Not long ago I read “The Celestial Railroad” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an allegorical sequel to the already-allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this short story, Hawthorne tells of improvements that have been made to the symbolic country since the time of John Bunyan’s account, most especially a railroad connecting the City of Destruction to the Celestial City with great ease. Similarly, the famous Slough of Despond has been filled in with a small mountain of “books of morality, volumes of French philosophy and German rationalism, tracts, sermons, and essays of modern clergymen… together with a few ingenious commentaries upon texts of Scripture,” according to Mr. Smooth-it-away. Christian’s old enemy Apollyon has been hired to utilize his fiery belly to manage the engine as conductor. A small battalion of allegorical figures prance across the stage: Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, Mr. Scaly-conscience, Mr. Take-it-easy, Rev. Mr. Shallow-deep, and so on. Only as the steam ferry-boat crossing the River of Death goes plunging down into the deep while just in sight of the Celestial City, does the narrator finally discover his grievous error.
Hawthorne’s fiction was generally known for its dense symbolism, so writing a followup to Bunyan’s allegorical 1678 novel was not much of a stretch. This was not the first time such a thing would be attempted. Only twenty years after the original, a pseudepigraphic sequel The Pilgrim’s Progress: The Third Part was published and widely believed to have been written by Bunyan himself. Hawthorne wrote his sequel in the 1840s, and nearly a century later C.S. Lewis would try his hand at the genre with the turgidly autobiographical The Pilgrim’s Regress. All of which leads me to wonder, how did the Protestants take over religious allegory?
Allegorical religious fiction flourished in the Catholic middle ages and in the early Renaissance. The 14-century Piers Plowman is full of symbolic journeys and encounters, as is the 15-century play Everyman and the Middle English poem Pearl. Epic poems like The Divine Comedy and Orlando Furioso contain allegorical elements in important sections. Perhaps it was Edmund Spenser’s densely allegorical The Faerie Queene (1590-96) that made the genre a perennial favorite of the Protestant movement. Bitterly anti-Catholic, the allegory was here used to explain the new systems of grace and justification. Bunyan perhaps used the form more effectively than Spenser, even though he lacked the former’s poetic talents, since he was able to speak directly to the common man. The Pilgrim’s Progress may not have been great art, but it was great propaganda, and I do not intend the use of that term as an insult.
Ten years after his symbolic autobiography, Lewis published The Screwtape Letters, a work that has been imitated to the point of distraction by Protestants and Catholics alike. While not allegorical per se, the Letters were a return to the medieval artistic tradition of mocking the Devil in story. Screwtape himself is comical, at one point transforming into a centipede in a fit of pique. For all the love his Narnia books, Space Trilogy, literary criticism, and apologetics receives, few people seem as interested as the Oxford professor in reviving the lost Art of Allegory. Nor have many (or any?) Catholics tried their hand at a “Papist” version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Evangelical novelist Frank Peretti is probably the closest writer we have to a popular Christian allegorist, as Catholic novelists tend towards writing the psychological novel. Perhaps if Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress had been better written and more accessible, the genre might have enjoyed a small flourishing in the Christian corners of the Anglosphere.
That’s all speculation, of course. Nobody is sure they want allegory to return, in spite of its success in the realm of political cartooning and the occasional public defense of the genre. Still, allegory is peculiarly well-suited for spiritual, moral, and religious symbolism, and I fear it is a tool we’ve discarded out of a fear of being thought backward and out of touch with current trends.
“Neither the form nor the sentiment of this old poetry has passed away without leaving indelible traces on our minds. We shall understand our present, and perhaps even our future, the better if we can succeed, by an effort of the historical imagination, in reconstructing that long-lost state of mind for which the allegorical love poem was a natural mode of expression.” –C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love