IF JOHN BUNYAN had been a contemporary of ours, he might have
conceived his classic allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress
(1678), as a computer game. His story has enough monsters, giants,
and fantastic landscapes to please the most ardent gamer, and
invites readerly role-play at every turn. As we pass through
Bunyan's narrative step by step, and encounter his graphic
renditions of good and evil, we gradually assume a heroic per- sona
in an imaginative endeavour that carries through into everyday
At the beginning of the book, the narrator - perhaps to be
identified with Bunyan himself - tells us, "As I walked through the
wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a
den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I
dreamed a dream." In this dream, a "man clothed with rags" is
reading a book, and weeping and lamenting as he reads. The book is
the Bible, and the reader is Bunyan's protagonist, Christian. The
conversion he is undergoing would have been considered exemplary by
a Puritan of Bunyan's era: one where the full extent of human
sinfulness was borne in on the convert, who is then brought to
realise his utter dependence on God's grace.
But salvation is not just instantaneous. If God's grace is truly
working within someone, it will fortify him to continue on the
strenuous path of righteousness; which is why Christian has to go
on a pilgrimage. The burden that he carries on the journey stands
for the weight of sin that he, in common with all humanity, has to
bear; when it falls off at the foot of Christ's cross, readers are
as relieved as if they had been carrying it themselves.
This episode prefigures the conclusion, in which Christian and
his friend Hopeful cross a deep river and leave "their mortal
garments behind them". After all their trials, they can be welcomed
into the Celestial City and united with God.
Christian's one-time travelling companion Ignorance is not so
blessed. Of his fate, Bunyan's narrator comments laconically: "Then
I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of
The various ways to hell within the moral landscape of The
Pilgrim's Progress have long haunted the English
consciousness, most famously in Thackeray's novel Vanity
Fair. But perhaps the episode where Christian and Hopeful are
trapped by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle best exemplifies the
difficulties with which Christians struggled in Bunyan's own time.
The ruthless logic of Calvinist theology did indeed drive many of
Bunyan's co-religionists to desperation, while free-thinkers were
beginning to ask tricky questions of orthodox Christianity.
Getting to grips with one of the tougher Christian classics is,
for many, a productive Lenten task. Few are so tough as The
Pilgrim's Progress, not because it is unapproachable -
Bunyan's is some of the most lucid writing in the English language,
and wonderful to read aloud - but because the book's moral and
spiritual mercilessness is hard to take. Given that, in our era,
most Christian denominations tend to downplay the idea of a
judgemental God, readers of The Pilgrim's Progress might
feel that the end of Part I does not quite see off Giant
BUNYAN, however, clearly mellowed in the six years before the
sequel, published in 1684. Perhaps - like so many Calvinist pastors
before and since - he found too fierce an approach to human
failings pastorally problematic.
Part II narrates the story of how Christian's wife Christiana -
whom he walked out on in Part I - also receives a call to salvation
and follows her husband, together with her children and a motley
crew of other pilgrims, including Great-heart, Valiant,
Feeble-mind, and Despondency. Though their spiritual shortcomings
are as keenly exposed as anything in Part I, Bunyan's tone is less
dismissive by far: weakness is treated constructively, as providing
an avenue for God's grace to operate. As a shepherd boy sings to
the pilgrims in the Valley of Humiliation: "He that is down need
fear no fall; He that is low, no pride; He that is humble, ever
shall Have God to be his guide."
Bunyan's "Who would true valour see" - another of the many poems
in Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress - is well-known as a
hymn. Its modern rewriting by Percy Dearmer is often condemned as
colourless, especially in its change of "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit" to "Since, Lord, Thou dost defend Us with Thy
spirit". Yet Dearmer's change, in the last verse, from the third
person to the first, exhorting himself and the hymn's singers to
persevere in the Christian life, brilliantly captures the spirit of
The Pilgrim's Progress: "Then fancies flee away! I'll fear
not what men say, I'll labour night and day To be a pilgrim."
IN A story that has retained its archetypal power through
three-and-a-half centuries, Bunyan does indeed challenge his
readers to make his pilgrims' journey their own.
Dr Alison Shell is Professor of English at University
The Pilgrim's Progress - Some questions
How, if at all, does Christian change over the course of his
What do you think of Bunyan's naming of his characters?
Bunyan's narrative uses many forms other than simple prose -
poetry, dramatic dialogue, and lists, for example. How did this
affect your reading of the book?
With which of Christian and Christiana's experiences do you most
What do you think of Bunyan's choosing to present The
Pilgrim's Progress "under the similitude of a dream"?
What do you think about the end of Part I? Should it have
finished with the fall of Ignorance?
Do you prefer one Part of the book to the other? Why?
What does The Pilgrim's Progress have to say
about fellowship and evangelism? Do you agree with it?
"One may, I think, say, Both his laughs and cries, May well be
guess'd at by his watery eyes." What do you think of the book's
How far does the book accord with your idea of pilgrimage, or of
the Christian life in general?
Coleridge wrote that The Pilgrim's
Progress "is one of the very few books which may be read
over repeatedly at different times, and each time with a new and
different pleasure". Do you agree?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 April, we will print extra
information about the next book. This is The Children of
Men by P. D. James. It is published by Faber at £8.99
(CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-57125-341-8.
In the year 2021, England languishes under the rule of a
despotic Warden. No child has been born for two decades; in this
ominous atmosphere, the old are despairing, and the young are
cruel. Theo (a cousin of the Warden) is an Oxford professor living
a solitary life, until a chance encounter with a young woman brings
him into contact with a group of dissenters who want him to help
overthrow the Warden. His life is changed irrevocably, as he faces
agonising decisions that could affect the future of the whole human
P. D. James (Baroness James of Holland Park) was an
award-winning British crime writer, best known for her series of
detective novels featuring the police commander and poet Adam
Dalgliesh; and for Death comes to Pemberley, and The
Murder Room. A lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society, she died
in November 2014, aged 94.
Books for the next two months:
May: H is for Hawk by Helen
June: Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary
Whitehouse Archive by Ben Thompson (editor)