Bunyan and Others and Me: Vicarious Bookshelf Friendship and a Jazz Hands Theory of Reading

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. 

That’s Me in 19th c. Plaid

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

While Bunyan comes to me as one embodied, he also comes in cloaked fellowship.

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 Womento 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. LewisA 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).

And yet, Lewis returns to the point of admiration of Bunyan as a master realistic prose-writer and storyteller:

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.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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9 Responses to Bunyan and Others and Me: Vicarious Bookshelf Friendship and a Jazz Hands Theory of Reading

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You write of “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” – I look forward to that, when you find the opportunity!

    I’ve long been conscious of, yet never properly looked into, the Pilgrim’s Progress play which Louisa Powell MacDonald wrote and the family performed together. I see that among the things I’ve missed is Rachel Johnson’s essay, “The MacDonald Family and PIlgrim’s Progress”, in North Wind 8 (1989), which can be found online in more than one place, including her Academia.edu account. Something she does not mention (if my quick browse through – and one sample word-search – are not mistaken) is the whereabouts of the text of that dramatic adaptation.

    Searching a bit further, I find in the online overview of the George MacDonald Collection at Yale,* in Series II, Writings (Box 14), “a copy of Louisa MacDonald’s ‘Dramatic Illustrations from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress'” – which is presumably some version of the text of that adaptation! How I would love to read that play, and see what she – and the MacDonalds together – did in presenting Pilgrim’s Progress! Did they, like Lewis, finds “the doctrine of the tale ‘somewhat repellent'”? If so, what did they do about that in presenting the “Dramatic Illustrations”? (I am reminded of Lewis’s presentation of dreamer-Lewis and dreamed-MacDonald in The Great Divorce, and various discussions of that…)

    In the online overview of the King’s College, London, George MacDonald collection, ** I find:

    Related units of description

    Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives: correspondence and literary manuscripts (Ref.: MSS 1031, 2165-7, 2231, 2254, 2291, 2716-8); Dr Williams’s Library, London: letters to Henry Allon, 1866-1891 (Ref.: MS 24110 (220-41); Harvard University, Houghton Library: correspondence and literary manuscripts, 1851-1905; Huntington Library, San Marino, California: correspondence, 1851-1894; Huntly Branch Library: literary manuscripts (Ref.: NRA(S) 3522); Manchester Archives and Local Studies: manuscripts; National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division: correspondence, 1862-1900 (Ref.: MS 9745); Nottingham University Library, Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections: letters to Henry Septimus Sutton (Ref.: NRA 12432 Sutton); Oxford University, Balliol College Library: Manuscript diary of an Old Soul (Ref.: MS 418); Yale University Libraries: Beinecke Library: correspondence.

    I wonder if there are other copies/versions of Louisa’s Pilgrim’s Progress play in any of those collections?

    * https://archives.yale.edu/repositories/11/resources/525
    ** https://kingscollections.org/catalogues/kclca/collection/m/10ma25-1

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Gough says:

    Well done, Brenton! This is another excellent contribution to your reflections on Bunyan and “Pilgrim’s Progress”!
    I was particularly struck by two things.
    First, your mention of “book friends”. These seem to be authors, naturally. In my nearly seventy years of reading I have made many “book friends”, but sometimes these have been characters in a book, such as “George Smiley” in John Le Carre’s spy thrillers, and “Horatio Hornblower” in C.S. Forester’s historical naval novels. Amongst the “book friend” authors, in the last half of my life, one of the best is Elizabeth Goudge, the English novelist (for adults and children), who is misunderstood as a writer of Romances for women, but is correctly appreciated as an existential Christian writer who writes powerfully out of her faith. (But Goudge is never preachy, or dogmatic. She is too fine an observer of characters, places, moods, and ideas, to ever resort to “witnessing her faith”. Many of her characters LIVE in their faith.)
    Second, your mention of C.S. Lewis extolling Bunyan as a major English writer, comparable in scope and power to Dante. (These are not your words, nor Lewis’s, but that is how I read this suggestion.) Despite this, Bunyan seems NOT to have the kind of potent critical analysis that Dante, or Milton and Shakespeare and Spenser have. I wonder if that will ever be redressed?
    Your several articles reflecting on Bunyan certainly make clear that for later writers he is a major source and inspiration, even if the critics, and the everyday reading public, neglect him.
    Best wishes for continued Bunyan reading and reflecting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There seems to have been lively popular attention to Bunyan (certainly in translation) among many of the Dutch, I think, for centuries – I’m not sure what academic dimension this has had… Maybe Arend Smilde will have a sense of that… It would be interesting to know about other languages, too.

      I quite agree about Elizabeth Goudge – and The Joy of the Snow: An Autobiography (1974) shows what a Tolkien-lover she was, and The White Witch (1958) acknowledges Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps. With all her time spent in and near Oxford it would be fascinating to know if she had personal Inklings connections or encounters, or what else she may have read and enjoyed of their work, but I think of her as very Inklings-complementary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • John Gough says:

        Like you, David Llewellyn Dodds, I was struck by the way Elizabeth Goudge read and deeply appreciated Tolkien (as he was known to the reading public, that is, for “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”; and especially CS. Lewis, whose books she commended to friends. This is well established in Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography “The Joy of the Snow”, which includes comprehensive Index entries for Tolkien and Lewis.
        Like you, I have wondered if, in return, Tolkien or Lewis were aware of Elizabeth Goudge, or read any of her books, or corresponded with her, or actually met her.
        I have been researching this Goudge-Inklings connection (potential connection in the Inklings knowing Goudge direction — the Goudge knowing Inklings direction is well established), from afar, in Australia, for the last 2 or 3 years. I discovered Brenton’s excellent “Narnia” (and much more) blog as part of my internet searches. I have contacted researchers at the Wade Centre, and many other potential sources of information. The short answer is that (at least so far) there is NO EVIDENCE of DIRECT CONTACT between Goudge and Tolkien and Lewis, and NO EVIDENCE that either Tolkien or Lewis were even aware of an author called Elizabeth Goudge.
        Despite this, I have found that Tolkien was reading contemporary children’s authors, such as Mary Norton (“The Borrowers” and early sequels) and MIGHT have read some of Goudge’s children’s books. But there is no documentary evidence that Tolkien’s reading included Goudge.
        It is also known (in a letter to Arthur Greeves, one of Lewis’s closest confidants) that Lewis knew and admired a Bible Commentary co-authored by Goudge’s theological professor father.
        But Lewis, and Tolkien, were prolific letter-writers, and loved telling their letter-friends, and their personal friends, what they were reading. Nothing extant suggests any awareness of Elizabeth Goudge.
        Lewis and Goudge shared at least one friend, the poet Ruth Pitter, who lived near Goudge in the last years of Goudge’s life, in the 1950s to early 1980s. But there is no evidence that Pitter relayed Goudge’s admiration for Lewis to Lewis, and Lewis died before Goudge’s autobiography (not a comprehensive life story, but reflections on stages and issues in her life) “The Joy of the Snow” could reveal how greatly she valued Lewis’s work.
        In the years after World War II, a major French (Roman Catholic convert) theologian, Father Louis Bouyer, was the first Frenchman to review “The Lord of the Rings”, praising it highly. I believe he even visited Oxford, and met Tolkien, but I have not been able to nail that down with documentary evidence of direct Tolkien-Bouyer contact.
        Bouyer also became aware of Elizabeth Goudge’s adult and children’s novels, and began a rich and deep correspondence with her (none of which is extant, at least so far), and visited her several times in her last house, near Oxford.
        None of Bouyer’s papers have been able to be traced, via internet searches and inquiries at the ecclesiastical institutions where Bouyer lived and worked at the time, and after, he was in direct contact with Goudge.
        As far as I know, very little of Goudge’s papers survived after her death. The internet reports the existence of an “archive” of Goudge papers, but this tantalising archive has not been able to be located.
        The recent comprehensive and fascinating biography of Goudge, by Christine Rawlins, “Beyond the Snow”, mentions Bouyer, and an oral interview report with Goudge’s companion and carer, Jessie Munroe, that Bouyer told her, the carer, that Lewis knew and valued Goudge’s books.
        But there is no documentary evidence of this.
        One of the Wade Centre leaders reported that oral remarks by George Sayer, one of Lewis’s close friends (and an Inkling, I believe) and biographer, reported that Lewis knew and admired Elizabeth Goudge’s books. But there is NO DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE of George Sayer’s reported comments.
        This summarises everything I have found about the questions: did Tolkien or Lewis read any of Elizabeth Goudge’s books? Were they aware of any of them? Were they aware of Elizabeth Goudge?
        Tolkien, Lewis, and the Inklings have been (almost) exhaustively researched. So far there is nothing in that research that answers any of these questions, and nothing in the Tolkien and Lewis archives that I have been able to send queries to that has any answers.
        IF ANYONE can provide answers, please contact me! And Brenton.
        Dr John Gough (Deakin University, Melbourne — retired) jagough49@gmail.com

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Thank you very much for so much detail new to me! Wow!

          There are certainly lots of Williams-related papers at the Wade which may not have been combed through for references to Goudge (e.g., Raymond Hunt papers). There is a not-previously-collected letters of C.S. Lewis project in the works that might turn up something. And I have the impression that there are various not-yet-published Tolkien papers and letters which, again, might include something. It is tantalizing – we can but hope… Meanwhile we can go on reading the works of Elizabeth Goudge – and commending them to Inklings readers.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. danaames says:

    I read “Pilgrim’s Progress” once, in the early years after I had finished University. That’s also when I did most of my reading of Lewis’ non-fiction works. Lewis is Great; I am not. I read PP because “I should”; I read Lewis because he drew me in. I wish I knew what drew Lewis in to PP. Even then, it might not “work” for me.

    Of your Friends, though, Alcott drew me in with “Little Women” and “Little Men”. I read those over and over even into my late teen years – and beyond. I didn’t need to read them to escape bad parenting; the aspiration toward Goodness on the part of the characters, even when they weren’t acting toward the Good, was very attractive to me.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Gough says:

    I should also mention, Brenton, that Elizabeth Goudge is another notable English author whose novels occasionally include allusions to, and mention of “Pilgrim’s Progress”, especially the encounter with “Apollyon”. (I have discussed this in my long articles on Goudge’s novels, ePublished at Academia.edu. I can supply the details, if you want them.)
    Also, Elizabeth Goudge’s “Eliots” trilogy, also known as the “Damerosehay” trilogy, “The Bird in the Tree” (1940), “The Herb of Grace” (1948: USA “Pilgrim’s Inn”), and “The Heart of the Family” (1953), clearly includes awareness of pilgrims, and pilgrimages, as the family home, known as “Damerosehay”, is described as a former inn for pilgrims.
    Presumably these pilgrims were journeying to Canterbury, where Thomas A’Beckett was martyred. This is the destination for Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” told by pilgrims. But England has many saints, and several different places that still attract pilgrims.
    Another pilgrim inn features in “The Scent of Water” (1963), one of Goudge’s existential Christian masterpieces, and includes material evidence, and dream-experience, of at least two conversions.
    “The Scent of Water” also includes Goudge’s own Three-Fold Prayer:
    “Lord have mercy;
    Thee I adore;
    Into thy hands”
    which is described in the novel as an “essential prayer” (as I recall).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: John Bunyan’s Apology for his Book with a Note from C.S. Lewis on Writing as Holistic Discovery–and How Narnia Achieved the Bigness You See | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. Pingback: L.M. Montgomery’s The Story Girl, “Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”: Chapter Reading, the L.M. Montgomery Readathon, a Montgomery Conference, and Other Things I am Working On (Friday Feature) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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