Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English
© 1678 John Bunyan, retold 1971 James Thomas
Years ago I read Pilgrim’s Progress, the story of one Christian’s spiritual journey made physical. The story begins when a man named Graceless, soon to be called Christian, learns from a book that his city is doomed to destruction. Weeping, he is given hope by a passing stranger, Evangelist, who tells him there is a way out of this doom. Through the narrow wicket gate there is a road, passing by a cross, that leads to the Celestial Kingdom. If he follows it, he will find a land where joys shall never end – but the going will not be easy. There will be monsters along the way, fellow travelers who both support and distract, misleading trails, and dens of scum and villainy. Loaded with a burden, Christian sets forth, albeit without his unwilling wife and children. Although there is a fantastical structure – Christian traveling from a land ruled by a princess of darkness to a kingdom of grace and love – with fight scenes, the work is largely conversation and argument. The biblically well-versed will notice characters quoting from or alluding to the Psalmists and the Epistles even the characters are not conscious of it. Biblical metaphors are here made physical: Christian literally dons ‘the armor of god’, and enemies of the soul literally attack our journeyman, like the giant Despair.
As a child I read this for the adventure, and much of the theological debate was lost on me (if even included in a kid’s version), but naturally now I’m reading more for substance. I was astonished by the amount of imagery I remembered from my youth. . I found Bunyan’s writing largely communicative; he made a relatively opaque passage in Romans about the Mosaic law’s relation to sin more comprehensible, for instance. It’s the work of Protestant rather than traditional theology, with a long-defeated monster called Pope appearing alongside his co-loser, Pagan. Given that the book is mostly discussion, it’s obviously more attractive as a devotional rather than as a fantasy-adventure. I suspect the ‘modern’ retelling is slightly abridged, but it’s the only version my library has.