This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most famous books ever published.
For more than two centuries after its publication, The Pilgrim’s Progress ranked just behind the King James Bible as the most common and important book in evangelical Protestant households. It has been translated into more than two hundred languages, including eighty in Africa alone.
2. The book’s title poses a small problem.
Whenever we name this book by its title, we are actually making a choice from existing options. The title by which most people know the book is Pilgrim’s Progress. But the author, John Bunyan, called it The Pilgrim’s Progress. That makes a difference, changing the focus from a specific person (with the word pilgrim assuming the quality of a personal name, as with such a character as Evangelist from the story) to every pilgrim (comparable to the phrase “the Christian”). In a further twist, the complete title of the published book was The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come, Delivered Under the Similitude of a Dream.
3. The complete book consists of two separate stories.
Most people know only the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. That book was first published in 1678. Book 2 was published six years later. It tells the story of the same journey, but this time undertaken by Christian’s wife Christiana and her four sons. The two books were published separately until 1728, being published as a combined book forty-four years after the first appearance of Book 2.
4. The Pilgrim’s Progress was written while the author was in prison.
The scholarly consensus is that Book 1 (which is what most people have in mind when they think of The Pilgrim’s Progress) was conceptualized and mainly written while Bunyan was imprisoned in his home town of Bedford, England. Bunyan was a Baptist preacher in an era of English history when the Anglican Church was the only legally allowed church. Because Bunyan was a nonconformist preacher (meaning not licensed by the state church), he was imprisoned for twelve years, eking out a living for his family by making shoelaces. While in prison, he also secretly carved a flute from a table leg.
5. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a paradoxical book.
On the one hand, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of the folk imagination. Through the years, it has been read primarily by common people. Through the centuries, it has been standard practice for parents to read the story to their children. The Pilgrim’s Progress was written for edification first of all, not as literary entertainment. Despite all this, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of literary sophistication, eliciting the best efforts of literary scholars. It incorporates as many different genres as any literary masterpiece, and no literary classic invites more different approaches than this one.
6. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a triumph of storytelling technique.
The first level at which The Pilgrim’s Progress invites our participation is the literal level of the story. Bunyan excelled at all three of the ingredients of a story. The settings come alive by means of Bunyan’s descriptive ability. Some of these settings are based on real-life places around Bunyan’s hometown. Examples are the famous Slough of Despond, based on an actual bog or swamp located near Bunyan’s cottage, and nearby Hill Difficulty (which a former colleague of mine zoomed up at seventy miles per hour in a car). Bunyan’s skill with characterization is unsurpassed by any fiction writer, as attested by the fact that many readers remember The Pilgrim’s Progress as a gallery of memorable characters.
This quest journey is so continuously exciting and suspenseful that the plot is also an adventure story of the highest order.
7. The plot of Pilgrim’s Progress has something for everyone.
Bunyan’s settings and characters are so well executed that we might think that his handling of the action cannot possibly match them, but it does. At the level of plot, The Pilgrim’s Progress gives us three for the price of one. It is a travel story, a perennially favorite choice of the human race. In turn, this travel story is a quest story in which the protagonist leaves his hometown, the City of Destruction, in search of the Celestial City, which is heaven. But this quest journey is so continuously exciting and suspenseful that the plot is also an adventure story of the highest order.
8. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory.
As already noted, Bunyan’s masterpiece needs to be read with full appreciation of its story qualities. But it offers a whole further level beyond that. The Pilgrim’s Progress is the world’s most famous allegory. This means that the central action, as well as the places and characters, refers to spiritual realities. This additional level is not a substitute for the literal narrative level. It is an added layer. The allegorical level has something of the quality of a riddle in the sense that we need to figure out what various details stand for. The allegory is what chiefly carries the edification of the book, making it more than a top-rate story.
9. The Pilgrim’s Progress has nearly always been printed as an illustrated book.
It is a tribute to the power of Bunyan’s book on readers’ imaginations that although it was not intended to be an illustrated book, it is nearly always printed with illustrations. The edition that I knew as a boy was my mother’s book, and to this day the illustrations are an essential part of my experience of the book.
10. The Bible is a continuous presence in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
One reason for the popularity of The Pilgrim’s Progress with evangelical readers through the ages is its rootedness in the Bible. But this trait makes it equally attractive to literary scholars. Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon famously said that Bunyan “is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.” Such is the testimony of the believing soul.
Leland Ryken is the author of A Christians Guide to the Classics.