Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan


I just finished listening to this as a Librivox audiobook. Confession time: this may be only the second or third time I've read the Pilgrim's Progress proper, though when I was little I couldn't get enough of a children's version called The Little Pilgrim's Progress (in which the pilgrims were all children, and consequently swashbuckled around very pleasingly).
The Pilgrim's Progress is, of course, the great Puritan allegory of the Christian life. As an allegory, it liberally dispenses exposition of Scripture and great arguments of reformed theology in between the events of an often moving or exciting story. As for the story, you probably know it already, but for completeness's sake: it tells of a man, Christian, who flees the City of Destruction despite the sneers of family and neighbours, and sets out on his dangerous journey to the Celestial City. On the way he meets friends, enemies, and monsters, travels through scary places (such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which runs right by the mouth of Hell), fights demons and giants, and spends lots of time discussing theology. In Part II, Christian's wife Christiana decides to take her sons and follow Christian to the Celestial City, and by the time she gets there her collection of pilgrims both stout and weak have killed all the monsters left over from Christian's time, and discussed all the rest of the theology Christian didn't get around to talking about.
Allegories are really hard to do well. Besides the Pilgrim's Progress I can only think of two that have become classics: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and George Orwell's Animal Farm. This is because an allegory is not at all subtle in its message. The characters are often one-note anthropomorphic representations of things the author either likes or doesn't like, while the plot is usually made to serve the message.
The Pilgrim's Progress, nevertheless, works brilliantly on all levels:
The writing style, to begin with, is wonderful: poetically beautiful, classically elegant, lucid and enchanting. Nobody writes like this any more: nobody could. It's pure pleasure to read or listen to.
The plot is epic and archetypal. Although Bunyan wrote in prose (but the best prose: almost poetry) his story, in its scope and high mimetic tone, is really an epic on the scale of Paradise Lost or Beowulf. Or perhaps we should call it the Christian Odyssey. It is a fantastic tale of adventure and peril, Romance in the old sense: its everyman hero travels, battles, doubts, hopes, perseveres, and reaches his reward in the end. Something about it cannot fail to grip the imagination.
The characters, though allegorical themselves, have depth and usually an unshakeable gumption. My favourite scenes in the book all involve characters displaying said gumption: first, the scene in the Interpreter's House where the man “of very stout countenance” fights his way into the heavenly palace; second, when Christiana tells Mrs Timorous: “Wherefore, since you came not to my house in God’s name, as I said, I pray you to be gone, and not to disquiet me further”; third, when Mercy at the wicket-gate fears she will be shut out, and makes as if to batter the door down; and fourth, everything to do with Mr Valiant-for-Truth (“So we fell to it, one against three, for the space of above three hours. They have left upon me, as you see, some of the marks of their valor, and have also carried away with them some of mine.”) Though prey at times to doubt and fear, Bunyan's characters usually rise to the occasion, and when they do, stand clear and hold onto your hat. They are far, far more than just one-note representations of the virtues they are named for.
Not just the characters, but also the narrator is entirely lovable. Bunyan's narrative voice is earnest and reverent, but also gentle and loving: not one bit harsh or cynical or nasty. The Pilgrim's Progress is full of sweetness and courtesy and contentment, and perhaps it is this more than anything else that makes it a classic even if you disagree with the theology.
Not that I can imagine disagreeing with the theology, myself. The allegory is all the better because it is employed in the service of Scriptural truths depicted as things of joy and comfort rather than the cold, harsh doctrines they have been misrepresented as.
For many years the three essential works of English literature were the Authorised Version Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Pilgrim's Progress. Re-reading the last, I am reminded that it fully deserves its reputation.

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