The Pilgrim’s Regress was a book of many firsts for C.S. Lewis. It was his first work of prose fiction, his first book as a Christian, and even the first he published under his own name. Despite the noteriety, it remains one of his most unread titles and after getting into it, it’s easy to see why. Lewis wrote the book as a revival of the archaic genre of allegory, where abstract concepts are personified as characters to illustrate a principle. As the title of the book would indicate, Lewis riffed off the most well-known example of allegory there is: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where a man named Christian journeys from the City of Destruction along a road both straight and narrow, meeting people such as Evangelist, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Faithful.
Where Bunyan illustrated the realities of all Christian life from conversion to death, the journey of Lewis’ pilgrim, simply named John, takes him on a more philosophical trip from the realm of Puritania and early childhood “faith” through later doubt and a series of disillusionments, before finally finding something of who the Landlord truly is, and what surrender to Him means. The allegory is more contemporary to Lewis’ time, of course, dealing with the intellectual challenges to the Christian faith he had encountered in his own spiritual pilgrimage.
Though obviously modelled on Bunyan’s story, The Pilgrim’s Regress subverts it in several different ways, something strongly hinted at when Lewis names the strict, legalistic country of Puritania after Bunyan’s own Christian sect. The title, of course, is another hint: where Bunyan wanted to portray the spiritual growth and maturity of a disciple, Lewis aims for a return to child-like wonder and awe as the path to God. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Another major difference is that Bunyan’s catalyst for the story is fear; the man Christian flees from his home fundamentally because he is afraid of wrath and judgment. But Lewis instead gives John a different motivating factor: Desire rather than Fear, a desire that first overcomes him as a child.
Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking of a string or one note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice–and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star. The voice said, Come. […] There came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. […] It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays… He had no inclination yet to go into the wood: and presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, ‘I know now what I want.’
John’s search for the Island, and his continued disappointment with pleasures that turn out to be only its shadows, is the story’s reason for being, primarily because the search for Joy was how Lewis perceived his own coming to faith. And the theme of Desire and its role in Christian faith would come to be a keystone of Lewis’ future writing, explored most fully in the sermon “The Weight of Glory” and his spiritual autobiography Surprised By Joy.
For all the personal reasons he had for writing such a story, Lewis came to be quite harsh on his own book. A mere ten years later, in an Afterword to the third edition, he had changed some of his opinions and regretted some of the more cutting philosophical attacks he made within the allegory. He also admitted that the book was not entirely successful for the general reader; he had had his own academic friends in mind when writing rather than a broader public. It’s full of Latin and Greek quotations left untranslated, along with allusions to obscure works of philosophy or religion, both ancient and modern, that few outside of the educated elite–and even then, few outside of Lewis himself–would have been familiar with.
Lewis describes allegory as a genre meant to reveal rather than hide; it is less of a code to be broken and more of a diagram that illustrates what the author believes to be true. The Pilgrim’s Regress, unfortunately, rather goes to show why allegory is not an active genre of fiction. Though certain passages and descriptions show a masterful narrator beginning to emerge, the book reads less like a story and more like a philosophy lecture. The ideas are still worth interacting with, and I recommend the Wade Annotated Edition which provides helpful notes and context for understanding what Lewis was up to when writing his first novel.