26 October 2017

Sad Songs They Say So Much, or, Northrop Frye Explains It All

Northrop Frye statue outside the Moncton Public Library, not yet defaced by adherents of subsequent critical schools


In this miraculous paragraph Northrop Frye explains not only why sad songs are always the best, but also how Tolkien could write both The Hobbit and The Children of Húrin:

In literature there are two great organizing patterns. One is the natural cycle itself; the other, a final separation between an idealized and happy world and a horrifying or miserable one.  Comedy moves in the direction of the former, and traditionally closes in some traditional formula as "They lived happily ever after." Tragedy moves in the opposite direction, and towards the complementary formula "Count no man happy until he is dead."  The moral effect of literature is normally bound up with its assumption that we prefer to identify ourselves with the happy world and detach ourselves from the wretched one. The record of history, in itself, does not indicate this: it indicates that man is quite as enthusiastic about living in hell as in heaven.  To see misery as tragic, as a destroyed and perverted form of greatness and splendor, is a primary achievement of Greek literature. The Bible's vision of misery is ironic rather than tragic, but the same dialectical separation of the two worlds is quite as strongly marked. 
The Great Code, 73
It would also make a terrific passage to set for an examination essay, followed by the single word: discuss.

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