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Pilgrim's Protest : A TINKER AND A POOR MAN : John Bunyan and His Church, 1628-1688 by Christopher Hill (Alfred A. Knopf: $22.95; 382 pp.)

January 22, 1989|Richard Ashcraft | Ashcraft is professor of political science at UCLA and author of "Revolutionary Politics and Locke's 'Two Treatises of Government' " (Princeton University Press, 1986).

No one can forget that moment of lost innocence, the sudden realization that "Robinson Crusoe," "Gulliver's Travels," and "The Wizard of Oz" have a deeper political meaning and greater social significance than one could have imagined when reading them as a child. John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," read by children all over the world, is such a book, and it is Christopher Hill's objective in "A Tinker and a Poor Man" to help us appreciate the political meaning of Bunyan's allegory.

"The Pilgrim's Progress" has been translated into more than 200 languages. It was a best seller in Colonial America, greatly admired by Pushkin, and it was the first English literary work to be translated into Polish. Ironically, today it is more likely to be familiar to children in the Third World than to those in America or Britain.

Nevertheless, as Hill carefully demonstrates, Bunyan's ideas are deeply rooted in the religious and political conflicts that shaped the consciousness of individuals in 17th-Century England. Whether dissent from the established Anglican Church should be tolerated was a major issue of controversy during the last half of the 17th Century, and Bunyan was in the thick of the fight on behalf of the minority of dissenters. Indeed, he was, as Hill observes, "the creative artist of dissent," firing salvos of satire at his religious and political oppressors. "Oppression makes a wise man mad," Bunyan warned, as he directed his piercing and witty attacks against hypocrisy, the abuse of power, and "the lust-provoking fashions of the times."

Not surprisingly, Bunyan spent more than 12 years in prison, but like John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, he was indefatigable, and he wrote some of his best works, including "The Pilgrim's Progress," while he was in jail. The theme of that work--an individual on a pilgrimage in search of the Celestial City--was not original to Bunyan. Numerous medieval writers had portrayed life as a pilgrimage, but Bunyan's barbs and ridicule of his contemporaries, and especially those of higher socioeconomic status than himself, gave a biting critical edge to his writing that is muted or absent in the earlier epics. Since Bunyan was an itinerant mechanic, everyone in his society, except for the poor, was a target of his criticism.

At a time when the influence of science and philosophy--Newton, Boyle, Locke--encouraged the use of plain, unadorned language, Bunyan chose to express his ideas in an allegorical style, heavy-laden with metaphors and flights of fancy. In part, of course, the decision was a tactical one; ridicule is a powerful political weapon, and figurative language provides a rhetorical shield against the sword of the magistrate. But Bunyan was writing primarily for an audience of self-taught literate artisans like himself, and he knew that "words easy to be understood do often hit the mark when high and learned ones do only pierce the air." Bunyan understood the creative power of popular prose, and "The Pilgrim's Progress" was "written by a man of the people for the people."

As a teen-age country boy, Bunyan found himself swept into the Parliamentary army, which was not only engaged in a battle with Charles I, but was itself an intellectual battleground where common soldiers like Bunyan received their first exposure to radical ideas about religion, democracy, and even communism. Bunyan's primary concern was with religion, not politics, although, unlike Milton, he never criticized Oliver Cromwell or the Levellers in his writings. Yet, as Hill points out, to insist, as Bunyan did, that England was drowning in a flood of wickedness and that the godly poor were suffering under the oppressive yoke of the rich and powerful was, necessarily, to adopt a distinctive political position in the context of 17th-Century English society.

Running throughout Bunyan's writings is a "class-conscious piety," a contempt for the rich and a passionate defense of the poor, that helps to explain why those writings exert an appeal that transcends the particular circumstances of Bunyan's own age. Bunyan's pilgrim is a little man in rags whose courage and humanity enable him to defeat the giants of Persecution and Despair, to see through the misdirected advice of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and to overcome his own inner doubts and cross the River of Death to gain entrance to the Celestial City. It is a struggle against injustice and oppression that wins the reader's admiration, and, demonstrably, appeals to a worldwide audience. If Hollywood had decided to make a movie version of "The Pilgrim's Progress," clearly, the title role would have been played by Charlie Chaplin.

Hill does a fine job of placing Bunyan within "the revolutionary age in which he lived," but his writing is often labored and repetitious. Notwithstanding Hill's obvious sympathy with his subject's social and political views, Bunyan's religious convictions convey a quality that seems just to elude his grasp and appreciation. "A Tinker and a Poor Man" rightly helps to restore the literary reputation of Bunyan as a writer, but it lacks the compelling flow of the narrative and the graceful prose that characterized Hill's two excellent books on Milton.

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