A Theory of Modes and Modalities
Frye goes on to lay out his classification of five classes — or phases might be a better term: mythic, where the hero is superior in kind to the everyman; romance, where the hero is superior in degree to the everyman and empowered over his environment; high mimetic, where the hero is superior in degree to the everyman but subject to his environment; low mimetic, where the hero is of equal status to the everyman; ironic, where the hero is inferior to the everyman. Essentially, his model offers us five types of hero we could label god, demigod, overman, everyman, nobody. While he relates these phases loosely to particular modes — high mimetic to epic & tragedy, low mimetic to comedy & realism — he spends more time exploring the modes of tragedy or comedy evident in each phase.
Where he maps this to a perceived cycle in Western literature, beginning with Medieval mythic and ending with Modern ironic, it’s an intriguing metanarrative, but I’m more interested in the implications of that phrase, “what he can do, or could have done” — which invites us to apply the notion of alethic modality — and the composite measuring of the protagonist in relation to both society and environment — which invites us to view the hero’s “power of action” in terms of two distinct relationships.
Frye’s god of myth is a protagonist who is an alethic quirk in their own right. (See the "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" post for what I mean by "alethic quirk" and suchlike terms.) Whether or not they are subject to their environment is a matter of the worldscape that they inhabit, the alethic quirks that construct it. When Inanna descends into the Kur, she is entering a worldscape beyond her power, constructed from quirks far more powerful than her. And in terms of society, that worldscape may well include an antagonist of equal or higher status — Zeus’s Kronos, Prometheus’s Zeus. The worldscape of myth is one with the value of everyman shifted up to god. So Dumuzi may become a chimera/arcanum as he transforms into a gazelle in his bid to escape the demons pursuing him, but relative to his society and worldscape he is disempowered, a humble shepherd, a boy crying for his mother — a nobody. This potential of the protagonist being a quirk but in relation to other quirks means we might better treat myth as an extra dimension, with each phase having two forms — mythic and non-mythic romantic, mythic and non-mythic high mimetic, and so on.
But Frye’s characterisation of romance invites a similar decomposition:
The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.
What he is talking about here is base-shift dewarping, of course, the dislocation of the narrative to an elsewhere/elsewhen in which such things “could happen”. What’s interesting here though is the characterisation of hero as numen (generating affective warp by doing what “should” be done) and the characterisation of their worldscape in terms of alethic quirks. The demigod of romance is empowered over his environment by those arcane, exotic, chimeric objects and animal helpers. The alethic quirks are predominantly on the hero’s side. Ultimately, in the form of Fate and the divine, the romantic worldscape itself may be fundamentally on the protagonist’s side. But the presence of “ogres and witches” in such a worldscape points to a complement: what if those alethic quirks are predominantly set against the protagonist? This is, in effect, the worldscape offered by gothic/horror, where ultimately, in the form of Fate and the diabolic, the worldscape itself may be fundamentally set against the protagonist. Between these two, in fact, is the range of possible tensions that construct the warped worldscape of legend, where some alethic quirks are for the protagonist, others are against the protagonist, but many simply are.
As the antagonist of myth may also be a god, as myth deals with, in effect, a society of gods, so in legend the value of everyman is shifted up to demigod. As the cliché says, it’s all relative. The protagonist of legend can be seen as, relatively speaking, the overman of high mimetic or everyman of low mimetic, while the protagonists of gothic/horror may be seen as, again relatively speaking, everyman of low mimetic or nobody of ironic. So romance also unravels, becomes a flipside of gothic, with legend between them as an ordinal position in the mythic dimension. What we have then is high mimetic, low mimetic and ironic, each of which may take a mythic, legendary or non-mythic form, according to whether the protagonist is an alethic quirk (myth), a human agent in a worldscape of alethic quirks (legend), or a human agent in a worldscape devoid of such exotica and arcana (tale).
Where the worldscape is fundamentally for or against the protagonist, we might well appy Clute’s narrative grammars of Fantasy and Horror with their Thinning and Thickening, understanding these as essentially grammars of romance and gothic. (Where Frye talks of the elegaic mood found in romance, of “associations with the sunset and the fall of the leaf”, of a “diffused, resigned, melancholic sense of the passing of time, of the old order changing and yielding to a new one,” it is hard not to see Clute’s Thinning.) Taking legend as the baseline however points up the absence in the middle-ground, the narrative grammar of legend, characterised by something other than Thinning or Thickening, something better described as Twisting — the grammar that we find where the protagonist must navigate a course of adventure and mystery, not knowing who or what is for him or who or what is against him, often finding that his assumptions were wrong, the apparent friend a traitor, the apparent enemy an ally.
What we have is, in effect, a plane of potential credibility warp which we can picture ourselves standing on. The centre-point is the protagonist as human in a worldscape of alethic quirks. Behind us those quirks multiply to the point where even the protagonist themself is one, the god of myth. Ahead they diminish, dissipate into realism. To the left, the worldscape becomes innately malevolent, permeated by monstra, a gothic mire of Thickening; its aesthetic is grotesque. To the right, it becomes innately benevolent, permeated by numina, a romantic meadow of Thinning; its aesthetic is idyllic. In the centre-point those two aesthetics clash in the legendary maze of Twisting; here the aesthetic is baroque.
This model is not, it should be clear, taxonomic. There are no borders drawn upon that plane: romance and gothic are only nominal labels for extremes; Thickening shades into Twisting shades into Thinning; credibility warp is slowly muted as alethic quirks become more sparse, as legend becomes tale; legend and myth blur where the protagonist’s quirk of a talisman becomes the quirk of a talent, the invulnerability of an Achilles, the strength of a Heracles. The demigod is often part god — half-god in the case of Heracles, two-thirds in the case of Gilgamesh.
Separating out this stratum of credibility warp in which myth and romance are only loosely bounded zones, we’re left with Frye’s modes of high mimetic, low mimetic and ironic, where the hero is defined in social terms as overman, everyman or nobody. What we are dealing with here is equilibrium warp — the weight the protagonist bears in terms of duty (authoritative warp) and the weight they can bring to bear in terms of will (affective warp). The overman’s superior status comes from dealing with more forceful deontic modalities and from responding with more forceful boulomaic modalities. They have the duties of the leader they are, and partly this is because their strength of will has placed them in that position. The everyman is dealing with the duties that any human being might, and doing so with a weaker will. Conflicted, uncertain, they are essentially a protagonist rather than a true hero. Strip them still further and we arrive at the nobody.
The nobody is a more interesting case though, with multiple facets. In the basic form, where low status translates to low duty and low strength-of-will we might see them as the comic scapegoat, the pharmakos, but more dramatic potential seems to be gleaned by subverting this form: the alazon or miles gloriosus pretends to a duty they lack the strength-of-will to enact; the picaro is indifferent to any sense of duty, is strong-willed in terms of desire but generally weak-willed in terms of controlling it; where they find that strength-of-will and set themselves at odds with the deontic imperatives of their worldscape, the picaro may become an out-and-out antihero. In effect, all these rogues and fools are basically antiheroic subversions of the classic combination of the dutiful, resolute champion.
What we begin to see here is not a simple schema of relative social status — overman, everyman or nobody — but rather a set of protagonist types defineable by the interrelations of the deontic modalities that act upon them and the boulomaic modalities they enact. High mimetic is not a phase but a heroic register (and one we might well argue turns romance into epic and horror into tragedy). Low mimetic is likewise a non-heroic register, a register of realism in the representation of an individual’s relationship to society. Ironic is an appropriate name, but this is perhaps best seen not as a register in its own right but as the set of all those antiheroic registers achieved by subverting the champion. If we are thinking of mode as a location in a zone of potentials, credibility warp considered in spatial terms, we need to think of it also as a priming of that location with a complex pattern of equilibrium warp, a register that may have preset configurations but which is ultimately as flexible as society’s capacity to create duty and an individual’s capacity to respond with will.
The result is not a historical schema, a taxonomy of modes as phases, but rather a model of narrative dynamics grounded in the potential variances of credibility and equilibrium warps. While Frye’s grand metanarrative of Western literature cycling through these five phases is appealing, we might ultimately see this more as the involution found in any such dynamic system where writers are reacting to one another or to audience expectations, following fashions or setting them. Two large-scale patterns of drift — away from alethic quirks and towards a non-heroic or anti-heroic register — are discernable as having led to a contemporary literature that maps to Frye’s ironic, but it does not seem difficult to relate these to historical circumstances: with the growth of Rationalism as an ideology we can expect an antipathy to credibility warp and heroic register; the expansion of the known world has made geographic base-shift dewarping less and less effective, the chimerae harder to accept as exotica (which may in no small way explain the shift to temporal base-shift dewarping); the democratisation of literature that began with the printing press and went production-line in the 20th century will logically lead to anti-heroic fictions by, for and about people who view the dutiful, resolute champion with the cynicism of the disenfranchised.
Frye’s metanarrative is a well-made myth, but it’s an orrery built to describe an ecosystem. This is not to rubbish it. The conceptual framework is presented as something far more flexible than a static taxonomy of discrete modes, and Frye makes a point of the transitions and resurgences, the way writers working in one will refer back past the previous mode to the one previous to that. This isn’t just a turning cycle of myth, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, ironic and so on. But it is a broad structuring of literature that, I think, we can rearticulate in dynamic rather than mechanistic terms.