Literary Critic Northrop Frye Teaches “The Bible and English Literature”: All 25 Lectures Free Online

norhtrop fry free course

Image by Har­ry Palmer, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

One rea­son I’m glad for hav­ing had a child­hood reli­gious edu­ca­tion: it has made me con­ver­sant in even some of the most obscure sto­ries and ideas in the Chris­t­ian Bible, which is every­where in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture. Not only was the King James trans­la­tion for­ma­tive for ear­ly mod­ern Eng­lish, but sto­ries like that of King David and his son Absa­lom have fur­nished mate­r­i­al for great works from John Dry­den’s dense polit­i­cal alle­go­ry “Absa­lom and Achi­tophel” to William Faulkner’s dense mod­ernist fable Absa­lom, Absa­lom!  Then, of course, there’s so much of the work of Blake, Shake­speare, and Mil­ton to account for. With­out a fair­ly sol­id ground­ing in Bib­li­cal lit­er­a­ture, it can be dou­bly dif­fi­cult to make head­way in a study of the sec­u­lar vari­ety.

The stu­dents of high­ly regard­ed Cana­di­an lit­er­ary crit­ic Northrop Frye found this to be true. As a junior instruc­tor, Frye had dif­fi­cul­ty get­ting his class to under­stand what was going on in John Milton’s Par­adise Lost because so many of the Bib­li­cal allu­sions were lost on them. (It’s a hard enough poem to grasp when you get the ref­er­ences.) “How do you expect to teach Par­adise Lost,” said the chair of Frye’s depart­ment, “to peo­ple who don’t know the dif­fer­ence between a Philis­tine and a Phar­isee?” Respond­ing to this gap in cul­tur­al lit­er­a­cy, Frye designed and taught “The Bible and Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture.” The entire, video­taped course from a 1981 ses­sion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to is avail­able online in 25 lec­tures.

It’s very much a treat to sit in on these lec­tures. Frye’s work on myth and folk­tale in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture is still near­ly defin­i­tive; his 1957 Anato­my of Crit­i­cism, though picked apart many times over through the decades, retains an author­i­ta­tive place in stud­ies of lit­er­ary arche­types and rhetoric. Frye’s lec­tures on the Bible focus on what he sees as its “nar­ra­tive uni­ty,” due in part to “a num­ber of recur­ring images: moun­tain, sheep, riv­er, hill, pas­ture, bride, bread, wine and so on.” He also spends a good deal of time, at least in his first lec­ture above, dis­cussing church his­to­ry, the­o­log­i­cal and crit­i­cal con­flicts, and the his­to­ry of var­i­ous trans­la­tions. The UToron­to site includes full tran­scripts of each lec­ture, and the entire course promis­es to be enlight­en­ing for stu­dents of lit­er­a­ture, of the Bible and church his­to­ry, or both.

The Bible and Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture will be added to our list of Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es and Free Online Reli­gion Cours­es, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­vard Presents Two Free Online Cours­es on the Old Tes­ta­ment

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (3)
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  • Pete says:

    Thanks for this. It is the inter­net at its best!

  • ivaray says:

    I taught the New Tes­ta­ment as Lit­er­a­ture, and would not teach the Old Tes­ta­ment as Lit­er­a­ture at the two year col­lege. I ful­ly embrace, to me, very well known work of Northrop Frye, and I appre­ci­ate your share. “Off and on the record,” I would just like to say the fol­low­ing: if you try to teach this course at the two year col­lege “arm” your­self with lots of patience. nnnI am not sure how any­body in the USA could eas­i­ly go about the teach­ing of the Apoc­rypha Gospels at the two year col­lege lev­el?! My view on this is the fol­low­ing: if you sur­vive stu­dents’ eval­u­a­tions after teach­ing of the Apoc­rypha Gospels, you can walk on water or (if not any) over the Sky! nnnDe­lib­er­ate­ly, I stayed away of teach­ing the Old Tes­ta­ment as Lit­er­a­ture know­ing that I would begin with the Book of Gen­e­sis and the three his­tor­i­cal edit­ing of the “sacred” text, where God is called by the three dif­fer­ent names: Elo­him (the Jew­ish “trib­al” or prime­or­dial name for the God), Yah­weh (the best known orig­i­nal Jew­ish name for the Old Tes­ta­ment God), and Adon­ai (“the Lord,” the name for God that was used dur­ing the Davidic Kingdom)–meaning that the Book of Gen­e­sis under­went at least the three his­tor­i­cal edit­ing of one sacred text, and I know that I would face a great con­fronta­tion in the class­room for ana­lyz­ing this text. I also know I might be wrong; depends where you are, but these are my unique expe­ri­ences before eight years ago and I hope today’s high­er ed. stu­dents would be more will­ing to accept the Bible schol­ar­ship, rather than the sim­plis­tic “Sun­day School” assump­tions about the Bible. Any com­ments?

  • ivaray says:

    Schol­ar­ship in a few last decades have exceed­ed Northrop Frye;s inter­pre­ta­tions; I sug­gest Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and Rod­ney Stark–each of them dif­fer­ent views on Jesus, the New Tes­ta­ment, or trans­for­ma­tion of the “cul­tic & sec­tar­i­an” Chris­tian­i­ty into the world reli­gious move­ment.

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