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Why Christian can't see the (wicket) gate?

I'm just listening to Peter Woodcock's audio narration of Journey to the City of the King, a PP adaptation by Peter and Anne Woodcock for 'young persons,' published by Day One Publications (2009 (1993)). One detail struck me. When Evangelist invites Christian to see the gate in the distance, an explanation is given for why Christian is unable to do so: 'for his eyes were full of tears.' It struck me that I had heard a similar form of words in the 2019 The Pilgrim's Progress animated movie, directed by Robert Fernandez. We'll get to that later.


For now, we can note that in Bunyan's text, there is no explanation for why Christian cannot see the wicket gate. Suffice to say that he can't see, but can just make out from a distance the shining light that illumines the gate. Christian first sheds tears, we surmise, as he read his book in the opening paragraph of the book where we are told that 'he wept'. When he meets Evangelist and is asked "Wherefore dost thou cry?" it is not clear if this is a reference to tears or his 'crying, What shall I do to be saved?' So it is also unclear if when Christian says that 'the thoughts of these things [death, judgment and hell] make me cry, he is referring to tears or outcry. After that, mostly the crying that happens is of the crying out variety rather than the tear shedding kind, such that the next incident of tears being wept is only at the cross when released from his burden. There we read that 'the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.'


Now we do know that Christian continues after that opening paragraph to struggle in misery under his burden so that it is plausible that he has tears, especially if we read his crying in his conversation with Evangelist to be weeping rather than outcry. But I suspected that Peter Woodcock was not the first to add this interpretative explanation. Jean Watson's (1983) The Family Pilgrim's Progress avoids the explanation by having Evangelist point to the light first, which Christian makes out, and then adding the detail of the gate. Tyler Van Halteren does the same in Little Pilgrim's Big Journey (2020). James Reeves' retelling, published in 1976 as Quest and Conquest, has Christian shading his eyes when he cannot see the gate, suggesting a low sun is to blame for his failure.


I was not surprised to track down a possible source for Woodcock's teary explanation. Certainly the most heavily circulated of children's adaptations of TPP is Helen Taylor's Little Pilgrim's Progress, originally published in the 1880s as The Little Christian's Progress. There we read, after Evangelist points Christian to the gate, '[b]ut little Christian's eyes were still dim with tears, so that he could not see the gate.' I'm no expert of earlier adaptations to know if the explanation is even older but it had at least had an airing for over a century before the Woodcock retelling for Day One (which is a good adaptive listen, by the way).


Which brings me back to the 2019 movie. There Evangelist is played by the strong voice of John Rhys-Davies (of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings movie fame). Here however the explanation is expanded and flipped. So, when Evangelist says, "Now, do you see that gate over there?" Christian moves his hand to his face to wipe at his eyes, as if motioning to wipe away tears. But Evangelist intervenes. Tears are not obstacles but opportunities for true sight. He had already told Christian that he would "soon see with your eyes what you believe in your heart," so we are clued in to the spiritual purpose of vision in the scene. Evangelist tell Christian, "Don't wipe away your tears, look through them. Sometimes tears have a way of bringing clarity." And even then Christian cannot see, so Evangelist pushes him further to "Look past your sorrow, good Christian." It is only in moving emotionally through and beyond sorrow, in hope, even as the tears of physical weeping remain, that Christian is able to see the light backlighting the gate in the distance.








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