by C.S. Lewis, edited/introduced by David C. Downing
William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 239 pages
Fans of C.S. Lewis are in for a treat with this newest edition of “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” first published in 1933. Lewis annotated a copy of it in 1937 for his student Richard Thorton Hewitt, a copy that in 1987 came into the hands of the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College. David C. Downing, a professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who has written four books on Lewis, included Lewis’s notes and added numerous others for this annotated edition. The total number of marginal notes comes to nearly 500.
“Regress,” writes Downing, “was his [Lewis’s] first Christian book; it was his first book of fiction; it was the first book he published under his own name.” He wrote it at lightning speed, completing it in just two weeks in August 1932. But of all Lewis’s books, “Regress” is among the least read. This is due, as Lewis admitted in the preface to the third edition in 1943, to its “needless obscurity.” “Regress,” Downing observes, has numerous “untranslated quotations in Greek, Latin, German, French and medieval Italian,” and “contains nearly three hundred references and allusions in half a dozen languages — from classical poets to contemporary philosophers.” Downing muses, “Lewis seemed almost to be writing for an audience of one — himself.”
In the preface Lewis is careful to say that “Regress” is not autobiography. Nonetheless, the book seems, in general, to be a retelling in allegorical form of Lewis’s spiritual journey through the various isms of his era until he became a Christian. It is also, of course, an updating of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678/84) for a modern audience. For example, instead of trespassing on the land of Giant Despair and being thrown into the dungeons of Doubting Castle, Lewis’s pilgrim trespasses on the land of the Spirit of the Age and is imprisoned by Mr. Enlightenment. In the geography of “Regress,” North symbolizes cold, doctrinaire, lifeless people, while South symbolizes warm, mystical, “boneless souls.” In the North one encounters red and black dwarfs (Fascists and Marxists). In the South one finds allusions to D.H. Lawrence and occultism.
Lewis admitted that his allegory was a failure. For allegory, he explained, is not “a disguise, a way of saying obscurely what could have been said more clearly. But in fact all good allegory exists not to hide but to reveal; to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.” Hence, great allegory does not need annotation. In reading Bunyan, for example, the City of Destruction, Vanity Fair and the Celestial City need little or no explanation. In contrast, every page of “Regress” requires annotation to be fully appreciated.
Despite the limitations of “Regress,” revealing Lewis to be a talented author who had not yet fully mastered his craft, it is still a worthwhile and often delightful read. It brims with insights into the intellectual world of the 1920s and early ’30s that still ring true. Most important for Lewis fans, Downing’s annotations guide the reader through his thicket of ideas and point out the themes in the narrative than anticipate his later, more accomplished imaginative works. In Downing’s hands, “The Pilgrim’s Regress” comes to life.
MICHAEL PARKER is a PC(USA) mission co-worker who serves as the director of graduate studies and professor of church history at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.