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The Crossway: An Overview

A photograph of a copy of The Crossway on a wooden surface

On the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 shortlist is Guy Stagg’s The Crossway, a narrative non-fiction account of his journey on foot from Canterbury to Jerusalem. It’s the book I have been championing for the Prize on Twitter.

On New Year’s Day 2013, Stagg begins a pilgrimage that has been done for a great many years by Christians for varying reasons; it’s a journey not taken lightly but in Stagg’s case is all the more significant for the season in which he departs. Along the way, particularly during those months where the winter is cutting and the snow will hinder progress, the people he meets exclaim their surprise and often advise pausing the pilgrimage until the weather improves; or perhaps he should be using transport – most pilgrims start in spring, autumn at the latest. But Stagg is driven by the feeling that if he stops he won’t continue; he began his journey when he did because he knew that to wait would result in never beginning. There is of course irony in his hosts’ advise – to stop what is supposed to be a difficult journey – but the determination Stagg has, at once wonderful and foolhardy (though it pays off), is what keeps him going. And the events during his journey provide a present day context for the stories he tells of historical, religious, figures.

Stagg is not religious, though his attention to detail in regards to the various saints and other pilgrims shows a great interest in the facts regardless; the specifications of stories about pilgrims, both those cannonised (or beatified) and others who were simply popular, include a good amount of research. Presumably first conceptualised at the time of his introduction to the figures through conversation with those along the road, and later researched in greater detail, these stories form one third of the overall content of the book.

The other two thirds are comprised of the journey itself and Stagg’s reason for walking – he hopes the ritual of pilgrimage will help him as he heals from mental illness. The journey doesn’t get as much time as you might expect – this is somewhat accounted for by Stagg’s stories of the kindness of those who gave him shelter and the way of pilgrimages where the path is trodden enough that there are systems in place – but where the road is particularly difficult, the details are fleshed out.

Catholics, Christians from other denominations, and those with the knowledge (whether religious themselves or not) may be the most obvious readers for this book, but the stories included are valuable also simply for history’s sake, particularly where the stories concern times when religion was more important than it is now; quite a bit of the information required to understand the religious references is included and the rest easy to find online. The pilgrimage, as a journey, also pits the book alongside others that are about similar sorts of travels. The aspect of mental illness is compelling and a reason in its own right.

The Prize winner will be announced on 20th May.

 
 

Kelly

April 29, 2019, 9:23 pm

This book sounds wonderful. I am religious, yet the historical aspect alone appears to be reason enough for reading it.

Tracy Terry

May 1, 2019, 4:19 pm

None religious types who choose to undertake these pilgrimages always fascinate me and in this respect this book appeals to me … I’m just not sure it does otherwise. The cover (I know never judge a book by its cover) certainly doesn’t shout out to me.

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