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Something Wicket This Way Comes…

August 16, 2012

Wicket Ways

…and as clever and enjoyable as that pun is, it must be clarified:  the “Wicket Gate” of The Pilgrim’s Progress has nothing to do with being wicked.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The Wicket Gate is the first official benchmark on Christian’s journey down the Narrow Path to the Celestial City. It’s the tollbooth to the King’s Highway–the road to all that (in John Bunyan’s theology) is good and true and right.

So what’s up with the weird name, you ask?  Just think croquet–it refers to the shape of the gate, sort of an upside-down horseshoe, as you see here.  Just like croquet balls have to go through wickets to win the game, Christian has to pass through this gate in order to reach his journey’s end.

We got a sense of the Wicket Gate’s importance in an earlier panorama scene, the Slough of Despond–you saw it glimmering through the darkness of the slough, the carrot at the end of the stick that keeps Christian motivated to get out the swamp’s other side, rather than turn back.  The only reason he knows to head for it is that a fellow named Evangelist, whom Christian met on the very first steps of his journey, had pointed it out:

Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?   The Man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining Light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that Light in your eye, and go up directly thereto: so shalt thou see the Gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.

In addition to the Slough of Despond, Christian faces other difficulties before reaching the Wicket Gate.  He is led astray by a malefactor named Worldly Wise Man, who encourages him to stray from the path, and the only reason he makes it back to the straight and narrow is that Evangelist returns and comes to his rescue.  So he makes it to the gate, which is the scene depicted here, but there are still a few hoops for him to jump through–as it were.

When Christian reaches the gate, he sees that written over it are the words “Knock, and it shall be opened unto thee,” actually a quote from the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew. So Christian knocks, as instructed, and is welcomed by a “grave person … named Good-will.” Good-will readily opens the gate for him and invites him through; so readily, in fact, that as Christian steps forward, Good-will suddenly grabs him and roughly pulls him to the other side.  Surprised and taken aback, Christian exclaims, “What means that?” (a quote we should all embrace and use as much as possible). Evangelist explains that the demon Beelzebub keeps a constant eye on the gate and likes to shoot arrows at those passing through; therefore, the general policy is to move people through the gate as quickly as possible and save the questions for afterward.

It’s not difficult to identify John Bunyan’s religious message for his readers: once someone has made the decision to commit to a Christian life, he or she should be welcomed without hesitation and protected from those who would try to shoot them down (literally or figuratively). And as with most events in The Pilgrim’s Progress, there are also universal, real-world applications. This is a major life decision that Christian makes, going through the Wicket Gate, a decision from which he can’t turn back.  And like all life-altering choices, it isn’t arrived at easily or without fear or risk or pain. It’s seldom wise to make such a decision alone or without help or guidance, so in Christian’s case it’s a good thing that Good-will is there. Indeed, after Beelzebub has been evaded, Good-will sits Christian down for a real heart-to-heart, making sure he knows just what he’s gotten himself into and that he’s prepared to honor his commitment.

But for all that, in the panorama scene, we don’t see Good-will (though he does appear in Part II of the panorama, when Christian’s wife, Christiana, passes through the gate). Nor do we see Beelzebub and his arrows. This is a quiet scene, the moment when Christian approaches the gate and has a last-minute gut-check–will he knock and go through?  Or will he turn back after all and stay with the status quo?  Though any viewer of the panorama would have known Bunyan’s story and known what to expect, still, what they saw from their seats was a moment of potential, of suspense, even of indecision. Christian leans toward the gate in a longing gesture, but he has not yet come to its threshhold. Even though we know the outcome, we feel along with Christian the paralyzing hesitancy and responsibility of choice.

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