Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Myth Criticism

Myth Criticism (literature as embodying collective archetypes and universal narratives)



Myth criticism attempts to bring out the cultural myths underlying literature, and many are indeed apparent in this poem: time, sea, land and sky, control, creation, decay and regeneration. Some need to be developed more fully.


Far from being primitive fictions — about the natural world, some supposed ancestor, or tribal practice — myths are reflections of a profound reality. They dramatically represent our instinctive understandings. Moreover, unlike Freud's concepts, myths are collective and communal, and so bring a sense of wholeness and togetherness to social life. Native peoples, and indeed whole civilizations, have their own mythologies, but there appear to be common images, themes and motives {1} which Jung called "archetypes".{2}

The mythology of the classical world provided themes for some of the world's greatest drama, {3} and similar themes can be traced in Renaissance literature {4} through to modern poetry. {5} Hamlet, for example, is often seen as the reluctant hero who must sacrifice himself to purify a Denmark made diseased by the foul and unnatural murder of its king. {6} Yeats, Pound and Eliot employ the myths of history, rebirth and fulfillment through sacrifice {7}, as do other poets. {8}

Myth criticism continues to draw freely on the psychology of Jung, on social anthropology, on the study of religions {9}, on metaphor and depth psychology, but the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye has attempted to redefine what criticism is, and what it can be expected to do. {10}

Frye attempted a general theory of literature, which he approached from four perspectives. Rather that justify what were little more than matters of preference (i.e. squabble over the relative merits of authors and their works) scholars should derive principles, structures and laws from the study of literature itself. His first essay in Anatomy of Criticism recognized various levels of realism in literature, an articulation he termed a theory of modes. The second essay put forward a theory of symbols, recognizing five levels ranging from the mundane to the anagogic (the last represented in work of a religious or spiritual nature).

The theory of myths that forms the third essay has possibly been Frye's most influential contribution. He starts by identifying the four seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — with the four main plots or 'mythoi' of romance, comedy, tragedy, and irony/satire. These are further broken down into phases. The mythos of winter consists of six phases, the last representing human life in terms of unrelieved bondage: prisons, madhouses, lynching mobs and places of execution. The human figures of this phase are the dispossessed, the destitute and mad-ogres, witches, Baudelaire's black giantess and Pope's Dullness. Frye distinguishes between signs (which point outward to things beyond themselves) and motifs (which are understood inwardly as parts of a verbal structure). Literature is preeminently an autonomous verbal structure where the sign-values are subordinate to the interconnectedness of motifs. The fourth essay proposes a theory of genres, where Frye outlined the differences between the lyric, epic, dramatic work, etc.

Frye's approach was invigorating, but has not been broadly accepted. His categories seem arbitrary, and many works of art do not fit neatly into any category. For all his learning, Frye's focus was on western literature and its classification. So general a view does not help the practising poet with rewriting, or the critic explaining how one piece of literature is better than another, beyond of course understanding the larger picture. Finally, though Frye's own criticism was subtle and illuminating, the approach too easily degenerated into "hunt the symbol" exercises. {11}

But important matters lie behind symbolism. Literature employs words, and the reality behind words has been the central preoccupation of twentieth century philosophy. Linguistic philosophy attempted to explain away the great philosophical dilemmas of existence as the improper use of words. Structuralism described literature as the surface expression of deep anthropological (and often) binary codes. Poststructuralism denied that words could be anything but part of an endless web of yet more words, without final referent or meaning. Postmodernism uses words as flat, media images, without deeper reference.

None of these has been very unconvincing. Words do have great emotional and intellectual power if employed in certain ways, and these ways draw on matters of deep and lasting interest to the human psyche. Mythic criticism (indeed all criticism: Frye makes this point) is subsequent to literature, as history is to action. We cannot clothe with plot and character the skeletal requirements of criticism and expect literature to result. Works of art follow their own devices and grow out of the artist's imagination, only submitting to criticism if they still seem incomplete or unsatisfactory.

But mythic criticism can show the writer where his imagery is coming from, and suggest reasons for its power. Subsequent work — deep thought, reading and endless toying with possibilities — may then turn up further material. Whether that material is useful can only be found by testing it in the poem, a trial and error process of continual adaptation and refinement that may eventually achieve the strengths of the coherence theory of truth: transforming power, internal consistency, simplicity, elegance and fertility.

Published Examples of Myth Criticism

Kenneth Burke. Counter-Statement. 1953.

John Livingston Lowes. The Road to Xanadu. 1927.

Caroline Spurgeon. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. 1935.

Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism. 1957.

myth criticism, an area of literary investigation and commentary that deals with the relations between ‘myth’—in the positive sense of a traditional story—and literature, often drawing upon anthropology, psychology, and studies of folklore. Myth criticism is usually concerned to demonstrate that literary works draw upon a common reservoir of archetypes or recurrent images, or that their narrative patterns repeat those of ancient myths or religious rituals, as in quests for sacred objects, or cycles of death and rebirth. Much psychoanalytic criticism overlaps with myth criticism, not just in the tradition of Jung but in that of Freud, who interpreted literary texts as well as dreams and neurotic symptoms as echoes of the Oedipus myth.

An early study in this vein is Maud Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934); other notable works include Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1948), and Auden's The Enchafèd Flood (1951). A more elaborate theoretical foundation for myth criticism was proposed by Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). This tradition of literary study came under repeated attack for dealing only with the ‘contents’ of literary works and ignoring all questions of language and style; and it declined in the 1960s as new theoretical agendas redefined the relations between anthropological and literary study (see structuralism and post-structuralism).

A form of criticism based largely on the works of C. G. Jung (YOONG) and Joseph Campbell (and myth itself). Some of the school's major figures include Robert Graves, Francis Fergusson, Philip Wheelwright, Leslie Fiedler, Northrop Frye, Maud Bodkin, and G. Wilson Knight. These critics view the genres and individual plot patterns of literature, including highly sophisticated and realistic works, as recurrences of certain archetypes and essential mythic formulae. Archetypes, according to Jung, are "primordial images"; the "psychic residue" of repeated types of experience in the lives of very ancient ancestors which are inherited in the "collective unconscious" of the human race and are expressed in myths, religion, dreams, and private fantasies, as well as in the works of literature (Abrams, p. 10, 112). Some common examples of archetypes include water, sun, moon, colors, circles, the Great Mother, Wise Old Man, etc. In terms of archetypal criticism, the color white might be associated with innocence or could signify death or the supernatural.

myth criticism, a kind of literary interpretation that regards literary works as expressions or embodiments of recurrent mythic patterns and structures, or of ‘timeless’ archetypes . Myth criticism, which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, is less interested in the specific qualities of a given work than in those features of its narrative structure or symbolism that seem to connect it to ancient myths and religions. An important precedent for many myth‐critical studies was J. G. Frazer's speculative anthropological work The Golden Bough (1890–1915), which proposed a cycle ...