The full title of John Bunyan’s 1678 masterpiece is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream; Wherein is Discovered the Manner of his Setting Out, His Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country.
It has been translated into more languages than any book except the Bible (over 200, to vaguely specify), and references to it are tucked into a handful of books I’ve already read (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Jane Eyre, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name a few). So it’s difficult to explain why I thought up until now that I’ve never, ever heard of it.
The Pilgrim’s Progress was basically the Harry Potter of its day, except that the Puritans loved it. From a young age, Bunyan saw visions of devils and heard voices that compelled him to “sell Christ,” pray to trees and broomsticks, and give up his sinful ways. (His confessed sins included swearing, dancing, and ringing the bells of the local church without permission.)
These spiritual experiences flourished in a world without psychotherapy, and eventually inspired the Book with a Title So Long It Forms a Run-on Sentence AND Reveals Plot Spoilers. Bunyan began writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory, during the time he spent in jail for preaching without a license.
With this context in mind, let me introduce Christian, our protagonist. Christian represents the “everyman,” an ordinary individual with whom the readers are meant to identify. (Think Bilbo Baggins, or Ted Mosby.) Upon reading the Bible and acknowledging his sins, Christian is so desperate to reach
Oz the “Celestial City” that he abandons his own family and follows the yellow brick road a stranger called “Evangelist” to find salvation.
But Evangelist lacks the reliability of, say, a GPS system, and Christian suffers numerous trials (not to mention terrible facial hair) along the way. He encounters many more allegorical characters with names like “Good Will,” “Prudence,” “Hypocrisy,” “Mr. Feeble-Mind,” and “Giant Despair,” and you can guess how well that goes.
Since the title already gave away the ending, there’s no harm telling you he does indeed reach his destination. Which, of course, also means he dies.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Well, frankly, no source of pure entertainment has ever begun with an “Author’s Apology.” The Pilgrim’s Progress is an imaginative, thoroughly researched sermon, but a dull piece of literature.
I perceive the way to life lies here. Come, pluck up heart, let’s neither faint nor fear.
Now, now, look how the holy pilgrims ride, Clouds are their chariots, angels are their guide.