12 July 2012

The Pilgrim's Regress

C.S. Lewis is easily my favorite author, and it’s entirely possible I over-reference him. I often find myself prefacing such references to friends and family alike by saying “I know I used a Lewis quote last time, but it really, really applies.” It may not be the same for everyone—nor do I expect it to be—but something about how Lewis thinks and communicates resonates deeply and effectively with me.

As a result of this, I’m always happy to find that there’s more Lewis out there as yet unread by me. Some years ago I was running my eyes over the books in a bookstore and saw “The Pilgrim’s Regress” by C.S. Lewis. I was very intrigued. Now, I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress (to my shame. It’s on the list) but I know the story from various sources: children’s books, general Christian pop culture, and—believe it or not—an old radio program called “Adventure’s in Odyssey.” Eventually I bought “The Pilgrim’s Regress” and told myself that I was not allowed to read it until I had read the Bunyan book, that I might better understand them both.

My discipline failed, and this last year I broke down, skipped ahead and read “The Pilgrim’s Regress.” Twice. This is not one of Lewis’ more popular books…and understandably so. It is very obscure. But I love it and come now to advocate on its behalf, despite the fact that it is very particular and thick. Lewis himself wrote an afterword in a later edition marking the presence of “needless obscurity and an uncharitable temper.” He added to it summaries of the allegorical intent and explanations of certain terms which were clear to him, but became unknown to later generations, so that the meanings would be rather more accessible to the readers.

There is, in fact, a helpful manual for this book which does much to clarify it…but it is not “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is “Surprised by Joy.” “The Pilgrim’s Regress” is essentially the story of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity…allegory-style. The obscurities are due to philosophical musing and encounters that Lewis personally experienced, and which are not necessarily universal, or currently widespread in education. The book also has much Greek, Latin, and French and draws upon a greater body of literature and philosophy than I may ever hope to consume in my entire life. There are a few unfortunate metaphors used by C.S. Lewis which smack of Euro- and Ethnocentrism (though, I think, not as badly as some might suspect), and several references to specific trends of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Thus, this book was something of an effort.

But it was worth the effort, and I feel compelled to explain why.


Told as a dream—dreamt by an unnamed narrator—the story follows John, starting from his youth in the land of Puritania (Which is traditional Christianity or perhaps, more accurately, nominal Christianity) and on to his travels throughout the land depicted in the map below:

A few major things define John’s youth: 1. the fear of the Landlord (God as described by parents and clergy alike) and of the great “Black Hole” (Hell as described by the very same), 2. The hypocritical behavior of the Puritanians, and…3. Something which he calls “The Island” or “Sweet Desire.” Sweet Desire comes when one day he looks out and sees an Island which fills him with such longing that, if nothing else in all the world, he longs to long for it. The search for this Island leads him away from the rote Christianity of his youth and towards many dead ends: lust, sensuality, and sentimentality.

It leads him further through many of the beliefs and philosophies of both the current age, and of all ages, as John tries to capture his Sweet Desire through Romanticism (Called “Mr. Halfways in this story…ostensibly because he only gets you halfway there?), as it is nearly killed by Freudianism which attempts to distill us down to very much less than the sum of our parts, then as John (and his Desire) are subsequently rescued by the armor-clad woman Reason, cultivated by the old man Wisdom—father of many philosophers—informed by the hermit History, and finally brought face-to-face with the fact of God, forced by Reason to follow the path towards him. (Of course he could have fought reason, but then he knew he would have fallen with her.)

John’s traveling companion for the majority of his journey is a man by the name of Vertue whose allegorical office lies explicitly in his name. Vertue stands in intended contrast to John. John is driven by desire. Vertue is driven by moral will. The two are often at odds and drawn in different directions, and John parts with Vertue on occasion. John is less concerned with the Landlord’s rules (God’s Law/Morality), and more concerned with finding his beautiful Island. Vertue doggedly, calmly follows the rules, knowing them to be written in the skin of the earth. The only time when Vertue falls—at which time Virtue must be carried by Desire—is when he witnesses the coming nihilism of the peoples of “Marxomanni—Mussolimini, Swastici…”

This book was published in 1933, but Lewis did not feel any express need to heavily veil with metaphor the danger he saw posed by the “revolutionary sub-men of the Left or the Right.” He portrays them as a return to barbarism, causing Vertue himself (itself) to take ill.

The allegorical style gives great room for analysis of philosophy, theology, and of Lewis’ very specific intellectual and spiritual path towards conversion. There is so much being said, that I will not try to get it all down here—rather I will simply examine a few of the driving points in the story which most struck me and encouraged me to read ahead the first time despite “Pilgrim’s Progress” and read the entire thing aloud to my husband the second time, and to now try and convince as many of my family members and friends as possible to read it, so that I can discuss it with them!


Sweet Desire:

For anyone who has felt that piercing, painful Sweet Desire, the drive John feels to seek it out will easily be understood. Unlike Vertue, who seeks to do right for right’s sake and disdain’s the idea of obeying on behalf of punishment or reward, John is swayed by this desire both below and above Vertue. When Vertue sees Savage Nihilism and falls ill, it is John who must carry him—though he was always the weaker and less willful of the two—for Desire has not died by hearing of depravity.

The trouble with Sweet Desire is that we so easily mistake lesser things for its satisfaction. Then we often become disappointed and confused that the “Desire” has failed us, or wasn’t all it seemed it should be in that moment.

But “It comes from the Landlord (God),” old man History tells John. “We know this by its results. It has brought you to where you now are: and nothing leads back to him which did not at first proceed from him.”

Reason Defeats Freudian Philosophy:

One of the darker sections of the story occurs when John and Vertue part ways, and John finds himself imprisoned by a Giant. Having had his hopes disappointed by Mr. Halfways and his daughter, Media, John realizes that Romanticism is not quite the solution to his question about the Island. John then runs into “Sigismund Enlightenment” (or New Enlightenment) who explains to him that all his desires are merely wish-fulfillment dreams. New Enlightenment claims that “the Island was the pretense that you put up to conceal your own lusts from yourself.”

John is imprisoned by this philosophy which causes him to see himself and his fellow man as nothing more than their innards and sinews and fluids, for the Giant who holds them hostage makes everything “transparent.” The Philosophy desires to ever “uncover” us to our basest, rawest form and, in so doing, makes each man a horrifying concoction of parts to one another and dark or meaningless to himself. John decides that, though he had doffed the belief in a Landlord and a Black Hole, this new philosophy—if true—makes all the world a Black Hole and all men and women residents in it, whether they know it or not.

Then comes Reason: “…a woman in the flower of her age: she was so tall that she seemed to [John] a Titaness, a sun-bright virgin clad in complete steel, with a sword naked in her hand.”

The Giant bids her pass out of his land with all haste. But she will none. She asks him three riddles that, because of his philosophy, he cannot answer. Then she plunges her sword into his heart and defeats him.

She proceeds then to explain to John that the New Enlightenment makes three grave errors of reason. First they say that higher things are the copies or covers of lower things (love a copy of lust, or sweet desire a veil for lust). But how can they tell which is the copy and which is the original? Is not the original normally the higher? An oil painting is better than a print, and lamplight much dimmer than sunlight.

Second, she explains the trouble of our foul-looking innards, which so bothered John and made him feel that all was base and vile forever: “He [The Giant”] showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible…But in the real world our inwards are invisible…the warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in…these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the lie”

(John is unconvinced): “But if I cut a man open I should see them in him.”

“A man cut open is, so far, not a man: and if you did not sew him up speedily you would be seeing not organs, but death. I am not denying that death is ugly. But the Giant made you believe that life is ugly.”

Though she reminds John of some truth mixed in the Giant’s trick—for here our innards represent both themselves and our basest thoughts and desires—“it will do you no harm to remember from time to time the ugly sights inside. You come of a race that cannot afford to be proud.”

Reason’s final killing blow against the Giant is simple. He believes in the doctrine of wish-fulfillment while failing to acknowledge that, for many, the idea that there is no God, no moral law, and no hell would be the wish, and Freudian enlightenment the fulfillment. New Enlightenment does not wish to apply to itself its own doctrine.

And so, by aid of Reason, John passes through “Darkest Zeitgeistheim” and the chains of the Spirit of the Age are broken off of him.

John and Vertue

Lewis makes a point that John and Vertue must ultimately travel together. John, it is implied, comes of Pagan blood…thus the Landlord reaches out to him with Sweet Desire, and images of an island (images that are often, sadly, turned into Pagan idols). Vertue is hinted to have come of the “Shepherd People” (the Jews). Since the Shepherd People were able to read, they were given rules, rather than images.

“But who wants rules instead of islands?” asks John.

“That is like asking who wants cooking instead of dinner,” explains History, who is an old Hermit retiring from the world. He says that the Shepherds were made to begin at the right end, rather than suffering through cycles of mistaking images for reality, and feeling desire followed by despair.

“But were the Shepherds not just as bad in their own way? Is it not true that they were illiberal, narrow, bigoted?”

“They were narrow. The thing they had charge of was narrow; it was the Road. They found it. They sign-posted it. They kept it clear and repaired it…”

History tells John that he must swear blood-brotherhood with Vertue for each the Pagan and the Shepherd is only half a man without the other, and only one—the Landlord’s Son—can reconcile them. So John and his Desire must be reconciled with Vertue and his Moral Will.

Nihilism as three steps North of Humanism

A short but valid point that is as relevant now as it was almost eighty years ago when this was written: John meets in his travels North, a certain fellow named Humanist. I agree with the assessment that Lewis puts forth that Humanism is an intellectually dishonest philosophy. It goes almost all the way along the road of eschewing religion, faith and origins of moral principles (other than “society” or “self”). It wants to get down to the bare essentials of humanity and live at that, but does not want to acknowledge that under such principles as have just been mentioned humans are simply animals, and have every freedom to act as such.

Though the Humanist of Lewis’ day was certainly colder and harder than his current heirs, Lewis says something very powerful and very true when he places Mr. Humanist only a few steps away from total Nihilism, even calling it more foolish than nihilism. Humanist attends the needs of posterity? “And who will posterity build for?” Asks Savage nihilism. “If all men who try to build are but polishing the brasses on a sinking ship, then your pale friends [Humanist and his two friends, Neo-Angular and Neo-Classical] are the supreme fools who polish with the rest though they know and admit that the ship is sinking. Their Humanism and whatnot is but the old dream with a new name. The rot in the world is too deep and the leak in the world is too wide. Better give in. Better cut the wood with the grain. If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient.”

And but for the fact of the Landlord, Savage would indeed be right.

Northern and Southern Diseases of the Soul

The aforementioned Savage resides in the extreme North of the allegorical land. It is a place of frigid, barren rock. To the extreme South live the witches and magicians, and it is a festering swamp. The “North” of this story and the “South” of it represent two equal and opposite falls from Grace. Lewis calls them the Northern and Southern diseases of the soul. I found this aspect of the story so poignant that this is actually the second time I have mentioned it in this blog. Briefly, both John and Vertue have to fight the Northern and Southern dragons after they have together taken the plunge (given themselves up for Christ). John must fight the Northern dragon because John has the Southern disease in him, as he was always driven by sensation and feeling, and was weak-willed. Fighting the Northern dragon will gain him toughness of mind and body which he desperately needs to keep to the road.

Vertue must fight the Southern dragon because he suffers from Northern pride and rigidness. If the “Southerners” sink wholly into the flesh, the “Northerners” try madly to scrape it all off to the bone. By fighting the Southern dragon Vertue gains fire—passion and raucous joy. These are the things regarding which his moral will was so wary, but now he may freely enjoy.

In summary, the extremes and follies of mankind are not new, they are old, and both are falls. They are not thought up, they are reacted to: “Widespread drunkenness is the father of Prohibition and Prohibition of widespread drunkenness,” Lewis claims in his afterword.

“With both the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ a man has, I take it, only one concern—to avoid them and hold the Main Road. We must not ‘hearken to the over-wise or to the over-foolish giant’. We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men—things at once rational and animal.”

If it sounds like Lewis wants to have his cake and eat it too, I think that’s exactly correct. The crucial point is that he also claims there is only one means by which such a thing is possible…and in order to do that thing, one must first give up the cake, the eating of it, and everything else: the self’s desires and the self’s will.

Last Note: Why is it the Pilgrim’s Regress? It refers chiefly to what happens after conversion…to living in the world and traversing back through it, only now seeing it with the veils lifted.


  1. Wow...pretty weighty! But you make me want to read it!

  2. Oh, how I've missed your banter and manner of explanations Miss Od... Ficken. -Teufel Tintinfish. Very nicely done.

  3. Hi! I recently completed a project for school and this blog post was one of the sources I used. I was wondering whether it would be okay if I cited this in my bibliography? Apologies for the awkward means of communicating - I couldn't find any other way to do it!
    Thank you, and thanks for the incredibly helpful post!
    - Nova

  4. By all means, of course you can cite it! Glad to be of help

  5. J.L., How did the book make you 'feel'? Strongly about certain characters? I loved Vertue and finally 'got it' during the rock throwing incident. Reason was the most heroic to me.

  6. I also sympathized very strongly with Vertue--the idea of carrying on no matter what, even when it doesn't make sense and you don't know why. And (I had to go back and look up the rock-throwing incident) I think that tendency to make virtue and desire enemies makes sense as well because it feels like the marriage of opposites.

    I think John is more like our culture as is, however. I felt like I understood his desperate pursuit for that deep longing, and likewise mistaking lots of other things for its fulfillment. I've done that very thing, not consciously, but definitely I've done it.

    I also liked Reason very much, and if you've ever read "Surprised by Joy" you can see how exactly she parallels literal reason in Lewis' life. He didn't WANT to believe in God or choose him, but reason drove him to it. I think the fact that the proverbs personify Wisdom as a woman may have something to do with how Lewis depicts her...I don't know. Anyhow, I agree with you about her being the most heroic

    I think one of the characters that stuck in my head--though in a negative character--was Mr. Sensible: using all the words of scholars, and philosophers and faith, but none of the wisdom therein. He sounded so clever and genial, but it was all shoddy underneath. I think this reminds me of shoddy philosophy and shoddy theology, which just tries to justify its own way of doing things and doesn't even understand the legs its standing on.

    I think Wisdom was the HARDEST to understand. It was very complex philosophy, and after two readings I still feel like he was the most difficult to relate to. That part was more dry for me.

    I loved the joy Vertue had after he fought the fiery dragon, now that he could marry virtue with passion, he was so joyful and it was simply...freedom!

  7. I am enjoying the book, but I am having some difficulty with the term "brown girl" and "brown girls." What does this mean? I feel offended by Lewis' use of skin color to describe lust.

    1. I 100% agree. I was also very bothered by this. I feel like Lewis should have known better, especially considering that he wrote a children's book with (essentially) Middle-Eastern heroine in the 1940s!!! (I'm referring to Aravis in The Horse and His Boy).

      Not that this excuses his use of that metaphor--it doesn't--but my understanding is that the prevailing stereotype of that time was that the "warm-weather cultures", and particularly African cultures, were markedly more sensuous than cold-weather cultures. Sadly, this puts a painful nettle in an otherwise awesome book. I still LOVE this book, but I winced hard at the way he portrayed lust as well.

  8. I maybe way off, but I don't think that the brown girl(s) represent a cultural group of people. I always have pictured them as tanned beautiful girls (like beach girls), who are alluring, sensuous and worldly, who divert Pilgrims' true, pure desire that he longs for (the Island). The brown girls are easy and quenches his desire, but doesn't satisfy his true heart's desire. The fact that they're naked makes the allurement that much harder to resist. That's how I think of them. Like the Siren's of Greek mythology who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.

    1. Like this perspective. Now i can read the test of the book without wincing!!

  9. Perhaps the brown girls were brown because they were identified with the Island, and because that is what was claimed that the island really was for john. Perhaps it refers to their "otherliness" rather than their sensuousness. Perhaps their brownness was tropical rather than African?

    1. I believe the brown girls were brown to show their taint, but I also read that Lewis and his brother (in their youth) had shared the term because of a dream The Great One had with actual Brown Girls, and they were very naught and lusty.

    2. The Great One? I'm not sure what that is.
      Anyhow, I honestly think that Lewis bought into the cultural negative association of dark-skin with lustfulness. I don't think he should be excused from it just because he was a product of his time. He was a smart and reasonably egalitarian man, so I still think he should have known better. I adore this book, but this part will always grate against me.

  10. the terms "brown girls, and Luxuria the witch "dark but beautiful" at first made me uncomfortable until I realized this too is symbolic of darkness and light. Much like the use of white or black cowboy hats indicating who was the heroe and who was the bad guy.Also, the darker and lighter shades implied more or less levels of wickedness. Great book! I loved Pilgrims Progress too! Though Pilgrims Regress was more difficult a read.

    1. That it is merely symbolic is certainly true, and I agree that his intent might simply have been dark vs light (or false vs. true) in the spiritual sense--well-said!--but I think that such a symbolism has rather wounding connotations in the real world. If one skin color, as opposed to mere color of dress, is used to represent a specifically negative spiritual folly--and the darker the skin, the more crude the folly--that is genuinely saddening to me (despite my great love and respect for Lewis), because it is a symbolism that cuts people off and fails to rise above negative racial stereotypes of Lewis' era.

    2. I just listened my way through this book. It was engaging and thought-provoking enough that I immediately embarked upon a second listening. For those interested, the audio version of this book narrated by Simon Vance is, in my humble yet correct opinion, excellent. I also found this blog entry very helpful for considering the content of this book. So thank you.

      In response to the anonymous post from Jan 31, 2017, when first happening upon Luxuria and hearing that she was "dark but beautiful," my mind went immediately to Song of Songs 1:5 "Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon." It seems to me that Lewis would not have expressed something so close to the terms of this verse without a purpose. I've quoted the NIV, which Lewis would not have had in mind of course, but the KJV reads, "I am black, but comely." To me it is plain that he had this verse in mind when he penned, regarding Luxuria, that she was "dark but beautiful."

      That said, I haven't a clue why he would deliberately reference this passage from Song of Songs, as its context seems unrelated to the other ideas Lewis puts down concerning Luxuria. I'm having difficulty finding the parallel.