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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jul 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 368 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Pilgrimages, Quests & Other Long Journeys

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.

This article was originally published in August 2012, and has been updated for the March 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • 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 $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Midwinter Break
    Midwinter Break
    by Bernard MacLaverty
    Northern Ireland's Bernard MacLaverty is the author of five novels and multiple short story ...
  • Book Jacket: The Ninth Hour
    The Ninth Hour
    by Alice McDermott
    In a pivotal scene in The Ninth Hour, young Sally encounters an increasingly loathsome series of ...
  • Book Jacket: Rebellion
    Rebellion
    by Molly Patterson
    Rebellion overlays the stories of four women, spanning a century and the globe in their wide ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

An eye-opening and riveting look at how how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Twelve-Mile Straight
    by Eleanor Henderson

    An audacious epic set in rural Georgia during the years of the Depression and Prohibition.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Love and Other Consolation Prizes
    by Jamie Ford

    Inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle's epic 1909 World's Fair.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win If the Creek Don't Rise

If the Creek Don't Rise

A debut novel bursting with heart, honesty, and homegrown grit.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Y Can't M A S P O O A S E

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.