C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegory about the life of the mind — Lewis’s mind — as it wrestles with the soul’s desire for God. Filled with allusions to Lewis’s own intellectual development, the book is equal parts fascinating and impenetrable. Its full original title gives you a taste of what you’re in for: The Pilgrim’s Regress, or Pseudo-Bunyan’s Periplus: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. No wonder Lewis would later apologize for its “needless obscurity” in an afterword to the third edition (207).
Still, Pilgrim’s Regress is worth the work — especially if you can find the recent annotated edition, which supplies explanatory notes, including some written by Lewis himself. What you find is that Lewis’s pilgrimage reflects not merely the familiar desire to lose the burden of guilt, but also the desire to satisfy his soul’s thirst, his soul’s longing. Pulled between the competing demands of intellectual consistency and bodily passions, the pilgrim is led by a glimpse of eternity. It pulls him in and through the false offers of the world, often in spite of his own weaknesses.
The Stern North
Since The Pilgrim’s Regress is about Lewis’s own “return,” it has all the features of the early-twentieth-century academic class. Lewis’s pilgrim struggles with classic temptations like lust and pride, but they frequently take the form of ideologies. His allegorical foils include “Puritania” and “Victoriana,” as well as personifications of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Lewis even makes space for his contemporary pilgrim intellectuals on their own journeys, both divine and devilish.
In one of the more arresting scenes, Lewis shows us the northernmost extremity of the journey. Described as the “sterner regions of the mind” (94), the northern territory is where “the tough-minded” go. Their great opponent is what they view as a childish sentimentality, the tendency to still hold to emotions, hopes, and dreams — all of which they believe are illusions. The northern men are intellectual, but harsh and cynical. They believe they have seen through all the deceptions.
But they are not the final mountain peak. No, the top of the mountain is something more: a figure called Savage. Dressed in a Viking helmet and quoting Nietzsche and Wagner, Savage is terrifying, “almost a giant.” He’s joined by a Norse sorceress and sings the philosophy of heroic violence in epic verse. Here are a few of his convictions, the first about ordinary simple men and the second about self-important intellectuals:
These are the dregs of man. . . . They are always thinking of happiness. They are scraping together and storing up and trying to build. Can they not see that the law of the world is against them? Where will any of them be a hundred years hence? (105)
The rot in the world is too deep and the leak in the world is too wide. They may patch and tinker as they please, they will not save it. Better give in. Better cut the wood with the grain. If I am to live in a world of destruction let me be its agent and not its patient. (106)
This northern Savage has rejected attempts at morality and even rationality, at least as traditionally understood. To him, everything is ultimately meaningless because it will crumble. All men will die. The only eternal thing is “the excellent deed.” A more common expression today might be “the will to power.”
Servants of Savage
Savage is giant, but there are many varieties of dwarves that work for him. These dwarves can “reappear in human children” and take on many variations, though they are ultimately animated by the common spirit of Savage.
Among these dwarves are the Marxomanni, Mussolimini, Swastici, and Gangomanni (105). Here Lewis is illustrating the social and political breakdown of the 1920s and ’30s by showing us violent Marxists, Fascist revolutionaries, and American gangsters. Each movement, whether highbrow or lowbrow, had given up on the ordinary rules of society, had given up on law and order, and had instead decided to impose its will through brute force. They are dwarves, but they regularly show up among the children of men. They are, all of them, servants of Savage.
“It’s quite remarkable that Lewis was able to see fascism for what it was: the dwarf-servant to savage nihilism.”
The Pilgrim’s Regress was originally written in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. While the savagery and mania of Nazism can be taken for granted by modern writers, this was not true in the 1930s. Indeed, one of Lewis’s own heroes, G.K. Chesterton, was more than partially taken in by fascism. And while never a proponent of Nazism, Chesterton did frequently explain its attraction as an understandable response to modern social decay (The Sins of G.K. Chesterton, 183–84, 213–22). When considered from that context, it’s quite remarkable that Lewis was able to see fascism for what it was: the dwarf-servant to savage nihilism.
Three Pale Men
There’s another layer to Lewis’s tale, though. One of the more obscure parts, he singles it out as a “preposterous allegorical filigree” (215). Yet, when decoded, it speaks to our moment in a powerful way. This is the scene of the “three pale men.” These are men of the north. They conceive of themselves as fully rational and realistic. They have no interest in romantic ideals. Indeed, they are a sort of intellectual reaction against Romanticism (which was itself a reaction against the first round of the Enlightenment). They consider themselves extremely deep thinkers who have worked through all the other failed theories and movements. They represent a sort of “return” to older ways.
One of these pale men is Mr. Humanist, representing an embrace of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, though stripped of all idealist and romantic elements. Another is Mr. Neo-Classical, a character obsessed with antiquity, but also without its mystical or religious elements. The third pale man is Mr. Neo-Angular, and Lewis’s notes describe him as “the more venomous type of Anglo-Catholic.” Neo-Angular insists on dogma and what he takes as “Catholicism.” This seems to mean the universal and undiluted faith, but Mr. Neo-Angular’s true defining characteristic is his opposition to experiential religion. He has no time for “subjective” motivations (98). He rejects the pilgrim’s affective “soul longing” as a form of escapism and “romantic trash” (99).
The pale men do not expect to find good in this world, so they turn their attention to a distant past and an ever-stoic lifestyle. In the case of Mr. Neo-Angular, affection is also reserved for the future, the eternal life in heaven. Until then, a strict sort of spiritual segregation is expected. This world is not home. The men are “very thin and pale” (94), and their food is described as perfectly cubic in shape and “free from any lingering flavour of the old romantic sauces” (95). As an allegory, they are the various paths the reactionary mindset can take, varieties of elitist intellectual retreats to philosophy or religion without any of the affections or social graces.
Reactionism’s Dead End
When these pale men hear about Savage, two of them are put off, but Mr. Neo-Angular is attracted. “I should like to meet this Savage,” he says. “He seems to be a very clear-headed man” (107). From Savage’s own point of view, Mr. Neo-Angular has the most potential. “He said that Angular might turn out an enemy worth fighting when he grew up” (106). What is Lewis telling us about the relationship between a wholly institutionalized and stoic “Catholicism” and the savage spirit that animated Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, and Gangsterism?
Lewis’s point is not a simple slippery slope. He is not saying that a harsh and rigid “high church” Christianity leads to fascism. Instead, he is saying that those represented by Mr. Neo-Angular are caught in the same reaction to modernity as is fascism. What they believe to be a sophisticated and mentally strong rejection of “romance” is simply another version of the nihilism hollowing out the broader society.
Mr. Neo-Angular “relegates” and “transfers” the mystical and affective elements wholly to the life to come (and perhaps within the particular bounds of a worship service), but this leaves the rest of life to follow the same harsh rules as the non-Christian follows. That Mr. Neo-Angular likes what he sees in Savage shows us that he also has a certain quest for the “heroic” that could lead to prioritizing the will, power, and even violence. Professing to reject all romance, or to limit it wholly to the spiritual realm, the deepest hunger of the soul nevertheless expresses itself, but through political domination and anti-social violence.
Led and Kept by Longing
Lewis’s core apologetic in The Pilgrim’s Regress is that a sort of romance is natural, good, and inescapable. In fact, it is the way that God draws all of us to himself. He wants his creatures to find satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. These desires are not to be cast off and rejected but rather embraced as means by which we might find our eternal satisfaction: life with God himself.
Mr. Neo-Angular represents a sort of Christianity that claims to reject affections. It has no interest in emotions. It will “taste and see” when it gets to the life to come. But this is self-deception. Such forms of religion can never eliminate the human urge and its spiritual longing. To the extent that they refuse to be satisfied by God in this life, they will invariably be satisfied by something else in this life — and probably by dark and sinister things.
“The promise of the ‘heroic’ is an echo of the divine. But imitation gods are demons.”
Put in a positive conception, Lewis also explains why intellectual and “tough-minded” Christians can go in for extreme reactionary movements. The fascist movements in Portugal and Spain both clothed themselves in the garb of Catholicism. In our own day, Vladimir Putin makes overtures to the “trad” Christian base, with more than a little fanfare. This works because such people are longing for a natural satisfaction that has been obscured by secularizing ideas and movements, but they respond in a newly disordered way. The promise of the “heroic” is an echo of the divine. But imitation gods are demons.
This isn’t a warning only for Lewis’s opponents. Throughout his literary corpus, “the north” is typically a good place for Lewis. He favors Norse tales. His own brand of Anglicanism, while not quite fully Anglo-Catholic, was certainly more “high church” than anything else. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, these symbols that might otherwise symbolize Lewis himself are shown to have their own dangers and temptations — dangers that could lead to destruction.
And so too for readers of Lewis, for intellectual Christians who appreciate the classics, for traditional and “tough-minded” pilgrims — we also need to see the dangers that most threaten us. Our “return” must be along a path of truth. Our enlightenment must expose ourselves. And we must bare our hearts so that their true desires might be fulfilled by God forever.