About The Pilgrim's Progress


Part 1

As briefly noted before, The Pilgrim's Progress, Part I, was conceived and largely written by Bunyan while he was lying in prison, and he tells us the circumstances. He was working hard to finish another book when he conceived the idea of writing a story about the adventures that a devout Christian might meet in trying to save his soul by setting out on a pilgrimage to Heaven. Bunyan, wishing to complete the book in hand; put the new idea in the back of his mind. But it would not stay there, crowding up front and blazing through his mind "like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly." So many ideas flashed into his mind that he had a hard time in keeping notes for future use.

Bunyan scholars do not entirely agree, but generally believe that the author wrote most of Pilgrim's Progress (Part I) during his first long imprisonment and completed it during his second incarceration during 1675. In any case, whenever completed, Bunyan showed his manuscript to friends and asked their counsel on whether to publish it or not. Some said yes. As many said not, arguing that Bunyan had treated sacred matters in too colloquial and familiar a style and manner. Bunyan decided to go ahead, writing:

Now was I in a strait, and did not see
Which was the best thing to be done by me;
At last I thought, since you are thus divided,
I print it will, and so the case decided.

It was well for Bunyan and his fame — and his lean pocketbook — that he so decided, for what he called his "Scribble" was immediately acclaimed and enjoyed a phenomenal success. The first edition, published in London in 1678 by Nathaniel Ponder "At the Sign of the Peacock in the Poultry," was quickly sold out, requiring a second edition within the year. Next year, a third edition appeared, in which Bunyan made many revisions and added a number of scenes as afterthoughts. This third edition, the last personally revised by Bunyan, is regarded as the definitive edition of the book, and the one that has been generally published down the years. By 1688, when Bunyan died, the book had sold more than 100,000 copies, a quite fantastic figure for the time. It was soon translated into French and Dutch, and published in Puritan New England. Later, the book was translated into other languages, including even the Chinese.

The first edition had small pages, octavo in size, and ran to 332 pages. Rather messily printed on cheap paper, it sold for ls.6d. a copy. This was within the means of those whom Bunyan wished to reach. He did not write for the literati or the carriage trade, for the nobles and others who lived in the Big Houses. He wrote for the people among whom he had been born and lived his life — humble and rather poor people, for the most part, such as he had met in the cottages of the Bedfordshire countryside. He knew and shared their way of life, their interests, their dreams. He talked their language, and they responded. That Pilgrim's Progress, at the time it appeared, was ridiculed and scorned by the literati, academic pundits, and polished, sophisticated aristocrats did not bother Bunyan one bit. He had found his audience, a much larger audience than any other writer of his day enjoyed.

In his writing, Bunyan commanded a good effective style. It was simple, strong, masculine, and direct, without any literary flourishes or affectations. As he more than once said, "do not affect high expressions; they will drown your children . . . Words easy to be understood do often hit the mark when high and learned ones do only pierce the air." He had a very observant eye for graphic and significant detail in his descriptions of incidents, landscapes, and characters. He could tick off a character by merely giving him a name — Pliant, Obstinate, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Evangelist, Mr. Talkative, Lord Hate-good, Mercy, Great-heart, Miss Much-afraid, et al. His syntax is often faulty, his punctuation misleading, and his spelling very erratic even by the lax standards of his day (in the seventeenth century, almost every man was his own speller). Even so, he captures and holds the reader's attention, and knows how to keep his story going except in those passages where he gets his characters involved in long conversations about abstruse points of theology.

To Bunyan, there were angels, and they were real, not merely symbolic. So, too, were fiends, devils, giants, and hideous monsters. Bunyan could describe them so well because he had seen them and encountered them in the hallucinations and nightmares to which he was subject in his younger years. Bunyan accepted dreams as real, as well as prophetic. He never forgot the time he "saw" God, "wrapped all in fire," riding a dark thunderhead in the sky and scowling down on the earth as if about to hurl a thunderbolt to destroy it in a single blinding flash.

In approaching his audience, whether in sermons or in writing, Bunyan first "preached terror," as he himself tells us, condemning all the weaknesses of the flesh and pointing out all the awful threats of "the Law." After his audience had been softened up a bit, as it were, he would offer sinners — and, in his mind, almost everybody was a sinner — the consolation and hope that they could save their souls and enjoy eternal life of unspeakable joy in Heaven if they opened their hearts to Christ's love. He would forgive all their sins if they mended their ways, and conscientiously kept at it. This methodology Bunyan followed in arranging the scenes and episodes in Pilgrim's Progress: first a fall or a block, then redemption.

In his theological views, Bunyan was what is now known as a Fundamentalist. He believed in the Bible from cover to cover. Everything worth knowing was spelled out in Holy Writ. All things had happened just as the Book said they had. The world was created in seven days; Adam and Eve had been evicted from the Garden of Eden for eating an apple (one of Bunyan's Pilgrims was shown such an apple from the Garden); Lot's wife had been turned into a pillar of salt (Bunyan believed it was still to be seen in the Middle East); the waters of the Red Sea had been miraculously parted for the escape of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt; Moses had struck a rock with his rod and out gushed a stream of cold, clear spring water to quench the thirst of his desperately parched followers (Bunyan's hero, Christian, was shown Moses' rod, as well as the slingshot and the very stone with which David had slain Goliath); angels hovered everywhere, with Satan always just around the corner.

Bunyan would have been simply horrified by interpretations given to Scripture by modern divines. As for philosophic studies in comparative religion, he would have regarded them as the sheerest blasphemy. There was only one religion, the Christian, as appended to the ancient Hebraic — and not all of the Christian either, only the Protestant branch — and not all of that branch either, only that of English Puritanism.

To understand Bunyan and what he is saying in Pilgrim's Progress, it is essential to understand the origin, background, and effects of the Puritan movement which so deeply affected England and our own country as well through the powerful influence of Puritan New England. After his break from the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1500s, less for doctrinal reasons than for reasons of state, Henry VIII set up his own church, the Church of England, with himself virtually as pope. The king was not a Protestant, and did not propose to become one, keeping most of Roman ritual and belief. His was an official church, a state church, to which everyone had to belong and pay tithes. No other form of worship was tolerated.

Under Henry's successors, an increasing number began to find fault with that church, objecting that it was corrupt and slothful (as it was in part), and that many of its practices were "unlawful," that is, there was no warrant for them in the Bible. The more these men dug into Scripture, the less justification could they find for a great deal of current belief and observance. The originally simple Christian faith, they declared, had been corrupted by time and "human invention." The imperative need was to restore it to its "ancient puritie" — or, as our American Pilgrim Forefathers phrased it, "to its primative order, libertie, and bewtie."

These views upset the orthodox, especially the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In 1565, Archbishop Parker denounced those holding such views as "these precise men." They were first dubbed the Precisians, but soon became known as the Puritans — so named, it should be observed, for their theological doctrine, not for their moral and social code, which developed later.

The Puritans sought a simple church structure, with no super-structure of bishops, archbishops, deans, and such officers. Where in the Bible could one find "warrant" for such officers? Every congregation should be more or less on its own, choosing its own minister, or pastor, or "teacher," without any dictation from outside. The congregation should be a democratic fellowship, with each communicant establishing his or her own relationship with God without benefit of clergy. The minister might help to guide them, of course, but the best guide was to read the Bible assiduously, which Bunyan had done. It was this need for each individual to establish his own unique personal relationship with God that led the Puritan to his zeal amounting at times to fanaticism, to his continuous soul-searching, to his self-righteous disposition to criticize and belittle those who did not see eye to eye with him and, above all, to his overpowering sense of guilt about his derelictions, however trivial — so great and oppressive a feeling of guilt that it once almost swamped Bunyan and is evident in all of his works.

Pilgrim's Progress is a Puritan story, and Bunyan chose to tell it in the form of an allegory, a form with which he was familiar from his reading, however sketchy that may have been except for the Bible and the Book of Martyrs. In addition, Bunyan chose to present his allegory in the form of a dream, which gave the widest latitude to his always fertile and often rather fevered imagination.

Bunyan's was a simple mind which did not deal in logic, reason, or abstractions. These were beyond the grasp of Bunyan, who saw the world and projected it in the form of visual images, in a sort of fantasy, and yet his dreams and visions are clear and consistently sound, having an inner logic of their own that makes them as complete and meaningful as ordinary perceptions. Bunyan had an extraordinary gift for pictorializing and personifying abstractions, and for transforming what would otherwise have been dull arguments and pedantic verbalistics into shining metaphor, into parable, into allegory, filled with movement, life, and color. Heightening the effects achieved by Bunyan, there is a rough poetic quality in his prose, though the snatches of verse he interspersed in his texts are without exception execrable.

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Man and Superman, declared his opinion that, as a dramatic writer, Bunyan is "better than Shakespeare." One suspects that G. B. S. is here pulling our leg, as he so liked to do, and did so well, so often. In any case, this may be said of Pilgrim's Progress: With its allegorical form and content, it is the best of its kind in the language and will never be matched, for no one in our scientific, atomic, skeptical age could or would attempt anything like it. At the very least, we can examine, appraise, and perhaps admire the work as an antique three centuries old, reflecting the tastes and craftsmanship of a vanished era with a very different way and view of life.

Part 2

In 1684, six years after the first edition of The Pilgrim's Progress Bunyan published a sequel. Also called The Pilgrim's Progress, it had the same title page except that "Second Part" was added and the descriptive summary was changed to read: "Wherein Is Set Forth the Manner of the Setting Out of Christian's Wife and Children, Their Dangerous Journey and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country." Though issued separately and years apart, the two books are now usually published together in a single volume.

Bunyan begins with a long preface, written in verse and entitled "The Author's Way of Sending Forth His Second Part of The Pilgrim." In this, Bunyan notes with pride and satisfaction the success and widespread influence of his first book:

In France and Flanders, where men kill each other,
My Pilgrim is esteemed a brother.
In Holland, too, 'tis said, as I am told,
My Pilgrim is with some worth more than gold.
Highlanders and wild Irish can agree
My Pilgrim should familiar with them be.
'Tis in New England under such advance,
Receives there so much loving countenance,
As to be trimmed, new clothed, and decked with gems . . .
If thou art nearer home, it will appear
My Pilgrim knows no ground of shame or fear;
City and country will him entertain
With "Welcome Pilgrim." Yea, they can't
Refrain from smiling . . .

Bunyan expresses a hope and a confidence that his story about the Pilgrimage of Christiana and her children, and the people they pick up along the way, will be as well received as his story about Christian. In this, he was disappointed, for his sequel, like so many sequels, was an inferior work, or at least was generally regarded as such by the more devout. And yet, Part II has its points. It tells a story with many more human touches than Part 1. It is not so epic, insistent, single-minded, having many pleasant diversions and digressions.