Back in the early fifties, when I was at primary school, our headmistress, who was pretty old, at least thirty, used to take the top class once a week for a special lesson known as Literature. This was proper stuff too, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickens, all from the original texts, not the kind of pap the kids get served nowadays, and one of the things I remember her reading was long extracts from John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Now there was an awful lot of religion in schools back then, and generally I didn’t much take to it: even then I had a dimly formulated preference for objective language, for words that were alive with meaning in their own right rather than words that required some complicity of belief on the reader’s part to animate them. Yet it couldn’t be denied that some religious texts had considerable power whether or not you were a believer, and I remember being much moved by this account of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth.
‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’