Christian Principles in Langland's Works
Many regard Langland’s work as a variation on the classic ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ story for the fourteenth-century Christian. The poem is often called a spiritual autobiography; but this is a simpliste description, the ironical result of the very vividness of Langland's presentation of his dreamer. The poet records a spiritual crisis that he experienced after a disputation with friars in later years. The poem, like Dante's, is certainly in one sense a Pilgrim's Progress--but hardly in Bunyan's sense; it describes not so much a spiritual journey (and journey was the dominant sense of 'progress' in Bunyan's day) as an unfolding, a development, stage by stage, passus by passus.
The form of the poem is that of dream vision, a form in which the author presents the story under the guise of having dreamt it, which was common in medieval literature. The dominant features of dream vision were of love and also of spiritual or religious themes, and Chaucer’s first three major pieces were dream visions. The dreamer and narrator is the same person, which gives the poem an intensely personal edge, even though the personality is fictional. The dream vision involves allegory, not only because when one dreams we expect the unrealistic and fanciful, for example events taking place which would not be feasible in normal life, but also because of the common suspicion that dreams portray the truth in disguised form, and are therefore natural allegories. Langland’s use of the dream as a format for his narration allows the reader to gain better understanding of the unusual journey the protagonist Will takes, and the characters he meets along the way. The use of personifications in the poem gives it a surreal edge, for example the characters of Truth and Death. When we study the piece it is clear that although many aspects are realistic there is a general undertone of the farcical and surreal. The entire work confirms to the notion that Will was a man who was educated to enter the church but who, through marriage and lack of preferment, was reduced to poverty, and it could well be that he may have wandered in his youth like the ‘hermits’ he scornfully describes in the prologue.
The main themes of the poem are that of criticism of religion and/or institutions within the church, and also social criticism; Langland seems to be against any kind of social movement. He muses in the poem that the King of the land is only so because he has been granted the right by God and no one else, and also that the power granted upon him could be abused; any king has the capability to be a tyrant. Therefore the king should use his power to impose law and justice on the land as God’s aid to keep the world right. He celebrates the idea that the ‘poor’ man will be the rich man’s superior in Heaven. The character of Lady Meed represents corruption personified. She...