Reputable scholars as different in time and perspective as last century’s Edmund Gosse and our contemporary Roger Sharrock have thought that the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress was unconsciously a consummate artist. I should like to argue, however, that there is evidence aplenty that Bunyan was consciously concerned with the literary merits of his masterpiece. Undeniably, his primary purpose in writing was to teach and edify; but it is equally clear that both in theory and in practice he showed that art is no enemy of belief. In its fascinating story, its balanced structure, its living characters, and its generic features as an allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress shows the hand of a literary artist who knew what he was about.
Bunyan’s rhymed preface shows that he had done some thinking on the fictional and imaginative in relation to truth. (For all quotations from the work I shall use Roger Sharrock’s Oxford edition of Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress [London, 1966].) He tells of the personal satisfaction this realm affords, of the delightful experience of having his thoughts come intuitively, and of the legitimacy of writing in the style he had chosen. Summoning the authority of the Old Testament writers and the teachings of Christ and the apostles, Bunyan insists that truth can be released through fiction. In the final section of his preface, he shows his perception of imaginative literature—its illusory quality, its nexus of meaning, its tragi-comic essence, and its power to evoke response:
Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Or would’st thou in a moment Laugh and Weep?
Would’st thou loose thy self, and catch no harm?
And find thy self again without a charm?
Would’st read thy self, and read thou knowst not ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more