Friday, July 8, 2016

Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

I didn't think it was possible, but it turns out there's a C.S. Lewis book I don't like. Pilgrim's Regress is the first novel Lewis wrote after converting to Christianity and is an allegory for his faith journey up to that point.

Before roasting this particular novel, I have to say that I absolutely love Lewis' writings. His fiction and nonfiction have been central to my own developing faith and whenever I feel spiritually dry or lost, I return to Lewis.* Narnia, Til We Have Faces, and his Space Trilogy are on my list of "books I will re-read occasionally until I die".

But there's a reason Pilgrim's Regress is rarely mentioned among Lewis' other works. For one thing, it's racist af. I usually look at a book and author's cultural surroundings and tend to gloss over racist references to see the larger message, but no. You cannot use "brown girls" as your allegory for base lust. Right. Out. And it only goes downhill from there; I can't even bring myself to repeat some of the phrases he gets stuck using when starting from that point. If your writing is so racist that it makes my privileged, protected, very white self uncomfortable, it's really bad.

Past the racism though, PR is largely a failed allegory, which is something Lewis himself admits in the book's afterward. Its modeled after Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and also feels very much like George MacDonald's Phantastes (not a coincidence, I'm sure). I wasn't particularly fond of either book, so its not surprising that this one failed to impress me as well. I did see many ideas and themes that show up in his later writings, but you could easily skip this novel and miss none of Lewis' most beautiful, enduring ideas.

I've often heard that Lewis and Tolkien, who were close friends, had a bit of a falling out over the Narnia series, because Tolkien disliked allegory and wasn't impressed with the series. That always makes me feel like a kid in the middle of a divorce, but if Lewis started work on Narnia soon after PR, I can more easily imagine why Tolkien wasn't enthusiastic. "Another allegory, Jack? Will this one also include bland, obviously named characters and a rather rambling, obscure journey across a dull landscape?"

I almost gave the book up a third of the way in, which is very rare for me. But I did get a reward for sticking it out til the end: Lewis' afterward to the third edition is brilliant. Written 10 years later, it offers an explanation and redemption of the novel's more obscure points and has several quotable lines in its own right.

*Ok, so technically the first place I turn should be the Bible, but due to a myriad of personal and spiritual failings, I have a hard time reading Scripture all on my own. I get there eventually, but usually need a bit of a running start.

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