Second Glance: For Eternity
The Pilgrim’s Progress
By John Bunyan
In 1661, as England was entering its period of Restoration after the turbulence of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, a tinker and part-time preacher found himself in prison with nothing to do but make shoelaces and write.
He was jailed not for any common crime, but because he refused to stop spreading seditious ideas. Since the Act of Uniformity, it had become a crime to preach without first being ordained by the Church of England. This meant, in effect, that it was a crime to proclaim a theology diverging in doctrine from high church Anglicanism. The dangerous fanaticism of the Puritans, from whom Cromwell drew the fiercest of his God-drunk all-conquering army, loomed as terrifying in the collective memory as the Lord Protector himself. Authorities suspected conventicles, unlicensed religious services, fearing that they would become nests of traitors plotting to overthrow the newly-restored monarchy. John Bunyan, the tinker, was taken before the magistrate and asked if he would promise to stop preaching. He refused.
Then or at any time thereafter, he could have promised not to preach and walked out of the Bedfordshire gaol a free man. But his convictions were too strong. Like many others who have sacrificed themselves for principle, his honor, defiantly unbesmirched in one respect, was put in question by the fact that he left behind a family unable to support themselves: a pregnant wife barely out of her teens and four small children, one blind. While he was choosing martyrdom, they had no choice but to suffer also. In his autobiography he wrote, “I saw in this condition I was as a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it.” It seemed to him that his cause was worth any amount of suffering. To further that cause while imprisoned, he wrote a book called The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The book is an allegory about religious life considered as a journey. It follows the pilgrimage of a man called Christian — Bunyan leaves no room for confusion about what his characters represent. Christian suffers from a heavy burden (a literalization of sin) which he carries around on his back and can’t remove. He reads in a book that if he journeys to the Celestial City he will find someone who can take the burden away. He meets a fellow called Evangelist, who tells him he’d better heed the book before it’s too late. Not only are its burden-relieving prognostications correct, but if Christian doesn’t leave his hometown — the City of Destruction — he’ll burn up with everyone else. Christian takes Evangelist at his word and begins to run in the direction indicated, hotly pursued by the first of many difficulties — his own neighbors. He arrives at the Celestial City eventually, but not until he is scorned by friends and family, imprisoned, beaten, stoned; not until he is sucked into a swamp and nearly buried in an avalanche; not until he has walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Despair and crested the Hill Difficulty, escaped Doubting Castle and pressed through the temptations of Vanity Fair; not until he has seen companions die, fought the demon Apollyon, and overcome the trap of slumber on the Enchanted Ground.
The story is prefaced by a poem entitled “The Author’s Apology for His Book.” In it, Bunyan carefully defends his audacious use of narrative as a vehicle for theology: audacious because his intended readers were people who had in 1642 banned the theater for the next five years. To put himself beyond reproof, Bunyan was careful to frame his story as a dream. The poetic preface is a long and awkward thing, full of bemusing contortions if read by someone who doesn’t believe that stories are lies; but one line is perfect, a suitable preface to anyone’s experience of what ensues: “This book will make a traveler of thee / If by its counsel thou wilt ruléd be.”
Three centuries after Bunyan died, I reclined on a rug, a small boy listening to an audiobook and surrounded by half a dozen illustrated versions of the convict’s manuscript — I couldn’t read yet, but I could certainly listen and look, for the twentieth or thirtieth time. I had my favorite among the picture books: the illustrations of Robert Lawson, pen and ink fantasias of bewildering complexity, in which Christian hacks his way through pitchy jungles while the filigreed faces of demons leer at him from the shadows. My preferred audiobook featured a British voice. But to vary the experience I also owned a version with melodramatic sound effects and even a recording in which my own dad had a cameo as The Man in the Iron Cage. I memorized The Pilgrim’s Progress in spoken word and vivid image before I ever read it, like a Russian peasant absorbing his gospel from the painted wood of ikons. To hear the ravishing first lines of the book was to be transported, instantly:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and 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?”
Why did I find the book so gripping? Even in the short passage I have just quoted, the first of several reasons becomes clear. Bunyan’s unamended prose, even three hundred years later, is starkly beautiful. To my ear it has the cadences of the King James Version of the Bible, but Bunyan’s simplicity makes that lodestar of the language sound almost prolix. A vivid, blunt emphasis on plain objects (rags, house, book, burden), coupled with a penchant for incantatory repetition (“I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold”), creates an atmosphere at the same time of reality and of myth. Bunyan’s is the voice of a bard speaking not of ancient times but of his own.
The Pilgrim’s Progress matters not just because it is a beautifully written book, but because it is a proto-novel (or, some would say, the first English novel). Also, along with Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is the narrative flower of Puritanism, the Protestant’s answer to that other dreaming vision of Christian life, The Divine Comedy. But such praises could be sung of several books by John Bunyan, including The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, a sort of Puritan picaresque, and The Holy War, another allegory. For me, the peculiar satisfactions of Pilgrim’s Progress stem from more than its formal properties or literary context. They stem from the circumstances of its composition: prison. To write a book in prison is to pay double the usual price of authorship — the stinting of certain ordinary comforts and human relations — adding to it the price of outlawed convictions.
While you don’t need to be an English Puritan to appreciate Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, it would help if you were. Newcomers to the book are often surprised by the number of theological dialogues gumming up its action. For every Valley of the Shadow of Despair and Battle with Apollyon, there is a dissertation on Sabbath-keeping or a careful discussion of prayer. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the life of the kind of person for whom weekly sermons are important events on the path to Heaven. It is a tale of adventure, full of monsters, narrow escapes, mysterious vistas, and dark towers, but it is also the mature expression of a complicated ideology. Bunyan displays in his jail-book not only a strong awareness of the drama of his outlawed beliefs but also an obsessive interest in their minutiae.
This kind of prison pedantry can often have the effect of freeing its practitioners from the shackles of their own ideology. But in the case of Bunyan, prison didn’t lead to any fundamental re-evaluation of his dogmas. Instead, he merely hammered out with precision the dogmas he brought with him. He could never resist making the correspondences of his allegory explicit. This tendency reaches its fever-pitch in the House of the Interpreter, a place where Christian takes his rest for a while on the way to the Celestial City. He doesn’t actually get much rest because the Interpreter insists on leading him around his house to “show him excellent things.”
He shows him a number of live tableaux, like this one:
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlor that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, “Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;” the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
Christian, ever the willing auditor for an explanation of his own allegory, asks, “What means this?” And the Interpreter obliges, at length, and in great detail:
The Interpreter answered, This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue. Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit.
As a good Baptist child in Pennsylvania, I was supposed to study The Pilgrim’s Progress for instruction in my religion. Passages like this were supposed to fix correct dogmas in my infant mind — what were the precise order and role of law and gospel in the process of salvation? Narrative was mnemonic. For the same reason, I was made to memorize catechism questions and Bible verses. But I loved The Pilgrim’s Progress as a story and managed to evade entirely the heavy hand of its allegory. Probably for that reason, in my irreligious adulthood, the book remains one possession from my childhood secure against retrospective distaste. Now I can value the book as a literary artifact without feeling guilty about points missed and meanings not taken. Yes, Bunyan had an ulterior motive in penning this tale, but this allegory succeeds despite that.
Bunyan wasn’t always successful in turning his allegories into great literature. To see why he did succeed in the case of The Pilgrim’s Progress, we need only compare it to his later effort, The Holy War. The latter book is an allegory about conversion, with a town as its main character. Its heavy-handedness is already revealed in the very name of the town: Mansoul. Mansoul, of course, has an eye-gate, an ear-gate, a feel-gate, and so on. It was founded by Shaddai (taken from the Jewish Testament’s El Shaddai, one of Jehovah’s other names), but it is conquered by Diabolus, then reconquered by Shaddai’s son, Emmanuel. Throughout the story, Bunyan never misses an opportunity to exhaustively elaborate a theological point, until each chapter begins to resemble an interminable rip-off from the Iliad‘s Catalogue of Ships:
To each of these captains [sent by Shaddai to retake Mansoul] the King gave a banner, that it might be displayed, because of the goodness of his cause, and because of the right that he had to Mansoul.
First, to Captain Boanerges, for he was the chief, to him, I say, were given ten thousand men. His ensign was Mr. Thunder; he bare the black colours, and his scutcheon was the three burning thunderbolts.
The second captain was Captain Conviction; to him also were given ten thousand men. His ensign’s name was Mr. Sorrow; he did bear the pale colours, and his scutcheon was the book of the law wide open, from whence issued a flame of fire.
The third captain was Captain Judgment; to him were given ten thousand men. His ensign’s name was Mr. Terror; he bare the red colours, and his scutcheon was a burning fiery furnace.
The fourth captain was Captain Execution; to him were given ten thousand men. His ensign was one Mr. Justice; he also bare the red colours, and his scutcheon was a fruitless tree, with an axe lying at the root thereof.
A book like The Holy War, while graced with Bunyan’s wonderful prose and based on his own experiences as a soldier at siege and surprisingly wide reading (for a tinker), thoroughly justifies Tolkien’s comment that, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” because allegory “resides […] in the purposed domination of the author.” But The Pilgrim’s Progress somehow resists the domination of its author — the perfection of its metaphors turns allegory into something more like symbol. As a consequence of this literary alchemy, the places, characters, and events of The Pilgrim’s Progress have entered cultural memory in a way that transcends their parochially religious origin. The narrative of The Pilgrim’s Progress is rooted in the details of everyday 17th century life — an urban fantasy, for Bunyan’s day, rather than the High or Mythic fantasy of The Holy War. It works; it works well enough that a child in single digits could ignore the allegory to feast on the story.
In that story, the discussions of imprisonment itself were what obsessed me as a child. I knew from the first time I listened to the story that Bunyan wrote the book while in prison. So I was alive to the fact that The Pilgrim’s Progress, too, is full of cages. To read it is to experience the odd recursion of a man in prison writing in the guise of a free man who is dreaming about prison.
Christian is twice imprisoned. The first time is in Vanity Fair, a place where every dissipating luxury is for sale: “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as harlots, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.” Christian and his then companion, Faithful, cause a stir in the fair when they refuse to buy anything. (The autobiographical allusion to ordination in the Church of England is unmistakable.) They are taken before a local court, but:
They that were appointed to examine them did not believe them to be any other than bedlams and mad, or else such as came to put all things into a confusion in the fair. Therefore they took them and beat them, and besmeared them with dirt, and then put them into the cage, that they might be made a spectacle to all the men of the fair. There, therefore, they lay for some time, and were made the objects of any man’s sport, or malice, or revenge.
Christian escapes from Vanity Fair, although Faithful does not, being tortured and burned at the stake.
Toward the end of the story, Christian finds himself imprisoned once again. He has a new companion, Hopeful, and they have made the mistake of leaving the main road to the Celestial City (because it is rocky and painful to their feet) to wander on a grassy by-way that appears to run parallel to the main road. But a storm comes up in the night. They are driven farther and farther from the main road. Come morning, they lie shivering in an unknown place. Unfortunately:
There was, not far from the place where they lay, a castle, called Doubting Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair, and it was in his grounds they now were sleeping: wherefore he, getting up in the morning early, and walking up and down in his fields, caught Christian and Hopeful asleep in his grounds. Then with a grim and surly voice, he bid them awake, and asked them whence they were, and what they did in his grounds. They told him they were pilgrims, and that they had lost their way. Then said the giant, You have this night trespassed on me by trampling in and lying on my grounds, and therefore you must go along with me. So they were forced to go, because he was stronger than they. They also had but little to say, for they knew themselves in a fault. The giant, therefore, drove them before him, and put them into his castle, into a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men. Here, then, they lay from Wednesday morning till Saturday night, without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask how they did; they were, therefore, here in evil case, and were far from friends and acquaintance.
The Giant Despair beats the men daily, making their lives miserable. Then he comes to them and gives them a knife, a hanging rope, and poison. “For why, he said, should you choose to live, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness?” The offer of suicide tempts them, but they resist. After several days, in the extremity of their suffering, suddenly:
good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out into this passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news; good brother, pluck it out of thy bosom, and try. Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the dungeon-door, whose bolt, as he turned the key, gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out.
The second story exemplifies Bunyan’s deeper account of prison. A person like Bunyan — Christian, say — may be imprisoned in body, but true imprisonment affects the mind, the soul, and not the body. Christian in a cage in Vanity Fair is freer than the citizens of the City of Destruction who refuse to escape the brimstone that is coming.
In the House of the Interpreter, Bunyan inserts what is, to me, the most vivid scene in all the book — and it is also the perfect expression of what he believes true, spiritual imprisonment looks like:
So he [the Interpreter] took him [Christian] by the hand again, and led him into a very dark room, where there sat a man in an iron cage. Now the man, to look on, seemed very sad; he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart.
Interpreter encourages Christian to talk to the man. He does so and discovers that while the man once professed to be like Christian, to be making his way to the Celestial City, now:
I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me: I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent. […] God hath denied me repentance. His word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage: nor can all the men in the world let me out. Oh eternity! eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity?
The real prison to be feared, Bunyan is asserting, is not the material one of wood and iron, but the immaterial prison of despair, the conviction that there is no hope and that one’s journey has come to an end of intractable bitterness.
This examination of the meaning of imprisonment, of its spiritual as well as practical significance, is the truly elevating feature of the book. For Bunyan it was no academic question. He honestly believed that as he sat immured in the Bedfordshire gaol, he was actually Christian, free upon the road to the Celestial City, not the Man in the Iron Cage. This is what makes the book so powerful: its insistence upon the drama of the inner life, and the perfect metaphor it found for that drama. Everyone lives a dangerous journey, regardless of where their bodies are situated. Lying on the rug, listening to words centuries old, I believed that.
How appropriate then — if ironic — that The Pilgrim’s Progress served me as a child to find a chink in the oppressive pedagogy of a religious education — to find a place, in the wilderness of that world, to lay me down and dream a dream. I am glad Bunyan stubbornly remained imprisoned, writing my favorite book.
Still, the price may have been too high. While Bunyan allowed his body to be caged so that his conscience would be free, his family bore the brunt of that decision. Ill-fed and under-clothed, his wife miscarried and his children nearly starved.