“I was hungry and…?”: Pilgrims to ‘The World Beyond’ in Children’s Fiction – C. S. Lewis, Henry van Dyke & John Bunyan.

The Last Judgment:

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The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the last ‘parable’ Jesus told before his trials and crucifixion was that of ‘the Final Judgment’, depicted above. It really reads more like an allegory, because of its intense symbolism:

When the son of man comes in his glory … Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give you thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, truly, I say unto you, as you did it to one of the least my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they will also answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. …’

Matthew 25: 31-45, RSV.

The parable has provided material for many poems, songs and stories in recent centuries, including the song, When I Needed a Neighbour and the stories for children related below, despite the difficulty of the concept of ‘final judgment’ and the ‘end times’ prophesied in both testaments. The eschatological passages of the scriptures are not easy for adults and children alike to come to terms with, but they cannot be ignored or brushed over, since they are essential to an overall understanding of the Biblical messages. More importantly, they contain some tentative answers to important questions about belief in the ‘hereafter’ which are the natural product of inquiring minds of all ages. Perhaps the most effective re-telling of these passages for children is found in C S Lewis’ Tales of Narnia, a series of books that were published throughout the 1950s.

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Tales of Narnia, from its genesis to ‘shadowlands’:

The seventh and last book for children in C. S. Lewis’ Tales of Narnia is The Last Battle, first published in 1956. This was just a year after the first book, The Magician’s Nephew was published in 1955 because that was actually the sixth book Lewis wrote. It told how the journeying between the two parallel worlds, ours and Narnia, began, as well as explaining various mysteries, such as how the wardrobe came to be a door into Narnia, and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood. The stories in these seven books began as a series of pictures in the author’s head. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, a young artist who perfectly captured, in line drawings, the pictures that ‘Jack’ Lewis had imagined. It began with the image of a snowy wood with a little goat-footed faun scurrying along carrying an umbrella and a pile of parcels. He later recalled that this picture had been in his mind since he was about sixteen. When he was forty, he decided to try to make a story out of it. He once said, “People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.” In doing so, he wrote books that millions of others also wanted to read. By 1940, Lewis, known as ‘Jack’ to family and friends, was already an established writer of serious books on literature and religion but, as a bachelor who didn’t know many children, he had never thought of writing a book for young readers. The nature of the Second World War changed that, because it was ordinary citizens, including children, who suffered most, as their small island home was bombarded by four hundred planes a night in the infamous “Blitz” that changed the face of war, turning civilians and their cities into the front lines.

Clive Staples Lewis became the most popular defender of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world in the mid-twentieth century. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was brought up an anglican and educated at Malvern College. As a young man, C. S. Lewis had served in the trenches of World War One and, by the time he went up to Oxford in 1917, he had become an atheist. After a long intellectual battle, he became a Christian in 1931. Gifted with an extraordinary intellect and a reasoning mind, his conversion triggered off a rich variety of creativity. His international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters (1942) won him the reputation of being able to ‘make righteousness readable’. He wrote many other works of theology and fantasy with theological dimensions, but remained a Professor of English Literature, first at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained until 1954, and then at Cambridge. Over the years he also wrote many works of literary criticism, the best known being The Allegory of Love. Lewis achieved further fame as a preacher, debater, and a brilliantly effective ‘apostle to the sceptics’. Believing, as he said, that all that is not eternal is eternally out of date, he was completely orthodox and therefore admired by Christians from all branches of the church. A jovial and ‘saintly’ man, he could have amassed a fortune, but following his conversion he gave away most of his earnings to charities. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces the story of his conversion.

In 1940, when the bombing of Britain began, he took up duties as an air raid warden. He also began giving talks to men in the Royal Air Force, who knew that after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be declared dead or missing. Their situation prompted Lewis to speak about the problems of suffering, pain and evil, work that resulted in him being asked by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on the Christian faith. Delivered over the air from 1942 to 1944, these speeches were gathered into the book Mere Christianity (pictured below) in which he set out his straightforward view of his faith, as demonstrated in the following quotation, dealing with a popular view of Jesus:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Mere Christianity.

It was also during the Second World War, when children from London were being evacuated to the country, four youngsters were billeted at Jack’s home, The Kilns, near Oxford. Surprised to find how few imaginative stories his young guests knew, he decided to write one for them and scribbled down the opening sentences of a story about four children who were sent away from London because of the air raids, and went to stay with a very old professor in the country. That’s all he wrote at the time, but several years later he returned to the story. The children (now named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) found their way into another world, a world that he eventually named ‘Narnia’. More pictures came into his mind: ‘a queen on a sledge’ and ‘a magnificent lion’. For a long time, he didn’t know what these meant, nor what the story was about. As he put it later:

But then, suddenly Aslan came bounding in… I don’t know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together.

After that, all kinds of elements went into the making of Narnia. There was the intriguing question of the youngest evacuee as to what was behind the big old wardrobe of which stood in The Kilns. And there were his own childhood memories: how he and his brother, Warnie, used to climb into that very wardrobe, made by their grandfather, and tell each other stories in the dark. Some of Jack’s inspiration came from the books he had loved as a child: the talking animals in the tales of Beatrix Potter; the magical adventures that happened in the stories of E. Nesbit, such as The Railway Children; the wicked queen from a Hans Andersen fairy tale; the dwarves from the old German myths; Irish folk tales, myths and legends and mythological creatures from the legends of Ancient Greece. But these were just some of the ingredients for what Jack mixed into an entirely original confecture of the oldest stories ever told, those of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Between 1950 and 1956, Lewis published seven ‘fairy tales’ about his invented world, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950. In Prince Caspian (1951) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), Lewis experimented with the differences in time between our world and Narnia, a device that meant there was always something unusual and unexpected about each new story. He had thought that The Voyage would be his last volume but soon found himself writing The Silver Chair (1953) and The Horse and His Boy (1954). Each book introduced memorable new Narnian characters such as Reepicheep the Mouse, Trumpkin the Dwarf and Puddlegum the Marsh-wiggle and, from this world, the plucky Jill Pole and the initially unpleasant Eustace Stubb, who gets turned into a dragon.

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From Chapter Nine of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’: ‘The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lifting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, ripping music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave.

Aslan, the “magnificent lion”, plays an important role in every story: in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), he gives life to Narnia in a ‘Genesis’ saga; in the final volume of what is now known as “The Chronicles of Narnia”, The Last Battle (1956), Aslan concludes the story by leading its faithful friends into a new world as Night Falls on Narnia, a land Farther Up and Farther In, where they must say Farewell to Shadowlands (the titles of the last three chapters). These are summarised below, with extracts from the text. This final book, as the cover of its 1961 reprint (above) shows, won the Carnegie Award, the highest mark of excellence in children’s literature. These books also represent his most delightful approach to the Word of God, and are probably his most loved works, even for those adults who have also read some of his other literary and theological works.

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Brian Sibley’s book, Shadowlands: The Story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, was given the prestigious Gold Medallion Book Award. He was also a distinguished broadcaster and authority on the Narnia Tales, serialising them for BBC radio. He was then asked to be a consultant to the BBC Film of his book in 1985, the screenplay Shadowlands being written by William Nicholson. It was aired on British television starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom. This was also staged as a theatre play starring Nigel Hawthorne in 1989 and made into the 1993 feature film Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

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In 1998, for the centenary of Lewis’s birth, Sibley also wrote a special introduction for The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, with all seven stories bound together for the first time. The original drawings by Pauline Baynes were coloured by the artist herself, as shown below. Her work on the Chronicles, therefore, spanned five decades.

… the whole thing was rather like a theatre. The crowd of Narnians were like the people in the seats; the little grassy place just in front of the stable, where the bonfire burned and the Ape and the Captain stood to talk to the crowd, was like the stage; the stable itself was like the scenery at the back of the stage; and Tirian and his friends were like people peering round from behind the scenery. … Rishda Tarkaan dragged the Ape up close to the fire. … “Now monkey” said Rishda Tarkaan in a low voice. “Say the words that wiser heads have put in your mouth.” “Do leave me alone,” muttered Shift. But he sat up straighter and began, in a louder voice – “At this very moment, when the Terrible One himself is among us – there in the stable just behind me – one wicked Beast has … dressed itself up in a lion skin and is wandering about in these woods pretending to be Aslan.
(From chapter XI, The Great Meeting on Stable Hill).

A Doorway to Heaven:

The final three chapters of The Last Battle (XIV-XVI) describe how, after the battle, a magical door appeared in Narnia in front of Peter, Tirian and the ‘children’, the reunited kings and queens:

Tirian looked and saw the queerest and most ridiculous thing you can imagine. Only a few yards away, clear to be seen in the sunlight, there stood up a rough wooden door, and round it, the framework of the doorway: nothing else, no doorway, no roof. He walked towards it, and the others followed, watching to see what he would do. He walked round to the other side of the door. But it looked just the same from the other side: he was still in the open air, on a summer morning. The door was simply standing up by itself as if it had grown there like a tree. …

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And Tirian turned to see who had spoken. And what he saw then set his heart beating as it had never beaten in any fight. Seven Kings and Queens stood before him, all with crowns on their heads and all in glittering clothes, but the Kings wore fine mail as well and had their swords drawn in their hands.

Tirian put his eye to the hole. At first, he could see nothing but blackness. Then, as his eyes grew used to it, he saw the dull red glow of a bonfire that was nearly going out and, above that, in a black sky, stars. …

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He looked around again and could hardly believe his eyes. There was the blue sky overhead, and grassy country spreading as far as he could see in every direction, and all his new friends around him, laughing. …

The sweet air grew suddenly sweeter. A brightness flashed behind them. All turned. Tirian turned last because he was afraid. There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself, and already the others were kneeling in a circle round his forepaws and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue. Then he fixed his eyes upon Tirian, and Tirian came near, trembling, and flung himself at the Lion’s feet and the Lion kissed him and said, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour.”…

He went to the Door and they all followed him. He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.” The Door flew open.

As all the kings and queens of Narnia stood beside Aslan at the door, on his right, they saw through the open doorway they saw another black shape, this time the shape of a man, the hugest of all giants. He was standing on the high moorlands to the North. Jill and Eustace remembered how once, in the deep caves beneath those moors, they had seen this great giant asleep and had been told that his name was Father Time and that he would wake at the end of the world. He now raised a horn to his mouth and made a sound ‘high and terrible, yet of a strange, deadly beauty.’ Chapter XIV continues with a graphic account of the beginning of the end of the world, with the stars falling from the sky and the arrival at the doorway of all kinds of creatures, men and mythical beings, ‘by thousands and by millions’, all running towards where Aslan stood:

The creatures came rushing on, their eyes brighter and brighter as they drew nearer to and neare to the standing Stars. But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly – it was fear and hatred: except that, on the faces of Talking Beasts, the fear and hatred lasted only a for a fraction of a second. You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to the right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which… streamed away to the left of the doorway. …

But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right. There were some queer specimens among them. … Among the happy creatures who came crowding round Tirian and his friends were all those whom they had thought were dead. There was Roonwit the Centaur and Jewel the Unicorn and the good Boar and the good Bear, and Farsight the Eagle, and the dear Dogs and Horses, and Poggin the Dwarf.

Farther in and higher up!:

“Farther in and higher up!” cried Roonwit and thundered away in a gallop to the West. And though they did not understand him, the words somehow set them tingling all over.

This ‘picturesque’ re-telling of Jesus’ last parable of ‘The Sheep and the Goats’ serves as a prelude to the drowning of Narnia by a great ‘tidal wave’ or ‘tsunami’. The water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway (but never passed it) so that the foam splased around Aslan’s fore-feet:

Then Aslan said, “Now make an end.”

The giant threw his horn into the sea … Then he stretched out one arm… across the sky till his hand reached the Sun. He… squeezed it in his hand as you would squeeze an orange. And instantly there was total darkness.

Everyone except Aslan jumped back from the ice-cold air which now blew through the Doorway. Its edges were already covered with icycles.

“Peter, High King of Narnia,” said Aslan, “Shut the door”.

Peter, shivering with cold, leaned out into the darkness and pulled the Door to. It scraped over ice as he pulled it. Then, rather clumsily… he took out a golden key and locked it. They had seen strange things enough through that Doorway. But it was stranger than any of them to look round and find themselves in warm daylight, the blue sky above them, flowers at their feet, and laughter in Aslan’s eyes. He turned swiftly around, crouched lower, lashed himself with his tail and shot away like a golden arrow.

“Come farther in! Come farther up!” he shouted over his shoulder. But who could keep up with him at that pace? They set out walking westward to follow him.

Finally, the children begin to recognise the landscapes around them as ‘Narnian’; that is, they recognise significant features of the world they have left behind them which they had watched being destroyed. Yet they appear curiously different, changed for the better:

Suddenly Farsight the Eagle spread his wings, soared thirty or forty feet up into the air, circled round and then alighted on the ground.

“Kings and Queens,” he cried, “we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all – Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Northern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia.”

Lord Digory explains to them that the Narnia that was destroyed was not the ‘real Narnia’, but only a temporary shadow of the real Narnia which was always there and always would be there. All of the ‘old Narnia’ that mattered, including all the “dear creatures” had been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. Of course, this ‘new Narnia’ was as different “as a real thing is from its shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” They now went ‘farther up’ into ‘the Western Wild’, which the children had never seen, but the Lord Digory and Lady Polly had journeyed there on the very day the world was made. They all ran faster and faster until they found themselves at the bottom of a smooth green hill. It sides were as steep as the sides of a pyramid and round the very top of it ran a green wall: above the wall rose the branches of trees whose leaves looked like silver and their fruit like gold’.

Reaching the top they found themselves facing great golden gates. A horn sounded from inside and out came a little, sleek, bright-eyed Talking Mouse with a red feather stuck in its left paw resting on a long sword. It was, as they all cried out “Reepicheep!”

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He urged them all to come inside the golden gates into the garden inside, which had a delicious smell and a ‘cool mixture of sunlight and shadow’ under the trees and a springy turf… dotted with white flowers. The very first thing that struck everyone about the garden was that it was far larger than it had seemed from the outside. There they met everyone else they had journeyed and sojourned with on the adventures in Narnia. Looking at the garden, and talking with her old friend Mr Tumnus, the Faun, Lucy realised that the garden was not really a garden but another whole world, with its own rivers and woods and seas and mountains, which she already knew. She observed that:

“This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the one below. … I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia …”

The Greatest Gift’ – The Story of the Fourth Wise Man:

The second story based on Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s Gospel focuses more on the words of the ‘Son of Man’ or the King at the Final Judgment. Perhaps mistakenly, therefore, it is more associated with the Nativity stories than those of Holy Week, when it comes to its ‘denouement’. It begins with the ‘Epiphany’ story of the three travellers, or wise men, who made, in T. S. Eliot’s words, such a long journey at the worst time of the year. The story is not as well known as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but it is ingenious in having us believe that four travellers set out to find the newborn ‘king of the Jews’. After all, Matthew only mentions three gifts being delivered to the infant Jesus, which is why the tradition assumes that there were three ‘kings’ following the star. But also according to tradition, these ‘Magi’ came from a civilisation that had a deep understanding of astrology. Matthew tells us that after they have presented their gifts to the Holy Family, they are warned in a dream to return to their homeland in Persia by a different route, and this is the last we hear of them in the Gospels. But many writers have been inspired by the notion of a fourth wise man who also saw the star heralding the birth of Jesus but did not arrive at Bethlehem in time to worship him. One of the most popular accounts in English of the adventures of a fourth wise month was written down by Henry van Dyke, an American author, in the late nineteenth century, although he admitted hearing it in an oral tradition which he couldn’t identify. He published it as The Story of the Other Wise man. In 1997, a children’s picture book, The Greatest Gift, was published, based on van Dyke’s text, following the adventures of a Zoroastrian devotee called Artaban.

Artaban, like the other three magi, had read the prophecies and studied the heavens and he too set out to find the Saviour. He took with him three precious gifts, an emerald, a ruby and a pearl, all to be given to this son of David. As it happened, his way towards Bethlehem lay across a river and as he embarked on a boat to be taken to the far side, he saw a man lying by the wayside. The poor man was evidently very ill and Artaban turned from the boat, which left without him and went up to the man in need of help. Artaban realised that he needed food and shelter, so he hired a mule to carry the man and went out of his way to get him to an inn where the landlord would look after him. To pay for his care, Artaban gave the innkeeper the emerald intended for the infant king. Artaban hurried back to the river but was now only just able to see the star far ahead. He had lost many valuable days on his journey. As he approached Bethlehem, he had to crouch down in a ditch by the wayside as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed and was startled by the cries of the children and their parents, moaning and shrieking in pain and trauma. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and dragging all the infants, aged two and under, from their mothers’ arms. Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way inside and saw the frightened mother screening her child with her body, afraid that the soldiers would return. She was also dismayed at the damage they had done to her home, so Artaban tried to help her, giving her the ruby that was to have been a gift for the child Jesus. With this, she would have money to repair her home and make a better life for her son.

Artaban heard a rumour in the little town that the ‘royal’ family had escaped to Egypt, so he too travelled there but could find no trace of them. By now, the star had disappeared from the night sky, and he had no idea where to continue his search. At this point, Susan Summers’ re-telling introduces the character of ‘a wise old Hebrew rabbi’ from whom Artaban seeks advice:

“My son”, said the Rabbi, “our scriptures foretold that the King of Kings would be despised and rejected by men. He will not be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. If you seek him, look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the sick.”

Illustration by Jackie Morris.

Artaban’s quest to find the King of Kings continued for the next thirty years, but Artaban heard little about him. He passed through towns where people were crying with hunger and cities where people were dying of plague. But Artaban always hoped that one day he would see him and present him with the pearl. Though he found no king to worship, he found many people to help. Wherever he went, he fed the hungry and clothed the naked; he healed the sick and visited those in prison; and his years went by more swiftly than a weaver’s shuttle that darts back and forth through the loom, while the web grows and the invisible pattern is completed.

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Thirty-three years passed since he had first seen the star in the sky and set out on his journey. Now, worn and weary, he travelled to Jerusalem to make one final search. It was there that he heard that a man called Jesus of Nazareth had been tried and condemned to death because he called himself the Son of God. Artaban knew that this must be the King of Kings he had been searching for. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps even help, with the aid of his precious pearl? On a Friday just before the Passover Festival was about to commence, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the place where Jesus was to pass on the way to Calvary. Artaban passed through a crowded square where, to his horror, he found young children being sold as slaves. Susan Summers again takes up the story:

… a troop of soldiers came down the street dragging a young girl with a torn dress and dishevelled hair. As Artaban paused to look at her, she broke away from the hands of her tormentors and threw herself at his feet.

“Have pity on me!” she cried, “Save me! My father was a follower of Zoroaster, and I see from your dress that you are of the same faith. Now my father is dead, and I am to be sold as a slave to pay for his debts. Help me, please!”

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The Zoroastrian faith flourished in the Middle East at the time of the birth of Christ, and astrology was an important part of the religious tradition. A central aspect of the story of the Magi, and of the later stories about the fourth wise man, is the emphasis placed on the Messiah as the teacher whose message would not only be important to the Jewish community into which he was born but to other traditions as well. For each of the wise men who saw the star understood that it signified the birth of a leader with a universal message. Henry van Dyke’s story emphasises this theme, for Artaban actually lives and practices the message of Jesus, dedicating himself to a life of service as he searches for the King of Kings, not discriminating against people belonging to different races or holding different belief systems from his own. In the spirit of the Henry van Dyke story, Susan Summers’ picture book, The Greatest Gift echoes this message, at the same time showing how we can turn disappointment to good account, how the power of faith can transform our lives, and how our outer journey through life is mirrored by the inner journey of the soul.

A Pilgrim’s Progress – from this world to that which is to come:

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, first published in 1678, has been printed, read and translated more often than any other book than the Bible. Indeed, in many homes before the twentieth century, it was the only other book on the shelf. Over the centuries, people of all ages have found delight in the simple, earnest story of Christian, the pilgrim. The events seem lifelike, following each other rapidly and consistently. Bunyan was born in 1628, in Elstow, Bedfordshire, into very humble origins: his parents were poor cottagers. Although of the lowly occupation of a brazier (brass-worker) or ‘tinker’, his father sent him to school to learn to read and write; but he was an idle boy, and for cursing, swearing, lying and blaspheming, had few equals of his own age. He suffered from nightmares in which he conceived apparitions of evil spirits seeking to drag him away with them. He would sometimes imagine that the day of judgment had come, with all its terrible realities. John also became a tinker, like his father, but when the Civil War broke out, he joined Parliament’s army and was at the Siege of Leicester in 1645. A close comrade in arms, standing sentry near Bunyan’s quarters, was shot through the head and died.

In 1649, home from the war, Bunyan married an orphan girl who was as poor as he was, a ‘praying Christian’ whose dowry consisted of two books given to her by her father, a godly man: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Practice for Piety. She would often read these books out loud with her husband, trying to reform his way of life, and would also relate what a holy life her father led. As a consequence, an earnest desire for reformation seized upon him, but it was only an external obligation at this stage, though he came into contact with an independent congregational meeting in Bedford in 1651. His heart was unchanged, and he continued in a ‘sinful’ course of life. But he was much affected by a sermon on the sin of Sabbath-breaking and when he was engaged in a pastime on a Sunday afternoon, thoughts of a coming judgment crowded in on his awakened mind. He became terrified and imagined he heard a voice from heaven saying, Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell? He despaired over his spiritual state for several years. The conviction that he had been a grievous transgressor flashed across his mind, but he concluded that it was too late for pardon or for heaven, and he returned desperately to his sports again. After a conversation with a poor Christian man, whose piety touched his heart, Bunyan began to read the Bible. Again, he commenced an outward reformation in word and life, but entirely in his own strength, ignorant of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. It was an overheard conversation of three pious women sitting at a door in a Bedford street, concerning God’s work in their hearts, and of inner peace and reconciliation, that he saw that there was something in their real religion which he had not yet known or felt. From that time onwards, he sought the society of those who at least had a reputation for piety.

John Bunyan, from an eighteenth-century engraving. He is dreaming of the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Christian fleeing the City of Destruction.

Bunyan’s life was at last transformed, and he had at last set off on his own allegorical way from the City of Destruction. But for a long time, he felt like a caged man, shut out from the promises and looking forward to certain judgment. But then there came, as he was to describe it in Pilgrim’s Progress, a hand with some of the leaves of the tree of life, which Christian took and applied to some of the wounds he had received in battle and was healed immediately. He was ‘led by faith to the cross of Christ, and became more than conqueror through Him that loved him’. Shortly after this time, he made an open profession of religion and experienced assurance of God’s saving work in him. He was baptised into a local nonconformist fellowship in Bedford and began to make known to others the Saviour whom he had found, finding great success as a lay preacher for them from 1653. His first writings were against George Fox and the Quakers; his theology developed in controversy with them, as well as with the ‘Ranters’. Nevertheless, he shared many of the social and political values of the radicals; in 1654 and many times later, he denounced kingly oppressors. Between the years 1655 and 1660 he often preached in the neighbourhood of Bedford, but in 1660 he was put into Bedford County Gaol for preaching without a license; ‘lay preaching’, by people other than ‘ordained’ clergymen was made illegal after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. One object of that restoration had been to put tinkers back into their callings. But Bunyan remembered a lot from the revolutionary decades. In 1658 he had written that:

More servants than masters, more tenants than landlords, will inherit the kingdom of heaven. God’s own are most commonly of the poorer sort. … they cannot, with Pontius Pilate, speak Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

The Five Mile Act of 1665 prohibited any ejected minister from living within five miles of a corporate town or any place where he had formerly served. But in those days people who were without means of livelihood could only claim help from the place which was their long-established home. So this Act meant that ejected ministers could get no help in order to live. Some hid near their old homes and visited their poor wives and children secretly, under cover of night. Many other ministers thought it was better to go on preaching and teaching openly even if they were sent to prison than to starve, or worse still, see their children starve. They took care of their congregations, who loved them. They could not all be sent to prison, since there was not enough room for them! The prisons were already full of Quakers and lay preachers like John Bunyan. The numbers of ‘prisoners of conscience’ were unprecedented in England and Wales.

In 1661, Bunyan’s wife described her husband as ‘a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised and cannot have justice’. He spent twelve years in prison, with one brief interval of a few weeks, using the time to write several books, including the story of his own life and religious journey in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). In it, he described God’s working and speaking to him in every aspect of life. His Dives described Lazarus as ‘a scabbed creep-hedge’, revealing his growing contempt for the rich and powerful. Though the King’s ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ of 1672 brought him his release, religious tolerance was short-lived and the Indulgence was cancelled. Though Bunyan had time to become licensed and was appointed pastor of his church, he was rearrested in 1676 and imprisoned in the old town jail on Bedford Bridge. This time his sentence was only six months, and it was during this time that he wrote the first draft of the first part of what became The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory based on Bunyan’s own spiritual life. It was first published in the early months of 1678. In prison Bunyan also learned the art of making long-tagged thread laces, thereby contributing to the support of his family.

After his release, he preached in many parts of the country and was not further troubled by official persecution. He became pastor of Bunyan meeting in Bedford, living a useful life as a preacher and writer and lived to see his books being widely read. Bunyan was the author of another allegory, the Holy War, published in 1682. It uses images of warfare to construct this allegory, and is very complex, mixing personal and cosmic events. In The Holy War, Bunyan gives us a long list of ‘Diabolian’ lords and gentlemen. Mr Lustings is ‘a man of high birth’. The devils are clearly very well-bred: they bow and scrape to one another. Mr Badman was a person of quality; ‘Cain’s brood’ were ‘lords and rulers’. Even Giant Pope is armigerous: his escutcheon was the stake, the flame and the good man in it. But it was the Pilgrim’s Progress that soon established itself as a perennial classic. The historian Christopher Hill described it as the greatest literary product of this social group, the epic of the itinerant. It began with the words of its narrator, As I walked through the wilderness of this world. Bunyan laid himself down to sleep in a den he ‘lighted on’, like George Fox and so many other itinerants did: Pilgrim’s Progress was the dream he then dreamed. The burden on his pilgrim’s back was the symbol of the lowest grade of ‘masterless man’, but he also had the freedom of the masterless. He is not tied to the soil, can leave home when he wishes and can go where he wishes: his wife can follow him if she wants to. It is the widest democratisation of potential salvation, not merely to the static humble poor, but dependent on their superiors, but to men and women who can take their lives into their own hands, and help themselves in the confidence that if they do God will help them.

The main source of Bunyan’s inspiration was the Bible. He also worked within the Puritan tradition of self-examination and argument and the allegorising tradition of the village sermon. His beliefs come straight from the pages of his Bible and are shaped by his own Calvinist, independent position. We call Bunyan a Calvinist, but his is a Calvinism with a difference. The depth of his experience and the breadth of his imagination makes him more than a mere sectarian writer among many from this period. He shares the activism of the Quakers’ George Fox and James Nayler, and of Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger theorist: Were you doers or talkers only? God will ask on the Day of Judgment. Heaven has to be striven for according to Bunyan. His Calvinism is the outlook of small, itinerant, hard-working craftsmen. Society had been loosened up; endeavour and endurance crept into all the theology of the late seventeenth-century puritanism, even that which we call Calvinist. As Christian declares, the soul of religion is the practical part. Bunyan stands in the mainstream of the puritan tradition by insisting that faith shall issue in works. His subversiveness is both in his matter-of-fact, down-to-earth narrative and in his themes. The hero of Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the people: the law and its courts, he knows, will not give him justice. The spiritual autobiography itself becomes subversive when its hero is a lower-class itinerant and the villain is the petty-bourgeois Mr Badman, who nonetheless is often much livelier than the virtuous characters.

From the literary point of view, The Pilgrim’s Progress, besides being an allegory, is also a dream-vision, like many medieval texts. It begins as a dream of Bunyan’s in his prison cell, not so big as to fill one night; large enough to fill the rest of my life. The allegory takes the form of a dream in which the narrator tells of the pilgrim, Christian’s progress from this World to that which is to come. Christian flees from the City of Destruction (having failed to persuade his wife and children to accompany him) and sets out on a pilgrimage on which he meets such (now) well-known characters as Evangelist, Faithful and Pliable. They are personifications of abstract qualities. Bunyan’s writing is beautiful and simple and contains vivid, humorous characterisations. The pilgrim, Christian, is described on his journey through this life towards the world which is to come. He faces all sorts of obstacles from ‘Giant Despair’ and ‘the Slough of Despond’ (the depths of depression) to ‘Vanity Fair’ (vanity here meaning something empty or worthless, like the cheap goods often sold at fairs). All these scenes question the false values of the world, contrasted with the true values of the Christian faith. In the following extract Christian, joined by his fellow pilgrim called Faithful, comes to ‘Vanity Fair’:

Then I saw in my dream that when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of the town is Vanity; and at the town, there is a fair kept … It is kept all the year-long … all that is there sold or that cometh thither is Vanity. As is the saying of the wise, ‘All that cometh is vanity.’ This fair is no new erected business, but a thing of ancient standing …

Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and whatnot. … Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers, and that of a blood-red colour. …

Now, as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town, where this lusty fair is kept, and he that will go to the city, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world. …

… At last things came to an hubbub, and great stir in the fair, that all order was confounded. Now was word presently brought to the great one of the fair, who quickly came down and deputed some of his most trusted friends to take these men into examination, about whom the fair was almost overturned. …

The second text, reproduced in facsimile, is from the first edition of the book, published in 1678. Christian’s religious doubts have caused him to lose hope and fall into despair. He and his companion Hopeful have been caught by Giant Despair, and thrown into the dungeon of Doubting Castle:

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Bunyan’s Dialect & Discourse:

Bunyan’s use of the language was influenced by his reading of the King James Version of the Bible of 1611, but at the same time, it reflects popular everyday usage. We can therefore use The Pilgrim’s Progress with reasonable confidence as evidence of ordinary language use in the 1670s. Its homespun phrases bring us close to hearing the colloquial, everyday speech of that period, the language of artisans, countrymen and merchants commended by Thomas Sprat, not that of ‘wits and scholars’. Bunyan was not a scholar of universities in Latin and Greek like his contemporary, John Milton. If Milton had affinities with the radicals, he was separated from them by his patrician assumptions, whereas Bunyan shared their colloquial discourse as well as many of their social and political attitudes. In his doggerel poem which prefaces the earlier editions of the work, The Author’s Apology, Bunyan himself made a comment on his use of dialect in The Pilgrim’s Progress:

This book is writ in such a dialect,

As may the minds of listless men affect:

It seems a novelty, and yet contains

Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

A later, second volume told the story of Christian’s wife Christiana who, moved by a vision, follows with her children on the same pilgrimage. This second part was first published in 1685 and was combined with the first part in the second edition, published in 1686. This was the last edition published during Bunyan’s lifetime, since the third edition was published two years after his death, in 1690, though it doubtless contained his own latest corrections. The 1916 edition contained an entirely new set of beautiful, some as coloured plates, as featured above. The book as we have it now is equally a favourite in the nursery and the study and has received the commendation of men of the highest order of intellect. It has been translated into numerous languages, some of which were unknown to Europeans in the days of the author. By 1903, the Religious Tract Society had aided in printing editions of this work in one hundred and one languages. Missionaries have carried this book with them to every part of the earth.

The particular poignancy of The Pilgrim’s Progress springs from the tension between the vision and the reality, the upside-down world and the all-too-real world. He reflected on the sad condition of those that are for the most part rich men. His characterisations were full of them: Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy and Antichrist were all gentlemen; Madam Bubble, ‘the Mistress of the world’ as a gentlewoman and Mrs Wanton was ‘admirably well-bred’. Mr By-ends was ‘a gentleman of good quality, related to lords, parsons and the rich. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, were ‘of base and low estate’, and uneducated. Faithful was brought before Lord Hate-Good for slandering several of the nobility and ‘most of the gentry of our town’. Bunyan knew far more about the heaviness of the burden of Mr Badman’s free market and petty commercial morality than Milton ever did, living without labour on the income he had inherited through his father’s usury. But each of them, starting from the conviction of mankind’s original sin and fallen nature, write about the divinity in man slowly winning its way back, in Milton’s case to ‘a Paradise within thee, happier far’ and in Bunyan’s to the confidence that triumphed over all the torments and the early death which were the usual fate of the itinerant.

Bunyan’s Christian got rid of his burden only after he had turned away from the world and its works through the ‘strait gate’, and had accepted the cross. Then the burden rolled off his back, no thanks to any effort of his. If natural man could cast off the burden by his own exertions, he would also cast off God. Salvation must be the arbitrary gift of God’s grace from outside because the essence of the Fall had been a breach of God’s prohibition. Some of Bunyan’s colloquial words from his original text are still sung in the popular hymn in English-medium churches:

He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster,

let him in constancy follow the Master!

There’s no discouragement,

Shall make him once relent,

His first avowed intent,

To be a pilgrim!

A Retelling for Children:

In her remarkable retelling of Bunyan’s allegory, Geraldine McCaghrean brings the tale to life for children today. with the help of Jason Cockcroft’s brilliant illustrations. On his journey to the City of Gold, Christian meets an extraordinary cast of characters from the terrible Giant Despair to the monster Apollyon. Together with Hopeful, his steadfast companion, he survives snipers and mantraps, the Great Bog, Vanity Fair, Lucre Hill and Doubting Castle. As they get nearer to the City of Gold, the pilgrims enter poppy fields which cause them to feel drowsy:

They thought at first that it was heat haze rising off the poppy fields – or hordes of tiny flies. But it was sleep – a stupefaction of sleepiness, an intoxication of drowsiness, an enchantment.

“Let’s just lie down here and rest,’ said Hopeful. “I can’t go another step.”

“No. No. We mustn’t sleep. I made that mistake once before, and it lost me my scroll. Keep awake! We must keep awake! Step out lively now. There’s something sinister about this place. I smell magic.”

But Hopeful was swaying, dizzy with the effects of the poppies, and Christian had to put one arm around her, or she would have swooned, then and there, among the flowers. Clouds of pollen burst upwards in their faces as her skirts sept the papery petals loose from their stems. He himself longed to fall headlong among the fallen petals, and surrender to sleep.

“Sing, Hopeful! Come on now, sing! That will keep us awake!”

So they sangAnyone watching would have mistaken them for revellers reeling home from an inn:

“Who so beset him round with dismal stories

do but themselves confound; his strength the more is!

No foes shall stay his might,

Though he with giants fight:

he will make good the right

to be a pilgrim!

… But Hopeful’s head lolled forward on to her chest, and her breathing became heavy. “Hopeful, wake up!” …

“Let’s have a quiz!” said Christian, himself swerving with dizziness, as the poppies blew around his knees. “How do you recognise a Christian?”

“Is this a riddle?” asked Hopeful.

“No. Pay attention. It’s a quiz. How do you know a Christian?”

Hopeful screwed up her face in concentration. ” ‘By his works ye shall know him’,” she said, quoting from the guidebook. “My turn. How do you recognise a friend?”

“I’ll tell you,” offered Hopeful. “He’s the one who keeps you awake on enchanted ground.” She gave a wry smile, and together they steered a wavering course for the edge of the field. “I hope no one sees us,” said Hopeful ruefully. “They’ll think we’ve been drinking strong liquor, and I’ve never held with that.”… They… went on their way, singing just for the pleasure of it:

“… Then fancies flee away!

I’ll fear not what men say,

I’ll labour night and day

to be a pilgrim!”

Christian and Hopeful passed the sweetest days of their pilgrimage walking through the Land of Beulah, their happiness increasing daily until their hearts ached with it – ached, too, with the wistfulness at the fleeting nature of life and of summer days. More and more often, Christian laid his hand on his chest and stopped walking, to recover his breath, oppressed by happiness.

“Are you well, Christian?” Hopeful would ask, and he would nod. Nor was he so distracted by his own feelings that he did not see the changes in Hopeful – the greying of her hair, the deepening of lines in her face. They did not hurry onwards out of the Land of Beulah. They seemed to have all the time in the world to dawdle on their way.

And then one day they looked around, and everything had changed. Bare granite hills swelled like tumours out of the ground, enclosing them in a fearful glen. Down this vale funnelled icy, whistling winds which bled the colour out of the landscape without ever dispersing the cloud overhead. For where there should have been sky, whole generations of bleak black clouds had piled up, excluding all possibility of sun. The only light which ever shone in the Valley of the Shadow was the fitful flash of lightning and the flare of raging fires. Though there was no vegetation to burn, these fires crawled inexorably about the granite slopes, adding their own hollow roar to the noise of the wind. But the worst noise in the Valley of the Shadow was of crying.

What at first sight had seemed to Christian and Hopeful an empty, inert void, was in fact as swarming with people as an anthill is aswarm with ants. Some were simply old; others were sick – delirious with fever or doubled up with pain; some diseased, some insane. Soldiers and civilians, casualties of war, lay about calling for someone to tend their wounds. The drowning called out from beneath frozen sheets of water. The starving held out empty bowls, pleading with empty eyes. There were even children. Hopeful’s first thought was to go to them – to help. But Christian restrained her in the nick of time. She had not seen what he had – that to either side of the Pilgrim’s Way was a deep, deep trench. There was no leaving the path; indeed, it was so narrow that they could not so much as turn round to go back. …

… Nothing remained but to pray. Christian and Hopeful prayed – not for anything, but just prayed. They did it instinctively, blindly, like children going through the motions, repeating words they had recited all their lives. In this terrible place, there was nothing left to do but pray:

‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord for ever.’

And praying brought them through. The glen opened up on to rich, cultivated countryside: a colourful patchwork of fields seemingly stitched together with twining vines. A fine mist lay over everything, such as hangs over the world before full sunrise burns it away. … Christian shook his head, but the noise in his ears … only grew louder. He realised that he was listening to the sound of a rushing river.

Suddenly Hopeful was tugging on his sleeve, pointing, gasping. “Christian! There it is! The City! We’ve arrived!” What they had mistaken for morning light was not coming from the sun but from the shining walls of the City of Gold. It stood almost directly in front of them – not above three miles away. Its outline was clearly visible!

Christian began to run. Hopeful ran, too, still clutching her friend’s sleeve. They would be there in an hour or so! Nothing could keep them from reaching it now! The noise of rushing water grew louder. Spray began to wet their faces with tiny droplets of cold – like a clammy sweat. Their run came to an abrupt halt as the Pilgrim’s Way reached its end. This straight and narrow pathway, trodden white by the traffic of a million feet, brought them at last to a riverbank. And there is no bridge across the Final River.

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Will Christian and Hopeful find the courage to cross the final river to the City of Gold and their salvation? The thirteenth chapter in McCaughrean’s adaptation has the answer…

Grace & Salvation from Bunyan to Lewis:

Besides his great allegorical works, Bunyan wrote many valuable treatises on the themes of God’s Grace and Salvation when he wasn’t on a preaching tour. On the night of 31 August 1688, after a seventy-mile ride home from one such engagement, through torrential rain, he was taken ill and died at Mr Strudwick’s, a grocer. He was buried at Bunhill Fields, the last resting place of perhaps the best of early English nonconformists. His legacy, The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most important texts in English literature because it fixed the values of British society as those of Christianity, faith and stability, values which were to remain important for the next three hundred years, finding their expression afresh in the works of C. S. Lewis among other Christian authors. It is the one text which is considered to be close to the Bible and almost a biblical text in itself. Many of its images and phrases have entered the language, just as the words from the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer laid the foundations of modern written English.


Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Martin Manser (2000), Bible Stories. Bath: Parragon

C. S. Lewis (1956, 1961), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.

C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.

Victor J. Green (1983), Festivals and Saints Days: A Calendar of Festivals for School and Home. Poole (Dorset): Blandford Press.

Susan Summers (1997), The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man. Bristol: Barefoot Books.

Christopher Hill (1975), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Bunyan (1916), The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come delivered under the similitude of a dream. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Geraldine McCaughrean (1999), John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim Progress (Retold). London: Hodder Children’s Books.

Ronald Carter & John McRae (1996), The Penguin Guide to English Literature: Britain & Ireland.

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time. Basingstoke: The MacMillan Press.

Roger Gower (1990), Past Into Present: An Anthology of British and American Literature. Harlow (Essex): Longman Group.


A list of selected quotations from The Pilgrim’s Progress from Freeborn (see ‘sources’ above), illustrating the many superficial features, part of the idiom and usage of the late seventeenth century:

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