The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis first published The Screwtape Letters in serial form. The venue was The Guardian, a preeminent Anglican newspaper. Publication ran from May to November 1941. Screwtape became Lewis’ most beloved creation, exceeding his fame for The Chronicles of Narnia.

None of this influenced my decision to read The Screwtape Letters. A friend recommended it when he learned about my novel-in-progress. My narrator is a god in trouble. In Hell, devils torment him.

Screwtape is a senior devil. He addresses The Screwtape Letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice Tempter. Together, they conspire to damn the soul of an Englishman known only as “the patient”. What a great way to learn about Hell.

The Lowerarchy

Hell turns out to be an enormous bureaucracy. At its head stands Our Father Below. The ranks are made up of a Lower Command, a Philology Department, the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils and the House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters. Our Father Below deploys this vast array of resources in the battle against the Enemy. The prize: possession of a human soul.

Wormwood’s patient is a vain, self-important individual. His mind is so good as empty. He’s a milksop of an Englishman. Ideal fodder for a tempter-in-training.

[H]e has a idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Geoffrey Bles 1942)

Wormwood is not yet skilled in the damnation of souls. He enjoys himself too much. He’s clumsy and lazy and, above all, impatient for the kill.

Screwtape reminds Wormwood to place duty before pleasure. Wormwood must keep his patient’s mind dim and uneasy in order to render him a Christian by appearance only. Once the patient finds his prayers a dull and onerous task, he will welcome any distraction, however devilish.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. […] Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.

The Screwtape Letters

A Screwtape Sequel

Once a soul enters Hell, the fun begins. Devilish cooks transform some humans into a casserole. Others harvest, tread and ferment these lost souls into a devilish wine. The same fate can befall an incompetent Tempter. Screwtape anticipates our modern corporate ethos. Eat or be eaten.

Some humans are tastier than others. In the sequel to The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape exhorts a class of young devils, eager for their first official posting to Tempterships on Earth. He cannot resist reminiscing over delicious repasts in bygone days.

Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage; an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your innards when you’d got it down.

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Geoffrey Bles 1961)

Today, you can find Screwtape in audio, theatrical and comic book form. The artist Bill Watterson paid homage to Screwtape in “Calvin and Hobbes”. Remember Calvin’s elementary school teacher, Mrs. Wormwood? Shades of devilry!

30 May 2021 | Karen Kao