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on June 8, 2004
John Bunyan was an astonishing man, a working-class genius who, while producing the last great medieval-style allegories in English, helped invent the English novel, apparently without intending either. The bulk of his writings fell into the obscurity of most seventeenth century theological tractates, but a few have remained current, and "The Pilgrim's Progress" (1678) has been of outstanding importance, for a variety of reasons. It was an immediate popular success, even appearing in French and Dutch editions within a few years, and being reprinted in Puritan Boston, where Bunyan's Baptist teachings would have been unwelcome. The second (1678) and third (1679) printings contained expansions. A fraudulent "Second Part" helped motivate Bunyan to produce his own sequel (1684), published with the First Part ever since.

"The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which is to Come" is, in fact, one of the most widely read works to come out of the era of the English Civil War, Restoration, and Glorious Revolution (which Bunyan did not live quite long enough to see). The number of actual readers, in English and many other languages, certainly exceeds those of Milton, Hobbes, or Locke, possibly all of them together. It is also one of the most misunderstood. In his own time Bunyan (1628-88) was regarded as a dangerous radical; he wrote the first part of "Pilgrim's Progress" while imprisoned for defying authority by refusing to promise to give up preaching. The issue was as much political and social as religious and ecclesiastical; the post-Restoration gentry could fear, but not accept or forgive, the pretensions of a social inferior. (In the age of panic over the "Papist Plot," Bunyan's treatment of the ramshackle "Giant Pope" as nearly harmless is striking: might it be read as an implied attack on the fear-mongering of the Anglican establishment? Perhaps not.)

In the late eighteenth century, William Blake still responded to Bunyan the religious and political Dissenter, and the theologically astute recognized him as expounding a particular doctrine, but distance in time increasingly made him seem not only pious, but even harmless. In the nineteenth century, "The Pilgrim's Progress," long seen as suitable reading for children, was available to the working class in cheap editions, with the approval of their "betters." It found a receptive readership; but it is now clear that many of those readers recognized, as George Bernard Shaw later said, that the sins and failings Bunyan attacked were mainly those of people with money and power. Or, at least, their allegorical representatives always seem to be, or behave like, landowners, merchants, and magistrates, while their victims are working men and women.

Bunyan was indeed mostly concerned with problems of salvation (by faith) and predestination (of which you can never be certain), but the allegorical universe Bunyan presents is solidly grounded in material and social reality. Each soul must seek salvation -- the message of self-help, which the proper Victorians loved. But the little community of believers, the congregation of the true faithful, carried another message for the working class -- Organize!

This Bunyan has yet to be fully digested by popular culture. There are still a multitude of complacent editions, variously inexpensive, lavish, abridged, retold, glossed theologically or linguistically, or otherwise brought into line with some perceived need, and marketed for (mainly Protestant) Christians in search of edification. (It has found many Catholic, and apparently, some Muslim readers, as well, which is another story.)

Those who need a full critical text of this famous work will consult Roger Sharrock's 1960 edition in the Oxford English Texts series, preferably in its revised printing of 1975, and probably in a library (so far as I can tell it is out of print). It was intended as a revision of a 1928 edition by J.B. Wharey, but it broke new ground in Bunyan studies, by returning to the earliest editions of the two parts whenever possible. This was extremely important in restoring the integrity of the text, for reasons I have described in a separate review of Sharrock's popular edition for the Penguin Classics (originally in the Penguin English Library)

Those who want a reliable edition for the serious reader or student, without the full apparatus, however, now have a choice of Sharrock's own very lightly modernized "popular version" for Penguin Books; N.H. Keeble's adaptation of Sharrock's Oxford text for the World's Classics series (published by Oxford University Press; reissued under the Oxford World's Classics imprint), or the present edition by W.R. Owen, which replaces it in the Oxford World's Classics line, and is likewise based on Sharrock's work.

These Oxford popular editions follow Sharrock's critical text, in fact rather more closely than Sharrock's own Penguin edition -- Owens even with some additional reversions to first edition readings, where he finds them comprehensible without emendation. They offer introductions, chronologies, notes, and glossaries directed more to the common reader or student, explaining seventeenth-century history and theology, as well as explicating Bunyan's language. All three were admirable examples of scholarly editions adapted for the ordinary reader, which is helpful, because Sharrock's main edition seems to be out of print. Keeble's edition may be available for the moment, but Oxford, unlike Penguin, doesn't seem to keep multiple versions of a title in print in its "Classics" line.

Since I have copies of both the Penguin and the old World's Classics editions, I hesitated over acquiring this new version. It offered an expansion of Keeble's chronology and notes, and a new introduction, with a bibliography consisting mainly of recent studies (from 1980 on). Definitely an improvement, although not a blockbuster. The big difference, however, is that Owens provides the only illustrations published with the text in Bunyan's lifetime, and the verse captions he provided to them. This is not only interesting; it provides some explicit statements about the text by the author, not otherwise readily available. The illustrations themselves are not impressive -- hardly in a class with those by Blake and Cruikshank, among many others of varying degrees of skill and insight. But they reflect a real, not imaginary, seventeenth-century environment, and are a worthwhile addition to the available evidence.
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I hadn't read this book in a long time, and when I first started it I thought, "Gee, I'm going to have to like it-how can I publish a negative review of the best selling books in history?" Fortunately, my fears were indeed unfounded. Pilgrim's Progress, despite its age, remains a book that makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you love God more.

The book is an allegory: it tells the imaginary story of a man named Pilgrim, from the time he realizes he is in the city of Destruction, and follows his and his companions' journeys through good times and bad to the Celestial City which he seeks. In it are many insights about life as a Christian and life outside of Christ. One of the beauties of the book is that Bunyan draws on so many different themes-fear, dark times, temptation, despair, hope, friendship, slander, greed, mercy, just to name a few-and then shows us the right & wrong way to respond to each of these through the characters and events of the book. Therefore everyone will appreciate the lessons of the book in a unique way, according to what he is experiencing in his own walk with God.

I was most impressed with the passion and singlemindedness of Christian-in the first few pages of the book, once he is convicted of his sin, he starts to run away from the city of Destruction, "but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, "Life! Life! Eternal Life!"" How often I lack the passion to just get up early for prayer, and this man runs, desperately blocking out all else but the one great prize that he knows he must win.

The other theme that most spoke to me was that of the pilgrims' constant focus on their destination, their hope of heaven, which provided them the strength and courage to face any trial. More on the preciousness of our hope tomorrow.
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on July 3, 2008
"No other work in English, except the Bible, has been so widely read over such a long period." When I read something like that about this other work, "Pilgrim's Progress", I was curious. I got a copy and paged through it. At first I was disappointed, because I suspected that even if I forced myself to plow through the whole book slowly I probably would not understand the reasons for its popularity. But then I read the excellent 57 page introduction. And that gave me the education about "Pilgrim's Progress" that I was looking for. W.R. Owens's analysis and explanation of John Bunyan's classic satisfied my curiosity completely.
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on March 20, 2016
A must read and great addition to your literary collection. One note of caution though, if you have trouble with the "Old" language, you may get bogged down and not enjoy it as much. There are editions with more modern language, so you might want to go that route.
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on July 29, 2011
This is a timeless and always relevant allegory about our human nature and God's provision. I highly recommend Pilgrim's Progress to all, especially those who may feel they are alone in their struggles. You are never alone. The God of all comfort, mercy, and grace is near.
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on August 2, 2010
I just got done reading Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. Even though it was written in the 1600's, it still has great spiritual insight to our spiritual journey in Christ; the struggles, the fears, success, victories. It explains what it truly means to be a Christian, which beyond the current post-modern understanding of Christianity but back to pre-modern understanding of Christianity. Taking us back to our roots in Christianity that we have forgotten. It reminds us that being a Christian is far deeper than going to church and doing nice things, but it's about following God's Will to end of the Earth. I think every Christian should read this book.
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on November 4, 2007
An allegory of a Christian's life as a pilgrimage towards our heavenly destination. The characters are personified weaknesses and strengths, which make the story quite entertaining and fun, specially to see how they react to the misfortunes and fortunes along the way, and also to each other as they meet.

The book is divided in 2 parts. In the first Christian sets out from the City of Destruction by himself: his wife and kids didn't want to go with him (plain and simple). It's the most interesting part because of the novelty of the road, the suspense of the unexpected hangs over the way. In the second part it's the wife and kids who depart to Mt. Zion, following trailblazer Christian.

The tone is didactic but not lecturely, quite colloquial, I'd say. Sometimes discussions get a little too entangled, too elaborate. Young people and kids might enjoy this read if they hang on to it and read it at a small pace and with meditations. It serves as a mirror into our own souls more than about the way per se.

A classic of Christian literature of its own right, that stands the test of time. Written for entertainment as well as for our learning and warning. Ideal for parents-children discussions and bible studies.
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VINE VOICEon September 16, 2010
This is my second time reading this book and my view of this book has changed slightly. The first time I read it, I preferred the first part of this book to the second part. Now, years later, I prefer the second part over the first. Either way you look at it, this is a classic work; the poor man's "Paradise Lost." The allegory, in its best moments, is pure genius and the names of all the characters are truly inspired. For the modern Christian over 400 years later, this is still a good book to read for spiritual inspiration. I will say, though, that this book can at times be too explicit in its Christian teachings and just continues to beat you over the head with it (sort of like what Moses did to Faithful in the first part, a rather hysterical image when you think about it), especially at the end of part one when Christian and Hopeful just talk forever about theology. Otherwise, the images and allegory are pure and any Christian would do well to pick this book up.
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on April 22, 2015
Great material, but a little challenging in the style it's written in
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on August 30, 2014
A classic book that set the stage for literature henceforth.
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