Centuries before Bunyan’s Pilgrim was trekking towards the Celestial City, Chaucer’s motley crew were wending their way to Canterbury. Both stories draw on a premonition that’s as old as Abraham and as fresh as Kerouac—an intimation, undying through the ages, that life is a journey towards, or in search of, the holy.
Perhaps no story is not a pilgrim story, for, as was said at this summer’s CiRCE conference, all stories spin variations on the plot structure that begins at a metaphorical “home,” moves away through adventure and danger, and returns home in resolution. But while this structure may undergird all lives and plots, the stories that locate their characters on roads and in travels seize the chance to speak of it directly, to define the journey’s contours and so to shape its meaning. For, in a pilgrimage story, the plain logistics represent profound interpretations of life itself.
Where do our pilgrimages begin—in the City of Destruction, in Southwark’s red-light district, in the comfort of Hobbiton, in medias res? How does the place we start from shape the journey that follows? Is it a restless itch of the soul that makes folks “longen to go on pilgrimages,” or a violent summons, or a conversion?
Are our companions trusty members of a fellowship or happenstance sharers of the road? Do we have a Virgil, or must we chart our own course? Are we on holiday or fleeing pursuit? Along the way, shall we tell stories? Joust windmills? Sing? Skirt danger?
Do we have a destination, or are we wandering? If we do seek a journey’s end, will it bring the transformation we seek? Will we then return to where we started—back through the wardrobe door, home to Ithaca—or take residence in the Celestial City?
These are all questions and contemplations that can be stirred simply by the cover of The Canterbury Tales, which my students and I began reading this week. They might think that the people pictured on that cover wear funny hats; they might think the relentless pentameter is stilted; they might groan with relief to hear that Chaucer completed only twenty-four of his projected hundred-something tales. But these questions of life and pilgrimage bring a stillness to the room, for they name what we all already were feeling: that we, too, are folks that “longen [for] to goon on pilgrimages”—that we are, indeed, already embarked upon one, and dearly in need of guidance to walk it well.