The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Safest Road to Hell: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

When I was a kid, I was in an unfamiliar church with my Dad, and there was a painting on one of the walls of some sort of giant, glistening slug thing moving through the crowd of tortured souls in Hell. I asked my dad what that horrible thing was meant to be and he told me it was Satan. I was very confused, because I was 100% certain that Satan had goat legs and little horns and a pitchfork. Why a pitchfork? I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it was for poking lost souls in the butt, as I had seen many times in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So much of how a person might think of Satan or demons or devils, or whatever name you might like to use for them, is shaped by our experience of them in our culture. Maybe that’s a musician duking it out with the devil at a crossroads, or cartoon devils standing on people’s shoulders. Or, since the 1940s at least, the urbane demonic bureaucrat who is politely training his under-demons on how to corrupt their assigned “patients.”

It was July 20th, 1940, when C.S. Lewis was sitting in a church service (apparently his mind was wandering a bit), and as he told it:

Before the service was over—one cd. wish these things came more seasonably—I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’ The idea wd. be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.

He wrote this letter to his brother that day. He started writing short letters from the devil Screwtape to his junior tempter, Wormwood, soon after, and before a year had passed the letters were beginning to be serialized in The Guardian, a weekly Anglican newspaper (not to be confused with the current daily newspaper, which was called The Manchester Guardian until 1959).

Remember, there hadn’t been an approach quite like this at the time, and usually the letter was set in its column without much context or explanation. In fact, there’s at least one minister who canceled his subscription because—not recognizing it as satirical—he found that “much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical.” (I can personally relate that not much has changed in the 80 years since…my first novel Imaginary Jesus had a cover that was, I thought, really funny. But multiple complaints from serious-minded Christians that an “atheist” book was being sold at Christian book stores led to my publisher wisely repackaging the book with a less hilarious and potentially irreverent cover and the slightly clearer title My Imaginary Jesus. In any case I made a number of atheist friends as a result, and the offended Christians would not have liked the contents better than the title.)

In any case, the letters became massively popular, and by mid-1941 an editor named Ashley Sampson saw them in The Guardian and convinced Geoffrey Bles to publish them. On Feb 9, 1942, The Screwtape Letters was released in book form and was an immediate hit. There were nine printings before the end of the year, and eighteen printings just in Britain by the end of WWII. By the time of Lewis’s death, it was his most popular book, with over 250,000 copies sold (I have no idea if that still holds true…in 2001 HarperCollins said the Narnia books had lifetime American sales of 18 million copies, which, of course, has only increased in the last 20 years. Perhaps Screwtape has kept pace!)

Lewis was asked many times to write a sequel or more letters, which he consistently refused (though many others have attempted similar epistolary novels, and Lewis’s book has been adapted into comics and stage plays). In 1959 he wrote one more Screwtape piece (originally published in the Saturday Post), in which Screwtape gives a toast at the Tempters’ Training College. Most new editions of Screwtape include it.

In his preface to that piece, Lewis wrote this about The Screwtape Letters:

Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. … [T]hough it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done.

This book, which came both easily and at cost, was the work that truly catapulted Lewis into public life: it wasn’t long before most people had heard of The Screwtape Letters. And while it’s so well known, I don’t have a lot to say about this one! It’s pretty straightforward. So this will be our one article on the book—I’ll share some key aspects to watch out for, and then open up the discussion in the comments.

Here’s some trivia and things to pay attention to as you read:

  • Lewis specifically mentioned two works that had a conscious influence on his writing of this book: The Confessions of a Well-Meaning Womanby Stephen McKenna and Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (the latter being a book that he often mentioned being instrumental to a variety of his own books).
  • Lewis refused payment from The Guardian, asking instead that any payment be given to a fund for widows of clergymen.
  • Concerned that the typeset for the book could be destroyed in air raids, Lewis sent the original, hand-written manuscript to the nuns at the Community of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage. When they offered to send it back to him after the war, he told them to sell it and keep the proceeds for the community.
  • Lewis toyed with the idea of making The Screwtape Letters part of the Space Trilogy, suggesting in a discarded introduction that Dr. Ransom had found the letters, written in Old Solar, and had passed them on to Lewis. You can read that intro here.
  • Charles Williams wrote two reviews of the book, one of them for Time and Tide magazine, in which Williams copied Lewis’s format: the review is a letter between demons. You can read it here if you’re interested!
  • Dorothy Sayers wrote a letter to Lewis in which she had a demon talking about his patient (which was Ms. Sayers herself!). You can read that here.
  • The book is dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien. There are plenty of rumors that he didn’t love the book, though I can’t find a primary source where he says so. The rumor generally goes that Tolkien thought it dangerous to spend so much attention on the demonic (“it is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the enemy,” as Elrond said), and that he feared Lewis was at real spiritual risk for this writing exercise.
  • On the other hand, Lewis agrees with Tolkien. As he says in Screwtape: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
  • Lewis specifically says in the introduction that Screwtape is an unreliable narrator of the worst sort, and not to judge the humans in the story purely by Screwtape’s descriptions. Screwtape is a liar, and Lewis tells us that he’s likely not even telling “his side of the story” with honesty.
  • Note how often Wormwood’s advice is about deceit, distraction, and propaganda to keep the “patient” from simply embracing what would otherwise be obviously true (even according to Wormwood).
  • Pay attention to the description of the “Materialist Magician” who Screwtape hopes one day to create. Sounds like someone may have successfully created a recipe for just the thing by the time we get to That Hideous Strength!
  • There’s a lot of talk of the physical vs. the spiritual, a theme that Lewis often returns to. His description of humans as “amphibious” on this topic is interesting and worth keeping in mind when reading his other books.
  • I often see the last sentence of this quote passed around, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” But I think it’s good to remember it in context, that Lewis is saying the most important thing in spiritual temptation is to keep space between God and the patient. That can often be done more easily with a slow accumulation of small, even dismissible, sins, rather than a clear, obvious transgression.
  • Screwtape cares surprisingly little about the Second World War that happens to be going on as he writes. It’s worth paying attention to what he does say about it!
  • We still have that trademark Lewis humor popping up here and there. My favorite bit is when the secretary has to take over writing because Screwtape has gone through an unpleasant transformation.
  • Nailing down “a theme” in this book isn’t as easy as one might think, other than it being about how waging spiritual battle works and how temptation looks from “the other side.” It allows Lewis to talk about a lot of things that are important to him. So be looking for repeated topics related to love, religion vs. true spirituality, freedom, free will, and how even good things (like courage) can be corrupted into something evil.
  • Like any good bureaucracy, it appears a lot gets done because you know the right demons!

Okay, we only have one full Lewis book left to go: Till We Have Faces. This is one that a lot of Lewis fans have missed, which is a shame…it’s one of my favorites. We’ll meet back here shortly to read it together. In the meantime, do your best to make sure that the voices we’re listening to are moving us toward deeper love and kindness, not the neutralized lives that demons like Screwtape prefer!

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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