Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women famously begins at Christmas: ‘“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’ The Christmassy nature of the book was stressed in the 1994 film adaptation, but in the book it is the Christian import of Christmas that is central, made explicit by the Christmas gift of the New Testament.
Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace,
and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey.
(Little Women, chapter 2)
The Christmas gift Jo receives is a life of Christ, a conscious echo of the gift of the first Christmas (also, in effect, a gift of Christ’s life). But is likewise noticeable that the New Testament is not named but called ‘a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey’ – a reference to another book: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian allegory which is one of the bestselling books of all time, and it is used extensively as story-scaffolding throughout Little Women. This is announced in the title of the opening chapter – ‘Playing Pilgrims’ – and runs as thread throughout the chapters with titles such as ‘Beth finds the Palace Beautiful’ (Chapter 6), ‘Amy’s Valley of Humiliation’ (Chapter 7), ‘Jo meets Apollyon’ (Chapter 8) and ‘Meg goes to Vanity Fair’ (Chapter 9). Alcott links her story with Bunyan’s to impart an explicitly Christian structure to her story.
When I gave a talk a while back about the influence of The Pilgrim’s Progress on Harry Potter a woman in the audience (named Clare Grey) reminded me of the importance of Bunyan’s story to Little Women and suggested that this might be one source of its use in Harry Potter. I love this idea because Rowling first devoured Alcott’s classic aged only eight, and it seems to have made a deep impression on her (for an in-depth rundown of the influence of Little Women on Harry Potter, see John Granger’s excellent write-up1)
Rowling has repeatedly mentioned in interviews how fond she was of the novel and its heroine in particular: ‘My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.’2 3 4
The influence of Little Women on Harry Potter’s Bunyanesque structure fits neatly because Rowling is echoing Alcott’s use of The Pilgrim’s Progress as the scaffolding for a children’s story. Reading Little Women as a child perhaps sowed the unconscious seeds of Rowling’s own story of heroes battling against adversity. Jo March – Rowling’s child heroine – also delights in acting out The Pilgrim’s Progress as one of her first forays into the imaginative life:
“Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrims 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.”
“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.
“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City…. It is only another name for trying to be good, and the story may help us, for though we do want to be good, it’s hard work and we forget, and don’t
do our best.”
“We were in the Slough of Despond tonight, and Mother came and pulled us out as Help did in the book. We ought to have our roll of directions, like Christian. What shall we do about that?” asked Jo, delighted with the fancy which lent a little romance to the very dull task of doing her duty.
“Look under your pillows Christmas morning, and you will find your guidebook,” replied Mrs. March.
(Little Women, Chapter 1)
The Christian nature of this Christmas gift is far more explicit in Little Women than it is in Harry Potter, but in Hogwarts likewise there is an underlying Christian symbolism to the crucial importance of Christmas gifts5. And, in the case of Harry’s Christmas gift in Philosopher’s Stone – likewise the opening gift of the series – it is also true that the invisibility cloak will prove invaluable on Harry’s quest.
Something that I love about Rowling’s post-Potter works is the way in which literary allusions I think I’ve detected that Harry Potter reappears in her later novels. Foremost in this queue comes Spenser’s Faerie Queene – after years of suggesting its importance to Potter and finding people somewhat dubious that Rowling was engaging with this vast early modern poetic epic, Troubled Blood’s epigraphs came riding in like Britomart to my rescue!6 The Pilgrim’s Progress, likewise, has reappeared in later works to prove that it is a text Rowling knows and by which she is influenced. Indeed, after the subtle moulding of Harry Potter on Bunyan’s journey-allegory, Rowling has, in effect, written two more or less explicit versions of The Pilgrims Progress.
The first of these is Bombyx Mori in The Silkworm. We never actually read this text-within-the-text of course but its parallel with Bunyan’s allegory is spelt out in some detail: ‘Elizabeth Tassel had told him, Bombyx Mori was a perverse Pilgrim’s Progress, set in a folkloric no-man’s-land in which the eponymous hero (a young writer of genius) set out from an island populated by inbred idiots too blind to recognise his talent on what seemed to be a largely symbolic journey towards a distant city’(The Silkworm, 102). Those of you who have read The Silkworm will know that this is, indeed, a truly perverse version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but nonetheless Bombyx Mori has a number of explicit parallels with its source text. The hero, for example, gathers cratylically names followers on his city-bound journey (Succuba and Tick as opposed to Hopeful and Faithful). And one of these names is a direct borrow – Vainglorious (the name of Fancourt’s alter-ego) is an allusion to Bunyan’s ‘land of Vainglory.’
The second, more subtle echo of The Pilgrim’s Progress, is The Christmas Pig. (Incidentally I noticed that Little Women, having hardly featured in all Rowling’s interviews in previous years, suddenly appeared three times in 2012 – so I wondered if this would turn out to be the year she had the idea for The Christmas Pig – and to my delight this turned out to be correct! ‘I had the idea in 2012’7)
Rowling has spoken of how The Christmas Pig is indebted to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol8>/sup> and it is structured round it too, with the three places visited echoing the visits of the three ghosts. But by making these allegorical places (‘Bother-it’s-Gone,’ ‘The City of the Missed’ and ‘The Island of the Beloved’). The Christmas Pig also creates a clear link with the parallel journey to insight and redemption undertaken by Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. There is a Palace in The Christmas Pig, like Bunyan’s ‘Palace Beautiful’ and a ‘City of the Missed’ like Bunyan’s ‘Celestial City.’ The allegory for heaven in The Christmas Pig, however, is the ‘Island of the Beloved’ and, like Christian passing through the river, Jack must pass through water to get there. And, as Beth says in Little Women remembering Christian’s arrival in heaven, Jack is welcomed as he comes up from the water: ‘I always imagine it is as it is in the picture, where the shining ones stretch out their hands to welcome poor Christian as he comes up from the river.’ The journey which Jack undertakes in The Christmas Pig as with Christian’s journey, passes through places and encounters figures which are allegories of mental states. The externalisation of psychological phenomena is germane The Christmas Pig just as it is to The Pilgrim’s Progress – where Bunyan has the Hill of Difficulty, Giant Despair and the Slough of Despond; The Christmas Pig has the Wastes of the Unlamented, King Power, Happiness and Ambition.
One Bunyan parallel which is particularly clear in The Christmas Pig is the way in which is Hope frees Jack and CP from Power’s Palace. In The Pilgrim’s Progress Christian and Hopeful are trapped in dungeon of Doubting-Castle by Giant Despair:
Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.
Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went damnable hard, yet the Key did open it.
The key that opens any lock is Promise – a more explicitly Christian idea than Hope, but it is noticeable that Hope is one of the theological virtues9 and that Hopeful is with Christian when he remembers the key Promise that unlocks all doors.
In the Palace Hope unlocks all doors ‘You know very well that no lock can contain me, Power’ (The Christmas Pig, page 243) – and this ability of hers allows Jack and CP to escape with her: ‘Jack was sure they were trapped, but as Hope soared towards it, the bolt flew back and the door crashed open’ (Ibid, page 248). The ability of Hope personified to open all locks is beautifully de-allegorized by Rowling in the denouement of the story, as Jack frees the toys trapped in the Loser’s Lair by giving them hope: ‘Jack knew what had happened. He’d given the Things hope, which no lock can contain’ (Ibid, page 298).
As with Little Women, The Christmas Pig is a children’s book in which Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress provides important story-scaffolding. And it is a link which illustrates the specifically Christian aspect of the quest heritage received – and indeed transmitted – by Rowling. In The Christmas Pig, the link with The Pilgrim’s Progress is much clearer than in Harry Potter, in part because it is likewise an allegory, and in part because of the inherently Christian aspect of the transformative possibilities of the Christmas setting: ‘And when I had the idea for this story I thought “That’s it. This story can only happen at Christmas”.’10 But, for this reader at least, the Christian context of Jack’s journey of self-discovery, in particular its parallels with The Pilgrim’s Progress, have something to tell us about Harry Potter likewise. And I wonder if the makers of the Harry Potter films also noticed this – for, delightfully, they put a copy of Bunyan’s classic visible on Dumbledore’s shelves.10
8. The Rowling Library Magazine, December 2021