Pilgrim’s Progress: Space and Text

There is a parallel in Pilgrim’s Progress between walking and talking, between language and the journey to the Celestial City. The arc of the story traces the pilgrim’s allegorical journey towards heaven, towards salvation – it’s a spiritual journey translated into a spatial context, drawing on spatial images from the Bible – for instance, Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” That image sits at the core of Pilgrim’s Progress. Early in the narrative, the pilgrim comes to a wicker gate, and the gatekeeper Goodwill explicitly quotes from that verse: “Look before thee; dost thou see this narrow way? That is the way thou must go.” When Christian asks whether he might get lost along the way, Goodwill replies “Yes, there are many ways … and they are crooked and wide: but thus thou may’st distinguish the right from the wrong, the right only being straight and narrow.” The geography of the story maps out the spiritual environment, with spatial metaphors from the Bible being made concrete in order to give physicality to the spiritual journey.

And we don’t really need to rehearse the importance of language as part of the spiritual journey. There are the obvious linguistic features of faith – the Lord’s Prayer, the psalms, and even the Bible more broadly all serving as examples of text sitting at the heart of the Christian faith. Language is also how believers communicate with each other, encouraging and supporting each other as part of their respective journeys. Again, you’ve got the obvious examples – things like confession, for example, if you’re a Catholic, or different sorts of catechism, which are essentially stock questions and answers that are learned by rote as part of understanding the faith. There’s an exchange that feels like catechism between Christian (the pilgrim) and the gatekeeper – Goodwill starts by asking who Christian is, and then asks a series of questions about his journey so far – why are you by yourself, why didn’t anyone come with you. It isn’t strictly catechism, as Goodwill isn’t asking about points of doctrine – but he is asking about Christian’s journey – which, again, is a spiritual journey, meaning that by recounting his travels, Christian is also declaring the arc of his faith. In that sense, the exchange can be read as a catechism.

You can start to see even from that example how walking and talking are wrapped around each other. The journey to the Celestial City is a spiritual pilgrimage, and the way Christian recounts his journey echoes a common religious practice. Similarly, as the characters make their way along the narrow road, the narrative doesn’t focus much on, for instance, describing the surrounding environment. It rather concerns itself with the conversations that take place along the way; in a very real sense, the conversations themselves are the journey. As readers we experience the journey as a series of conversations – that’s the actual content on the page, the narrative focal point through which we engage with the fictional world – and at the same time, those conversations are the material form of the pilgrims’ spiritual journey, the mechanism by which they are being transformed and made ready for the Celestial City. From the reader’s perspective, the walking is mostly talking, and from a spiritual perspective, the talking is a form of walking. In fact, that’s the problem that the book has with Talkative, who we discussed last week – he talks a bunch about the ideas and principles of Christianity, but he’s not going anywhere. He’s not a walker – he’s not genuinely progressing down the path. He’s just talking about the idea of it. He has decoupled walking and talking, and as such is condemned.

Anyway, I just wanted to touch this week on one little moment, a passing scene that takes this relationship between walking and talking and just gives it another little twist. The original Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678. It was wildly successful – Bunyan saw it reprinted eleven times before his death in 1688, and it also spawned a series of imitators and derivatives. Other people wrote sequels to the book, one of the more well-known examples being Thomas Sherman’s The Second Part of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s not really impersonation or plagiarism – the period had different ideas around intellectual property – but in any case, Bunyan eventually felt compelled to publish his own official sequel, or second part, in 1684. Where the first part follows Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, the second part follows his wife, Christina, and their kids, who chose not to journey with him in the first part, but who have a change of heart. It’s an interesting text – you revisit all these locations from the first part, there are shifts in how different elements are portrayed – for example, the gatekeeper is revealed to be Jesus (in the second part he starts saying things like “Suffer the little children to come unto me”).

One of the other ways the first part is commemorated is through signs or monuments that are set up around the place. For example, Christina and the kids come across a monument to Christian’s battle against the fiend Apollyon. They stop to read its inscription:

“Hard by, here was a battle fought,
Most strange, and yet most true.
Christian and Apollyon fought
Each other to subdue.
The man so bravely play’d the man,
He made the fiend to fly:
Of which a monument I stand,
The same to testify.”

By reading the text of the book, we experience the spatial journey of Christina and her kids. And in this monument, text is manifested physically within the spatial environment, meaning we read about space with words in it. The text is not merely describing the space – it is embedded within the environment, and turns back upon it, giving meaning to the space from within. I mean, it’s not a huge deal – it doesn’t have some special great significance to the story as a whole. It’s just an interesting little example of how space and text are tied up together. As walking and talking are intertwined, so too are text and space. Each contains the other.

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