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Let me start with an apology…

May 24, 2012

This book will make a traveler of thee

If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be;

It will direct thee to the Holy Land,

If though wilt its directions understand

Yea, it will make the slothful active be;

The blind also delightful things to see.

–John Bunyan, “The Author’s Apology for his Book,” The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678

No shrinking violet, he—John Bunyan knew his book was important and said so.  The author’s “apology”—in modern terms his introduction or his explanation for his book—was probably written around the time of the book’s publication in 1678. At that point, Bunyan had been sitting on the manuscript of his master work for more than six years, since his release from prison for preaching heresy. He’d had plenty of time to consider the merit of his work and what goals he would accomplish by publishing it. Though he claims to have agonized over the decision—”Now I was in a strait, and did not see / Which was the best thing to be done by me”—he could not have been disappointed by the results.  The book was insanely popular from the moment it left the press. Since then it has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print in its nearly 350 years of existence.

These lines, which appear near the end of the Apology, neatly encompass the entire structure of Bunyan’s book-length allegory of a man’s journey through a treacherous landscape to reach the Celestial City:

 “This book will make a traveler of thee / If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be”: Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian, first sets off on his journey after reading and rereading a book that represents the Bible, and realizing that he must take his journey in order to be saved. The book is his point of entry to the story, just as it is ours.

 “It will direct thee to the Holy Land / if thou wilt its direction understand”: The end goal of Christian’s journey, and others who accompany or follow him on his narrow path, is the Celestial City, representing heaven.  Also, Christian has to keep consulting his instructions throughout his travels, whenever he mistakenly veers from the road or is faced with unpleasant travelers’ dilemmas like scaly monsters flinging burning arrows.

 “Yea, it will make the slothful active be”:  At the beginning of the story, before Christian begins his journey, he is frozen with despair, indecision, and inertia. As he stands there agonizing that his burden of sin will sink him lower than the grave, he is chastised by the man named Evangelist, “If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?” Only then does Christian find his footing and begin to run to his destination.  There’s also the classic scene, later on, when he decides to take a nap and gets rudely awakened by a “stern visitor” who calls him a “sluggard.”

“The blind also delightful things to see”: Generally, Bunyan had some pretty good ideas of what heaven was all about: choruses of angels, streets paved in gold, etc.  But all the same, he is never very specific about the nature of the Celestial City—his stories (parts One and Two of Pilgrim’s Progress) end just as the pilgrims enter the gates of the city, and the reader never gets to join them inside. It’s a recurring theme throughout The Pilgrim’s Progress, and throughout the panorama, that until you’re well and truly through those pearly gates, the best you can hope for is a distant glimpse of them from the outside.  The genius of the book is that it leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied, wanting to take his or her own “real-life” journey to reach the same gloriously indescribable destination as Christian.  You’ve got to slog through yourself as best you can if you want the veil taken away from your eyes: and John Bunyan is here to tell you that his book is the way to start.

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