Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Playing Pilgrims: Adapting Bunyan for Children

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Playing Pilgrims: Adapting Bunyan for Children

Article excerpt

The Pilgrim's Progress was the most important book in Bronson Alcott's life. Alcott is perhaps now most famous for being the father of Louisa May Alcott, but he was also a thinker and educator, friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists, and founder of a short-lived utopian community. Alcott read Bunyan first when he was a child and then repeatedly throughout his life, calling the book 'a work of pure genius' and one that he 'lived as well as read'.1 He passed that book on to his own four daughters, encouraging them to 'play pilgrims'.

When she came to write Little Women, Louisa May Alcott mirrored her childhood experience in that of the March sisters, with Marmee taking the role of director:

'Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim's Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.'2

From that point on, The Pilgrim's Progress becomes the framework on which the girls' experiences are mapped, and the whole novel, as Elaine Showalter argues, becomes a revision of the events in Part 1 with multiple female protagonists.3 Most telling at the beginning of the novel is the way Alcott has each of her March sisters respond to Bunyan's allegory.

'What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the valley where the hob-goblins were', said Jo.

'I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs', said Meg.

'I don't remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn't too old for such things, I'd rather like to play it over again', said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.4

Each reads and recalls the story selectively. So first, we have a child voluntarily reading The Pilgrim's Progress and recognizing the effect it had on the shaping of his own identity. Then we have a parent encouraging his own children both to read and to enact the allegory, to see themselves as little Christians, and to reshape the story to fit their world and their imaginations to fit the story. And finally, we see the shift from real child readers to the creation of children's literature in which the characters both mirror Christian's journey and actually read The Pilgrim's Progress. The Alcotts offer a snapshot of the way Bunyan's allegory was consumed, enacted, and revised for children in the two hundred years after its first publication.

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that for the first few hundred years in the history of English children's literature, children read The Pilgrim's Progress, willingly and for pleasure. Young readers were attracted, so the argument goes, to the inventiveness of the story, the folk-tale-like adventures, and to the open, readerly journey motif. They may also have been reacting against the kind of imaginative literature written expressly for them, stories that tended more to instruction than to delight. And, as real-life readers of Bunyan like Bronson and Louisa May Alcott suggest, they may have read selectively, reading over or around the sections that were less accessible or interesting to them to get to Apollyon, the Giant Despair, or Vanity Fair more quickly.

Early on in the history of The Pilgrim's Progress for children, though, it was not enough to have children experience the allegory itself, even in an edition packaged or illustrated for young people. Dozens of revisions, expurgations, updatings, alterations, abridgements, and homages - even toys - were produced in order to mediate or interfere with the child's experience of the original text. …

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