Pilgrim’s Progress

I picked up “Pilgrim’s Progress” only because I was reading “Little Women,” which I found made constant reference to Bunyan’s earlier novel.  So I put down Alcott and started “Pilgrim,” and it was a mixed experience – riveting in many places, but often hard-going.  As often happens when I pick up a new author, the reading experience improved as I went along. 

But there were difficulties.

The character’s names seem obvious and clumsy; they struck me as the book’s singular fault.  In great novels, character is explored and revealed, not telegraphed.  But I may have been reading “Pilgrim’s Progress” through the wrong lens.  Taken as a novel, the character-names may be a weakness.  But “Pilgrim’s Progress” was written as an allegory.  Bunyan may give us creatures named “Formality” and “Hypocrisy,” but we are meant to read these not as people but as attributes.  For example, as is said near the end, “Formality and Hypocrisy [are] continually on the road” traveled by pilgrims. 

So when we see names like these, we’re meant to reflect on these attributes as forces that are present or absent in our lives.  The book serves as a useful guide to meditation that way, and I’m afraid I didn’t read it that way, because I’ve been drinking deeply in straight-up classic novels for over a year now, and that was my mindset.  I read on Wikipedia that “Pilgrim’s Progress” is sometimes regarded as the first novel written in English, so off I went, reading the book with that mind-set.  Someday I should read “Pilgrim’s Progress” with the mind set to reflect on my spiritual life – or the spiritual life – which is how it was surely meant to be read.

Now I’ve resumed reading “Little Women,” and I see that Louisa May Alcott reads everything in “Pilgrim’s Progress” allegorically and not literally.  Of course, everyone knows that “Pilgrim’s Progress” is an allegory and that it was written to teach spiritual lessons rather than to entertain, but Alcott shows us how and what this means.  In “Little Women,” we read in a chapter heading that “Jo Meets Apollyon”, and then we are told of the furious and near-deadly fight between Jo and Amy over the burning of Jo’s manuscript.

(Note: the character-names in “Pilgrim’s Progress” may appear silly in our modern editions because the names are the only capitalized words in the text.  In the original, countless words are capitalized, and the names do not stand out like clumsy abstractions; they rather swim in a sea of abstractions, as in:  “Then said Mr Love-saint, ‘I hope this caution is not needful amongst you. But truly there are many that go upon the road, that rather declare themselves Strangers to Pilgrimage than Strangers and Pilgrims in the Earth.’”)

Another fault we may find in “Pilgrim’s Progress” is all the theological talk.  In a novel, all this is heavy, didactic, telling-rather-than-showing, and off-plot, so to speak.  But in an allegory meant to be instructional it’s all perfectly fitting.  In “Pilgrim’s Progress,” such theological analysis can be quite on-point, ie, relevant to what the pilgrims are facing at a particular moment – or to what they must learn in order to reach the next life.  In that sense all the theological talk, and particularly the characters’ debates, are possibly even plot-forwarding. 

I say “possibly” only, because at times the theological arguments do seem to be there merely because Bunyan wanted to include in this book some good material from his sermons.

Yet, if he did, so what?  Countless great novels have material that seems to be there merely because the author wanted to include it.  Think of the Christmas-holiday interlude experienced by Natasha during her long wait for Andrei, in “War and Peace”; or the inset stories in “Don Quixote.”  “Moby-Dick”, in fact, would be reduced to nothing more than a good adventure yarn, without its lengthy material on whaling and on countless other mundane-seeming topics that Melville manages to turn somehow into gold.

I found “Pilgrim’s Progress” to be foreign and unremarkable at the very start, and it gradually worked on me, drawing me into its themes and arguments, its urgency, and finally its beauty.  What I ultimately find most difficult is not its literary form, but probably, its version of Christianity.  It is both a little too medieval and a little too Protestant for this lifelong-but-lapsed Catholic.  There are problematic passages about blacks and women, to take an obvious example; but there were other things I disagreed with, such as the belief in an eternal hell, a doctrine that David Bentley Hart and others have found to be not only problematic but unbiblical; and Bunyan goes on at length with a classic Protestant theme, about the importance of faith over works, even dragging Moses briefly under the bus as a representative of works.

Two nameless black men, one known only as an Ethiopian, are seen in Christian’s pilgrimage, and both times the novel equates the color black with sin or wickedness.  This is not literal, thank God.  But it’s problematic nevertheless.  This is a weakness of presenting characters as allegories:  it does mean that you’re associating real-life characteristics of real people with good and evil or other attributes of indelible consequence.

Then there is the attempted rape scene, which I should lay out in full:

Yet these two, as men that are deaf, regarded not Christiana’s words, but began to lay hands upon them: at that Christiana waxing very wroth, spurned at them with her feet. Mercy also, as well as she could, did what she could to shift them. Christiana again said to them, Stand back, and be gone, for we have no money to lose, being pilgrims, as you see, and such too as live upon the charity of our friends.

Ill-favored One: Then said one of the two men, “We make no assault upon you for money, but are come out to tell you that, if you will grant one small request which we shall ask, we will make women of you for ever.”

Christiana: Now Christiana, imagining what they should mean, made answer again, “We will neither hear nor regard, nor yield to what you shall ask. We are in haste, and cannot stay; our business is a business of life or death.”

So again she and her companions made a fresh attempt to go past them; but they letted them in their way.

Ill-favoured Ones: And they said, “We intend no hurt to your lives; it is another thing we would have.”

Christiana: “Ay,” quoth Christiana, “you would have us body and soul, for I know it is for that you are come; but we will die rather upon the spot, than to suffer ourselves to be brought into such snares as shall risk the loss of our well-being hereafter.” And, with that, they both shrieked out, and cried, “Murder! murder!” and so put themselves under those laws that are provided for the protection of women. [Deut. 22:25-27] But the men still made their approach upon them, with design to prevail against them. They therefore cried out again.

Now, they being, as I said, far from the gate in at which they came, their voices were heard from where they were, thither; wherefore some of the house came out, and, knowing it was Christiana’s tongue, they made haste to her relief. But by that they were got within sight of them, the women were in a very great scuffle; the children also stood crying by. Then did he that came in for their relief call out to the ruffians, saying, What is that thing you do? Would you make my Lord’s people to transgress? He also attempted to take them, but they did make their escape over the wall into the garden of the man to whom the great dog belonged; so the dog became their protector. This Reliever then came up to the women, and asked them how they did. So they answered, We thank thy Prince, pretty well, only we have been somewhat affrighted: we thank thee also for that thou camest in to our help, otherwise we had been overcome.

On the one hand the text condemns these men as deaf, who pay no mind to a woman’s “No.”  That is as modern as Me Too.

On the other hand there is, if I’m reading the text correctly, a belief that these women, if raped, will remain mortal women forever.  Granted, Christiana speaks of “snares” that merely “risk” their entrance into eternal life.  But what does this mean?  Christiana clearly wants no part of the act, so in what way could her soul be at risk?  If by “snares” she meant the spiritual stain of falling into a lustful, carnal encounter, you can see why she would fear a spiritual impact:  because her spirit would be engaged.  But if her spirit wants no part of the act and refuses it so totally as she clearly is doing, then in what way could her eternal soul be at risk? 

And what do the men mean when they threaten to make Christiana and Mercy mortal women forever?  Even if the men were offering a lustful, voluntary encounter, how can they speak of “forever”?  Any sinner can repent, and if it’s genuine repentance, there is no such thing as “too late”, during this life.

The only sense I can make of this scene is that both the men and the women have the understanding that rape can permanently, irreversibly damn the women.  Christiana’s “risk” does leave room here for nuance, but the men’s “forever” does not.  Possibly it is only their taunt, and a false one, not meant to be taken as truth – not meant to abrogate the truth that Christ can forgive any genuinely repentant creature no matter what has occurred in their life.

But even as a false taunt, it frightens the women, and it’s a genuinely chilling depiction of rape for the reader.  It’s not the first or only time that rape has been described in literature, or real life, as a spiritual stain, and it’s been done with greater horror than here.  But in a book that speaks not of the horrors of surviving rape to live on in an unforgiving world – a book that is rather concerned with eternities – the sentence, “we will make women of you for ever”, threatens the women not just with violence but with final destruction.

There is a later passage, in which a woman tempts a man and thus represents a similar threat for his soul:

“That is true,” said the other; “but your fear doth further show me that things are right betwixt the Prince of pilgrims and your soul; for He saith, ‘Blessed is the man that feareth always.'”

Valiant-for-truth: Well, but, brother, I pray thee, tell us what was it that was the cause of thy being upon thy knees even now: was it for that some special mercy laid upon thee, the need of prayer, or how?

Stand-fast: Why, we are, as you see, upon the Enchanted Ground; and as I was coming along, I was musing with myself of what a dangerous road the road in this place was, and how many that had come even thus far on pilgrimage, had here been stopped and been destroyed. I thought also of the manner of the death with which this place destroyeth men. Those that die here die of no violent, painful disease: the death which such die is not grievous to them. For he that goeth away in such a sleep, begins that journey with desire and pleasure. Yea, such sink into the will of that disease.

Honest-for-truth: Then Mr. Honest, interrupting of him, said, “Did you see the two men asleep in the arbor?”

Stand-fast: Ay, ay, I saw Heedless and Too-bold there; and, for aught I know, there they will lie till they rot. But let me go on in my tale. As I was thus musing, as I said, there was one in very pleasant attire, but old, who presented herself to me, and offered me three things; to wit, her body, her purse, and her bed. Now, the truth is, I was both aweary and sleepy; I am also as poor as an owlet, and that, perhaps, the witch knew. Well, I repulsed her once or twice; but she put by my repulses, and smiled. Then I began to be angry; but she mattered that nothing at all. Then she made offers again, and said, if I would be ruled by her, she would make me great and happy. “For,” said she, “I am the mistress of the world, and men are made happy by me.” Then I asked her name, and she told me it was Madam Bubble. This set me farther from her; but she still followed me with enticements. Then I betook me, as you saw, to my knees; and, with hands lift up, and cries, I prayed to Him that had said He would help. So, just as you came up, the gentlewoman went her way. Then I continued to give thanks for this my great deliverance; for I verily believe she intended no good, but rather sought to make stop of me in my journey.

This is in some ways similar to the other passage, but there is no possibility of the man being raped.  And the potential damage to his soul is never said to be permanent.  He is being offered a lustful encounter, and the risk is said to be that he will stop his journey.  But nothing is implied to say that he could not take it up again.

And yet in his case, if he accepted a lustful life, he would be taking voluntary spiritual action, and should logically suffer some spiritual consequence.  Christiana and Mercy, if they had been raped, would not have volunteered their souls in any way, yet the book suggests that their fate would be worse than the man’s.

Yet that is neither true, nor biblical.  Any woman or man of pure spirit, no matter what has happened to their body, may go to Christ and be received by Him.


One passage in the book seemed to bring in the idea of faith/belief as non-sense, in a good way:

Christian: Then I perceive ’tis not best to covet things that are now, but wait for things to come.

Interpreter: You say truth: “For the things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal”. [2 Cor 4:18] But, though this be so, yet since things present and our fleshly appetite are such near neighbours one to another; and again, because things to come and carnal sense are such strangers one to another: therefore it is that the first of these so suddenly fall into amity, and that distance is so continually between the second.

But that’s the thing:  faith is in a real way “non-sense.”  Many deride it as such.  I think we believers can embrace the term “non-sense,” in this way: to believe only what one can sense, exactly as registered, is excessive pride in one’s own senses, abilities, and even instruments — a failure to accept these as limited.

(I write the above after having read the first 100 pages of “Little Women,” which I have learned is touched-through with Transcendentalism, a philosophy holding, among many other things, that humans can transcend what the senses reveal and thereby begin to apprehend the truth.)

There is much common ground there even with secularism, because any good scientist knows that our human senses and even our created instruments are limited and fallible.


Possibly the best thing I found in “Pilgrim’s Progress” was the theme of knowing yourself to be a limited creature in need of the greater.

We all forget this.  We are all of us, maybe even especially those of us who try to be good and who abide by a universe of moralistic teachings both secular and religious, unjustifiably prideful of our efforts and knowledge.

Ignorance: What are good thoughts concerning God?

Christian: Even, as I have said concerning ourselves, when our thoughts of God do agree with what the Word saith of Him; and that is, when we think of His being and attributes as the Word hath taught, of which I cannot now discourse at large. But to speak of Him with reference to us: then have we right thoughts of God, when we think that He knows us better than we know ourselves, and can see sin in us when and where we can see none in ourselves; when we think He knows our inmost thoughts, and that our heart, with all its depths, is always open unto His eyes; also when we think that all our righteousness stinks in His nostrils, and that therefore He cannot abide to see us stand before Him in any confidence, even in all our best performances.

This passages is eloquent on that theme:

Hopeful:  Why, I thought thus with myself: I have by my sins run a great way into God’s book, and my now reforming will not pay off that score. Therefore I should think still, under all my present trying. But how shall I be freed from that punishment that I have brought myself in danger of by my former sins.

Christian: A very good application; but pray go on.

Hopeful: Another thing that hath troubled me ever since my late turning from sin is, that if I look narrowly into the best of what I do now, I still see sin, new sin, mixing itself with the best of that I do; so that now I am forced to conclude that, notwithstanding my former fond opinion of myself and duties, I have committed sin enough in one duty to send me to hell, though my former life had been faultless.

Christian: And what did you do then?

Hopeful: Do! I could not tell what to do, till I brake my mind to Faithful; for he and I were well acquainted. And he told me, that unless I could obtain the righteousness of a Man that never had sinned, neither mine own nor all the righteousness of the world could save me.

Christian: And did you think he spake true?

Hopeful: Had he told me so when I was pleased and satisfied with mine own trying, I had called him fool for his pains; but now, since I see mine own weakness and the sin which cleaves to my best performance, I have been forced to be of his opinion.

All well and good and proper, spoken thus, as theology.  But there is one moment where this theme flares up into life.  It comes after the battle between Mr. Great-Heart and the giant, Maul (Darth Maul, anyone?), which I lay out first:

Now they drew towards the end of this way; and just there where Christian had seen the cave when he went by, out thence came forth Maul, a giant. This Maul did use to spoil young pilgrims with sophistry; and he called Great-Heart by his name, and said unto him, “How many times have you been forbidden to do these things?”

Then said Mr. Great-Heart, “What things?”

“What things!” quoth the giant; “you know what things: but I will put an end to your trade.”

“But, pray,” said Mr. Great-Heart, “before we fall to it, let us understand wherefore we must fight.”

Now the women and children stood trembling, and knew not what to do.

Quoth the giant, “You rob the country, and rob it with the worst of thefts.”

“These are but generals,” said Mr. Great-Heart; “come to particulars, man.”

Then said the giant, “Thou practisest the craft of a kidnapper; thou gatherest up women and children, and carriest them into a strange country, to the weakening of my master’s kingdom.”

But now Great-Heart replied, “I am a servant of the God of heaven; my business is to persuade sinners to repentance. I am commanded to do my endeavors to turn men, women, and children, from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God; and if this be indeed the ground of thy quarrel, let us fall to it as soon as thou wilt.”

Then the giant came up, and Mr. Great-Heart went to meet him; and as he went he drew his sword, but the giant had a club. So without more ado they fell to it, and at the first blow the giant struck Mr. Great-Heart down upon one of his knees. With that the women and children cried out. So Mr. Great-Heart recovering himself, laid about him in full lusty manner, and gave the giant a wound in his arm. Thus he fought for the space of an hour, to that height of heat that the breath came out of the giant’s nostrils as the heat doth out of a boiling cauldron.

Then they sat down to rest them; but Mr. Great-Heart betook himself to prayer. Also the women and children did nothing but sigh and cry all the time that the battle did last.

When they had rested them, and taken breath, they both fell to it again; and Mr. Great-Heart, with a blow, fetched the giant down to the ground. Nay, hold, let me recover, quoth he: so Mr. Great-Heart fairly let him get up. So to it they went again, and the giant missed but little of all to breaking Mr. Great-Heart’s scull with his club.

Mr. Great-Heart seeing that, runs to him in the full heat of his spirit, and pierceth him under the fifth rib. With that the giant began to faint, and could hold up his club no longer. Then Mr. Great-Heart seconded his blow, and smit the head of the giant from his shoulders. Then the women and children rejoiced, and Mr. Great-Heart also praised God for the deliverance he had wrought.

When this was done, they amongst them erected a pillar, and fastened the giant’s head thereon, and wrote under in letters that passengers might read,

“He that did wear this head was one
That pilgrims did misuse;
He stopped their way, he spared none,
But did them all abuse;
Until that I Great-Heart arose,
The pilgrims guide to be;
Until that I did him oppose
That was their enemy.”

This is a thrilling and evocative battle in itself, perhaps the best in the book.  It evokes many ideas and scenes, not least of which is Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad Dum, facing another heat-spewing giant and declaring “I am a servant of the Secret Fire”.

But even better is what follows from Mr. Great-Heart:

Christiana: But were you not afraid, good sir, when you saw him come with his club? 

Mr. Great-Heart: It is my duty, said he, to mistrust my own ability, that I may have reliance on Him who is stronger than all.

That sentence right there, somewhat surprisingly, thrilled me.

Mr. Great-Heart there is describing a spiritual move, a counterpart to the physical moves we’d just seen.  But why it’s thrilling is difficult to explain.  It’s a different kind of fighting, to be sure; a different kind of heroism from the typical.  That’s interesting, and easy to appreciate.  But why thrilling?  I don’t know. 

Maybe because it’s a picture of humility conquering in the end.  I don’t mean merely a humble person, conquering by briefly setting aside humility and fighting skillfully.  I mean that here humility seems actually to be the fountain or method that produces the skill – and even more than this, that actual doubt was not only permitted but required, and rewarded with victory.

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