The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis

The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis.  Eerdmans, 2014, 256 pages.  (Originally published 1933 UK, 1935 US)

Reading Level: Teen/adult

Recommended for: ages 18-up

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis recalls one of his earliest memories: his older brother had filled the lid of a biscuit tin with moss and decorated it with twigs and tiny flowers to resemble a garden.  “That was the first beauty I ever knew . . . It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant.”  He didn’t realize it at the time, but that breath of pure beauty had altered his imagination.  All through his boyhood and early manhood he searched for it, and imagined he’d found it, and was always disappointed—until the source of true beauty made itself known to him at last. 

Pilgrim’s Regress is the allegorical account of the story he told in Surprised by Joy. It was published much earlier; in fact, it was his first published book, as well as his first attempt at fiction.  Later he wrote that he didn’t consider it his best work.  In fact (like many successful authors looking back on their early work), he was thoroughly ashamed of it.  Regress didn’t sell very well when it was first published, but did go through more than one edition.  For the third, the author was persuaded to write a lengthy preface and running commentary across the top of each page in order to make more of the allusions clear to the reader.  Tied as the allegory was to the scholarly fads and pretentions of its day, the commentary is necessary to those of us who aren’t scholars of early 20th century culture.  But Pilgrim’s Regress is still worth reading, and laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The protagonist, John, is not burdened with sin as Bunyan’s Pilgrim is.  Rather, he is smitten with an early image of “the island”—Lewis’s toy garden.  Early experiments with sex don’t satisfy, and he feels himself slowly strangled by “the rules” handed down by the Landlord (i.e., God).  He escapes his home country of Puritania to search for the island.  His first traveling companion is Mr. Enlightenment, an amiable fellow who easily punctures the last feeble breath of John’s faith:

“But how do you know there is no Landlord?”

“Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!” exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment” . . .

All it takes is a good dose of science, and poof! No more Big Man in the Sky.   This part of John’s journey is pretty easy to understand, and often hilarious, as John spends some time among the “brutal,” self-indulgent artists of Claptrap and falls prisoner to the Giant of the Zeitgeist (or “Spirit of the age”—this, incidentally, is the part of the story you may have heard Ravi Zacharias refer to, and he never gets it quite right).  After his rescue from the giant John falls in with Vertue, an honest and well-meaning seeker with some resemblance to Christian’s noble companion Faithful. 

The two reside a while at the house of Mr. Sensible, who exalts “the simple life” without realizing how much he benefits from the physical and mental work of others. His visitors leave just before Sensible’s entire house slides into the canyon because it had no foundation.  As they journey on, Vertue is stricken with blindness, and John is forced to lead him through the book’s darkest chapters.  In the House of Wisdom they encounter various philosophers who can reveal part of the truth, but all their theories leave significant gaps—which, it turns out, only Mother Kirk (the church) can fill.

It takes John a long time to recognize the truth, and for much of that time his fellow traveler (the reader) will probably be drifting along clueless like Vertue.  The running commentary helps, but you’d need to be a medieval scholar and/or student of philosophy to figure out all his chapter headings and allegorical references.  It’s still worth a try, perhaps with a copy of Surprised by Joy close at hand, because they tell the same story in different ways.  John doesn’t cross the River of Death at the end, because fortunately Lewis had a lot more writing to do.  Instead his protagonist  goes back over ground already covered (hence, Regress), and his new wisdom shows the zeitgeist and brutal art and the two-bit scientism for the tacky cheat they were.  He may be a little heavy-handed here, but the point is taken: faith is a journey, often hard-traveled and hard-won.  No two pilgrims have the same experience, but we all benefit from each other’s stories.

Cautions: Some not-so-veiled references to sex

Overall value: 4.5 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral: 5
  • Artistic value: 4

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