Biblical Epic and Allegory
The King James Bible was not favoured by all. The Geneva Bible remained the preferred text for many Protestants, particularly those who would come to be labelled Puritans. Yet even some committed Puritans, such as the mid-17th century poet John Milton (1608-74), drew on the King James text. Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667-74) retells the opening chapters of the book of Genesis: the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton takes a new approach to the story in casting the fallen angel Satan as the tragic hero.
Paradise Lost, comprising 10,000 lines of blank verse, is written in the form of an epic, and echoes the King James wording in its narrative. Milton's portrayal of the ‘sublime’ – vastness, magnificence, and religious awe – has inspired many writers and artists in the following centuries.
John Milton, Paradise Lost ed. by Barbara Lewalski (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 2007) (Canterbury Staff/Students only).
Thomas Corns, A Companion to Milton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
Thomas Luxon, The Milton Reading Room.
Milton in the Old Library: 400th anniversary exhibition online at Christ's College Oxford
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Part 1, 1678; Part 2, 1684) is considered second only to the KJB in being the most influential religious work ever published in English. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory which takes the form of a dream.
Part 1 tells the story of Christian who reads in a book (the Bible) that indicates the city he lives in will be burned. Taking heed of the Evangelist, he flees the City of Destruction, and makes a pilgrimage through places such as the Slough of Despond, the House Beautiful, the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Vanity Fair until he reaches the Celestial City. On the way he meets various allegorical personages such as Faithful, Hopeful, and the Giant Despair. Part 2 recounts the pilgrimage of Christian's wife and children.
John Bunyan (1628-88) converted to Chritianity and became a popular Nonconformist preacher and writer. Regarded as a subversive influence by the Restoration authorities, he was arrested in 1660 for preaching without a licence. Bunyan spent several years in prison at various times, during which time he wrote both parts of The Pilgrims’ Progress. Bunyan’s writing style was as successful as his preaching: his combination of simplicity, passion and humour resonated with people of all ages and differing outlooks.
The Pilgrim’s Progress reveals many turns of phrase from both the Geneva Bible and the KJB. It has in its turn influenced English literary writers such as Dickens and Thackeray, and has been translated into over 100 languages.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progess (London: Noel Douglas, 1928. Facsimile reprint of the first edition, published in 1678.
The Complete Works of John Bunyan, edited with original introductions...by Henry Stebbing (Hildesheim: Olms; New York, NY: Johnson Reprint Corp, 1970).
David N. Dixon, 'The Second Text: Missionary Publishing and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress', International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 36:2 (2012), p. 86. (Canterbury Staff/Students only)