Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan- Part 1

This is yet another work that is so magnificent in scope that it is difficult to write about in something as flip as a blog entry.  I suppose I could start with the fact that this is one of the most printed books in the history of book printing (at least in its day.  I imagine the "most printed books" list would need to be adjusted for population inflation, advanced printing technology, and so forth).

This will not surprise readers of the book.  It is a helpful and trenchant allegory of the Christian spiritual walk.  It illustrates the pitfalls and victories that await the persevering saint while it encourages and exhorts.

John Bunyan loved allegory and, I daresay, allegory loved John Bunyan.  This is the key exemplification of allegory in Western culture.  Bunyan's characters are named to reveal their character.  Ignorance is ignorant, Talkative is... you get the picture.  I wondered what I would be.  "And the two pilgrims saw a man on a bicycle named Neurotic Overintellectualizer coming around the bend."  I did keep thinking, and far be it from me to criticize Bunyan, that one of the scarier realizations in reading this book is recognizing how I, in my own walk, can shift from character to character.  One likes to identify with the protagonist in this book, but one sees bits of themselves in Mr. Worldly Wiseman or Talkative or even Timorous.  I would imagine that Bunyan would expect one to take this as a warning and a call to mend the ways in which one finds resonations with those damned characters.

It is difficult to imagine a work with this level of earnestness written in our time and I think we are the poorer for it.  I kept thinking of what a glib, silly, and frivolous time in which we live, a time in which dialogue about matters of grave importance are never heard.  It is difficult to imagine a contemporary equivalent of The Pilgrim's Progress in which the author did not feel the need to resort to humor.  This reminds me of my own previous paragraph in which I employed a jokey version of my self in an imagined "lost chapter."  Which, again, is another way in which this book fostered a fervent desire in me to turn my back on this world.

In case you've never read it (in which case your education is missing one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization), it is an account of a man named Christian who realizes that he needs to flee The City of Destruction for reasons that the name might suggest.  His family refuses to go with him, but he must go nonetheless.  He has a terrible burden on his back.  He is shown the way to the Celestial City by Evangelist.  On the way he encounters places like The Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair.  

Part 1 concludes with Christian arriving at the Celestial City.  It is a beautiful passage.  We are happy for Christian and desire to do likewise.  I imagine it's been nearly 15 years since I've read this book and I had no recollection of what happens in Part 2.  I thought it was either an account of Celestial City or it is more people journeying on the same path.  It is the latter, which illustrates the variety of experience on that same path.

As I've mentioned, the impact of this book has been immeasurable.  People have used this as devotional reading for centuries.  People huddled around reading by the light of the fire beneath the cauldron, people reading in salons and castles, people reading in smokey industrial cities, people reading it Starbucks on Kindles.  In reading it, you are brushing material with Lincoln, Melville, Dickens, and a list that will include just about every Western name you can think of from the late 1600s through the dawn of the post-Christian age.

As a side note, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an opera from it.  The Pilgrim's Progress starts with Bunyan in prison (which is the clip below), follows the narrative of the book, then returns to Bunyan at the end.  I especially love the austere and British instrumentation.  I would expect nothing less from Vaughan Williams who seems to me perfectly suited to adapt this work into music.

There is a cumulative effect I am finding from this project, especially in some of the more recent offerings.  I often have this sense of the weight of the work, as if I am not worthy to comment on something so timeless and important as, say, The Pilgrim's Progress or Don Quixote as I am beginning to read them.  But then I find that they speak directly to me.  Their greatness does not lie in their inaccessibility, as lower culture might lead you to believe, but because of their universal accessibility.  There is a game within the religion of anti-intellectualism (perhaps the fastest growing faith in my country right now) which seeks to spook people away from greatness by suggesting that the top shelf is too high for their grasp.  They ought to, rather, enjoy the low fruits of television offerings and smut culled from fan fiction and repackaged to give the illusion that you can read it on the bus without people judging you.

I declare war on that sort of thinking and intend to fight it wherever I see it.  I think Bunyan would agree with this exhortation: if you know something is great, pick it up and own it.  Live in it.  Don't let it out of your grasp.


  1. If you enjoyed Bunyan Paul, you will probably also like the allegorical Christian virtue characters depicted in the vision of the Piers the Plowman. A good exercise to consider what one's allegorical character might be. Mr. and Mrs. Vanity seem to be strong 20th c. characters.

    John Bunyan a much more accessible and popular representative of 17th c. English lit. than Browne sadly, though Browne must surely have known of this imaginative Christian book.

  2. I've read it, I think. I can't quite remember. I know it, or parts of it, or an adaptation of it, was read to us in elementary school. I always liked allegory, liking that something could have both a surface meaning and another reading only apparent to the reader, rather than the characters.

    In my early 20s I went through a C.S. Lewis phase—two, acctually: first he rescued me from fundamentalist evangelicalism, then he rescued me from a period of doubt and agnosticism—and I read his Pilgrim's Regress. From Lewis I went on to Spenser because I tend to read the works which inspired the writers who's works have inspired me. I never finished The Fairie Queene, but I did enjoy what I read, albeit on a very superficial level.

  3. Ditto reading route different reasons over the decades, first Bunyan in my 20's, then C.S.Lewis in 30's and Spencer in 40's. I never finished 'The Fairie Queen' either, so Bunyan's shorter canvas and more acessible imagery wins, though Lewis's 'Narnia' series may also give a nod and trump Bunyan.