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  • As usual, a fascinating post drawing from wonderfully varied sources. Thank you.

    It puts me in mind of Hamlet (most things put me in mind of Hamlet), where Ophelia plays with expectations talking to her brother. The thorny, difficult route, is the virtuous one, and the lovely, clean way is the disreputable one:

    Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
    Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
    Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
    Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
    And recks not his own rede.

    Hamlet Act 1, scene 3

    It’s a trope most familiar (to me) from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

    In Early English Books Online (http://eebo.chadwyck.com), I can only find four references to “thorny way” (and none to “thorny road/path/route/track/pathway”) that predate Hamlet (probably first performed in 1600, and first published in 1604).

    Three of them use the thorny way as the metaphorical road to hell rather than heaven, fitting the pattern Stan describes here. Only in a sermon by Calvin (The sermons of M. Iohn Caluin vpon the fifth booke of Moses called Deuteronomie, in a translated edition on 1583) is the thorny path the good one:

    Againe forasmuch as we be fraile and haue a rough and thornie way to goe, yea and there be many stoppes to barre vs, so as it will seeme that there be great mountaines to make vs turne backe againe: let vs pray our God to giue vs strength to go on stil forward.

    Calvin, p.48.

  • An amendment: Hamlet was first published in 1603; the second, “good” quarto edition of 1604/5 (the date changes mid-print-run) is the first to contain that speech of Ophelia’s.

  • Thank you, Pip, for the thoughtful observations. It’s very interesting how we can turn the metaphor around and have the thorny path lead to either heaven or hell. The central idea appears to be the easiness/difficulty of a certain way of living. Different aspects of (human ideas of) goodness or evil can be connoted by the same imagery; context is all-important.
    It reminds me of the Kusturica film Underground: in this case the people ‘underground’ are political revolutionaries rather than career criminals, and so we are invited to sympathise and identify with them.