Mapmaker of the Soul
By Matt McKeown
Bunyan conveys great moral and spiritual insight in a surprisingly accessible novel.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most celebrated and enduring books in English literature; it has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1678. Its author, John Bunyan, is one of the few Puritans (along with Milton, Cromwell, and Edwards) to remain a household name down to the present day.
Bunyan came of age in a riven period of English history. The crown had passed to the Scottish House of Stuart on the death of Queen Elizabeth I; but the Stuarts’ obvious sympathies with Catholicism, and Scotland’s ancient ties to France, angered and frightened the mainly Protestant culture of England. In 1642, a civil war broke out; by 1649 it was mostly over, the king had been executed, and a Commonwealth rather than a kingdom had been proclaimed for the only time in English history. It was after this that Bunyan’s own religious awakening took place. Under the influence of his wife, he joined the Nonconformists, a religious movement who aligned largely with the theology of John Calvin and refused to obey legal requirements to adhere to the Church of England. During the Commonwealth, this caused him little trouble—but in 1660, the monarchy was restored. Bunyan was promptly arrested for attending an unauthorized religious gathering (probably due to concerns that such gatherings could be used as cover for treason). He spent twelve years in prison, where he wrote his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Most scholars agree that it was here also that he began his most famous work.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory—one of those concepts that seems obvious in retrospect, but whose simplicity belies its genius. Each character in The Pilgrim’s Progress represents an idea, embodied in his or her name: sometimes the idea is a type of person, like Christian (the protagonist) or Apollyon, while in other cases the character represents a quality or habit, such as Hopeful or Talkative. Similarly, the buildings, towns, and landscapes represent experiences that Christian must press through to reach the Celestial City. One of the most famous of these allegorical locations is Vanity Fair, a market where Christian is tempted to waste his time and attention, and perhaps be forever ensnared, by the exciting distractions of pleasure, success, and even publicly acceptable religiosity. Bunyan makes a note here that “as in other fairs, some one commodity is the chief of all the fair, so the ware of Rome and her merchandise is greatly promoted in this fair: only our English nation, with some others, having taken a dislike thereat.”
Allegory itself was by no means new. It had been a favorite tool of Scriptural commentators since the writing of the New Testament, and some of the greatest works in Western literature have been allegories, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Spenser’s The Færie Queene. And Bunyan’s handling is not always masterful: sometimes the literal story interferes with its own meaning, as when the character Faithful is martyred, yet Christian clearly proceeds with his own faith intact for the rest of the book, leaving us wondering what or who exactly Faithful was supposed to be. (A later and lesser-known work of Bunyan’s called The Holy War tells a similar story, but in the form of a siege instead of a journey, and displays greater allegorical craftsmanship.) But The Pilgrim’s Progress succeeds despite its flaws, for two main reasons.
One is—allowing, of course, for the half-alien idiom of the seventeenth century—the homeliness of Bunyan’s style. When Obstinate gruffly belittles Christian’s ambition to reach the Celestial City, or Charity gently cross-examines Christian to deliver him from false guilt (almost in the style of a therapist), their speech and conduct is fully believable. Despite the book’s obviously propagandistic purpose, it is propaganda that, frankly, succeeds, because Bunyan actually wrote a good book—something most propagandists confuse with writing a book they think is correct.
The second, which is closely related to the first, is that Bunyan used allegory in a clever and flexible way. The less-obvious qualities of both virtues and vices are brought to the foreground, prompting the reader to reflect more deeply on what, exactly, these virtues and vices are. A writer with modest talents would probably make characters like Formalist and Hypocrite obviously irrational and deceitful; Bunyan, with a keener knowledge of human nature, instead shows them rationalizing: “what they did they had custom for … That custom, it being of so long standing as above a thousand years, would, doubtless, be admitted as a thing legal by any impartial judge; and besides, said they, if we get into the way, what’s matter which way we get in?” Even their response when upbraided by Christian is remarkably lifelike—rather than the obvious tactic of putting them in a rage, Bunyan tells us that Formalist and Hypocrite “gave him no answer; only they looked upon each other, and laughed.”
Bunyan’s writing has prompted countless imitations and adaptations, from books to films to radio versions—including one or two by other members of our author bank. Not unlike Shakespeare himself, Bunyan has retained his position among classic authors through his liveliness, insight, and accessibility.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our others here at the Journal, like this author profile of Frederick Douglass, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of evolution, this list of recommended books from our interview with Dr. Cornel West, or this student essay on The Count of Monte Cristo. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.
Matt McKeown is a staff writer and editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, and enjoys Medieval and early modern literature.