The Weekly Machen
This week, we read of that Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In the column space provided, Arthur Machen explores the long-lasting fascination of generations of readers. He quickly disregards any presumption that the book is chiefly a text for moral teaching, rather, it communicates a sense of wonder which leads the reader on his own pilgrimage for deeper truth. Through this hieroglyphical interpretation, Machen directs us to the theological and cosmological nature of literature.
What is the Charm of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”?
May 27, 1911
So much appears in print today about the Bedford Institute and the Book of Martyrs that I think I may as well leave the “martyrs” alone.
But the only point of interest in the book—rather, I should say, in this special copy of the book—is the fact that it once belonged to Bunyan; and it may not be amiss to say a word or two about Bunyan’s masterpiece, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” People declare that it is a great book, and I agree with them; but it is very doubtful whether the majority of the readers of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” could indicate the grounds of their appreciation.
First, the book is not great because it tells you that if you want to go to Heaven you must be good, and that being good is sometimes very trying and difficult work. Both propositions are doubtless true; but they were not discovered by John Bunyan.
Secondly, the tale of Christian is not good, because it is an allegory. Allegory, as Poe declared very truly, is a vice in literature; the constant see-saw of the mind between the outward story and the inner meaning distracts the imagination and weakens the artistic effect. Moreover, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is hardly an ingenious allegory. There is a certain pleasure, though it is rather the pleasure of the cryptogram than of literature, in grappling with the puzzle of the allegory, and in arriving, after some pains, at the interior significance and application of the story. But Bunyan never allows us the delight of the enigma; “the name of the one was Obstinate, and the name of the other Pliable”—it is impossible even to pretend that there is a riddle. And how can the most innocent and quiet minds be deceived for an instant at such names as Money-Love, Hold-the-World, and Hate-light?
Where, then, is the true merit of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to be sought? Well, in my opinion, it pleases and enchants because it is a masterpiece of the picaresque, that kind of story that takes a hero and sets him wandering, going “on and on,” passing constantly from the known to the unknown.
The Picaresque Tales
For certain reasons—they lie in all probability deep set in the secret places of the human heart—the picaresque tale makes a peculiar appeal to most of us. We are charmed by the literary picture of the unknown road that mounts the hill and dips down into the undiscovered country beyond our sight; so we read with lasting pleasure of the wanderings of Ulysses, King Arthur’s Knights, Roderick Random, Mister Pickwick—and John Bunyan’s Christian.
In Bunyan we are always looking from afar and catching glimpses of that vanishing white road; our eyes are always eager with the expectation of those surmised wonders and marvelous regions that are beyond, and ever beyond. At every step of the pilgrim’s way, we are enchanted with conjecture.
When they saw that the hill was steep and high, and that there were two other ways to go; and supposing also that these two ways might meet again, with that up which Christian went, on the other side of the hill; therefore they resolved to go in those ways.
Now the name of one of those ways was Danger, and the name of the other was Destruction. So the one took the way which is called Danger, which led him into the great wood, and the other took directly up the way to Destruction, which led him into a wide field, full of dark mountains, but he stumbled and fell and rose no more.
The Adventures of a Soul
Now there is no real ethical value in such a passage as this; men have always known that danger is dangerous and that those who seek destruction are likely to be destroyed. The merit of this page and of many similar pages is in the vivid and amazing picture that it gives of a great wandering, in a world that is full of wild and desperate and unforeseen chances. “A wide field full of dark mountains”: the imagination at once begins to stray in that magical and terrible landscape.
But what is the reason of the appeal of the picaresque, of the delight with which we follow the wandering hero? The reason, as I have hinted, is deep-seated; I believe that these tales charm us because they are essentially true. True not in the particular, but in the universal sense.
Bunyan tells us by his method that there never was an individual named Christian who left a material city and fell into an actual swamp or slough; and we have every reason to doubt whether a Spaniard who called himself Don Quixote ever lived in a village of La Manche. But all these stories are true—because under a particular symbolism they give us a faithful image of our own souls and their adventures. All our lives we are set on a great adventure, and our wanderings, we know go beyond those verges which the Latin poet called the flaming walls of the world.
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world’s end
I summoned am to tourney,
sang Mad Tom in Purcell’s song; and to all of us there comes amidst the roar and confusion of the thronging streets the clear, unearthly appeal of that far-off trumpet. From the great deep to the great deep we go, like Arthur, and all our pilgrimage is through wonderful territory and regions of enchantment.
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