Captured by Giant Despair

Neither could they, with all the skill they had, get again to the stile that night. Wherefore, at last, lighting under a little shelter, they sat down there until the daybreak; but, being weary, they fell asleep. Now there was, not far from the place where they lay, a castle called Doubting Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair; and it was in his grounds they now were sleeping: wherefore he, getting up in the morning early, and walking up and down in his fields, caught Christian and Hopeful asleep in his grounds. Then, with a grim and surly voice, he bid them awake; and asked them whence they were, and what they did in his grounds. They told him they were pilgrims, and that they had lost their way. Then said the Giant, You have this night trespassed on me, by trampling in and lying on my grounds, and therefore you must go along with me. So they were forced to go, because he was stronger than they. They also had but little to say, for they knew themselves in a fault. The Giant, therefore, drove them before him, and put them into his castle, into a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men. Here, then, they lay from Wednesday morning till Saturday night, without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask how they did; they were, therefore, here in evil case, and were far from friends and acquaintance. Now in this place Christian had double sorrow, because it was through his unadvised counsel that they were brought into this distress.

The pilgrims now, to gratify the flesh,
Will seek its ease; but oh! how they afresh
Do thereby plunge themselves new griefs into!
Who seek to please the flesh, themselves undo.

Giant Despair

Though Christian and Hopeful try “with all the skill they had” to return to the Way, they are unable. Wearied and cast down, they find a little shelter and fall asleep. Soon they discover that they are in great danger. They have trespassed on the grounds of Doubting Castle and are captured by Giant Despair.

The castle is a miserable, unforgiving place. It represents the doubts and fears of those beaten down by sin and overcome with guilt and sorrow. David describes such brokenness in the Psalms:

You know my reproach, my shame, and my dishonor;
My adversaries are all before You.
Reproach has broken my heart,
And I am full of heaviness;
(Psalm 69:19–20)

I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth;
I suffer Your terrors;
I am distraught.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me;
Your terrors have cut me off.
They came around me all day long like water;
They engulfed me altogether.
(Psalm 88:15–17)

The depth of such brokenness is portrayed in the allegory as a dungeon. The dungeon is a dark and unpleasant place, “nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men.” Their sorrow is lingering and lonely. For four days they are confined without food or drink (to regain their strength) or light (to see and find a way out), or friends and acquaintances (to notice and take pity on them).

Loved one and friend You have put far from me,
And my acquaintances into darkness.
(Psalm 88:18)

Christian knew he had sinned and willfully wandered from the Way. His sorrow was deep in the meadow, when he realized his grave error. But now his pain is deeper. Though he had repented, sought forgiveness, and tried with great effort to make things right; he and Hopeful failed to return to the Way. Christian feels the weight of responsibility for their present distress. Earlier in the story he had grown weary on Hill Difficulty and had fallen asleep. He lost his roll (lost his comfort and assurance of salvation) and lost time retracing his steps to find it. Now Christian is again in a difficult place. He struggles with assurance. He is riddled with guilt, overwhelmed with doubts, and bound by despair. How can he be a Christian and stray so badly? His “unadvised counsel” has endangered not just himself, but a brother as well. Both he and Hopeful are overpowered, forced into Doubting Castle, and locked away in its very dark dungeon.

Christian’s misery echoes Bunyan’s own doubts of his salvation, expressed in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

But my original and inward pollution, that, that was my plague and my affliction; that, I say, at a dreadful rate, always putting forth itself within me; that I had the guilt of, to amazement; by reason of that, I was more loathsome in my own eyes than was a toad; and I thought I was so in God’s eyes too; sin and corruption, I said, would as naturally bubble out of my heart, as water would bubble out of a fountain. I thought now that everyone had a better heart than I had; I could have changed heart with anybody; I thought none but the devil himself could equalize me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair; for I concluded that this condition that I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, thought I, I am forsaken of God; sure I am given up to the devil, and to a reprobate mind; and thus I continued a long while, even for some years together. [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 84]

Christian and Hopeful lie imprisoned in Doubting Castle because they were no longer looking to Christ and resting in His provision. They had looked to themselves to find an easier path. And even when they realized their error and sought to return to the Way, they failed, striving in their own efforts. “All the skill they had” was not sufficient to revive and restore them. It looks grim for the pilgrims, but their troubles are just beginning.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2017 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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