Thursday, 15 November 2007

Pilgrim's Progress II

Which brings us back to Geraldine McCaurean's enjoyable retelling of the original. A few years back this particular book won a couple of Blue Peter awards, and you can see why. The sex changes of one or two of the characters comes as a minor jolt, but I don't suppose the kids will notice or mind that Hopeful is now a woman, for example. Many of the names have been changed to protect the guilty—'Pliable' has become 'Mr Bendy'; a certain 'Mr Alec Smart' appears on the scene to offer advice.

Other changes are slightly more disturbing, and all the more because they need a bit of close reading to pick them up. Bunyan's "cartloads of...wholesome instructions" that the King (i.e. Jesus) had commanded to be sent to fill in the Slough of Despond , in McCaughrean's version, has expanded to include " stone statues of saints, plaster madonnas, oil paintings in heavy gilt frames...and any amount of beautiful quarried marble". That's hardly the sort of material that the Protestant Bunyan would depict God sending to help his people out of despair, and it's not a helpful addition to this book.

Here's another. In Bunyan's version, Hopeful and Christian are very close to the end of their journey when they are shown a door in a hill by some shepherds. Here it is in the original:

Then I saw in my dream, that the shepherds had them to another place in a bottom, where was a door on the side of a hill; and they opened the door, and bid them look in. They looked in, therefore, and saw that within it was very dark and smoky; they also thought that they heard there a rumbling noise, as of fire, and a cry of some tormented, and that they smelt the scent of brimstone. Then said Christian, What means this? The shepherds told them, This is a by-way to hell, a way that hypocrites go in at; namely, such as sell their birthright, with Esau; such as sell their Master, with Judas; such as blaspheme the Gospel, with Alexander; and that lie and dissemble, with Ananias and Sapphira his wife.

We're in no doubt that those who turn away from God are destined for hell. Here it is in the McCaughrean retelling.

"What's in there?" asked Hopeful, intrigued."

"Oh, just the way back," said the shepherds..."Do you want to see?"

The shepherds carefully open the door.

No horned demons or impish ghouls streamed out, no bubbling tar. There was just a chute of blackness on the other side, a tunnel falling away into Nothingness, a fast route to Nowhere.

That's not what Bunyan wrote, and it's not even close. You couldn't read Bunyan and conclude that he was an annihilationist, a man who believed that after judgement we simply disappear into oblivion. But by contrast, you can't read this retelling without feeling that the full biblical doctrine of judgement has been not so subtly undercut.

One more thing, and that'll do. You can't read Bunyan's original without ending up knee-deep in Bible quotes by about the second paragraph, all meticulously referenced. They are all gone from this retelling, or only hinted at. Yet the solid ground of Bunyan's story is that, although allegorical, it is bedded down firmly in the truths of Scripture. Without that truth, it's just another (good) story.

There's enough of the grace of the original—and of the Bible—to make this rewritten version a book that could still have value. But I wouldn't buy it for my kids. I'm going to wait a couple of years and put the original Bunyan in their hands. Or maybe, read it with them and appreciate again the rich reminder of God's grace against the backdrop of his real and terrifying judgement of sin.

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