Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most well-read, loved and printed Christian book in history. In fact, since it was first published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress has never been out of print.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, puritan John Bunyan tells the story of the Christian life in allegory, using character, places and events in the story to portray different elements of the Christian’s journey.
Bunyan captures so many elements of the path of a pilgrim in his vivid story that the readers imagination has a great number of hand-holds to refer to in future situations. As Christian journeys on to the Celestial City, he passes through towns, like Vanity Fair, he climbs hills, like the Hill of Difficulty, he meets people, like Formalist, Ignorance and Evangelist. All of these places, all of these people are given names that correlate to something specific in the Christian life.
This is a master-piece of allegory in that sense. Allegory is a crude art in one respect. Tolkien, for instance, hated allegory:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien disliked allegory’s crudeness in that it can not be described as a subtle genre. Bunyan in particular doesn’t hide much at all. He names things as they are: The Giant Despair, The Slough of Despond, Hopeful, Mr Hate-Good, Talkative, The Valley of Humiliation, By-Path Meadow, The River of Death. Bunyan smacks the reader in the face with the meaning of his tale. He displays, in Tolkien’s words, “purposed domination”.
So, if the allegory of Bunyan is so crude and blunt, why is it so well loved? What is the beauty of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress?
I would suggest that the beauty of it is that Bunyan knew the Christian life and was able to capture the truth of the situation in his tale. The events and situations that Christian faces are real events and real situations that every Christian has faced or will face.
As a typical Puritan pastor, John Bunyan knew the human soul and the Christian life. He knew it’s difficulties and its trials. He was imprisoned for his faith. He experienced loss, his first wife dying when Bunyan was 30. All of these experiences would have given him a great grasp of the reality of life which he wove into Pilgrim’s Progress the story.
Bunyan’s allegory was also born out of a deep knowledge of the Bible. Spurgeon said of Bunyan:
“Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.””Mr. Spurgeon as a Literary Man,” in The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Compiled from His Letters, Diaries, and Records by His Wife and Private Secretary, vol. 4, 1878-1892 (Curtis & Jennings, 1900), p. 268
In short, Pilgrim’s Progress is so well loved because it is true. Bunyan’s Christian walks the path that all Christian walk. Because Bunyan was rooted in the eternally significant Word of God, his allegory of how that Word works in the life of a Christian resonates universally with Christians. This is evident in the fact that Pilgrim’s Progress is still in print today with innumerable various editions and has been translated into more than 200 languages.
If you haven’t read Pilgrim’s Progress, you are missing out on one of the greatest Christian works of literature of all time.