Thursday, 18 October 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim's Regress (1933)

Edition: Fount, 1977
Review number: 963

Lewis' earliest novel gives fullest reign to the allegorical impulse which was to form an important part of all his fictional writing. Intended to be a Pilgrim's Progress for the twentieth century, the story of his central character John mimics Lewis' own spiritual journey from the dry church of his childhood to a personal Christian faith. (Even without confirmation from the later foreword, the autobiographical element should be clear to anyone who has read Surprised by Joy, his memoir of this process, or knows that he was called "Jack" by his friends.)

In Bunyan's work, the major difference is in intent; The Pilgrim's Progress is designed to show the tribulations of the Christian after conversion while Lewis is more interested in the journey to conversion. This difference may partly be connected with a change in emphasis in the Protestant church in Western Europe towards evangelism rather than the development of the individual - and Christian is very much an individual rather than part of a church congregation. Lewis was almost certainly not going to want to update Bunyan's famous story, the most read book in English after the King James Bible.

There is also a difference in method. Bunyan externalises Christian's psychological states and spiritual experiences at least as much in geography as in the people that he meets - the Slough of Despond being the most famous example. Lewis has John meet personifications of major twentieth century mindsets; the landscape is far less important, even though it is the fulfilment of a vision of an island that John is seeking.

Lewis' novel is far less successful than Bunyan's story, as might be expected of a work so thoroughly in its shadow, and indeed is less convincing as fiction than anything else he wrote. The reason for this, as the foreword indicates, is that the journey he describes is not typical. Though it maps Lewis' own philosophical wanderings before he embraced Christianity, most people don't even generally introspect about what they believe and don't change so comprehensively. Most people today also don't come from a church background, though this change has occurred since the thirties. (This return to something like the start is needed for the title to make sense, of course.)

However, it would be possible to enjoy the novel not as an allegory on each person's spiritual life but as a satire on thirties ideas, except that Lewis makes another mistake which is common for a convert. He shows little sympathy for the philosophical ideas he is mocking, but portrays each as something so insubstantial and ludicrous it is impossible to see how anyone can be taken in. This gives The Pilgrim's Regress the feeling of a novel which contains only one dimensional, repetitive characters, and makes it a dull read. Perhaps Lewis needed to get this out of his system, but it is his poorest published writing, fiction or non-fiction.

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