Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022 and Award Winners

Pilgrimages, Quests & Other Long Journeys: Background information when reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A Novel

by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce X
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jul 2012, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 368 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers
Buy This Book

About this Book

Pilgrimages, Quests & Other Long Journeys

This article relates to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Print Review

In Rachel Joyce's debut novel, Harold Fry sets off on what the book title refers to as an "unlikely pilgrimage"; but can his journey correctly be called a pilgrimage if it doesn't have a religious destination?

Although most of us probably think of a pilgrimage as having religious connotations, the word has its roots in the Latin peregrinus, meaning coming from foreign parts. Thus, the lead definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) of a pilgrim is simply "one who travels from place to place: a wanderer, a sojourner".

MapMany reviewers refer to Harold's journey as a quest. Is that also an accurate description?

According to the OED, a quest is a search for something - such as the quest for the Holy Grail or for the cure for cancer. On the face of it, Harold is not on a quest because he knows the name and address of his objective, so there is no searching involved; but his journey has many more layers to it than the simple act of walking from one place to another, not least overcoming his own personal demons and his belief that, as long as he walks, his friend will live - both of which sound like worthy quests!

Although we've established that a pilgrimage doesn't have to have a religious element, most of us would agree that for a long journey to be defined as a pilgrimage there should be a certain spiritual quality to it. The OED's second definition of a pilgrim is "one who journeys to some sacred place, as an act of religious devotion." While this definition is a little too rigid to describe Harold's journey, the end goal of a journey to a sacred place is, surely, to achieve spiritual and/or moral clarity; in short, to be a journey of self-discovery.

When Harold steps out of his front door to post a letter, he's not aware that he's starting on a journey of any sort; but his mission* to reconnect with an old friend evolves into a journey of self-discovery - and thus Harold is indeed a pilgrim and also achieves his quest!


*As an aside, it's interesting to note how both the words "pilgrim" and "missionary" have come to carry religious connotations when they were originally secular in meaning. Indeed, right up to the late 18th century, a missionary was simply one who undertook a mission. Thus, when Mungo Park returned from his first and purely scientific exploration of Africa in 1797, funded by the Africa Association, the Association's head, Sir Joseph Banks, referred to Park as his "missionary from Africa".



The map shows Harold's starting point in Kingsbridge, Devon - not the most southernmost point of England, but close to it; and his destination, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 2.5 miles south of the English border with Scotland. The route marked is not the one taken by Harold, but the shortest distance by car - a drive of over 8 hours.

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It originally ran in August 2012 and has been updated for the March 2013 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Join and Save 20%!

Become a member and
discover exceptional books.

Find out more


Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: Horse
    Horse
    by Geraldine Brooks
    Voted 2022 Best Fiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. Geraldine Brooks creates a ...
  • Book Jacket: In Love
    In Love
    by Amy Bloom
    Voted 2022 Best Nonfiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. In 2019, author Amy Bloom and her...
  • Book Jacket: Remarkably Bright Creatures
    Remarkably Bright Creatures
    by Shelby Van Pelt
    Voted 2022 Best Debut Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers. Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, ...

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Scatterlings
    by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe

    The debut novel of a gifted storyteller who has become a sensation in her native South Africa.

Wordplay

The Big Holiday Wordplay

Enter Now

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Bell in the Lake
by Lars Mytting
The engrossing epic novel - a #1 bestseller in Norway - of a young woman whose fate plays out against her village's mystical church bells.
Who Said...

In war there are no unwounded soldiers

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.