The Pilgrim's Progress as a possible influence on Lord of the Rings

Toby Frost

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No doubt this has been discussed before somewhere, but has The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan been considered as an influence on The Lord of the Rings? I say this because The Pilgrim's Progress involves a journey across a huge fantasy land that mimics the good or evil of its inhabitants (the Slough of Despond, the Giant Despair and so on). While LOTR isn't that sort of direct allegory, I can't think of much pre-LOTR with that sense of bigness. Even the Arthur stories (from Mallory, at least) tend to concentrate on one knight and his adventures rather than making long journeys. Did Tolkien ever give any indication of this?
 
I know not.

However... C.S. Lewis wrote "The Pilgrim's Regress" (published 1933) soon after his conversion to Christianity (in which Tolkien had of course played a part) - described as "a philosophical allegory of the modern zeitgeist endued with themes that would prove to be characteristic of his writings — such as the quest for joy and a recognition of spiritual cosmic warfare between good and evil." (Apologies: I've lost the link to this).
Tolkien, despite his strong Roman Catholic upbringing, would almost certainly have read Bunyan, and would have been involved in discussion with Lewis over "The Pilgrim's Regress"

 
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I have a copy of that book Modern English edition.
 
I don't doubt that Tolkien had read The Pilgrim's Progress, and a great many other books, all of which contributed to his thinking as he wrote the LOTR, but I doubt it did so more than ,say, Homer's Odyssey, which certainly fits your criterion of bigness, as do a number of other books.
Yes. The Pilgrim Progress involved a journey, and a struggle between good and evil, but so does Nicholas Nickleby, if you want to look at it that way.

You speak of the Slough of Despond and the Giant Despair. It takes a long stretch to find a connection in the LOTR. Perhaps crossing Mordor or finding Frodo stung in Cirith Ungol, but only using a lot of imagination.
What else. Vanity fair in Minas Tirith? I think not.
Mr Wordly Wiseman as Boromir or Saruman? Hardly.

No. I'm sorry. I really don't see it being a major influence. Tolkien's work stands on it's own, without any idea of 'based on' or 'inspired by'.
 
I don't doubt that Tolkien had read The Pilgrim's Progress, and a great many other books, all of which contributed to his thinking as he wrote the LOTR, but I doubt it did so more than ,say, Homer's Odyssey, which certainly fits your criterion of bigness, as do a number of other books.
Yes. The Pilgrim Progress involved a journey, and a struggle between good and evil, but so does Nicholas Nickleby, if you want to look at it that way.

You speak of the Slough of Despond and the Giant Despair. It takes a long stretch to find a connection in the LOTR. Perhaps crossing Mordor or finding Frodo stung in Cirith Ungol, but only using a lot of imagination.
What else. Vanity fair in Minas Tirith? I think not.
Mr Wordly Wiseman as Boromir or Saruman? Hardly.

No. I'm sorry. I really don't see it being a major influence. Tolkien's work stands on it's own, without any idea of 'based on' or 'inspired by'.

Tales Before Tolkien:The Roots of Modern Fantasy by Douglas A. Anderson
 
No. I'm sorry.
Poor wording at the end there. I didn't want to imply you thought it was ripped off.

But I suggest that the PP probably had an influence but no greater influence on JRRT than a host of other previous works, and finding direct parallels between characters or places in the two books is pointless.
Both are stories of a quest for victory over evil or just the bad guys. But that's about as far as it goes. So were a great number of other works throughout history.

The book mentioned by Baylor may well find connections that I haven't considered. I haven't read it (*). A quick look at the wikipedia entry on the book (admittedly not the single repository of all knowledge and wisdom) makes no reference to Bunyan at all.

Please don't take my comments as a repudiation of your thoughts. I'm not trying to start an argument; merely giving you my own thoughts on the matter.

(*although I have read both the books in question more than once.)
 
I don't think it's necessary to look only for fantasy or mythical influences for the type of story Tolkien told in LOTR. The pattern of a small band on a quest, while armies move around the map, could also be found to some extent in the colonial adventure stories popular when Tolkien was growing up (and I seem to recall reading that he read H Rider Haggard, for example). Maybe he took that kind of pattern and, consciously or otherwise, translated it onto his fantasy world?
 
I remember picking up the Pilgrims Progress at the library as a young 14 year old. I had just finished LOTR and thought this looks like another book in the same vein. It was the volume with the big colour prints. I was quickly disabused of that notion.
 
LOTR evolved from the Silmarillion which itself came from Tolkein's study of Anglo Saxon and Nordic languages and the mythologies attached to them. Earendil the Mariner I believe was the earliest part of the Silmarillion universe written by Tolkien and came from a myth where Earendil is the named character. But to what extent the struggle between good and evil and the Quest trope comes from that mythology I have no idea. The hero type in Beowulf seems neither good nor evil but just elemental, like Cú Chulainn of Irish mythology or, to a certain extent, Samson in the OT (the latter however did fall within the good/evil trope).
 
I don't think it's necessary to look only for fantasy or mythical influences for the type of story Tolkien told in LOTR. The pattern of a small band on a quest, while armies move around the map, could also be found to some extent in the colonial adventure stories popular when Tolkien was growing up (and I seem to recall reading that he read H Rider Haggard, for example). Maybe he took that kind of pattern and, consciously or otherwise, translated it onto his fantasy world?
Tolkien acknowledged the influence of Haggard's great romance She in a 1966 interview published in the fanzine Niekas, which may be read here:


The Sherd of Amenartas is the potsherd that has been passed down through many generations within Leo Vincey's family. It contains inscriptions in different languages and using different writing systems. Haggard had expert help in designing the sherd, which was represented in a frontispiece. You have here the "Tolkienian" combination of vast antiquity + philology + fantasy.


Tolkien speaks of the "machine" that got everything moving. The interviewer evidently didn't ask him to explain that remark. But I think Tolkien meant that Haggard had the idea of a written record (cf. the Red Book of Westmarch) that has provided people in our time with a glimpse of an ancient time -- NB not "another world" but our own world very long ago. The "machine" is a device that enables the story to get going.

What nails the influence of Haggard on Tolkien is the fact that in his earliest writings, Tolkien actually lifted Kôr (a place-name for a lost realm) from Haggard's romance.
 
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Tolkien acknowledged the influence of Haggard's great romance She in a 1966 interview published in the fanzine Niekas, which may be read here:


The Sherd of Amenartas is the potsherd that has been passed down through many generations within Leo Vincey's family. It contains inscriptions in different languages and using different writing systems. Haggard had expert help in designing the sherd, which was represented in a frontispiece. You have here the "Tolkienian" combination of vast antiquity + philology + fantasy.


Tolkien speaks of the "machine" that got everything moving. The interviewer evidently didn't ask him to explain that remark. But I think Tolkien meant that Haggard had the idea of a written record (cf. the Red Book of Westmarch) that has provided people in our time with a glimpse of an ancient time -- NB not "another world" but our own world very long ago. The "machine" is a device that enables the story to get going.

What nails the influence of Haggard on Tolkien is the fact that in his earliest writings, Tolkien actually lifted Kôr (a place-name for a lost realm) from Haggard's romance.
Actually, Tolkien dismisses She. He affirms he cannot as an adult stand a book he loved as a child. She goes in the same dustbin with George McDonald and most other books he had read. He is clear that it was his desire to create a modern mythology rather on the lines of the north European mythologies that motivated him to create Middle Earth. As for nomenclature, Tolkien lifted far more from northern mythology than from anywhere else. He is emphatic that nobody contemporary influenced him.
 
I think you misread Tolkien's remark, Justin; but it's not something I want to quarrel about.

Incidentally, Douglas Anderson reports that Tolkien referred to Haggard's Icelandic romance Eric Brighteyes as something "as good as most sagas and as heroic" (Tales Before Tolkien, Del Rey paperback, p. 511).

I discuss Haggard among a number of other modern writers in my entry on 19th- and 20th-century literary influences in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout.

As regards Bunyan, the first part of Pilgrim's Progress was a set book for the BA in English Language and Literature at Leeds University while Tolkien was there. I suppose it's likely he was an examiner for those degrees and read papers dealing with Bunyan, whom he'd no doubt have read for his own.
 
As he got older (and more famous) I think he became more reluctant to acknowledge the influence of others.
 
I don't think we need to be too speculative, because many of Tolkien's influences are well documented. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford and published literary criticisms of many ancient works, including Beowulf. Other stories from that era feature mystical, fantastical lands (Nibelungenlied, for example). Perhaps [now I'm the one being speculative] Tolkien recognized these for the ripping yarns that they are, and decided to create a more accessible, modern work that would lean somewhat on them (The Hobbit has often been linked to Beowulf, for example). Pilgrim's Progress not so much - although being a professor of literature and a Christian, he would no doubt have been familiar with it.
 
As he got older (and more famous) I think he became more reluctant to acknowledge the influence of others.
I agree. I don't think it was so much a matter of personal pride as that he didn't want people to categorize his great works, or to read them with an influence-hunting agenda, in such a way as to become impervious to the enchantment of the Secondary World. He had labored mightily on Middle-earth throughout his adult life and it was pervaded by his conviction and (what we feebly call) his values; it was the making of a story by the exercise of "a kind of Elvish craft," etc. In his "On Fairy-Stories" he regrets the tendency of anthropological scholarship to seek to trace (often rather speculatively) the "ingredients" out of which the rich stew of Story had been made, and into which individual minds had sometimes added their own unique contributions. So when he became famous and people pushed him about "influences" and genre and his possible current events "agenda," he discouraged those lines of inquiry. The interviewer could have pushed him about the goblins in The Hobbit and their manifest kinship with MacDonald's creatures in The Princess and the Goblin. It's perhaps just as well that Resnick did not pursue the matter.

Motives for exploring the matter of "influences" may vary. There may be the ignoble desire of the less gifted to cut down the genius to size. There may be the dubious desire of the academic to advance his or her career by Publishing. There may also be the gratitude of the reader who honors the author by seeking to understand better the nature of his or her work; for one thing, this can help to prevent misreadings and misevalualtions of it. For example, if The Lord of the Rings is classed -- as was done in early reviews! -- with Lewis Carroll's Alice books or is labelled as "super science-fiction," it may seem to "fall short" against canons appropriate to those works. If, however, it is seen as mythopoeic romance -- as THE modern mythopoeic romance -- then it's more likely to be appropriately evaluated and better understood. If we're going to talk about "mythopoeic romance," though, we can set out some characteristics thereof, but we'll need other actual examples. And Haggard's She is one. But this sort of mental activity is best exerted after someone has loved LotR in its own right, so that he or she knows it well enough to be ready to talk about it and not just say it's great and everyone should read it. : )

To be autobiographical: I'm sure that much of my own interest in this kind of thing was that I wanted to find more good fantasy. That may be easier now or it may be harder -- easier because so much is now in print in paper or available online, but harder because there's so much more rubbish around than 50-odd years ago. When I read of Tolkien's interest in She in 1969, in Lin Carter's sub-scholarly "Look Behind" book, I knew that was something I wanted to get hold of, & I did, and eventually I'd read that one half a dozen times, and two dozen or so of Haggard's romances. I'm glad too for blurbs mentioning Tolkien that long ago piqued my interest in Alan Garner's Weirdstone (influenced by Tolkien) and William Morris's romances (likely influences on Tolkien -- for what that's worth).
 
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On the topic of Tolkien's reading of recent literature, Holly Ordway's book may be recommended. I was impressed.


But to put concisely a point I tried to make above: for me, a big motive in the interest in "influences" was to find things I hadn't read before that were somewhat like Tolkien. If Tolkien's work was somewhat like Morris's and Haggard's, then their works must be somewhat like Tolkien's! So I looked into them. And they were! Though there is only one JRRT.
 
Motives for exploring the matter of "influences" may vary.

Considering a novel's influences is surely standard procedure in understanding it and putting it into a meaningful place. Every novel comes from somewhere. Shakespeare had influences. The Long Goodbye is much better than The Maltese Falcon, but Chandler freely acknowledged the influence of Hammett. The author is entitled to say what he likes about influences (or anything else) and the reader is entitled to wonder.

Anyway, it was just a passing thought.
 
The most recent issue of An Unexpected Journal (Advent 2021) focuses on Dr. Ordway's book on Tolkien's reading of literature from 1850 to the end of his life.


Ordway's book is from a Roman Catholic publisher, I believe; I hope that won't discourage anyone from checking it out. It's a fine book, and, by the way, a remarkably well-made book, especially at the price; far superior to the usual run of books, with pages in sewn signatures, boards bound in "cloth," a nice color insert, etc. It's one worth getting and also asking libraries to buy.

Justin is right about the great influence on Tolkien of medieval Northern literature. Happily, there is plenty of well-informed scholarship on that rich and various matter -- Tolkien + everything from Beowulf and the Eddas to the Denham Tracts. And it is still possible to find connections with medieval literature that don't seem to have been mentioned before (though who has a good command of all the relevant articles and books!?), as suggested, e.g., by Tolkien's Lost Chaucer.


But with reference to the original posting here, I wonder what U. Milo Kaufmann would think about a Bunyan-to-Tolkien influence. Kaufmann (now retired from the University of Illinois) was a prominent Bunyan authority who also wrote one of the papers in A Tolkien Compass (ed. Jared Lobdell), one of the earliest essay collections on JRRT.
 
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