John Bunyan came from very humble background. Born in a village near Bedford in 1628, he had some schooling before joining the Parliamentary (anti-king) army at the start of the Civil War (1642). This and his marriage spurred him to investigate his religion more closely and he began preaching to local groups of Christians outside the structure of the official Church of England.
After the restoration of Charles II (1660) the new, reactionary Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, requiring all religious activity to be licensed and to follow the rites and rituals laid down in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and all ministers to be appointed by an Anglican bishop. The aim was Control and Conformity after the anarchy of the Civil War years.
Bunyan refused to do this, not applying for a licence he knew he wouldn’t get and continuing to preach to non-Anglican groups around Bedford and beyond, which made him a non-conformist (for refusing to conform to the rules). He was arrested in November 1660, tried for his illegal preaching and ended up spending the next 12 years in prison (1660-72). The prison regime was quite lax, he had the company of various other devout Christians, books and writing materials and was even let out on some occasions for good behaviour.
While in prison he wrote Grace Abounding To The Chief of Sinners and began the Pilgrim’s Progress. During his imprisonment the political and social climate had changed significantly and in 1672 the king passed a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended penal laws against non-conformists. Thousands were released from prison, including Bunyan, who immediately applied for a licence to preach and took up his old activities.
Bunyan wrote prodigiously, mostly pamphlets, though he published some 40 longer works in his lifetime. By far the most famous is the Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678 which went on to become the most published book in English after the Bible. It takes the form of an allegory, in which the Pilgrim is tasked with saving his soul and during his journey encounters characters representing types of person or attitudes towards the Christian life.
Notes on allegory
Allegory compels a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and its meaning. Unlike the a) vagueness b) take-it-or-leave-it, of symbolism, allegory demands that you go beneath the surface story to derive the secondary meaning. In Bunyan the allegory is continually in plain view, easy and accessible.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has endured because of:
- the accuracy & immediacy of its characterisation
- the similar accuracy of its dialogue & argumentation – I was particularly taken with the arguments of Mr Worldly-Wiseman
- the swiftness of its pace; most of the incidents are over in a few pages; many of the debates are over in a paragraph.
For the modern reader the most notable aspects of the text is the complete absence of colour & description of anything:
Now there was not far from the place they lay, a castle, called Doubting-Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair, and it was in his grounds that they were now sleeping.
No description of the castle or the giant. Compare what Edmund Spenser would have done in his wonderful poetic allegory the Faerie Queene (1590). But then Spenser was writing for a highly cultured, courtly culture and invested his poem with Elizabethan luxury. Bunyan is deliberately doing the opposite: reducing the drama of the Christian life to its bare (very bare) essentials.
- The accuracy of the characterisation
- The mercifully brief length of the spiritual debates, because a great deal of the subject matter seems to us to consist of the splitting of almost invisible theological hairs
The lack of description is the obverse of its strength: it gets straight to the point, the point being to demonstrate fully and clearly the scores of temptations, excuses, pretences, delusions and delays which can divert the would-be Christian from following their faith and saving their soul.
The narrator falls asleep in a den & dreams a dream. He sees:
Christian, inhabitant of the City of Destruction, weeping with fear, reading in the Bible that he is condemned to die and labouring under a heavy burden (of sin) on his back. Evangelist hands him a roll simply saying ‘Fly the wrath to come’. Go to that distant Wicket Gate to seek the Celestial City.
Dialogue with Obstinate and Pliable.
Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, Pliable abandons him, Help comes & shows him the true path.
Christian meets Mr Worldly-Wiseman from the town of Carnal-Policy, who advises him to seek out Mr Legality in the town of Morality (or his son, Civility) i.e. replace true religion with legality & civil appearance.
But before Legality’s house is an enormous mountain threatening to fall on him & crush him, so Christian stops & hesitates. At this moment Evangelist reappears & critiques Worldly-Wiseman & all his guiles.
Terrified at his error, Christian retraces his way to the true path and comes soon to the Wicket Gate. Good Will opens & pulls him through, asking him to recount his adventures & explaining them.
Once again on the right way, Christian comes to the House of the Interpreter who shows him various emblems & interprets them for him:
- a picture of an apostle
- a parlour full of dust i.e. a soul full of original sin which requires the water of grace to be sprinkled on it to settle it
- two little children, Passion and Patience
- the fire of grace continually burning being fuelled by Christ which the Devil endlessly tries to extinguish
- a Knight of God who fights his way into the Palace of God against the armed men outside
- Christian is shown a man trapped in the cage of his own despair
- Christian sees a man waking trembling from a dream of the Last Judgement in which he is not saved
Bolstered with these insights Christian sets off & soon comes to a hill with a Cross on top and a sepulchre at the bottom. Effortlessly the burden of his sin is lifted from him. Three holy ones say thy sins are forgiven, dress him in new clothes, put a mark on his forehead and give him a roll of writing with a seal upon.
Further down the way he sees to one side three sleeping figures, Simple, Sloth and Presumption. He tries to wake them but they ignore him.
Then two men scramble over the wall of the narrow way, Formality & Hypocrisy who boast that they don’t need to come in by way of the Narrow Gate; Christian disdains them & comes to a hill called Difficulty. Christian struggles up it but the Formality & Hypocrisy take the easy-looking paths round the side (but one is Danger & one is Destruction).
Halfway up the hill of Difficulty is a pleasant arbour & there Christian rests & sleeps & the holy roll falls out of his pocket. He wakes & continues to the top where he meets Timorous and Mistrust running the other way. He rejects their advice to run away but realises he’s lost his roll; returns to the arbour; find it; turns around; finally comes to the house Beautiful.
Is invited in by the porter Watchful, then discourses with Piety, Prudence and Charity. Watchful et al delay him several days & tell Christian stories of Christian heroes, clothe him in armour, show him the weapons used by eg Gideon, Moses, Samson. They set him on his way down into the Valley of Humiliation, where he meets Apollyon: they debate whose subject Christian is, Apollyon’s or Christ’s, then fall to fighting & Christian wounds Apollyon who flies off.
A hand appears with leaves from the Tree of Life to heal & refresh him. Then Christian comes to the brink of the Valley of The Shadow of Death, where he meets two spies heading back with scary reports of what lies ahead.
The way through the Valley is dark, with a ditch on one side into which the blind fall, and a quag on the other. In the middle of the Valley is the mouth of Hell spewing forth flames & smoke, and Christian can hear crowds of fiends coming towards him; he resorts to fervent prayer.
Eventually day breaks & he can see the perils he’s passed & see ahead the 2nd half of the Valley full of traps. Finally he comes to the end & sees 2 caves inhabited by Pagan & Pope, fronted by lots of dead bones of their victims. But Pagan is long since dead & Pope is a feeble old man who says you should all burn but is harmless.
From a small rise he sees Faithful ahead & runs to catch him up. Faithful tells him about his journey from the City of Destruction, to wit: he was tempted by the lady Wanton; he was invited to work for the First Adam & his daughters The Lust of the Flesh, The Lust of the Eyes and The Pride of Life. Then he’s overcome by Moses who batters him relentlessly to the ground, until he is freed by ‘one with holes in his hands’. In the Valley of Humility he meets Discontent who tells him it’s a crappy Valley; then Shame who rails against all forms of religion as unworthy a man.
Back to the present where Faithful & Christian fall in with Talkative who, it eventually dawns on them, is all talk. Faithful gives a very edifying discourse on the difference between talk/knowledge – and action. By their fruits shall ye know them. Talkative departs.
Then Evangelist catches up with them & encourages them & warns them of the extremities they will suffer in the coming town.
Faithful & Christian arrive in the town of Vanity and go through its Fair, established 5,000 years ago by Beelzebub & Apollyon to ensnare pilgrims. They quickly cause a hubbub by their outlandish clothes & high-minded speech until there’s eventually a fight; and they’re brought before the court of Lord Hategood. Faithful goes first and is testified against by Envy, Superstition and Pickthank; then the jury, foreman Mr Blindman, condemn him for treason to the King of the country ie Beelzebub, breaking the laws of Pharoah, Darius etc, he is tortured & finally burnt at the stake. But his soul is scooped up in a chariot & taken to glory in Heaven.
God lets Christian escape. He falls in immediately with Hope. They are soon joined by Mr By-Ends from the town of Fair-Speech which is full of temporisers, compromisers & deceivers i.e. those who betrayed their principles to conform in 1662. Christian & Hope reject him.
But then, in a genuinely novel-like incident, By-Ends meets up with his friends from school in Love-gain in the county of Coveting, Mr Hold-the-world, Mr Money-love and Mr Save-all, and they have a conversation justifying their principles i.e that if a churchman is offered worldly gain he ought to take it. The characterisation – the entering into an alien mindset and set of arguments is powerfully novellish.
They catch up with Christian and Hope put their arguments to them, who vigorously reject them. To make religion a stalking horse for worldly gain is a sin.
Leaving them stunned C&H come to a silver mine in the hill of Lucre, and Demas hails them to come see. They easily spot it as a trap & continue. When By-ends passes he goes over to look & falls in & is never seen again.
Shortly after they come across Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt, giving rise to reflections.
Then they see a stile by the way with another smoother way through a meadow & Christian persuades Hopeful to take it. They meet Vainglory who confirms their choice & they go along & it gets dark & Vainglory falls into a pit. Then they fear & turn back but lose their way & lie down to sleep & Giant Despair captures them & takes them to Doubting Castle where they are scourged & beaten & encouraged to kill themselves – for some weeks – until Christian remembers he has a Promise (of salvation) in his pocket & uses it to free them.
Back on the right way they come to the Delectable Mountains and the shepherds who graze it; who show them a hill called Error with victims at its foot, a hill called Caution from which they see those blinded by despair stumbling in a graveyard; and a doorway into hell. Then the shepherds take them to a hill called Clear & show them the way to the Celestial City through a telescope.
They encounter Ignorance, a confident lad who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Hopeful tells the story of Little-faith, who was mugged by Faint-heart, Mistrust and Guilt, giving rise to a long debate about faith.
A black man dressed in white robes decoys them & ties them in nets. They are rescued by a Shining One. They meet Atheist who laughs in their faces. They laugh back.
They come to the Enchanted Ground and feel very sleepy. To keep awake they talk, specifically Faithful describes his spiritual awakening which is similar to Bunyan’s. Then they tarry to talk to Ignorance i.e. to prove his faith ignorant because based on wishes to be saved not on the converse conviction of one’s own wretched hopeless sinfulness which is the foundation of Puritan faith. They speculate why some men feel a conviction of sin but quash it to live more carnally at ease with the world.
The next day they come to the Land of Beulah, which is an earthly paradise within sight of the Celestial City where they relax, eat & talk to the gardener.
Two angels escort them over the River of Death where Christian has his final fears & anxieties before making it across, being carried up & into the Celestial City.
The very last scene is of poor Ignorance struggling up behind them and, having no certificate, being despatched down a back passage to hell.
As the atheist I am I find it absolutely typical that a Christian can’t envisage the joys of heaven without gloating over someone else being consigned to the pains of hell. I guess this last note is to prevent complacency in its readers, as throughout the book – as throughout the Old Testament – it is emphasised that fear of God is the only true beginning of wisdom.
But you can disagree completely with the theology and still find this is a powerful, challenging, memorable book.