Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream is a Christian allegory by John Bunyan, first published in 1678. It is one of the most influential texts ever written and I've seen it mentioned throughout literature more times than I can count, particularly in Victorian literature. Here are a few examples:
  • The subtitle of Oliver Twist, A Parish Boy's Progress by Charles Dickens (1837-9).
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847-8) refers to a location in Pilgrim's Progress (the seventh section).
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) makes frequent reference to Pilgrim's Progress (as does Shirley and Villette) and Jane Eyre's progress takes a similar path to the Pilgrim's.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9) refers to Pilgrim's Progress many times and the character's progress, like Jane Eyre often mirror the text.
  • The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869) had the alternative title of The New Pilgrims' Progress
On top of all that, The Pilgrim's Progress is also regarded by some to be one of the first English novels (though Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, 1719, appears to be more commonly agreed on as the first). So, though I find The Pilgrim's Progress particularly difficult, I decided it was time to revisit it. I do think it's a book that must be read and re-read a few times before one really gets to grip with it, and as this is only my second read I think I'm a little way off! Nevertheless...

The Pilgrim's Progress is divided into two parts which are subdivided into sections. It begins with a poem, 'The Author's Apology for his Book', in which Bunyan writes on his motivations for The Pilgrim's Progress, before he goes into the first part which begins not that unlike Dante's Inferno:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?
This man is called Christian and he is told by his spiritual guide named Evangelist that he must leave his home in the City of Destruction and seek salvation in Celestial City, known also as Mount Zion. And so Bunyan describes Christian, our pilgrim's, journey from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion. He first tries to convince his family and a few friends and neighbours to accompany him but he is ultimately unsuccessful so goes the journey alone. We see him pass many of the great landmarks of salvation and, rather than go into them too deeply (I don't think I'm quite there yet with Pilgrim's Progress to pretend to have a great in-depth understanding!), here are some examples:
  • The Slough of Despond: Here Christian sinks under the weight of his sins. He is rescued by Help. This is seen elsewhere in literature, for example Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff says to Catherine, "Well, you dropped Linton with it into a Slough of Despond", and in Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham when Cronshaw likens poverty to the "slough of despond".
  • House Beautiful: This palace sits on top of the Hill Difficulty, and it's a rest-stop for pilgrims before they reach the Celestial City. Here Christian is cared for by Prudence, Piety, and Charity. In this I couldn't fail to notice the similarities between this and Edmund Spenser's description of the House of Holiness in Book I of The Faerie Queene, where Dame Caelia (the name suggesting 'heavenly spirit') lives with her three daughters, Fidelia (faith), Speranza (hope), and Charissa (charity).
  • Valley of Humiliation: Here Christian must defeat Apollyon 'the Destroyer', the king of the City of Destruction.
  • Valley of the Shadow of Death: A reference to Psalm 23:4 - "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." It is a wilderness close to the mouth of Hell.
  • Vanity Fair: This is a town obsessed with the 'low' pleasures of life: money, sensual delights, objects and idols.
  • Doubting Castle: This is the home of the giant Despair. He captures, imprisons and tortures Christian and Hopeful (who joined him from Vanity Fair). They manage to escape using the key of Promise.
  • The Delectable Mountains: From here one can see the Celestial City. Here Christian and Hopeful meet four shepherds, Experience, Knowledge, Watchful, and Sincere.
  • The Enchanted Ground: This a bit of land the pilgrims must cross, however to sleep on it is fatal.
  • The Celestial City: This is situated on Mount Zion and is the Kingdom of God. On the Celestial Gates are written, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city".
Having spent but a little time in the Celestial City, Bunyan awakes and discovers it was all a dream.

Following this is the second part first published in 1684 telling of the spiritual journey of Christiana, Christian's wife. The full title:

The Pilgrim's Progress
From this World to that which
is to come
The Second Part
Under the Similitude of a Dream
Wherein is Set Forth
The Manner of the Setting of 
Christian's Wife and Children, Their Dangerous
Journey, and Safe Arrival at the
Desired Country.

I did read it, but I think that perhaps deserves it's own post: quite when I'll do it I'm not sure!

And that is my very brief outline of a very complex work. It's major theme is of course the Christian journey through the world to the Kingdom of God and the challenges and hurdles faced. It is a very literal spiritual journey or development of personality or character. With each challenge Christian overcomes and with that grows ever closer to God and it is his strength of faith that he needs to meet these challenges.

It is a fascinating work of Protestant Christian allegory, and it has too a very interesting background: John Bunyan was in fact in prison when he began The Pilgrim's Progress: he had been imprisoned in Bedfordshire for violating the then newly established Conventicle Act of 1664 that forbade conventicles (religious assemblies of more than five people) outside the auspices of the Church of England in order to prevent the growth of the Nonconformist or Protestant faith. The Pilgrim's Progress, particularly taking into account the circumstances in which is was written, was quite the rebellion.

To finish, here are some very beautiful illustrations by Frank C. Papé for the 1910 edition (I hope you love these as much as I do!):


  1. I think I've only read this once so far, and I need to study it in more depth. It's so alien to the way we think now, but it's also a hugely important book. I'd call it one of the real popular classics, in that a lot of the reason that it is a classic is because it was almost universally beloved and known. In America, for a couple of centuries, it was one of two books nearly guaranteed to be in a home (the other of course being the Bible). On Sundays, when children couldn't play with ordinary toys or run around, they could do two fun things: play with a Noah's Ark or read the Pilgrim's Progress. It therefore sank deep into American imagination and consciousness -- everybody knew the Giant Despair and the Slough of Despond.

    1. That's very interesting. I know it was a huge deal, especially in Victorian Britain, but I have to say I hadn't heard of it until... I'm not sure, when I was in university perhaps. I don't think it's quite the same here as it is in America, which I think it a shame. I think it has some very important insights, whether one is Christian or not....

  2. I have to admit that, though it inspired so many famous works - some of which I've read and loved -, I've never heard of this work. So thank you for talking about it! Seems like an interesting, challenging title. I may try and read it now :)

    And of course I do love the illustrations!

    1. The illustrations are gorgeous, aren't they? :) I'll look forward to seeing what you make of it!


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