Pilgrim’s Progress: a Retelling, by Gary Schmidt, illustrated by Barry Moser. Eerdmans, 1994, 96 pages.
Reading Level: Young Adult, Ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 12 and up
Bottom Line: Gary Schmidt brings to this retelling a novelist’s sense of plot and character development, ably abetted by Barry Moser’s watercolor illustrations.
A “retelling” usually involves taking some liberties, as C. S. Lewis did with his first work of fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress.* In this case the liberties are few: although Schmidt, a Newbery-honor author, updates a few of the characters and settings, he remains true to the spirit of the original. The theme of taking “the hard but right way” is repeated often enough that no reader should fail to get the point. The embellishments are mostly in the interests of better storytelling, with time and care taken to set the scene, build suspense, and add human touches. Notice for example the description of Pliable as “thin as the wheat stalks that waved around them, and he was always smiling, though never happy.” As in Bunyan’s original, the story is told as though it were a dream, with the dreamer occasionally stirring and reflecting on what he has seen. In the preface, the narrator wanders from his home and is lost in the woods, finally deciding to sleep it off until daylight comes:
Listen to the dream that I dreamed that night in the wilderness of the world . . . In the field just below a small house, a man walked slowly, bent over by the weight of the great pack heaped up over his back and shoulders . . . Behind him the sun was setting over the western mountains, gilding the sides of the peaks with a light so red that they seemed on fire. When the man saw this, he stepped back, startled. His hands flew to the burden on his shoulders and he cried, “What shall I do?” If he expected an answer, he received none. Nothing changed except the light, which faded to a pale violet. He shuddered and turned back to his house, staggering under the weight of his burden.
Illustrator Barry Moser obviously used real models for his character depictions in this version, employing a variety of period costumes and ethnic groups to convey the universal application of the story. His pilgrim is a nondescript balding fellow, an everyman transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into a hero capable of standing up to Apollyon, but still humanly vulnerable to temptation. Not a version to replace the original, but perhaps to shed new perspective on it.
Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Artistic value: 5
Categories: Young Adult, Classics, Christian, Character Values, Starred Review
*A word about The Pilgrim’s Regress: this is C. S. Lewis’s earliest work of fiction after he became a Christian, and in years to come he claimed to be heartily ashamed of it. Granted, it’s not his best work and it bogs down unmercifully in the last third. But as a glimpse of his intellectual journey to Christ, especially when accompanied by Surprised by Joy, I find it fascinating. Also hilarious in parts and insightful in others; I’ve gone back to his depiction of the Giant Despair (represented here as the “Spirit of the Age”) several times when writing about scientific reductionism and the collapse of objective truth in the early twentieth century. It takes some historical and philosophical background to get what he’s talking about in the second half, but dedicated Lewisophiles and intellectual teens might enjoy having a go at it.