new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

A forgotten classic

I was browsing through a collection of short essays the other day when I came across several by Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. What intrigued me were the passing references to characters and incidents from another book by a different author. If I hadn’t already read that book I wouldn’t have understood the references.

I filed that away in the recesses of my mind until I was reading a DL Sayers novel “Clouds of Witnesses” where I found more references to the same work.

Then, like many things, once you see it in one place, you start to notice it in many places. Fashion magazines have taken their titles from it. Novelist John Buchan named one of his books after a character.

For a book that was written by an unschooled mender of pots and pans
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan has had a remarkable impact. Bunyan wrote it in the 1670s whist in prison for preaching without a license—strange what you needed licenses for then! It is reckoned to be the most translated book after the Bible, and one of the most significant works of English literature.

References to Vanity Fair, to Sloughs of Despond, to Mr Despondency and his daughter Much-Afraid, Mr Linger-after-Lust, Mr Standfast, Mr Worldly-Wiseman, and a host of other characters, places and allusions crop up in many different places in literature. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, CS Lewis and Enid Blyton, to name but a few, make reference to it in their writings.

It intrigues me that until recently this book was expected by authors to form a part of the mental frame of reference for their intended readers. Allusions were made to it on the understanding that you would be familiar with them. And yet now you could probably count on two hands the number of people in Letterkenny who have read it.

Pilgrim’s Progress is the original, the predecessor of such works as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’,The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’. It tells the story of one man’s journey from a city facing destruction to a city of delight. It is the journey of Christian on his way to Heaven. It is packed with vivid and rich descriptions, some by now rather quaint. Yet with great insight Bunyan portrays many of the pitfalls of life, and where the answers may be found. And since no one life captures all of life’s experiences, part two of the book retraces the same journey through the eyes of the man’s wife and children, making the journey at a later stage.

Such is the vivid richness and delight of Bunyan’s writing that the greatest theologian of the day, John Owen, when asked by King Charles why he, a great scholar, went to hear an uneducated tinker preach said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker's power of touching men's hearts.”

In a world where far too many books are published and pass quickly into obscurity, let me encourage you to read this classic. It’s also a great book to read to your kids—I’ve just finished reading a children’s version to my 4 year old, and she loved it. Why not look it up in the library, or get a copy from the Open Door bookshop (beside Gleneany House).