Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Pilgrim's Progress

John Bunyan The Pilgrim's Progress (1684)
This book is among the greatest literary masterpieces in the world, writes Dr. Ronald Johnson of something called Accelerated Christian Education. Few books so captivate attention while provoking insight into Christian character.

Bunyan was an English puritan living in an age when it was pretty tough being an English puritan, and thus was he locked up for continuing to preach his beliefs. Whilst in the stripy hole he wrote principally so as to keep himself from going batty, to keep himself on the straight and narrow:

...but yet I do not think
To show all the world my pen and ink
In such a mode; I only thought to make
I knew not what: nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I;
I did it my own self to gratify.

Neither did I but vacant seasons spend
In this my scribble; nor did I intend
But to divert myself in doing this
From worser thoughts which make me do amiss.

Amongst those works written during his years of porridge we find The Pilgrim's Progress, describing the allegorical journey of a Christian man travelling to the kingdom of Heaven with emphasis on that which might impede his getting there. The tone of The Pilgrim's Progress is determined by Bunyan's desire for absolute clarity of meaning. Whilst the work may well have been written entirely for his own pleasure, he left no room for misinterpretation by any third party:

Wouldst thou read riddles and their explanation?
Or else be drowned in thy contemplation?
Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see
A man i' the clouds and hear him speak to thee?

Whilst this speaks well of Bunyan's desire to communicate, I'm really not sure what it does for the book as a supposed literary masterpiece, an honour which I would argue applies more to its cultural impact than to the actual content. The principal character of part one is named Christian, and those he encounters on his journey tend to be identified with a similarly heavy hand, and so much so that it's kind of on a level with a seventeenth century Dora the Explorer as our boy meets Boastful and Selfish and turns to the imaginary camera to ask, I wonder what sort of fellows these will be? Perhaps they shall be fine and generous companions who speak with much modesty, before blinking a couple of times and then repeating the sentence.

It's not that the story is in any sense badly written, but with every possible outcome of each interaction a foregone conclusion based upon the relative and well-advertised piety of those involved, you kind of know what's going to happen, which kind of sucks some of the fun out of reading. I appreciate that it was 1684, but I'm not a complete stranger to literature of that general period, and Cervantes, Aphra Behn, Rabelais, and Cyrano de Bergerac all managed considerably better, or at least gave their readers something to chew over with a bit more substance than that of a rusk. I know Gulliver's Travels came a couple of decades later, but the contrast between the two makes this one read as though written by an idiot.

Clearly it wasn't written by an idiot given that simplicity was Bunyan's stated intention, and it remains a fairly engaging read for something in which everything is spelled out in ten foot high block capitals. As for the insight into Christian character promised by the nice man from Accelerated Christian Education, the insight is mostly on the level of how a Christian man likes God, enjoys praying and being honest, but he certainly does not appreciate the devil, temptation, or telling lies.

'Do you like the devil?,' we might ask him.

'No sir, I do not!' he would probably reply in strident tones.

Who would have fucking thunk it, eh?

Then again, Accelerated Christian Education is an organisation of biblically literalist nutcases responsible for schoolbooks claiming that the Loch Ness monster can be explained by Noah having a few baby dinosaurs on the ark. It makes perfect sense that Bunyan's masterpiece should hold such appeal for fundamentalist types with their profound distrust of grey areas, complex arguments and facts.

Accordingly, our Christian leaves a wife and four children in order to seek God, and yet nowhere is it suggested that this abandonment of his family could signify any degree of negligence, vanity, or self-interest, because he's doing it for the right reasons.

'Indeed, Cain hated his brother, because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous; and if thy wife and children have been offended with thee for this, they thereby show themselves to be implacable to good, and thou hast delivered thy soul from their blood.'

Well, that's all sorted then. As is typical of the fundamentalist, good deeds don't count for shit unless you're a fully paid-up club member and subscriber to the right periodicals. The nicest guy in the world is still going to hell if he fails to abase himself before the proper authorities for no reason given other than that it's all a joyous mystery and that this is simply the right way; and it's true because it's true, as Christian points out to the cunningly named Ignorance:

But thou camest not in at the Wicket-gate that is at the head of this way; thou camest in hither through that same crooked lane, and therefore I fear, however thou mayest think of thyself, when the reckoning day shall come, thou wilt have laid to thy charge that thou art a thief and a robber, instead of getting admittance into the city.

Christian arrives in God's city at the end of the first book - the allegory specifically being that his pilgrimage represents acceptance of Christ and all that good stuff. Christian's abandoned and presumably less righteous wife and four children get to redeem themselves in book two, which initially kicks off as a repeat of book one as they come to their senses and decide to follow in Christian's shoes. On the way they are joined by characters with names such as Mercy and Great-Heart, then are eventually relegated to non-speaking roles in their own tale as their manly companions and protectors stand around pontificating upon biblical lore and how it is easier for camels to pass through the eyes of needles. I suppose a more active role in the exchange of opinions might have interfered with said wife's admirable womanly meekness or something. I wouldn't say that failing the Bechdel test or unnecessary sneering at Catholics - as occurs in a couple of instances - determines a piece of fiction as necessarily worthless, but forgetting to include a fucking story really doesn't help.

John Bunyan's great talent as a writer can be found in the fact that he actually made a fairly engaging read of this tale for all its flaws, its repetitive and sanctimonious observations, and its seemingly regarding the reader as a simpleton. The Pilgrim's Progress is an historically important book, just not a very good one.


  1. I believe he also wrote a sequel in which Christian's wife sets out to find her husband, but it's forty years since I read Bunyan's complete works so I may be misremembering.

    Simon BJ

    1. Yes - it's included in this edition. See second to last paragraph.

  2. I realised that when I finished reading the review duh, I shouldn't have been so trigger happy as to start a response mid way through. Sorry!

    Simon BJ