The Divine Mirror in Pilgrim’s Progress

Mirrors are a big part of fantasy literature in the English tradition. It starts in a big way with the Alice classics by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), an Oxford Platonist, Anglican clergyman, and mathematician, when he sends his heroine Through the Looking Glass and it echos through Goudge’s work (as we saw yesterday), Tolkien’s Mirror of Galadriel and Frodo’s Light which is essentially a phial of water taken from the pool-mirror, up to the Godfather mirror fragment that plays such a large part in Deathly Hallows.

The tradition of mirrors in fantasy fiction and its origin in the natural theology and logos epistemology of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is discussed at length in The Deathly Hallows Lectures, chapter 5, ‘The Seeing Eye,’ so I won’t beat that to death again here. What I want to share today is what I think may be the first and what is certainly the most important pre-Coleridge use of a mirror that reflects the ‘I’ that is, as Lewis says, “a sacred name.”

It’s from Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2, Section 4, the Delectable Mountains, a passage brought to my attention by James Devine, a dear friend of mine I met in Marine Corps boot camp, believe it or not.

To set the scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, at the passage we’re about to jump into, we’re in the second part of the story during which Christian’s family makes the journey he made solo in the first part. Mercy, Matthew, and Christiana are traversing the Delectable Mountains after escaping the Giants of Despair. Mercy asks for a detour to see “the hole in the hill,” a glimpse of hell, and then, after entering the Shepherd’s Palace (the Shephers defeated the Giants), she discovers a Mirror. Unbelievably, she asks if she can buy it from the Shepherds. Here is the Bunyan passage:

Then said Mercy, the wife of Matthew, to Christiana her mother, Mother, I would, if it might be, see the hole in the hill, or that commonly called the By-way to hell. So her mother brake her mind to the shepherds. Then they went to the door; it was on the side of an hill; and they opened it, and bid Mercy hearken a while. So she hearkened, and heard one saying, “Cursed be my father for holding of my feet back from the way of peace and life.” Another said, “Oh that I had been torn in pieces before I had, to save my life, lost my soul!” And another said, “If I were to live again, how would I deny myself, rather than to come to this place!” Then there was as if the very earth groaned and quaked under the feet of this young woman for fear; so she looked white, and came trembling away, saying, “Blessed be he and she that is delivered from this place!”

Now, when the shepherds had shown them all these things, then they had them back to the palace, and entertained them with what the house would afford. But Mercy, being a young and married woman, longed for something that she saw there, but was ashamed to ask. Her mother-in-law then asked her what she ailed, for she looked as one not well. Then said Mercy, There is a looking-glass hangs up in the dining-room, off which I cannot take my mind; if, therefore, I have it not, I think I shall miscarry. Then said her mother, I will mention thy wants to the shepherds, and they will not deny thee. But she said, I am ashamed that these men should know that I longed. Nay, my daughter, said she, it is no shame, but a virtue, to long for such a thing as that. So Mercy said, Then mother, if you please, ask the shepherds if they are willing to sell it.

Now the glass was one of a thousand. It would present a man, one way, with his own features exactly; and turn it but another way, and it would show one the very face and similitude of the Prince of pilgrims himself. Yes, I have talked with them that can tell, and they have said that they have seen the very crown of thorns upon his head by looking in that glass; they have therein also seen the holes in his hands, his feet, and his side. Yea, such an excellency is there in this glass, that it will show him to one where they have a mind to see him, whether living or dead; whether in earth, or in heaven; whether in a state of humiliation, or in his exaltation; whether coming to suffer, or coming to reign. [James 1:23; 1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Cor. 3:18.]

Christiana therefore went to the shepherds apart, (now the names of the shepherds were Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere,) and said unto them, There is one of my daughters, a breeding woman, that I think doth long for something that she hath seen in this house; and she thinks that she shall miscarry if she should by you be denied.

EXPERIENCE. Call her, call her, she shall assuredly have what we can help her to. So they called her, and said to her, Mercy, what is that thing thou wouldst have? Then she blushed, and said, The great glass that hangs up in the dining-room. So Sincere ran and fetched it, and with a joyful consent it was given her. Then she bowed her head, and gave thanks, and said, By this I know that I have obtained favor in your eyes.

They also gave to the other young women such things as they desired, and to their husbands great commendations, for that they had joined with Mr. Great-Heart in the slaying of Giant Despair, and the demolishing of Doubting Castle.

Now to unwrap the allegory:

Note that she looks into the Hole-In-the-Side-of-the-Hill, the By-way to Hell, immediately before the mirror episode. She opens the doors and hears souls in hell lamenting choices they made that sent them there. On the surface, it is a morality play type allegory: repent before it is too late! As preface to the Mirror reflecting the ‘Prince of Pilgrims,’ it is a little more. Mercy looks into a cave (think Plato) or place of darkness. She sees no light (John 1:9). She comes to the home of the Shepherds named Knowledge (gnosis), Watchfulness (nepsis), Experience (pieros), and Sincere, looks in the Dining Room (!) mirror, and sees Christ as her reflection, the Light of the World, because she has “a mind (nous) to see him.”

The scripture references are St. Paul’s pointers to the idea of a mirror, in which subject and object are dissolved and, in which, “I shall know even as also I am known;” note that the word for “know” here is epigignosko, ‘to recognize’ or, literally, ‘have gnosis (spiritual knowledge) upon.’ Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and his equating all knowledge with “the coincidence of subject and object” is not anything that St. Paul or Bunyan would have struggled with — and we see how Lewis’ ‘Seeing Eye’ picked it up in MacDonald, Barfield, even Blyton, Hodgson Burnet, and Goudge, as well as in Coleridge.

This idea of recognizing the reflection of the divine aspect or logos within us as represented by a mirror in which we can see Christ, the incarnate Logos, is important in Deathly Hallows because Harry sees the ‘eye’ in the Godfather mirror fragment where his ‘I’ should be. Harry, as spirit in the body-mind-spirit triptychs of Ron-Hermione-Harry as well as Voldemort-Dumbledore-Harry, is the story symbol of the logos aspect within us, the creative principle we experience as intelligence and knowledge because we only know anything through its recognition of its reflection in the inner principles or logoi in every created thing. Like Christiana, Harry sees in the magic mirror he has been given his sacred self and real nature, the eye/I of the Invisibility Cloak that, while not being seen, sees all because it is “continuous with,” as Lewis puts it, “the unity of existence,” the fabric of reality.

For more on the mirror in Deathly Hallows, Harry as spirit and eye, and the meaning of his trip to King’s Cross and the conversation there Ms. Rowling says is “the key” to the series she “waited 17 years to write,” see The Deathly Hallows Lectures. For more on Ms. Rowling’s use of allegory, especially the Platonic, Bunyan, and Swiftian echoes in her ‘Hagrid’s Tale’ from Phoenix, pre-order a copy of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures. It’s all in there.

Your thoughts, comments, and correction are, as always, coveted. What mirrors in fantasy fiction conform to the Bunyan-Coleridge tradition taken from Christian scripture and hermetic natural theology? Which depart from it? We know this is why vampires have no reflection in a mirror. Are there are such conventions in gothic fiction? Lemmeno!


  1. I know of a few vampires that have reflections in a mirror. 😀

    From Breaking Dawn: [spoiler alert!]

    First, at Edward and Bella’s wedding, only 57 pages into the book; this is Bella’s first sight of herself as a bride and occurs after the sunset ceremony. “I caught just a glimpse of Edward’s reflection–a perfect duplicate of his perfect face–with a dark-haired beauty at his side. Her skin was cream and roses, her eyes were huge with excitement and framed with thick lashes. The narrow sheath of the shimmering white dress flared out subtly at the train almost like an inverted calla lily, cut so skillfully that her body looked elegant and graceful–while it was motionless, at least. Before I could blink and make the beauty turn back into me …”

    Next, immediately after her sacrifical death (to give life to her daughter) and her subsequent “fiery” transformation into the immortal vampire. Alice brings in a gilt-framed mirror: “My first reaction was an unthinking pleasure. The alien creature in the glass was indisputably beautiful, every bit as beautiful as Alice or Esme. She was fluid even in stillness, and her flawless face was pale as the moon against the frame of her dark, heavy hair. Her limbs were smooth and strong, skin glistening subtly, luminous as a pearl.

    My second reaction was horror.

    Who was she? At first glance, I couldn’t find my face anywhere in the smooth, perfect planes of her features.

    And her eyes! Though I’d known to expect them, her eyes still sent a thrill of terror through me.

    All the while I studied and reacted, her face was perfectly composed, a carving of a goddess …

    I stared at the beautiful woman with the terrifying eyes, looking for pieces of me. There was something there in the shape of her lips–if you looked past the dizzying beauty, it was true that her upper lip was slightly out of balance, a bit too full to match the lower. Finding this familiar little flaw made me feel a tiny bit better. Maybe the rest of me was in there too.

    Here is my attempt to unpack this, and as I’m desperately new at the Coleridgean thing, it may be imperfect or even flat-out wrong. I’ll look forward to any corrections anyone has to offer!

    In the first case [which is almost literally in “a glass, darkly” as she’s standing outside at night looking at her reflection in the glass wall of the Cullens’ home] she sees herself united to the divine aspect, Edward, whose gift of reading minds makes him a small version of the All-Knowing. In the second, not only is she united to Edward (who is standing beside her) but she sees Light as a part of–continuous with–herself: face like a moon, skin glistening, “luminous, like a pearl” [of Great Price?]

    In both mirror scenes, Bella struggles to recognize herself–and yet it is herself that she sees. Oddly enough, she doesn’t seem to struggle to see the divine; her struggle is to see that she has any part in that. Her joy, discovered particularly from that last mirror scene onward, is in finding that she does–that she not only partakes, but belongs and has a role in that.

    Her power, like Harry’s invisibility cloak, is to “shield others as well as herself”. She proves this in the final confrontation with the Volturi, as the gift that protects her mind from all invasion, even Edward’s, “blinds” the enemy–mind-reader Aro, desensitizer Alec, torturer Jane, and bond-breaker Chelsea are all rendered useless as long as Bella holds firm. The Cullens and friends can literally blind the enemy, thanks to Zafrina, and Edward can “see” into all of their minds, but it is very much like a one-way mirror with the Cullens having the see-through side. Volturi leader Aro, used to domination, sees his own vulnerability and the battle ends, like the Cold War, without a single shot being fired.

    So that’s Twilight. Lewis was the other author I thought of, and interesting stuff in both the Narniad and the Space Trilogy came to mind:

    Eustace, in Dawn Treader, looks into a pool and sees he has become continuous not with the divine Logos, but with the evil principle–the dragon. When he meets Aslan later, he goes through multiple efforts to remove his dragon-skin, but looks into a pool and sees himself still reptilian. He surrenders to Aslan, who claws right through the skin and throws him in the mirroring pool, effectively baptising him–and he finds himself human again. I’m not sure if this is relevant to the discussion exactly, but it intrigued me.

    In That Hideous Strength, the episode is actually mirror-less:

    ” ‘Isn’t that like a man?’ exclaimed Mrs. Dimble. ‘There’s not a mirror in the room.’

    ‘I don’t believe we were meant to see ourselves,’ said Jane. ‘He said something about being mirrors enough to see another.’ “

    Through each others’ eyes, the commonplace Ivy Maggs becomes “a pert fairy”, graceful Camilla stands “like starlight, in the spoils of provinces”, and the barren Mrs. Dimble becomes “a tribal matriarch, a mother of mothers.” Jane never knows exactly what she becomes, only that in the eyes of the others, it is fitting. Lewis describes their transformations this way: “The commonplace had not exactly gone from her form and face, the robe had taken it up, as a great composer takes up a folk tune and tosses it like a ball through his symphony and makes of it a marvel, yet leaves it still itself.” In this case they are not seeing the reflection of the divine aspect in themselves–that, they must take on the word of the others. They are seeing the divine reflected in one another.

    Thoughts, anyone? I’m very curious as to whether this is insightful, tangential, or ludicrous. 🙂

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