Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan This 1678 work is Christian allegory with a capital C. It may not be necessary to be a Christian to love this, but I’m sure it helps. A lot. A whole lot. Particularly helps to be a “fire and brimstone” Christian who believes humans aren’t just fallen but completely depraved and not about to make it into Heaven unless they walk one narrow path. I’m not a Christian--I’m an atheist. That doesn’t stop me from loving Dante’s Divine Comedy, also a work suffused with Christian themes--but Bunyan is no Dante. There is something very human, let alone humanistic about Dante. Wonderful stories--often about real people and historic personages such as Vergil and Brutus with which Dante peopled his Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Bunyan is much more abstract--his journey to the Celestial City is filled with such figures as “Pliance,” “Worldly Wiseman,” “Evangelist” and “Hopeful.” Dante’s a poet--Bunyan a preacher--and believe me, you can tell. Honestly I’m surprised I didn’t completely hate it, especially since I don’t like allegory that is so blatant. I read it because it’s on Good Reading’s “100 Significant Books”--and because it keeps coming up over and over in books I’ve read. It provides the title and theme for Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and the theme and structure for Alcott’s Little Women where the March sisters play at taking up Christian’s “burden.” The Introduction of the edition I read tells us that “for two hundred years, The Pilgrim’s Progress was, after the Bible, the most widely read book in the English-speaking world” and the “most widely influential book ever written in English.” From time to time I’ve heard of the “Slough of Despond,” “Doubtful Castle” and the “Delectable Mountains.” I think that kept my interest pretty keen through Part One, where Christian, taking up his “burden” of sin, climbs mountains and walks through such valleys as the Shadow of Death. Being raised a Christian as well as encountering the literary allusions to it meant I had enough of the context to keep me fairly engaged. Endnotes and footnotes and even sidenotes in the Barnes and Noble edition helped a lot in keeping the 17th century prose understandable. Without them a lot of the doctrinal squabbles between Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, Quakers and other non-conformists alluded to in the work would have slipped right on by--although the spirit of intolerance towards those of Bunyan's coreligionists who don’t agree with him didn’t need footnotes to come through. There's only one way to Heaven--Bunyan's way. You go through the Wicket Gate, with your Robe and your Mark and your Roll or you fall into Hell. On the other hand, knowing Bunyan wrote this in prison, where he spent twelve years because he refused to abandon his Christian principles, did mean that when Christian encountered monsters and beasts and mobs I knew these weren’t just puffed up imaginary impediments. Bunyan walked the walk; I had to respect that. He lived this story. That came through too. I did start finding it a slog in Part Two. That part, written years later, isn’t a continuation as much as a sequel. One where wife Christiana and kidlets follow the road already traveled; I found that too repetitive. I think I was also irked that while Christian, who abandoned his family, is able to strike out on his own, his distaff counterpart has to have a guide, Greatheart. While Christian gets to fight the monster Apollyon himself, his wife stands by while her champion slays all in their way. If all is allegory, what does that say about the weakness of women’s souls? On the other hand, this part of the story at least is more compassionate than hectoring, as pilgrims help those weaker to make the journey. I am glad I did finally read Pilgrim’s Progress, if only to better catch the frequent references in literature. I don't know that I can honestly say I liked Part One though, and I wasn't far into Part Two before I was soooo tired of this. Yet I can’t help think a lot of fantasy from The Wizard of Oz to Narnia owes a debt to Bunyan. At the least, it might give any rereads of Little Women a whole new layer of meaning...