I have been quite open about the fact that I have had some difficulty finding true sympathy with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I even went so far as to admit that the text at one time had been for me a kind of literary Slough of Despond (or a Slough of other kinds, if you see the conversation in and after this post, “The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond“). And yet I remain somewhat attached to this allegory for two reasons that I want to put forward as “theories of readings.”
At the root of my desire to desire to read Bunyan is the fact that I played the Pilgrim, Christian, as an undergraduate in my college’s musical performance, The Upward Way. At the time, I had some designs on stage performance as a career–or, at least, as a field in which to begin my vocational life. I had worked as an actor locally, including my roles as Sir Charles Tupper and Colonel John Hamilton Gray in our “Fathers and Mothers of Confederation” program in Prince Edward Island (the place where a vision for Canada as a nation was formed). I appeared frequently in amateur plays through high school and college, and I would even go on to write and produce (and star in) a 12-episode children’s television show in Newfoundland called “Patches and Friends.”
It was not out of the question, then, that I won the lead role in the Maritime Christian College spring musical, even though I was a mere freshman.
However, even then I had some doubts about my core skills as a performer. I have found that it is intensely difficult in the artistic world to know whether one has the skills–not just the artistic eye and acumen and artist’s toolkit, but also the commercial transferability of skills. Even as a high school senior, I had come to suspect that much of my acting success was because I could memorize lines, I had a voice that would project to the back of a room, I could speak passable French and strong (local) English, I had a certain kind of up-front courage and interest in making a fool of myself that was less-than-common among boys my age, and I could grow a beard before I was 16.
Ultimately, I did not send in my theatre college applications because I was not, in the technical words of the craft, good at it. I was a bearded fish with a bright voice and very little shame in a very tiny, somewhat reserved, pond where pubescent beards were rare.
So, though I have some suspicion that I was given the only non-singing part in the troupe for reasons other than my skills as a thespian, I was able to gain something lasting from the performance of The Upward Way. Between stage sword fights, amateur choreography, long monologues, and the psychology of spiritual life in choral splendour, I made a connection. As I drew Christian into my own life–as I spoke his translated words, moved with his re-staged body, projected his fear and courage and hope to the back of the room–I was somehow drawn into that foreign text of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
This experience–when we draw a text into our lives in a very embodied and physical way so that it ultimately draws us into the text–this is my Jazz Hands Theory of Reading
More often than I can fathom, I find Bunyan kinship in the authors I love to read. For example, I appreciate in an almost physical way how one of my book friends, George MacDonald takes up and transforms the pilgrim tale in his work–but that is an image of MacDonald’s writing that I will need to share another day. Some of my favourite stories–like Dickens‘ work, or Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre, or Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn, or Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women—to select a short 19th-century period as an example–are stories that somehow embody The Pilgrim’s Progress (a fact that can be confirmed by greater scholars of the subject than myself, as I am working in this case just as a curious reader).
Beyond shaping the broad vision of a tale, Bunyan provided a translation of the medieval mode of allegory for modern pilgrims who keep trying to retell their own stories, like Enid Blyton’s The Land of Far-Beyond or C.S. Lewis‘ A Pilgrim’s Regress. I shared last week about how another book friend, Shannon Murray, shared the story of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a book, moving from philosophical subterfuge to the nursery bookshelf, and from the nursery to the university classroom as a classic. And we shouldn’t forget that Christian is, at least briefly, a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Thus, it seems that I keep getting The Pilgrim’s Progress through other books on my bookshelf, whether I want to or not. So let me draw out in a bit of detail two examples of how I experience The Pilgrim’s Progress through these book friends.
Let me begin with a local connection, L.M. Montgomery‘s somewhat autobiographical title character of Emily of New Moon. Emily, an early adept of the imaginative life whose whole world is thrown into disarray by her father’s death, finds solace in her ability to read well:
So Emily had curled herself up in the ragged, comfortable old wing-chair and read The Pilgrim’s Progress all the afternoon. Emily loved The Pilgrim’s Progress. Many a time had she walked the straight and narrow path with Christian and Christiana — although she never liked Christiana’s adventures half as well as Christian’s.
I admire Emily’s ability to walk inside a book, an exercise that takes great energy and intention for me to succeed in. When it comes to her delight in the tale, I would have immediately presumed that the difference between Christian’s and Christiana’s story was one of sword fights and monster slaying. However, for Emily it was about atmosphere:
For one thing, there was always such a crowd with Christiana. She had not half the fascination of that solitary, intrepid figure who faced all alone the shadows of the Dark Valley and the encounter with Apollyon. Darkness and hobgoblins were nothing when you had plenty of company. But to be alone — ah, Emily shivered with the delicious horror of it!
Emily is Montgomery’s most extensive story of the writer as pilgrim, thus it is fitting that this Bunyan reference is one of the early moments in the novel, framing the Emily tale in a particular kind of way.
Emily is also, I must confess, the character with whom I feel the most spiritual connection in Montgomery’s fiction. Anne awakens me and the Story Girl enchants me. Valancy Stirling makes me laugh and hope that there is liberty. Jane Victoria Stuart makes me believe again that old pictures tell new truths. And Felix Moore makes me awake as a teacher to the possibility that we may all find a way to speak in tongues. It is Emily, however–the poet, the writer, the mystic–who captures for me the essence of the spiritual journey.
There is Emily of New Moon, literary pilgrim. There is another reader and writer, C.S. Lewis. Lewis’ ode to Bunyan–A Pilgrim’s Regress, peculiar and elusive and poetic–is a story for another day. But as a reader of Bunyan from his youth, Lewis makes for a striking critic in adulthood.
For one, Lewis draws Bunyan into the centre of what he thinks is essential Western literature. Harold Bloom includes Bunyan in the conversation in his Western Canon, including reading Middlemarch and the American poetic tradition as influenced by Bunyan. C.S. Lewis goes further, however, setting Bunyan next to Dante over and over again. There is perhaps no other individual writer more important to Lewis than Bunyan, save Dante himself. It is a bold claim, and there is a strong argument to be made for Milton or Spenser having pride of place. However, I make the claim for a couple of reasons.
First, the academic exploration of Lewis and Bunyan remains somewhat open, not having been covered in detail by scholars like Dante has been (by Marsha Daigle-Williamson), or explored at length by Lewis as he does of Spenser (in The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century) or Milton (in A Preface to Paradise Lost … and really almost anywhere, so maybe I have overspoken Bunyan as both source and influence…).
Second, Lewis connects personally to Bunyan on a level deeper than the religious allegory, drawing Bunyan’s story into his own emotional life. As a child forced into residential schools that were filled with abuse and weariness, Lewis equated the longing of term’s end with Christian’s longing-while-actually-there experience of Beulah-land in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Christian with desire fell sick.” Lewis later writes about his response:
How well I know that sickness! It was no mere metaphor. It thrilled and wobbled inside: passed along the spine with delicious, yet harrowing thrills: took away the appetite: made sleep impossible. And the last morning never betrayed one. It was always not less, but more, than desire had painted it: a dizzying exaltation in which one had to think hard of common things lest reason should be overset. I believe it has served me ever since for my criterion of joy, and specially of the difference between joy and mere pleasure. Those who remember such Ends of Term are inexcusable if ever, in later life, they allow mere pleasure to fob them off. One can tell at once when that razor-edged or needlepointed quality is lacking: that shock, as if one were swallowing light itself (“My First Schools”).
Like Bunyan, within his fiction, Lewis himself is a creator of literary scenes that are more than metaphors in the reader. And as a Christian intellectual, it is fitting that he ends that passage in “My First Schools” with something like an altar call to real joy.
However, while Lewis made a personal connection of delight and longing with Bunyan, he was not such a fan as to miss the faults. In his BBC essay on The Pilgrim’s Progress which gets published as “The Vision of John Bunyan,” Lewis admits that he finds the doctrine of the tale “somewhat repellent.” Humorously, Lewis notes that:
“The long conversation, near the end of Part 1, which Christian and Hopeful conduct ‘to prevent drowsiness in this place‘–they are entering the Enchanted Ground–will not prevent drowsiness on the part of many readers. Worse still is the dialogue with Mr Talkative…. Mr Talkative is not allowed to talk much.”
While Lewis admits that Bunyan wouldn’t care much for literary criticism of that sort as it is outside his purpose. But Lewis is right that there are too many times in the Progress where the allegory is bent by direct preaching. Readers like Emily of New Moon, who lived in a time and place where moral tales were more integrated into great storytelling, will be more able to receive the tale than those of us who read in lands thereafter. Lewis’ observation about Bunyan falling out of allegory into preaching leads to one of his most perceptive (and oft-forgotten) notes about allegory as a form:
“Allegory frustrates itself the moment the author starts doing what could equally well be done in a straight sermon or treatise. It is a valid form only so long as it is doing what could not be done at all, or done so well, in any other way.”
It is a lesson that creators of moral fiction should remember even when working outside of formal allegory (which almost none of us write anymore, at least as novels).
If such dead wood were removed from The Pilgrim’s Progress the book would not be very much shorter than it is. The greater part of it is enthralling narrative or genuinely dramatic dialogue. Bunyan stands with Malory and Trollope as a master of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation.
Leave it to Lewis to point to Bunyan as a master of “mimesis” when the masterwork, Auerbach’s Mimesis, never mentions him.
Thus, these are my two contributions to theories of reading. First, having brought Christian into my heart as a young actor, as I embodied the tale, the tale came to embody me, thus the Jazz Hands Theory of Reading.
Second, when I look to my bookshelves, I find myself wanting something of MacDonald’s pilgrim heart and Emily’s shiver of delight and Lewis’ “more than metaphor” in my life. Thus, it is helpful to think of this as a Vicarious Bookshelf Friendship Theory of Reading.
For both these reasons, I find myself picking up Pilgrim’s Progress again and again.