Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a huge fan of Wagner because he loved Germanic and Norse folklore as well as early English legend as his good friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien did. Here is a link to Wagner's opera Parsifal based on the 13th century epic poem about an Arthurian Knight.  Wagner liked doing things on an "Uber" scale and the opera is four hours long, but you can enjoy part of the Prelude while reading my latest review.

The Pilgrim's RegressThe Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C.S. Lewis is mostly known for his Narnia Chronicles. Some of us are also familiar with his Science Fiction Trilogy. Then there is the bulk of his work that fall under the genre apologetics.

I've read most of Lewis' work but I had not read the Pilgrim's Regress before. He wrote it shortly after he became a Christian and it is interesting in its insight into one man's conversion experience and also as a comparison to his later works.

Inspired by John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis wrote his work as an allegory. It starts with a young man, John, who is living on a pleasant countryside with his parents.

As a young boy, he gets smacked for doing the wrong thing, such as shooting at birds or pulling flowers out of the garden, even though he really doesn't understand why this is bad. When John asks why these things are wrong he is told that the Steward says so.

He asks who the Steward is and is told the Steward is the man who makes the rules for the country.

John asks why. Because the Landlord set him to do it.

Who is the Landlord? The owner of all the country.

One day John's parents take him to see the Steward. He is in a large, grand, formidable building and stands behind a pulpit or Judge's Bench. The Steward is an affable old man who cheerfully waves them towards him, but when they get down to business, the Steward puts on a scary mask and pontificates about the "Rules" and how one must obey them or there will be dire, dire consequences.

John looks at a card with the rules on it that the Steward had given him.

"Half the rules seemed to forbid things he'd never heard of and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing and the number of rules was so enormous that he felt he never could remember them all."

Then the Steward asked if John had broken any of the rules. John is petrified. The Steward takes the mask off again and mutters, "Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie. Easiest for all concerned." then "pops the mask back on again." So John denies breaking any of the rules.

Afterward the Steward takes off the mask, becomes his cheery self again and whispers down to John, "If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about it."

Later John's Uncle George has notice to quit his farm. He has to see the Steward. John and his parents walk with George to see the Steward. All of them are wearing masks now, except George who is too upset to put his on. John, his parents and the Steward walk him to the edge of the Land up to the Landlord's castle. where he then had to walk on by himself. George is very upset but has no choice.

"Nobody ever saw him again.

'Well,' said the Steward, untying his mask as they turned homweard. 'We've all got to go when our times comes.'"

John is concerned about being turned out without any notice like George. He asks his mother if George might be put in the black hole.

"'How dare you say such a thing about your poor uncle? Of course he won't.'"

'But hasn't Uncle George broken all the rules?'

'Broken all the rules? Your Uncle George was a very good man.'

'You never told me that before,' said John.

That is the introduction to John and his journey across the Landlord's Land. I think most of us recognize the Church of England and what it had converted Christianity into by the time of C.S. Lewis, although it had been developing in that direction for some time. Namely, that God and His presence had been largely removed from worship and all that was left was ceremony and "rules" that the average citizen acknowledged one needed to follow in order to be "civilized."

I have heard the term lately of "Christian Atheists." These are people who claim they do not believe in God but believe that the rules provided by Christian belief are necessary for a society to flourish. That is what many churches have devolved into. "Be a nice person. Don't hurt anyone, but don't take any of it too seriously."

John is not satisfied with this because it does not speak to the deep longing in his being that wants something more than to simply be a "good person" and get along with others (Sesame Street, anyone?). So he embarks on a journey, like Pilgrim in Bunyan's story, and on the way he travels through several lands and meets many strange sorts of people.

Each country, of course, represents a segment of society present when Lewis wrote the story in 1931. First John finds sex and plenty of young girls to have sex with. He finds that the pleasure he experiences is short lived and simply doesn't reach to the bottom of his desire. He keeps seeking but never finds what he is looking for. Unfortunately for him, he finds that his sex partners proliferate and he has a miserable time escaping them.

This is meant to be taken symbolically. While it is easy enough to throw someone over after you're tired of them, a type of "spirit" of them stays with you. This is sometimes called emotional baggage but it also is something more profound.

From there he meets Mr. Halfway who presents True Love to him through his beautiful singing. Or at least John thinks so. It is actually quite shallow but sounds so beautiful it deceives him for sometime. He finally stays with Halfway's daughter only to find she is really just a sister of the other girls he was with.

My favorite place he visits is the Lost Generation, because I've just finished reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Lewis nails some of the pretensions of the Jazz Age. He describes them:

"They were all either young, or dressed up to look as if they were young. The girls had short hair and flat breasts and flat buttocks so that they looked like boys: but the boys had pale, egg-shaped faces and slender waists and big hips so that they looked like girls-except for a few of them who had long hair and beards.

'What are they so angry about?' whispered John.

'They are not angry, they are talking about Art'"

Lewis penetrates through the falsehood of the Jazz Babies, then those who like philosophy without spirit, the "rational" or scientific age. And also the Barbarism and Paganism that was looming overhead with the rise of Hitler though he does not explicitly name him.

In the end John travels all around the world until he ends up back where he started, however, he is not the same person thanks to the fact that he meets with Reason, a woman on a white horse, and Old Mother Kirk.

The conversations that John has with the people at each stopping point is illuminating to Lewis' own spiritual journey.

At one point John is told that his desires created a Landlord because he needed one to exist. Reason later tells him that the opposite is true. The Doubters are the ones who need the Landlord to not exist, hence their own logic is built on that premise.

In the end, John does find what he is looking for, which can be summed up in a teaser:

Science can try to explain how a tree came to be. But it cannot tell us why it is beautiful. Finally meeting the Landlord answers that question and also fulfills all of John's deepest longings, which is to be in intimate fellowship with Him.

The conversations Lewis writes between a Spiritual pilgrim and every argument against seeking the Landlord makes the book a valuable read.

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  1. Hi Sharon.

    Though I would likely disagree with many of Lewis's conclusions, This sounds interesting and worth the read. I have read a few of Lewis's essays and I find them worthwhile.

    Though I had never heard of The Christian Atheists before, I think that I can understand them. I also admire and agree with much of what is in the Gospels. Though I think that there are other ways for people to get there, some of the morality espoused in The New Testament is necessary for a civilized society to function. But I do not believe in divine origin of the story.

    Have a great day!

    1. Hi Brian! I have always enjoyed reading Lewis' works although I haven't read many of his apologetics in some years. This book has inspired me to go back and read them.

      I like how he comes from an atheists' viewpoint, which he was until he was an adult and then breaks down point by point how Christianity answers every argument he had before he was a believer.

      You would probably find Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy interesting to read.

      Have a good weekend!

  2. A great review, Sharon! This book is one of my Lewis favourites. I was amazed to learn that he wrote it in two weeks while on vacation!!! An amazing accomplishment for such a short time; I was stunned by its complexity! Here's my review:

    Your description of the Christian Theists reminded of Pascal's Wager:

    1. Hi Cleopatra. I think your review covered more than mine did. It was a hard book to review or summarize. I did not know he wrote it in only two weeks and I learned in the intro that it was the first book he wrote after becoming a Christian.

      It makes me want to pick up Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress again.

  3. Thank you for sharing some of the details of this book, Sharon, and particularly this anthology. I've heard of the Regress, but never knew the outline of it story. I've seen mention that Lewis was faintly unhappy with it later on -- he'd written it rather quickly and didn't think it had as much substance as some of his later reflections and criticisms.

    1. Hi Stephen. Cleopatra mentioned that Lewis wrote it in two weeks and it was the first thing he wrote after he became a Christian. Perhaps he feels his beliefs hadn't settled into a coherent whole, yet.

      I will say that some of it seems a bit rougher than his later works which have a great sense of refinement, in my opinion.

    2. For a fan of Lewis, its timing makes it even more interesting. (By the way, I enjoy your pairing of music and reviews!)

    3. Thanks, Stephen. I am currently rereading That Hideous Strength, the last of Lewis' Space Trilogy. I am participating in a read along with writer Janie Cheaney. She's reading four chapters a week and then commenting on them if you're interested.

  4. i remember reading somewhere that L had been accused of being a Nazi because of his love of Wagner... it's a parlous world wherein unwarranted attacks lurk around each corner...

    i dont care much for Wagner, myself; except for some of his overtures and tone poems... well, the Ring is pretty amazing, and i liked Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman, and... well, maybe i do like W after all; why is it that kneejerk responses are often contrary to actual feelings? i am human, ergo confused...

    1. Well, there was a lot of anti-German sentiment during WWII. He and Tolkien were lovers of old German and Norse mythology. Their group, the Inklings, actually comes from the group Kolbitars which means Coalbiters and comes from the saying that people who sat around the fire and shared stories were "biting the coal".

      Lewis, Tolkien and the rest sat around a pub and spoke in old Norse and related sagas, either Icelandic or of their own making. That is where Lewis and also Tolkien read their material for their novels.

      It is funny how we get to thinking aloud and find we arrive at a different place than where we started.

      I always thought I did not like Wagner, and I don't have the patience to listen through much of his "epic" stuff, but some of his works are quite beautiful.

  5. I followed the lead in my feed, at a glance thinking it was Pilgrim's Progress. I have to get to that book someday, so I thought I 'd see your thoughts. Happy mistake. I'd not heard of this...but Lewis' insight always impresses me. I'll be adding this TBR.

    1. Hi Joseph. I love Bunyan and nothing can compare to his classic, but as a first try for Lewis after his conversion, PR is a worth while read.

  6. Love the opera choice. So hard to believe Lewis wrote this complex book in only two weeks. I once visited the pub the Inklings used to meet at--The Eagle and Child (fondly nicknamed The Bird and Baby) and tried to soak up their creative genius while there. :)

    1. Hi Marcia. I would like to go on a C.S. Lewis tour and visit his old haunts. I stopped briefly in Belfast and there was a walking tour around his childhood home but unfortunately we were not able to take it. I need to return to the UK and visit Oxford and Belfast!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.