The Pilgrim’s Progress “with its allegorical form and content…is the best of its kind in the [English language]


“Life! Life! Eternal Life!” cries Christian as he flees the City of Destruction

Here I am, living through a pandemic and a time of social unrest, and I’m somehow drawn to Bunyan’s ancient novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress! And this is because Bunyan’s novel reminds us so poignantly that life is a journey with many obstacles and difficulties to overcome.

Let’s face it – as pure adventure The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fantastic story. The fact that it is also an adventure story about getting to Heaven is an added bonus (one not to be underestimated!). The fact that the story is also one of the greatest examples of allegorical literature ever written is still another added bonus (full of pedagogical significance!).

Charlotte Bronte alludes to The Pilgrim’s Progress in the ending of Jane Eyre, and so does Louisa May Alcott (more specifically) in Little Women, and just mentioning these two examples, among many others, gives you an idea of the spectacular influence of The Pilgrim’s Progress in Western Literature. This was one of the most popular books in England (and elsewhere?) for quite a long period of time, although its present appeal and relevance has clearly waned under the influence of secularism. But still, as Professor Willison mentions, The Pilgrim’s Progress “with its allegorical form and content…is the best of its kind in the [English language] and will never be matched, for no one in our scientific, atomic, skeptical age could or would attempt anything like it.”

Of The Pilgrim’s Progress G. K. Chesterton states:

“The Pilgrim’s Progress certainly exhibits all the marks of such a revival of primitive power and mystery. Its resemblance to the Bible is not a mere imitation of style; it is also a coincidence of mood. Bunyan, who was a soldier in Cromwell’s army, had himself been thrown into a world almost as ferocious as that of Gideon, or the Maccabees, and he was really under the influence of the same kind of emotion. This was simply because, as I have said, Puritanism was a thing barbaric, and therefore eternal. Nowhere, perhaps, except in Homer, is there such a perfect description conveyed by the use of merely plain words. The description in Bunyan of how Moses came like a wind up the road, and was but a word and a blow; or how Apollyon straddled quite over the breadth of the way and swore by his infernal den– these are things which can only be paralleled in sudden and splendid phrases out of Homer or the Bible, such as the phrases about the monstrous and man-killing hands of Achilles, or the war-horse who laughs at the shaking of the spear.”

C.S. Lewis adds:

“We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination’, for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words….

Many do not believe that either the trumpets ‘with melodious noise’ or the infernal den await us where the road ends. But most, I fancy, have discovered that to be born is to be exposed to delights and miseries greater than imagination could have anticipated; that the choice of ways at any cross-road may be more important than we think; and that short cuts may lead to very nasty places.”

But on a more practical level (one might say on a teaching level) The Pilgrim’s Progress is a veritable handbook or catalog of the vices that plague us all as we attempt to grow in moral goodness. And since Bunyan transforms these vices (and virtues) into allegorical images, these images can exercise a certain power in your life that an academic study is incapable of. Drawing from the novel, I might – and I have – in a certain type of examination of conscience ask myself: Am I becoming a Mr. Love-Lust or a Mr. Malice? I see I am becoming Mr. Talkative. Now I have become Mr. Morality living in the town of Legality. Now I appear to be Mr. Obstinate. Look now: I have fallen into the Slough of Despond because of my fears and doubts; I must climb out of this bog and rekindle hope and faith. Have I returned to live in the City of Destruction? Have I become enamored with prosperous living in Vanity Fair? Am I afraid to climb Difficulty Hill? Am I going to allow Giant Despair to imprison me in my thoughts? Do I understand that my true goal is the Celestial City? In short, I find these allegorical images of Bunyan –  images of the difficulties one encounters on the spiritual journey –  to be very helpful in assessing my own shortcomings. And what can be more useful than correcting our faults?

Published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress is still quite a significant novel. Life is still an adventure. We are all still trying to get to Heaven. There are still significant obstacles and difficulties in the way of such a lofty goal. But The Pilgrim’s Progress helps us to better understand these obstacles and difficulties, and to overcome them, and thus to stay (or get back) on that narrow road that leads to the Celestial City!

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

P.S. I therefore highly recommend this book for homeschoolers and even for a high-school theology or English class. Recommended: Max McLean’s audio rendition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the well done and enjoyable movie version of the novel starring Daniel Kruse (released in 2008).

Image: From Wikipedia, which states it is in the Public Domain, U.S.A.

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