The Pilgrim’s Regress

The Pilgrim’s Regress was the first fiction book written by C. S. Lewis after his conversion to Christianity. Lewis’ book is not a retelling of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: Lewis just borrows the allegorical format.

The book’s protagonist is John, a young man from a land called Puritania. The country is ruled over by a Landlord who is reportedly very good and kind but who will throw anyone who disobeys him into a black hole.

One day John catches a glimpse of a beautiful island through a window. The sight, sounds, and smells raise an ineffable longing to see the island again and even visit it.

John journeys towards the island, but instead finds different philosophers and detractors. He meets a “brown girl,” who assures him she’s what he really wanted. But she represents lust, and John eventually finds he’s dissatisfied with her. (This article makes a good case that Lewis was neither racist or misogynistic by designating lust as a brown girl).

John continues on and meets Mr. Enlightenment, the Spirit of the Age, Mother Kirk, Mr. Sensible, Mr. Neo-Angluar, Mr. Humanist, History, Reason, and others. Some say his island is an illusion. Others offers various suggestions for how to get there. Some argue for or against the against the existence of the Landlord. History tells John the landlord sent truths about himself in the form of various pictures. But many interpreted the pictures the wrong way.

Finally John understands the way to the island. Wikipedia says, “The Regress portion of the title now comes into play as John journeys back home and now sees everything in a new light and sees how the road he took is a knife’s edge between Heaven and Hell.”

In a preface to the third edition of the book, written ten years after it was originally published, Lewis apologized for the book. Although he hadn’t intended the book to be strictly autobiographical, he hadn’t realized that not everyone’s journey was quite like his.

On the intellectual side my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity. I still think this a very natural road, but I now know that it is a road very rarely trodden. In the early thirties I did not know this. If I had had any notion of my own isolation, I should either have kept silent about my journey or else endeavoured to describe it with more consideration for the reader’s difficulties.

He says that in the new edition (online here), he added headlines before the different sections. He apologizes for doing so, but the headlines would have been a great help if I had read rather than listened to the book.

I think I would have gotten more out of the book of I had read an annotated edition, which explained more about the different references and philosophies (one GoodReads reviewer recommended C. S. Lewis and Narnia for Dummies as an aide). But I got the gist of the story and understood most of the discussions between characters. To me, this book illustrates what Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.