Lord Macaulay has left on record his assessment of the work which was to make John Bunyan’s name famous through-out the world. “We are not afraid to say, that though there were many clever men in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century, there were only two great creative minds. One of those produced the Paradise Lost, and the other The Pilgrim’s Progress.” John had no idea that he was producing a masterpiece. He could not guess what place his allegory would have in English literature. His over-riding concern was to use fiction in order to make truth clear and goodness attractive. Rudyard Kipling in a well-known poem describes him as
The Father of the novel,
Salvation’s first Defoe.
And Vera Brittain remarks that salvation is as fit a subject for a novel as any other theme.
Part One of The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678. But when was it written and where? Since the bond for his release from his second imprisonment is dated 21st June 1677 he could not have been in prison before the autumn of 1676, and as it is clear that he was in the County Gaol for only a comparatively short period he was probably released sometime in 1677, very likely the 21st June. As we have already shown the long-held tradition that the book was written in the town lock-up on Bedford Bridge can no longer be sustained.
John Bunyan himself tells us that his allegory was a prison book. It begins thus: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted upon 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 the third edition, which was the first complete edition, for he had added many incidents and characters to the story, he wrote in the margin against this sentence—”The Gaol.” In his rhymed “Author’s Apology for his Book” he says that the idea came to him while engaged on another work.
I writing of the way
And race of saints in this our Gospel day,
Fell suddenly into an Allegory
What was this other book? Dr John Brown basing his assumption on the theory that John Bunyan was put into the Bridge prison in 1675 thinks the book was The Strait Gate published in 1676. But it does not fit John’s description. There is one book, however, that does, written during his long first imprisonment, called “A Confession of my Faith; and a Reason for my Practice, or with whom and who not, I can hold Church Fellowship. It was published in 1672.
It has puzzled most biographers of Bunyan why, seeing he was such a prolific author in the first part of his imprisonment, issuing nine books between 1660 and 1666, there should be a gap of six years before A Confession of my Faith in 1672. This silence is accounted for if he was engaged in beginning The Pilgrim’s Progress. As he wrote the Confession of my Faith it suddenly struck him how effective it would be to set forth the Christian’s pathway to Heaven, and the truths associated with it, in fictional or allegorical form. He remembered his youthful delight in stories such as Bevis of Southampton, George on Horseback, The Seven Champions of Christendom. What if he could set out the Christian life and trials and triumphs in story form? The Pilgrim’s Progress …! Yes, that was it exactly. His own spiritual experiences, and the folk he had met on his journey to Heaven, would supply much material. And his vigorous imagination, made true and faithful by his constant reading of the Bible, would add much to it. So he began, jotting down scraps from time to time over the years between 1666 when Grace Abounding was published, and 1672 when A Confession of my Faith saw the light. On his release from prison in 1672 Part One was unfinished, and his busy preaching and oversight of the Bedford Church and associated congregations from 1672 to 1676 when he was again arrested, left him no time to complete the book. But, on finding himself in the County Gaol in Silver Street again, he set to work once more with renewed zest to complete the great Allegory. This seems to be the true way to account for the circumstances of the writing of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part One. He pondered many years before writing his Autobiography, Grace Abounding. It seems certain that long contemplation preceded the writing of his classic work.
There is a puzzling break in the story after Christian and Hopeful leave the shepherds in the Delectable Mountains. “So I awoke from my Dream.” Many writers have taken this to indicate that at this point he was released from his second imprisonment and finished the story at home. But it can equally mean that he had reached this point when his first imprisonment ended, that he was unable to continue it during the three or four years of pastoral activity, and that he returned to it and finished Part One during his second imprisonment. This second stay in prison ended in June 1677. Part One of The Pilgrim’s Progress was entered at Stationers’ Hall on the 22nd December 1677, and licensed for publication on the 18th February 1678.
Bunyan wrote his great book for Puritans of the lower and middle classes, and religious books were almost their only reading. The idea that life is a pilgrimage through this world to the next was not a new one. Sir Walter Raleigh was only one to give expression to this, as in his poem, “His Pilgrimage”. In the Middle Ages the great roads were crowded with pilgrims going to hallowed shrines. Many Bible passages spoke of the journey of life, the way to Heaven. It is John Bunyan’s achievement that he wrote in simple style, but with consummate power, the story of such a pilgrimage so that the story never dulls, and the narrative sweeps on to its conclusion with the force of genius.
We first meet Christian with a Book in his hand, and a great burden on his back. It is the Book, the revealed Word of God, that has made him conscious of his burden and the awful consequences if he is not delivered from the guilt and power of his sin. While still in the City of Destruction he longs for peace with God, deliverance from the burden, and to set out on the road to Heaven. The Book he is reading makes him cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” It is then that Evangelist draws near and sets him upon the right road. So, turning his back on the City of Destruction he starts out, and presently comes to the Cross where his burden tumbles away from him. Every Puritan reader would, from his own experience, understand and appreciate the significance of such an opening, and would identify with the varying situations and trials through which Christian had to go before he reached at length the Celestial City.
One cause of the success of The Pilgrim Progress was its style. It spoke to the unlettered reader in words he could understand. His speech was the speech of the Bible, and knowing the Bible well the Puritans could follow his arguments. But if Bunyan is plain he is never vulgar; although full of metaphor he is not obscure, going straight to the point in the fewest words. Lord Macaulay recommends Bunyan’s style as “an invaluable study to every person who wishes to gain a wide command over the English language. Its vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people. There is not an expression, if we except a few technical terms of theology, that would puzzle the rudest peasant. “He goes on to point out that there are whole pages which do not contain a single word of more than two syllables. “Its English,” says J.R. Green, “is the simplest and homeliest English that has ever been used by any great English writer, but it is the English of the Bible.”
The secret of its unique position in literature is its human interest and dramatic power. The people John wrote about were real people, with real problems and weaknesses. Christian, the Pilgrim, is John Bunyan himself, as he knew himself to be within his own soul; and his experiences, spiritual and otherwise, are those which he himself had experienced, and set down in Grace Abounding.
The characters we meet with on the road, each one distinct with his or her own individual traits of manner and language, are those Bunyan had seen and known. Some he had met in his soldiering days, some in the ale-house, some at the fairs on Elstow Green, some in the Bedford Meeting. But they were, every one, true to life. Dean Stanley aptly comments, “We, as well as he, have met with Mr Bye-ends, and Mr Facing-both-ways, and Mr Talkative. Some of us, perhaps, have seen Mr No-good and Mr Live-loose, Mr Hatelight, and Mr Implacable. All of us have at times been like Mr Readyto-halt, Mr Feeblemind, and Faintheart, Noheart, and Slowpace, Shortwind, and the young woman whose name was Dull.” Yes, indeed we have. And we have also sometimes been in the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, and on the Delectable Mountains. Bunyan’s intimate knowledge of human nature and human life in their everyday guise, gave him great power to hold our attention and to charm as well as to instruct.
Many writers have been at pains to make such places as the Interpreter’s House, the House Beautiful, Doubting Castle, and the Delectable Mountains—even the place somewhat ascending—represent places, mansions and scenery around Bedford that John knew well. Such efforts at identification are vain and unnecessary; these places are drawn from his imagination as much as from his observation. And so are his happily-chosen place-names, with a shrewd underlying truth to them all—”Temporary, who dwelt in Graceless, two miles off from Honesty, next door to one Turnback”; or “Talkative, the son of one Saywell, who dwelt in Prating Row”; or “Beelzebub’s friend, Sir Having Greedy”, and “Turnaway, that dwelt in the town of Apostacy”; or “Valiant-for-the Truth, born in Darkiand, where his father and mother still were”. Gwilym 0. Griffith remarks, “Not Dickens himself, within a like compass, will give us a richer gallery of living, unforgettable types.”
It has often been pointed out that there are some imperfections in The Pilgrim’s Progress. What book is without them? And given the circumstances of the book’s writing, the wonder is that there are not more. But some there undoubtedly are. How was it that Faithful was carried up to the Heavenly City in the middle of the pilgrimage without crossing the River of Death? Why did Hopeful join Christian along the road having never passed through the Wicket-Gate or lost his burden at the foot of the Cross? And in Part Two, the Wicket Gate has become a considerable building with a summer parlour, while the shepherds’ tents on the Delectable Mountains have given place to a Palace with a dining room and store of jewels. The Town of Vanity, also, has greatly changed in Part Two, and Christiana and her family settle down there comfortably and enjoy the society of the place, while her sons marry and have children. Bunyan must have overlooked the character of the place he described in Part One when he wrote Part Two. And what about Christiana’s “sweet babes” who are terrified of the dog at the Wicket Gate, and cry at having to climb the hill, and whose faces are stroked by the Interpreter, who sup on bread and milk and are put to bed by Mercy—and then suddenly turn into “young men and strong”, able to fight with a giant and help to destroy Doubting Castle, and become husbands and fathers? The chronology has gone astray, but perhaps these are the defects inseparable from every work of true genius; besides which, John wrote it at intervals, and not straight off. “If you were to polish it,” remarks S.T. Coleridge, “you would destroy at once the reality of the vision.”
Sometimes Bunyan uses colloquialisms, obsolete words and homely expressions. When the pilgrims get to the top of Hill Difficulty “they were very willing to sit down for they were all in a pelting heat.” At the inn, mine host says, “You have gone a good stitch, you may well be a-weary.” Their talk is full of proverbs and proverbial expressions. Christian says that the house of Talkative “is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savour”. The common folk who know Talkative says that he is “a saint abroad and a devil at home”. Sometimes Bunyan reverts to the language of his unregenerate days, as Sir Charles Firth points out. Old Mr Honest is described by Greatheart as “a cock of the right kind”, a reference to a profane sport in which doubtless John had taken part in old times. In Doubting Castle, when Christian had discovered the key called Promise in his bosom, he found the gate difficult to unlock, for “that the lock went damnable hard”. (Some editors of Bunyan have changed the offending word!)
He introduces symbolical sights and pictures which the Pilgrims see in the House Beautiful and elsewhere because they are likely to appeal to readers. The man with the muckrake, the parlour full of dust, the two little children in their chairs, the robin with the spider in its mouth—all would interest the uneducated and the young.
The road on which the various pilgrims travel is realistically described. It is not unlike an old Roman road, straight as a rule, up Hill Difficulty, across the “delicate plain called Ease”, onward to the last river and the glorious beyond.
Sometimes there is a high wall with fruit trees beyond to tempt children. Dogs bark as travellers pass, and frighten women; other travellers meet or overtake them; they see men lying asleep by the roadside; they see criminals hanging in irons; they see pleasant green lanes, meadows, styles, bypaths. Indeed the road to the Celestial City is very like a common English seventeenth century road on which Bunyan had wandered and travelled all his life.
Macaulay describes an English road in the time of Charles II. “It was only in fine weather that the whole breadth of the road was available for wheeled vehicles. Often the mud lay deep on the right hand and the left; and only a narrow track of firm ground rose above the quagmire … It happened almost every day that coaches stuck fast, until a team of cattle could be procured from some neighbouring farm, to tug them out of the slough.” This recalls that “very miry slough” called Despond, where Christian and Pliable “wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt, because they missed the stepping stones in the middle”.
There were frequent floods in the seventeenth century. Sometimes coach passengers had to swim for their lives. Christian and Hopeful werc surprised in Bye-path meadow by the sudden rising of the river, as no doubt John himself had often been. There was, too, in seventeenth century England, the danger of highwaymen. Their favourite haunting-places were the open heaths and moors around London, or they would lie in wait in woods that bordered the great roads. Mounted highwaymen attacked coaches and horsemen, while poor pedestrians were preyed on by footpads, gangs of sturdy rogues armed with cudgels who assaulted, robbed, and even killed their victims. Such were those who attacked Valiant-for-truth and plundered Little-faith.
Vanity Fair is a scene from the life of the times. With its booths, goods, jugglers, plays, games etc., it was very familiar to John. He had seen the Fair at Elstow, the Great Fair at Stourbridge near Cambridge, and in all probability Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield in London. The Quakers made a habit of preaching at fairs and markets, and maybe Bunyan did likewise. The trial of Christian and Hopeful at Vanity Fair resembles, as Macaulay says, the parody of justice administered by hostile judges to accused Nonconformists. Some of the characters John describes had sat in judgement on himself.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is the prose epic of English Puritanism, full of the Puritan’s aims, doctrines, and speech. John Bunyan wrote in order to bring men to repentance and faith, not to become an “English man of letters”. Yet it stands as a vital part of our religious heritage, and men and women in all parts of the world, and of all ages and classes, have found inspiration and light in its pages.
Before his final release from prison John Bunyan read the manuscript to some of his fellow prisoners. They were divided as to its value. Some thought that it was dangerous to put the Christian life into the form of a romance, but others urged him to print it for it might do good.
At last I thought, since you are thus divided,
I print it will, and so the case decided.
No doubt Elizabeth agreed when it was read to her.
It came Out in a small octavo volume of 326 pages costing one shilling and sixpence. Its success was immediate and John was astonished at it. A second edition appeared the same year, and a third, incorporating some new material, in 1679. No less than eleven editions amounting to 100,000 copies, an enormous sale for the seventeenth century, appeared in his life-time. In July 1926 one of the only few known copies of the first edition was sold for £6,800.
Some years later, perhaps due to the urging of friends, John Bunyan sat down to write the Part Two of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1685 in London by Nicholas Ponder, who had issued Part One. The story of Christiana, her children, and her young companion Mercy is of absorbing interest, though perhaps less dramatic and vivid than the story of Christian. It is also a shade more discursive, as for example in Mr Greatheart’s long narrative of Mr Fearing. There is a great variety of characters and incidents both grave and gay. Much sound Puritan doctrine is inculcated in the speeches. Mr Greatheart, Mr Standfast, and Mr Valiant-for-truth represent the stalwart Puritan warriors John had so much admired at Newport Pagnell, and they were his conception of the mature Christian going on pilgrimage. Not one pilgrim fails to get to the Celestial City, though Mr Ready-to-halt gets to the river bank on crutches, and Mr Despondency and his daughter Miss Much-afraid have to be rescued by Mr Greatheart from Giant Despair.
For Mr Valiant-for-truth and Mr Standfast death has no sting and the grave no victory. Mr Standfast’s farewell is exceptionally fine: “This River has been a terror to many, yea the thoughts of it also have often frighted me. But now methinks I stand easy, my foot is fixed upon that upon which the feet of the priests that bare the Ark of the Covenant stood while Israel went over Jordan. The waters are indeed to the palate bitter, and to the stomach cold, yet the thoughts of what I am going to, and the conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal to my heart.
“I see myself now at the end of my journey, my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that Head that was crowned with thorns, and that Face that was spit upon for me. I have formerly lived by hearsay and faith, but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him in whose company I delight myself. I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of, and wherever I have seen the print of His shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too. His name has been to me as a civetbox, yea sweeter than all perfumes. His voice to me has been most sweet, and His countenance I have more desired than they that have most desired the light of the sun. His Word I did use to gather for my food, and for antidotes against my faintings. He has held me up, and I have kept me from mine iniquities. Yes, my steps hath He strengthened in His way.
“Now while he was thus in discourse, his countenance changed, his strong man bowed under him and after he had said, ‘Take me, for I come unto Thee’, he ceased to be seen of them. But glorious it was to see how the open region was filled with horses and chariots, with trumpeters and pipers, with singers and players on stringed instruments, to welcome the Pilgrims as they went up, and followed one another in at the beautiful gate of the City.”
This passage, and many like it in both parts of The Pilgrim Progress have been a comfort and a strength to multitudes of pilgrims on the same heavenly road. And with man’s nature unchanging, and the grace of God in Christ eternally the same, the book will continue to speak to the soul of man until the end of time.