Friday, May 18, 2012

Edition Angst: Pilgrim’s Progress

This was my second attempt to read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  I first encountered it at the annual conference of the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship, a fantastic interdisciplinary group of scholars who intermingle traditional musicology, ethnomusicology, and theology in order to make sense of Christian music, worship, and liturgy.  At the 2011 FMCS conference, a friend of mine presented a paper on the beginning stages of his research exploring the uses of Pilgrim’s Progress in early 20th-century English music.  I’d never heard of this classic before, and was intrigued.  The book came up again in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, where it served as a device enabling Marmie to teach her children patience and other virtues.  With two such great recommendations, I checked it out from the library, but had too many other books out at the same time, so I never got to it before the library deadline.  A second attempt which resulted in a different copy made me realize the truth of that little phrase on some online library catalog entries: “editions vary.”  For now I have time to read Bunyan’s great allegory, but no interest in doing so with this edition.

For starters, the full title of this book is Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English.  That didn’t turn me off initially.  Memories of Canterbury Tales in high school reminded me that deciphering older forms of English can be a real slog, and that the time it takes to interpret strange spelling and grammar can take away from my enjoyment of the author’s work.  I thought an update on spelling couldn’t hurt (though I didn’t realize Bunyan’s book was old enough to warrant this change).  So I took this copy to work, intending for it to be my lunch-time read, and got to the preface, written by the publishers.  This gave me more pause:

“Bunyan’s narrative has been rewritten so as to appeal to present-day readers.  The presentation is modern, though the pilgrims travel on foot and stay at lodges or inns, or in private homes, as old-time travelers used to do.  To speed up the reader’s progress with the pilgrims along their pathway to the Celestial City, some superfluous details have been omitted.  The names of some characters have been changed, and two or three new characters have been added.  In a few places there is amplification to clarify the author’s meaning.  Yet the message is unchanged” (5).

There is so much to dig into here that I can hardly start.  This edition goes far beyond a simple update of old and therefore unfamiliar spelling and grammar conventions.  “The presentation is modern” implies a complete re-setting of the story in modern times, much like the current craze for re-setting Shakespeare plays in modern situations, as a Western or in the slums of a big city.  These theatrical productions really irritate me, for I’m a purist at heart.  (Small wonder, then, that I’m a fairly non-judgmental practitioner of early music performance practice.)  Apparently, the story in this edition is no longer Bunyan’s, or at least not in a culture that Bunyan recognized.

I looked back a page to find out when Bunyan published Pilgrim’s Progress.  It wasn’t listed; only the copyright date of the edition appeared (1964, and that of its reprinting, 1965).  A quick internet search gave me a 17th-century provenance.  I read (well, listened to – audiobook) Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels just a short while ago.  It too was 17th-century, and I don’t recall it being particularly difficult.  Perhaps the audiobook format masked troublesome spelling.  But still, if Gulliver’s Travels was as intelligible as I found it, the contemporary spelling of Pilgrim’s Progress couldn’t be too bad.  It certainly is no 14th-century Canterbury Tales.

The changes noted in the preface that really bother me are the fact that details have been omitted (which ones?  were they important? were they troublesome or seemingly contradictory?), names have been changed (in an allegorical work, characters’ names are often a summation of their character or of the moral they impart), and new characters have been added.  At this point, how is it still Bunyan’s story?  If new characters are added, new situations would have had to be written for them, since the text specifies “new characters have been added” rather than “some characters replaced existing characters.”  Which brings me to the final portion of the excerpt: “In a few places there is amplification to clarify the author’s meaning.  Yet the message is unchanged.”

The message cannot possibly be unchanged.  These sorts of changes amplify not the author’s meaning, but a reading.  Allegories can be interpreted in a number of ways.  A similar entity is Christian Scripture, which has throughout church history been interpreted by various Christian denominations in a number of ways, in some cases according to the cultural or political ideals of the group.  As a Christian story, an edited version of Pilgrim’s Progress is going to highlight certain Christian values based on the editor’s interpretive framework.  A few pages in, I got to a passage that read like an evangelical sermon:

“Christian: The Lord, the Ruler of that country, has recorded it here in His book, the substance of which is this: If we really want Him and His kingdom and are willing to receive Him as our Lord and Saviour, He will grant our wish freely” (16).

This is exactly the sort of language I was steeped in, growing up in an evangelical, non-denominational Christian church.  Perhaps Bunyan really wrote this passage.  Perhaps this is not a distortion of 17th-century Christian theology.  But the problem is this: I have no way of knowing.  Did Bunyan write like a modern evangelical?  Is this an editor’s addition?  Is this one of the moments where the publishers wanted to amplify what they read as Bunyan’s meaning?  Another look at the verso of the title page indicates that this book was published by Moody Bible Institute, a specifically evangelical Christian college focused on evangelism in the evangelical style.  It’s hard to escape the suspicion that this edition is motivated by the school’s desire to spread their reading of Scripture.  If my goal is to encounter Pilgrim’s Progress as it influenced Louisa May Alcott and English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, I have to read the same story they did.

I have to give some credit to the publishers for their willingness to publicize the extent of the editorial changes (at least, I’m assuming their list is comprehensive).  I have some experience in editing music.  One of my editions is in the process of getting published, with more on the way.  I’ve been trained by the editors of the complete William Byrd works and the complete Hector Berlioz works.  One of the most important tasks for a music editor is to make clear his or her editorial method.  Depending on whether a musical edition is intended for a performing or a scholarly audience, methods of marking changes vary.  A scholarly edition will need a comprehensive table of critical commentary, and will utilize some specific notation to mark insertions or alterations – for example, a slur might be dotted, to indicate that it was added by the editor.  A performing edition ought to use many of the same indicators, but has a bit more freedom depending on the intended audience.  If I apply these same guidelines to editions of literature, I can’t fault this edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.  No, there are no footnotes, no uses of any symbols or fonts to mark editorial changes or insertions, and no critical commentary.  But the publishers are up-front about the intention of this edition.  Its audience is “contemporary man” and its goal is to “clarify the author’s meaning” in order to transmit “a vital message.”  As a reader with different objectives, this is not the edition for me.

But now I have to find another one, and I no longer hold hope that the library will give me what I need.  What if I request another, and that edition too makes significant changes but fails to state that fact?  What I’m really looking for is an edition in Bunyan’s original language but with added footnotes or marginal notes clarifying allusions to other literary works, with particular attention paid to Scriptural references.  Can anyone recommend an edition?


  1. Perhaps try ISBN 0-14-043004-0

    This is the edition recommended in "The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had" by Susan Wise Bauer. A fabulous resource for reading your way through the Great Books.

    And this version is currently available at the county library!

  2. I read this ages ago and didn't like it much, but I was a much younger reader then--who knows what I would think now. I do remember that the didacticism got on my nerves, and that sort of thing annoys me still, so maybe I'd feel the same.

    As for editions, I can't remember what I read, but I think I would go for one of my usual stand-bys for classics: Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics, or Norton Critical Editions.

  3. Thank you both very much for the recommendations!

  4. This is a great post. I mistakenly thought it was going to be complaining about PP, but it actually made me question how well I really know one of my favorite books. As a child I listened to an audio version till I had many dialogs memorized. In many ways it stayed true to the book (thank heaven it didn't ADD characters or change names), but since it was adapted by members of my own denomination, I think maybe I SHOULD reread the book soon and actually pay attention to rhetoric or theology that "strikes a wrong chord".

    1. I'd love to know what you discover! Like I said, I can't fault adaptations, as long as they're honest about their changes and the reasoning behind them. I'm jealous that you got to grow up with this great book, and it's wonderful that you even memorized parts of it!

    2. Like I said on my Classics Club post, I probably won't re-read it in full any time soon, but sometimes when I'm listening to the audio-version I'll pull out the book to compare a section.

      Also glad I read this post because yesterday I slipped my grandma's copy of "Grace Abounding" (Bunyan's spiritual autobiography) into my purse and when I looked through it I saw it was a "rewritten in modern English" Moody Press publication. Your description of the changes they made to PP made me decide to hold out for the original.