Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

So the reading plan for the end of home school co-op English 1 was a choose-your-own scenario. However, despite knowing all along how many weeks I had, my plan failed me and we did not have time for that whole thing. Instead, I chose for them a short book that would work well with the group that I had (five teen boys in a Christian-based co-op). That book, I had read many years before–about when I was their age, I suppose–and was The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.

As a matter of fact, I believe that I also re-read The Screwtape Letters in college, when I took a one-credit survey course on C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald taught by the school librarian. (I also took another one of these classes on Alfred Hitchcock. I wish I had discovered them earlier.) At any rate, come April 2022, I already knew I liked the book. It was recommended reading for the grade I needed, so we did a quick and creative read to finish up the year while writing our final paper/presentation (on an author of choice) and taking our final tests (on poetry and Latin and Greek roots).

Image from Amazon.com

Ignoring their disappointment at not being able to read a book of their choice, the class discussions on The Screwtape Letters have been interesting, for sure. I suppose you could read this book even if you were not a Christian (it is chock-full of conventional wisdom and cultural insight), but it seems pretty specific. Here is the set-up: Screwtape is a senior demon of sorts in a somewhat-business-like/bureaucratic version of hell. His “nephew,” Wormwood, is fresh out of demon college and has been assigned his first patient (referred to only as “the patient”, a young, English, human man) to tempt away from the “Enemy” (God) and into the corrals of lost souls in hell. The patient has just found church and World War II is breaking out. The novel is strictly epistolary, with thirty-one letters from Screwtape to Wormwood responding to Wormwood’s unseen reports, giving the advice of the experienced to the continually inexperienced bumblings of an underling, including more general musings about the human race, “the Enemy,” and the nature of human experience and its position in eternity.

The book is not meant to be literal, but is still full of theology. The introduction from Lewis is helpful here. It explains why he wrote The Screwtape Letters and why he chose a fictional, hypothetical version with both levity and a dose of creepiness. Like some of his theological writing, we are meant to think and learn. Like his fiction, we are meant to be entertained. Either way, we are not meant to be afraid or to shrug all of this off. It is very thought-provoking, to the point that I marveled: how did Lewis think so much, hold so much in his brain? Also, different stages of life are going to give you different experiences of this book. Lewis addresses many life stages and scenarios and I found myself reading the bits about marriage aloud to my husband so that he could chuckle (because it’s true!) too. Sound like it doesn’t have much of a plot? It kind of doesn’t, but there is a story arc here, going on subtly both behind the scenes and very slowly within them. I read it fairly fast. (My copy also contained “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” written much later, in the back. It was interesting, but not on the same level, I think, as the Letters.)

These is a little warning here: this book is written “backwards,” right? We are viewing the world from the perspective of a demon, so the devil is “Our Father Below,” God is the “Enemy,” and likewise vice is celebrated and love considered gross, pathetic and even impossible. It takes some adjustment to read this way. For me, I was several chapters in before I didn’t need to re-read sections once I realized I was reading it wrong or backwards. Truth is lies and vice versa. Screwtape is capable of hitting on truth and observation, occasionally, but is also prone to deception and perversion. It’s worth it, but it does take some work. Without it, this book wouldn’t work, so…

As far as C. S. Lewis is concerned, most people probably know him as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He is, actually, more than an author of fiction and in Christian circles he is just as famous for his (lay-)theological writings (which I have already said), apologetics and even memoir-like storytelling. He was writing in England in the early twentieth century, which is where World War II finds its place into his fantasy. He was a literature professor at Oxford and Cambridge and yes, it is true, he was buddies with J. R. R. Tolkien. They were even in a writing group together, the Inklings. His more famous books are:

  • The Problem of Pain
  • The Case for Christianity
  • The Abolition of Man
  • Miracles
  • Mere Christianity
  • Surprised by Joy
  • Reflections on the Psalms
  • A Grief Observed
  • The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses
  • The Pilgrim’s Regress (fiction)
  • The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength (sci-fi)
  • The Great Divorce (fiction)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, The Last Battle (children’s fantasy)
  • Till We Have Faces (myth retelling)
  • The Dark Tower (fiction)
  • Spirits in Bondage (poetry)

SOME FAVE QUOTES (and remember that our perspective is backwards):

“Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention” (p18).

“It is about this that he is to say, ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of” (p29).

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part” (p35).

“The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience” (p35).

“He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one” (p41).

“…and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will power, and the game is ours” (p42).

“I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (p56).

“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (p56).

“But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed” (p63).

“He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things” (p64).

“We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the Future every real gift which is offered them in the Present” (p70).

“In the second place, the search for the “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil …. critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise…” (p73).

“The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possible state the different between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes” (p75).

“…because they do not find themselves ‘in love,’ and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion” (p84).

“Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material” (p89).

“Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours” (p96).

“…men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!” (p97).

“Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore’” (p101).

“Instead of the Creator adored by its creature, you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian” (p107).

“’Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game” (p109).

“It is often impossible to find out either party’s real wishes; with luck, they end by doing something that neither wants” (p122).

“…that creation in its entirety operates at every point of space and time, or rather that their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self-consistent creative act as a series of successive events. Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy’s nonsense about ‘Love’” (p128).

“…it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always danger that the characteristic errors of one many be corrected by the characteristic truths of another” (p129).

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