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Literature / The Pilgrim's Regress

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Here there be dragons.

The Pilgrim's Regress is an allegorical novel by C. S. Lewis, dramatizing the process of his conversion from atheism to Christianity and defending his love for Romanticism in literature and music. It was his first published work of fiction, and his first writing after his conversion.

The story traces the wanderings of an Everyman character named John, who leaves his boyhood home in Puritania in search of a beautiful island that has haunted him in visions since childhood. Accompanied by his traveling companion Vertue, John journeys through bizarre lands and encounters many characters and monsters that represent various philosophical and ideological movements that were in vogue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eventually, though, John begins to realize uncomfortably that his quest for the Island might be taking him back toward his abandoned belief in the existence of the Landlord....

The title, of course, is a play on the title of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

Tropes present in this book:

  • Action Girl: Reason, who appears as a Knight in Shining Armor. At one point she kills a giant; at a climactic moment John realizes he has no chance of beating her in a fair fight.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: Basically Mother Kirk's story is a retelling of Genesis chapter 1 to 3. Deciding that the land was too beautiful to keep to himself and his children, the Landlord let it out to a young married couple. Unfortunately, the Landlord had planted "mountain apples", a specific crop that only mountain-born people can digest properly. Unable to uproot them all without making the land a desert, he explained the situation to the tenants and warned them. Of course, a renegade son of the Landlord's convinced her to try one.
  • Allegory: In spades! Despite some critics saying that The Chronicles of Narnia is "allegorical," by the way, this book is the only proper allegory Lewis wrote (Narnia is applicability).
  • Author Tract: It's right there in the subtitle: "An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism."
  • Bad Boss: Mr. Sensible yells at and threatens his servant "Drudge" while he's getting Mr. Sensible's work done. When Drudge understandably decides to leave with the heroes, Mr. Sensible sees it as gross mistreatment. He says that he'll have to talk to some of his friends, who may have mechanical contrivances or members of a servant race to supplement the loss.
  • Benefit Fallacy: Reason discusses the problems with the "wish fulfillment" argument, but she admits it does have one grain of truth: people may indeed believe something because it benefits them, not because it's actually true.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Scorpions the size of lobsters are prominently mentioned among the torments of the black pit.
  • Body Horror:
    • The "Spirit of the Age" has the ability to make a person's skin transparent to reveal the insides of the body and it is not a pretty picture, especially the man with cancer.
    • The various addictions cultivated by Luxuria are represented as the body budding off vermin.
  • Boring Return Journey: Played with. After John's conversion, he realizes that the only way to reach his island was east of his old home, and he's been traveling roughly west for his entire journey (hence the word "regress" in the title). The narrative doesn't skip over John's return journey, but it's much shorter (both in time and in number of pages) than the trip out. Heading west, John had wandered and meandered quite a bit, but heading east, he sticks to the straight and narrow path to his destination. And on the trip back, he finds the landscape has completely changed—or rather, because of his conversion, he sees the world as it truly is for the first time.
  • Bulverism: Master Parrot, one of the Spirit of the Age's prisoners, gives a "catechism" saying that argument is only the person trying to justify their desires, and delivers a few answers that amount to "you say that because you are an X." The jailer praises him and promises him a reward (Lewis coined the term, which is basically combining Begging the Question and the Genetic Fallacy).
  • By the Eyes of the Blind: Only John can see the brown girls who follow him. It's not said why, but it's presumably because they were created from John succumbing to lust.
  • Dragon Hoard: "...the Northern dragon is so greedy that his anxiety for his gold hardly lets him sleep."
  • Enemy Mine: Mr. Neo-Angular, Mr. Neo-Classical, and Mr. Humanist representing Catholicism, Classicism, and Humanism respectively, despite being siblings, hate each other but are trying to form a community together as they all hate: the giant "Spirit of the Age", the city of Eschropolis, and Mr Halfways.
  • The Everyman: John, the pilgrim of the title. However, Lewis later realized that his own journey to faith (represented in John's journey) was a lot more personal and idiosyncratic than he had assumed.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: As a child, John abandons his belief in the Landlord on the grounds that he can't be loving yet punish people with a pit of snakes and scorpions.
  • The Fundamentalist: The inhabitants of Puritania, including John's parents and family. John quickly grows to reject their beliefs as Holier Than Thou.
  • Garnishing the Story: Well, why shouldn't Romanticism and Enlightenment be allegorized as dragons for our heroes to slay?
  • Get It Over With: John meets Death in a mountain pass on a stormy night. John realizes that it has been the fear of death that has motivated him his entire life. Death hammers home that he only has two choices:
    "What am I to do?" said John.
    "Which you choose," said the Voice. "Jump, or be thrown. Shut your eyes, or have them bandaged by force. Give in or struggle."
    "I would sooner do the first, if I could."
    "Then I am your servant and no more your master. The cure of death is dying. He who lays down his liberty in that act receives it back."
  • God: Allegorized as "the Landlord."
  • Gratuitous Languages: Mr Sensible likes throwing in different languages like French, Latin, and Greek when he speaks for some reason.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Black hole" has since come to refer to a specific type of cosmic phenomenon (whose accretion disk is an apt metaphor for sin anyhow).
  • Honor Before Reason: Vertue considers himself bound to follow his personal code of rules, but he is stumped when asked why he has the particular rules he does. They're just rules, so he just follows them.
  • It's All About Me: For all his playing the genial host, Mr. Sensible is quite self-absorbed. Fridge Horror sets in when reading his line about hoping for mechanical servents and/or "a race of peons who will be psychologically incapable of [revolt]", and realize he'd fit right in in Stepford.
  • It's Not Porn, It's Art: The singer in question is Mr. Phally, who is squeezed in between Victoriana and Glugly. John is considered to have made a major social faux pas when he questions why the music arouses perverse lustful thoughts.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, of course. Lewis makes it a Perspective Flip as the title character has to find his way back to a belief in reason and God, unlike Bunyan's story which begins with the conversion.
  • Lust: Sexual temptation is personified in the "Brown Girls."
  • Meaningful Name: Being an allegory, the story deals in meaningful names both fairly obvious (e.g., Mr. Enlightenment, who treats belief in the Landlord as ridiculous) and more obscure (e.g., Mr. Phally, whose name sounds like "phallic" and whose poetry evokes obscene images.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: John comes upon a dragon hoarding its gold. In the dragon's poem is a line like "At times like these I wish I hadn't eaten my wife." He did so not out of hunger, but out of greed and paranoia regarding the gold.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The Northern dragon is made of ice and the Southern dragon is made of fire. Both of them have to be killed in different ways.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: The "Spirit of the Age," a form of Freudian pop psychology that discredits anything to do with reasoning or beauty or faith as unrealistic wish fulfillment, is portrayed as a giant the size and shape of of a mountain.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Mr. Enlightenment and his son, naturally. When trying to sell John on the position, the elder Mr. Enlightenment throws around the mention of a lot of modern conveniences, but doesn't explain how they disprove belief in the Landlord. He claims John, being from a backwards place like Puritania, would have a hard time understanding everything. Then he tries to disprove it again by telling about how anthropologists collect stories about the Landlord which inevitably relate back to an escaped beast or something.
  • The Penance: Vertue, John's friend, becomes convinced for a while that flesh is inherently evil and so proclaims he's going to make himself miserable in as many ways as he can think of to mortify it. He's just recovered from a major illness, yet goes off into the mountains. When John tries to follow him, he angrily threatens him, saying that friendship is another form of pleasure.
  • People of Hair Color: The dwarves who live in the frozen north come in two varieties: Red-haired (Communist) and black-haired (Fascist).
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Mr. Sensible doesn't seem to consider his servant "Drudge" a person and calls Reason (personified as a female knight) "baggage" whose only positive aspect is her pretty face.
  • Popcultural Osmosis Failure: In the preface to the third edition, C. S. Lewis acknowledged that, within just a decade or two after the book was published, the prevailing philosophical schools of thought had shifted so much that many of his references became almost completely obscure to later readers. He added a running series of page headers to explain some of them.
  • Prayer of Malice: The Northern Dragon, who's so obsessed with guarding his hoard that he rarely sleeps or leaves for a drink, prays for God to give him peace. He clarifies that said peace should take the form of killing any potential gold thieves, rather than anything that might let someone else get the gold.
  • Put Them All Out of My Misery: The northern dragon is heard praying for God to destroy all the other creatures in the world so that he won't have to guard his nest.
  • The Quest: John's pilgrimage is in search of the Beautiful Island, which nobody else seems to believe exists.
  • Quote Mine: Mr. Sensible likes to drop quotes (often in different languages) into his conversations. Vertue calls him on taking at least one quote out of context; the author he attributed it to had actually brought up that point of view to find fault with it. Mr. Sensible just tells him that this is a gentlemens' social visit, not a classroom.
  • Reference Overdosed: Boy howdy! Whole books have been written trying to list all of the allusions and references and allegorizations that appear. Here's one website that attempts it.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment:
    • Lewis comes down firmly on the side of Romanticism, as you would expect from the subtitle. Much of the discussion is concerned with rebutting characters who Just Don't Get romanticism in art.
    • Two allegorical characters are named "Mr. Enlightenment." They were father and son, both negative figures. The father was a cocksure "village atheist" who dismissed philosophy, religion, and romanticism without looking into them, assuming we've Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions. The son was a pathological Freudian who claimed every disagreement with his position was a self-serving rationalization.
    • On the other hand, Enlightenment and Reason are two separate characters, and John would not be able to find salvation without the aid of Reason. In the World of Symbolism, the path of Reason runs right through the middle of the country between the extremist positions of Enlightenment and Romanticism.
  • The Sociopath: Mister Savage. Lack of empathy? Looks forward to drinking blood out of the skull of one of the three silly Pale Men John and Vertue had met earlier in the chapter. Grandiose sense of self-importance? Sees himself as the greatest philosopher ever. And is compelling enough to win the loyalty of Utopia Justifies the Means fanatics.
  • Spurned into Suicide: A variant occurs when Gus Halfways interrupts Media and John in the middle of their romantic mooning and calls Media "Brownie". John doesn't reject her, but Media says that their dream is broken and she's lost him forever. She darts off, saying she means to kill herself. Gus is unfazed, as apparently she threatens this all the time.
  • Survival Through Self-Sacrifice: In the end, John learns that the only way to achieve victory over death is to relinquish his fear of it.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: In the second half of the book, characters take opportunities to recite poetry. This begins more or less at the point where John begins to find faith.
  • True Art Is Angsty: invoked Parodied oddly. Victoriana's poetry is not particularly angsty, except perhaps in a "the good times are over" nostalgic way. Victoriana, however, is angsty; she assumes everyone is persecuting her (which therefore makes her a great artist, because all great artists are persecuted) and slaps, then whines at, anyone who isn't effusively complimentary about her work.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: invoked Also parodied with the singing of Glugly, who cannot speak owing to an accident at birth, so just babbles and makes rude noises. She gets rave reviews from all the critics.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Such ideologies fall under Mr. Savage's purview because of those means.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Lewis was writing for an academic audience that was closely familiar with the philosophical, intellectual, and artistic movements of the 1930s. You may want one of the editions with footnotes.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: Deconstructed; one character gives voice to the sentiment that "It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive," as this trope claims. His companion (the one whose views on the question agree with Lewis's own) responds that a rational person who really believed that the destination isn't as good as the journey would no longer be hoping to arrive at the destination—and thus, would no longer be "traveling hopefully." Lewis says the same thing in The Great Divorce.
  • The War on Straw: In an introduction to a later edition of the book, Lewis admits that his younger self wasn't entirely fair to all the ideologies he was criticizing at the time.
  • World of Symbolism: Did we mention it's an allegory? In the map of the world, "South" and "North" represent the two extremes of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment respectively. The further in each direction you go, the more you get to extremist philosophies. The path of Reason runs right down the middle.
  • You Keep Using That Word:
    • Again in the introduction to the third edition, Lewis surveys several differing meanings of the word "Romantic" and determines that none of them meant exactly what he was getting at in the book. (He was trying to describe a longing for beauty or Sehnsucht, which he personally often found in "romantic" art.) He concludes that the word is far too ambiguous and should be avoided.
    • He also observes that having a character named "Mother Kirk" made it seem (wrongly) that he was arguing for a specific ecclesiastical position, when in fact he only chose it because he thought "Christianity" was an unconvincing character name.