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.

Bunyan’s Book:
What is the Charm of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”?
Arthur Machen
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.

The Weekly

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Next: The English Language

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “Bunyan’s Book

  1. A first comment on this new (to me) Machen piece:

    1.It is good to see Machen enjoying Bunyan’s masterpiece, when one might have expected that, with his revulsion from Puritanism, he would have rejected it.

    2.Unfortunately, it seems that the way Machen took, to enable himself to enjoy the book, was to misread it.

    Machen writes, “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.”

    One might rub one’s eyes and ask if one has read Machen aright. Did he just say that Bunyan’s book teaches that salvation is by successfully undertaking the task of making oneself good enough to reach Heaven?

    It seems he did. But this is to see The Pilgrim’s Progress as a tale of natural religion, the religion the natural man loves and clings to, which is what Lutherans call the theology of glory, i.e. the glorification of the man who overcomes the dangers of this world and makes it to Enlightenment, or Heaven, or union with the Ground of Being, or whatever.

    I sure thought that what Bunyan wrote was a book based on the theology of the Cross, which holds that salvation can only be the free gift of God in Christ. Machen might have forgotten the scene in The Pilgrim’s Progress that comes quite a few pages before the end, in which the Pilgrim loses his burden (of sin) when he receives the Gospel. Now, thereafter, as Bunyan depicts the Christian’s life in the world, there’s plenty of struggle, but this is the struggle of sanctification, with the Christian living in Christ and Christ living in him, pressing on to the goal. The glory is all to Christ. But I admit it’s a few years since I read the book. It might have been a few years since Machen read it too, when he wrote this.

    He seems perhaps rather to have loved the book as the agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams did, who made a fine “Bunyan Sequence,” which you can hear on a Hyperion CD with John Gielgud as principal voice for the spoken parts.

    But I realize Machen is writing a short piece (for the Evening News, I take it), with corresponding limitations. Still, I’m left feeling glad that he likes the book, but wondering if he managed to miss the point. He wants to see the book as having “universal” appeal and he is right that it does; but at its heart there is a scandal of particularity (cf. Acts 4:11-12).

    So much for a first quick comment.


    1. There’s lots of interesting matter to pursue here, factually and speculatively – including Bunyan and Luther, Puritans and Luther, and Anglicans and Luther. But what is – or isn’t – Machen saying – or may he, or may he not, be saying? He says, “if you want to go to Heaven you must be good”: is that true or not? If true, what is that ‘being good’ and how does it come about? He says, “being good is sometimes very trying and difficult work”. Is that about ‘having come to be good’? And, ‘continuing then to be good’? About the ‘(in)defeasibility of salvation’? About ‘salvation and sanctification’? Or just what? And so on. I see lots of battlegrounds here, within ‘the Reformation’ or between ‘Reformations’ (Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, followers, interpreters, Baptists, Sixteenth- and Seventeen-century ‘Divines’ within the Church of England, to mention a few) and down the centuries. I know far too little about Machen ‘on theology’ or ‘Biblical exegesis’ (or how much may be confidently known). How do we find out what points he is expressing with that phrasing?


      1. It does seem evident to me that Machen liked The Pilgrim’s Progress, but doesn’t show sign of dealing with the innumerable indications Bunyan provided for his understanding of Christian doctrine (e.g. his marginal Scriptural citations).

        There may be a weakness in Machen’s “Hieroglyphical” reading, in that he might leave himself open to the complaint that, if he (Machen) likes it, then it provides the “ecstasy” that Machen requires for Literature to exist as opposed to run of the mill books.

        One thing that could be discussed is whether Machen does indicate that PP is among those works that partake of “ecstasy.” I took it from his praise of the book that he does see it thus.

        But did he then think that a great deal of the book was … dross?


    2. Brooding over Machen’s article a bit, a couple possibilities have struck me. To begin with the contrast with “the Book of Martyrs” – something biographical and historical. If Machen knew Bunyan’s autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), he does not choose to focus on, or even mention it. He may also know The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) but does not mention it, either. He does, however, select for quotation and some discussion a scene with three ways, where two men suppose the “steep and high” can be avoided and that the three ways “might meet again […] on the other side of the hill”.

      Before coming to his selection, Machen has given as his opinion that the book appeals by masterfully showing “a hero […] passing constantly from the known to the unknown”, following up with the appeal of “the literary picture of the unknown road that mounts the hill and dips down into the undiscovered country beyond our sight” and of “the expectation of those surmised wonders and marvelous regions that are beyond, and ever beyond”.

      And his selection implicitly accents that movement into “the unknown”. Christian proceeds confidently, in a sure faith – but he does not know, nor do the others know in their “supposing”. Just before the part quoted, Christian confidently encourages the others: “Come, pluck up heart, let’s neither faint nor fear; / Better, though difficult, the right way to go, / Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.” And, while one “fell and rose no more”, we are not told any such thing of the other whose lazy self-confidence has led him into “the great wood”. Is there still hope for him (whether he be “Formalist” or “Hypocrisy” – something else we are not told here)? At any rate, Christian must continue into the not-yet-known by faith. All this strikes me as (arguably) an attentive (if implicit) engagement with some aspects of Bunyan’s understanding of Christian doctrine – and perhaps an implicit suggestion of how and why Pilgrim’s Progress may appeal to Christians who do not agree with Bunyan on all points, and to yet other readers to whom it may be a sort of praeparatio Evangelica.

      (For instance, I see in volume I of The Works of John Bunyan, edited by George Offor (1853) one work entitled ‘Of Justification by an Imputed Righteousness’. The only place I find “imputed” in Pilgrim’s Progress is in the passage where Hopeful is telling Christian of a conversation with Faithful. The Scriptural citations there (in the edition I checked) are “Heb. 10, Rom. 6, Col. 1, 1 Pet. 1” – none of which (in KJV) include “imputed” or any related form. I have not read the posthumously published work Offor edited, or the earlier one he refers to in its introduction, and have no precise sense of Bunyan’s version of ‘imputed righteousness’, or his place in the widespread detailed controversies on ‘imputation’ but suppose one need not affirm his understanding to enjoy and profit from Pilgrim’s Progress.)


  2. Machen here reminds me of a post by Brenton Dickieson from four months ago which includes attention to C.S. Lewis’s 1962 BBC lecture published first in The Listener, “The Vision of John Bunyan”. He quotes from it, including “This adventure story itself is not left in the world of high romance. Whether by choice or by the fortunate limits of Bunyan’s imagination – probably a bit of both — it is all visualized in terms of the contemporary life that Bunyan knew. The garrulous neighbours; Mr Worldly-Wiseman who was so clearly (as Christian said) ‘a Gentleman’; the bullying, foul-mouthed Justice; the field-path, seductive to footsore walkers; the sound of a dog barking as you stand knocking at a door; the fruit hanging over a wall which the children insist on eating though their mother admonishes them ‘that Fruit is none of ours’ — these are all characteristic. […] And this homely immediacy is not confined to externals. The very motives and thoughts of the pilgrims are similarly brought down to earth”. I did not get round to looking the essay up four months ago… maybe curiosity in comparing Machen and Lewis in more detail will finally get me to do so…


  3. By the way, looking for the reference in Machen’s first two paragraphs led me to some of the rest of the story. A 1912 New York Times article with the headline “$10;000 FOR BUNYAN BOOK.; Mr. Morgan Finally Acquires the Author’s Copy of Fox’s ‘Martyrs'” begins, “LONDON, Thursday, June 13. — John Bunyan’s copy of Fox’s ‘Book of Martyrs,’ 1641, concerning which there was considerable controversy last year, has been sold by the Rev. C.F. Farrar of Bedford on behalf of the Bedford General Library for $10,000 to J. Pierpont Morgan, who is taking it with him to America this week.”


    1. I see it is still there, and that in 1976 someone also donated his copy of Sternhold and Hopkins metrical Whole Book of Psalmes (1637).


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