By email a few days ago, reader Pilgrim asked me a question:
Have you or could you review what you use for Pilgrim’s Progress and why?
This is a great question! It’s also one that is good for me to think through well enough to answer, because the truth is that despite its fame and beloved status, it’s really not one of my favorites. It runs pietistic, which I find distasteful, and I also tend to sympathize with Tolkien when he said
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.
Allegories, to me, tend to be too blunt of a hammer to make a moral point.
Yet, I will not neglect Pilgrim’s Progress.
Why read Pilgrim’s Progress?
If there is quintessential English literature, Pilgrim’s Progress is bound to be right up there with Shakespeare if for no other reason than its enduring popularity. Pilgrim’s Progress is the [Protestant] culmination of a long tradition of spiritual-journey allegory in England and one of the first and most read imports to the new colonies in America. Among other things, this means that subsequent literature is often steeped in references, and parts and names from the book have become proverbial. It is an essential read for “cultural literacy.”
The language is clear and direct for its time; though it can be tricky or unfamiliar to modern ears, once you catch the cadence the English is beautiful. It’s a good stepping stone for becoming comfortable with KJV English or Shakespeare, and for developing complex language patterns which will aid writing. Such practical concerns are there, but beauty and timelessness are primary.
The allegory itself, with Pilgrim as Everyman, making his way to Heaven, is classic. Bunyan accurately represents common trials, temptations, and types along the path of life, and it is good to have such categories ingrained in one’s mind. We can’t have a category for a concept or type we’ve never encountered, and Pilgrim’s Progress is a straight-forward, rather blunt way (due to the nature of allegory) of gaining familiar types.
John Bunyan for Families by Brandy at Afterthoughts
Ideas Have Consequences Book Club: [Pilgrim’s Progress v. Leviathan] by Brandy at Afterthoughts
On Little Women by Brandy at Afterthoughts
How do we study Pilgrim’s Progress in our homeschool?
Keep in mind that my oldest student is only 9, in 4th grade, at this point. This is the first “Great Book” we are reading together, so I am not at all experienced in this personally yet. I did teach literature to homeschool classes, but they were all 7th grade through high school. However, I have read a lot on the topic. So, this is what we are doing now, but it is not the wisdom of experience; it is how I am applying what I have read over the years.
Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor
Adaptions of classics to make them more “children friendly” isn’t a genre I usually approve. Brandy first brought this book to my attention, and since she has similar philosophy and taste, yet recommended this book, I decided to give it a shot.
We read it aloud two years ago, and even I enjoyed it. The characters are recast as children, but other than that the journey and the people and obstacles remain the same. I thought it was well-written. Its tone is not as pietistic as the original, in my opinion, and, being a children’s version, it isn’t wordy, either.
My boys loved it, and Hans has read it at least twice on his own since we read it aloud for school two years ago.
This year we are attempting the real deal, but with the help of a professional, British-accented reader.
I chose to use Blackstone audio’s version on CD for a couple reasons:
- Because I am having a baby in the middle of this school year, and I knew I’d be more likely to hit ‘play’ than read it aloud myself.
- We can listen to it in the car, both during this year and at any point hereafter. In this way, we can revisit the story multiple times over the years (and I think repetition is important) with it being more a part of life than of formal plans.
- I am actually not very good at reading aloud. My husband is excellent at reading aloud, giving each character different voices and staying consistent throughout a book. He says he is always about a sentence ahead in reading silently than where he is in reading aloud, and I simply cannot do that; my words get all jumbled up. So I am always reading exactly the word I am saying, and that leads to misplaced emphases, wrong voices or tone, and slow progress. I can’t even keep voices consistent in familiar picture books unless I’ve heard Matt read them aloud a number of times so that the sound of the entire book is in my head. The only times I read clearly are when I have just read a non-fiction paragraph a couple times and then read it aloud.
- The older the language, the more important is clear, expressive reading. This is part 2 to the point above, I suppose, but because word order and expressions are different in older English, comprehension hinges upon the diction and emphases being clear and correct. So, a recording by a professional actor/reader, where there has been practice and thought and errors corrected until the recording is perfect, is a perfect solution.
- Listening to British accents is simply fun.
There are definitely points in favor of reading aloud together as a family, without the aid of experts or electronics, not the least of which is the closer connection and relationship fostered with the personal touch. So I do not want in any way to dissuade anyone from reading aloud together.
For us, however, this is a legitimate and reasoned concession to doing what will actually work for us rather than striving for an ideal. This is a variation on the saying, “The best curriculum is the one you use” or “The system that works is the system you work.”
There are the idealist and philosophical points that should be considered, but then when it comes to planning, do not be afraid to choose doing the “second best” or even “third best” option because it’s one that actually fits your circumstances over the “very best” option that then never really materializes in real, daily life. Put higher priority on the principles and goals and lesser priority on the methods that take you toward them.
Activities and comprehension
You’ve come to the wrong place, my friend, if you want related activities, quizzes, or projects. We do books and let them speak for themselves. The characters end up in conversations or drawings or playings when they grab an imagination, but that can’t be forced or coerced.
We will read and listen to Pilgrim’s Progress several times over the years, and analysis can wait until their imaginations are full and their experience (real and learned through reading) is broader.
This is my philosophy and theory, but it conveniently also plays into my pragmatism and tendency to laziness and inertia. Do what works for you and your students.