Some books are tough going. Reading them is like cycling into a head wind. Others carry you along with the wind at your back: the sort of literature you cannot put down.
John Bunyan’s 17th Century allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is a book most of us would put into the category of tough going. But award-winning children’s writer Geraldine McCaughrean has re-written Bunyan’s classic and, in the process, has turned a head wind read into a compelling story of a young man’s Christian pilgrimage that carries you along with its liveliness and immediacy.
McCaughrean is the only writer to have won the Whitbread children’s book award three times and is widely known for her re-telling of some of the world’s greatest and oldest stories. They include The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, St George and the Dragon, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales. Her ability to set these ancient tales in modern English opens up literature that, rightly or wrongly, most of us consign to the “too hard” basket. One reviewer of her re-write of The Pilgrim’s Progress, entitled A Pilgrim’s Progress, says:
“This revered and well worn tale may seem at odds with the modernity of children’s writing but it has elements that make a child really sit up and take notice – drama, excitement and adventure. Jason Cockcroft’s startling contemporary illustrations bring an added poignancy to the story of a youth with a mission in life.”
Make no mistake; this is not a kids-only book. Anyone seeking to understand the significance of Christian pilgrimage will find insights aplenty here. Its profound depictions of the experiences encountered in the journey of faith are as relevant as they ever were in Bunyan’s 17th Century England.
Indeed if you want something to read this Easter time, try McCaughrean’s re-telling of the moment when Christian climbs to the top of the hill. Her description of his stark encounter with the hill’s three crosses and her vivid evocation of the changing titles on the central cross sets the scene for the dramatic moment when Christian’s burdensome load tumbles from his back into the mouth of a dark cave with its door rolled aside, where “all that is to be seen is a few strips of white cloth and a faint smell frankincense and myrrh.”
It’s a graphic depiction of the Easter experience, the central event of the Church’s calendar and of Christian experience, and sets the scene for Christian’s continuing journey.
What follows are her wonderfully vivid descriptions of his encounters with doubt and despondency, materialism, greed, every form of human vanity and of course atheism and ultimately death.
In his decision to take on atheism, for example, through the medium of literary encounter, Bunyan unconsciously reprimands those Christians who think the answer to militant atheism is to ban its advertising on the buses.
I imagine it would have been unconscionable for Bunyan, nurtured in the tradition of freedom of religion, or of irreligion for that matter, a tradition common to early Baptists, to support any such ban on the character Atheist and his kind. After all, Bunyan was the victim of such intolerance. Much better to have an encounter in the marketplace of ideas. McCaughrean’s lampooning depiction of Atheist as a gentleman with “a kindly broguish voice” who ambushes Christian and Hopeful and taunts them as being “the credulous in pursuit of the incredible” captures Bunyan’s intention.
In case we think the Christian journey, as Bunyan describes it, is a miserable “woe is me” experience, we meet Christian’s delightful companions, Hopeful, Faithful and of course, the “King’s Champion” who defends Christian and his friends. As well, there are the rich joys of the Delectable Mountains and the glories of the City of Gold.
Each Easter Day the whole Church in one way or another affirms its faith in the words of an ancient Christian hymn, the Te Deum:
You Christ, are the King of Glory,
When you became human to set us free
You overcame the sting of death, and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
Bought with the price of your own blood,
And bring us with your saints to glory everlasting.
These words lie at the heart of Christian theology and come to life in this modern setting of Bunyan’s classic.
I didn’t have to plough through it as into a head wind. I was carried along by its imaginative prose to the very end where the writer awakes and describes what Christian sees when he comes face to face with the King and realises that, along with Hopeful and his other companions on the way, all their hopes have been fulfilled.
In her moving finale, McCaughrean has the dreamer wake up to realise, as we all must, that no one can dream the “unimaginable.” That’s an experience that comes when we cross the river ourselves. It’s only then that we can say exactly what the City of Gold contains.
Before you consign your old copy of The Pilgrims Progress to the 10-cent bin read this 21st Century version and you will see why Bunyan’s spiritual biography of “a poor man and a tinker” moved out of the confined spaces of Bedford jail to become one of the timeless masterpieces of world literature.