The Influence of Religion in British Literature
Religion plays a major role in the way people live their lives, conduct their business, and choose their leaders. For most individuals, decisions are made within the boundaries of their religious beliefs, what works and what doesn’t work around it. In the field of literature, the influence of religion has determined many an authors’ works’ themes and direction, as well as language and genre structure.
British literature, in particular, has given us several examples of how the Christian religion has influenced and inspired the way writers generate their topics, characters, and metaphors. In Medieval and Renaissance England, a time of great political and religious dispute, and where some of the best works of literature have originated, the sect that a writer belonged to usually showed in his works, both in the manner a particular issue is addressed and in what the author is saying about his religion and religious ethics within the context of the story being told.
One such work produced that proves how religion influenced British literature is the King James Bible. The English translation of the Bible, it is the result of the work of translators commissioned by King James I of England, who gave instructions “designed to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy” (“Authorized King James Version”). The King James Bible could be read as popular literature, considering the wealth of stories told within it, the way they were told, and the language used. Most of the words now sound archaic but a revised version has addressed that problem, making it easier for more people to read and understand.
The following literary works by great British writers and poets have dominated the literary world in the way the authors used religion to tell their story. Some of these works are blatantly moralizing and invocational, often with references to the Bible, while others portray religious in more concealed manner yet unmistakably trying to impart values, and still others employ angels, demons and ghosts to drive their point.
Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories two of which were written in prose and rest in verse. The tales are told like stories within a story, told by a group of people on a pilgrimage from Southwalk to Canterbury to visit the the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (Chaucer). Written in Middle English, Canterbury Tales, when read in its original form, is difficult to make understand.
Utopia, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). Utopia, More’s famous and controversial novel, transcended to become a household word meaning an ideal community. The novel tells the story of Raphael, a traveler, who describes the political system of an imaginary island called Utopia. The setting of the island was devised by More in contrast to the controversial social life of European states during the time. More describes Utopia as a place where private property does not exist and where different religious practices are being tolerated, but condemns atheists. More’s objective in writing this novel is to emphasize the social need for discipline and order more than liberty. These, he implies, could only be achieved if man could be trusted, and he could not, if he didn’t believe in God.
Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). In his play Doctor Faustus, Marlowe tells about a well-respected German scholar who finds that the traditional forms of knowledge is starting to bore him. He wants to learn more about the world and beyond, thus he delves into the study of magic by under the devil Mephastophilis. Even the devil warns Faustus about the dangers and consequences he faces, and horrors of hell as his eventual destination. Faustus wouldn’t hear any of it and resumes his new career, offering his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of service. In the end, Faustus changes his mind about selling his soul, but this time, it is too late.
The concept of the play about a man selling his soul to the devil was not new even during Marlowe’s time. Old Christian folklores had been circulating before his era, particularly one that had become associated with Johannes Faustus, a German astrologer who was not exactly of good repute. Following the popularity of the play, the phrase “Faustian bargain” has been included in the English lexicon. The phrase refers to any “deal made for a short-term gain with great costs in the long run” (Jani, Dr. Faustus).
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare liberally used biblical and religious references to explain his character and demonstrate their thoughts, often incorporating Christian beliefs in to nail down his point. In Hamlet, he bares his Catholic belief be referring to Purgatory through the ghost of King Hamlet talking about things “that would make your hair stand on end” (Shakespeare).
Hamlet’s indecision whether to avenge the murder of his father or not takes root from his Christian upbringing that denounces revenge and murder. “To be or not to be” is a question of whether he should remain a good, God-fearing Christian or a good son following the order of his father’s ghost that could well be the devil for all he knew.
Another notable allegorical play by Shakespeare that is worth including in this list is King Henry IV. It tells about Henry the Fourth’s to keep his divine right to be king and maintain peace in his family and his country while leading a crusade to the Holy Land, which involves bloodshed.
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Tom Jones is a newborn foundling who mysteriously arrives in the Allworhty household, They gave him the surname Jones believing he is the son of Jenny Jones, a local girl of ill-repute. The Allsworthy raise him out of pity as their own son but he turns out to become a wild, raucous boy, a womanizer who is always in trouble. But he does have virtues of his own: kind, decent, generous, loving. Most of his love is directed to his neighbor, Sophia, who is also in love with him. The problem is that Sophia’s father wouldn’t let his daughter marry Tom so the two run away separately to London where they encounter people of various characters and get into different situations.
Fielding’s portrayal of modern life in the 19th century involves issues of morality in a world full of flawed characters. There are no angels and demons here, only real people dealing with real situations while trying to keep their values intact and their feet on the ground, and finally succeeding.
The Pilgrim’s Progress. Pilgrims, by John Bunyan (1628-1688). John Bunyan’s most notable work, Pilgrim’s Progress, is the story of the Traveler who faces and fights the many challenges and obstacles along his path to the Celestial City. The celestial city here, of course, is heaven, and one of his greatest obstacles, the Slough of Despond, which Bunyan considers full of scum and filth, it temptation. “This miry slough is such it place as cannot be mended. It is the descent where the scum and filth that attend conviction of sin continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond” (Bunyan 32).
In addition to Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan also wrote another allegorical novel called The Holy War, a story about the people of the city of Mansoul. The city, taken over by Diabolus (Satan), is rescued in an eternal victory by a man named Emmanuel (Christ). Other significant works by Bunyan that lean toward the religious include The Holy City and A Few Sighs From Hell. Both books expound on the marvels of heaven and the horrors of hell.
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963). Hailed for his out-of-the-closet imagination for his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis, an agnostic, wrote the essay Mere Christianity with to objective of proving that religion was a farce. He believed that though this book he could prove that Christianity was based on fiction. However, as he set out to write the book, he eventually and completely changed his mind about Christianity, deciding that Christianity was based sensibly on facts. The books following Mere Christianity contained some kind of religious reference. The Screwtape Letters, an epistolary novel, is a the correspondence between an older demon, Screwtape, and his nephew, a less-experienced demon, Wormwood .
Paradise Lost, by John Milton (1608 – 1674). Milton was expected to produce allegorical literary works considering his background as a biblical scholar who knew the Bible from cover to cover, not only in English but also in two other languages, Greek and Hebrew. Writing Paradise Lost in poem form, he investigates the reasons behind the temptation of Eve and man’s fall from grace, blaming the pagan gods, appearing as demons before Adam and Eve, and driving them to side with the serpent, not knowing that it was Satan. Milton’s poem also explores God’s promise of eternal life for mankind, and why and how His human creations failed him in the most crucial moment in Genesis.
In the sequel, Paradise Regained, Milton narrates Jesus’ temptation in the desert as originally told in the Gospels. He makes comparisons and contrasts between Christ and ordinary mortals, particularly Adam and Eve, taking off from the subject of fighting off temptation.
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). Religion is the major theme in the pivotal points in the plot of Robinson Crusoe. The novel opens with Crusoe leaving home against his family’s wishes, signifying abandonment of his father, a very ancient and wise man who provides guidance. Crusoe places reference to this going away without his father’s blessings as a “breach of my duty to my God and my father” (Defoe 9). Through his journey, Crusoe is shipwrecked in an “island of despair” where he has spiritual visions, urging him to repent. Later, when an English ship docks on the island and Crusoe rescues the captain against his subversive crew, Defoe implies that Crusoe’s shipwreck on the same island was a Provident decision to serve the purpose of rescuing the captain.
Some of the most famous novelists, playwrights, poets and essayists reached deep into their faiths and spiritual leaning to come up with a solid foundation for their characters and subjects of their plots. The result were some of their best works. Incorporating angels, ghosts and demons, good and evil, God and Satan, with what they knew and believed in, they were able to communicate to the world the importance of religion in one’s life.
British literature during the 16th to 18th century thrived on these allegorical works, a sign that during times of great confusion, people turn to religion. Religion, in turn, influenced and inspired people’s works, particularly literature. This influence has guided the readers of these particular works throughout the centuries.
“Authorized King James Version.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 6 Dec 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Authorized_King_James_Version&oldid=256262869>
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 1992.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Jani, Raien. “Dr. Faustus – Christopher Marlowe.” Associated Content. 31 Mar 2008. 6 Dec 2008. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/686413
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2001.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams. 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
—. Henry IV, Part I. Ed. James L. Sanderson. 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1969.