the book. In short, the reader will come away from this study feeling that there is a major disjuncture between the book Gill envisioned and the one he produced.

I also have serious reservations about his method for arriving at such a conclusion. He obviously knows Frye’s work intimately and demonstrates a wealth of knowledge and insight into Frye scholarship that must be commended. Unfortunately, Gill’s study is forcibly tipped in Frye’s favour by employing a structure that undermines the impartiality of his argument. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book consists of three short discussions about the theories of myth put forward by Eliade, Jung, and Campbell. The second half focuses on Frye and Fearful Symmetry, with limited commentary at the end that attempts to link Frye’s early mythical work to his last major publication, Words With Power. This unduly weighted argument in Frye’s favour, coupled with generous phrases such as “the titanic vision of Frye,” “the extraordinary implications of Frye’s model” and “Frye . . . unquestionably the superior writer,” leaves readers wondering if this is more of an exercise in discipleship rather than scholarship.

In the end, although Gill’s study is initially compelling it contains too many structural problems to produce the kind of scholarly impact that he hopes it will bring.

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MLA: Gill, Glen Robert and Hodd, Thomas. Fearful Dis-symmetry. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 136 - 137)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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