The Pilgrim’s Progress

A retro review from July 6, 2012.

The original story is from 1678. The edition I reviewed was from 1942 and has illustrations by William Blake done between 1824-1827.

Review: The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That which is to come Delivered Under the Similitude of a Dream, John Bunyan, 1942.Pilgrim's Progress

The main reason to read this book is just because it was so phenomenally popular in England and America and not for a particularly novel theology.

It’s short and surprisingly entertaining, especially for some of the allegorical names. The book definitely does not contain a modern, feel-good Christianity. At one time, when protagonist Christian and fellow pilgrim Hopeful are talking to Ignorance about whether his thoughts are godly, Ignorance insists they are. His heart is good because his thoughts are good. Christian lays into him and tells him that his thoughts are only godly if they match God’s thoughts and God thinks all of man’s ways are sinful. Bunyan bolsters his points with italicized quotes from the scriptures. There is a nice section where Christian outlays the psychology of the backslider. At many points, Bunyan the preacher makes his observations and arguments in a point by point format.

I find the narrative structure interesting. Unlike William Langland’s Piers the Ploughman, this is not a single dream vision but pieced together from several sequential dreams of the narrator. I believe some have made the argument that this book served as a template for later quest fantasy narratives or fictional spiritual journeys. Certainly, its plot is sometimes surprising. Ignorance is whisked away to the City of Destruction in the novel’s last paragraph. The conversion of Hopeful, why he left Vanity Fair and his spiritual journey on the way to meeting fellow pilgrim Christian, is related towards the end of the novel rather than the expected beginning. The story starts off with Christian, fearing the imminent destruction of the world and his damnation, setting off for the City of God with a burden on his back. Bunyan starts and ends his book with a verse apology and song snatches at the end of sections summarize the moral or wisdom we are to take away.

As I said, this story’s main value is getting a sense of one strain of popular Protestantism (not politically popular – Bunyan spent years in jail for preaching after Charles II took power). William Blake’s illustrations didn’t add much value for me. Unless you are a huge fan of his work, you’ll find his rather androgynous looking Christian, oddly muscled and always in blandly colored engravings, not terribly pretty or interesting.

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