The Screwtape Letters

by: C.S. Lewis

Context

Further study Context

Clive Staples Lewis (November 1898 –November 1963) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he was baptized into the Irish Church. His father Albert James worked as an insurance solicitor. His mother Florence Augusta died from cancer when he was still a boy. He and his older brother Warren spent much of their childhood reading and composing stories about talking animals from a fictional land they called Boxen. These stories are seen as an important childhood precursor to Lewis’s best known work, The Chronicles of Narnia, which feature more talking animals, mythical creatures like satyrs and centaurs, witches, warlocks, and enchanted objects. The Chronicles are also interpreted as a Christian allegory. C. S. Lewis attended several different boarding schools during his adolescence and, in his early teens, became an atheist. Due to respiratory ailments and difficulty socializing (young C.S. Lewis was bullied), he eventually left school to study with a private tutor.

C.S. Lewis enrolled Oxford in the fall of 1917, and was, initially, shocked by England and the English countryside. He began training as a cadet and was drafted into the First World War soon after. He was wounded and discharged in December 1918, then resumed his studies. During military training, Lewis made a pact with a friend named Edward Moore. They agreed that, should one of them die, the survivor would take care of the dead man’s family. Edward Moore did die, and Lewis moved in with Edward’s mother Jane King Moore, then eventually moved with Jane, her daughter Maureen, and his brother Warren into a house nicknamed “the Kilns” outside Oxford. Lewis began to refer to Mrs. Moore as his mother, though it is possible the two were sexually intimate. Lewis completed his education at Oxford where he stayed on as a Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College until 1954. From 1954 until his death in 1963, he taught at Cambridge University.

C.S. Lewis described his young self as being angry with God because He didn’t exist. He abandoned Christianity and became interested in the Scandinavian and Icelandic sagas, Celtic myths, Classicism, and the occult. Lewis celebrated the Irish poet, W.B. Yeatswho shared many of Lewis’s mystical interestsbut he found the English surprisingly indifferent to Yeats’ work. As a Tutor, Lewis forged strong friendships with the novelist J.R.R. Tolkien and the scholar Hugo Dyson. He participated with Tolkien, Dyson, and others in an informal literary club called “the Inklings.” Sections of Lewis’s novel Out of the Silent Planet and of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were first shared during Inklings meetings.

Meanwhile, Tolkien and Dyson, who were both Christians, played a major role in converting Lewis back to Christianity. Lewis considered himself a reluctant convert. After months struggling to ignore the presence and call of God, he finally fell on his knees and prayed in his room and Magdalen College in 1929. In 1931, he became a member of the Church of England, though he often argued for “mere Christianity,” publishing a book by that name in 1952. In the book, which was adapted from radio lectures he gave during World War II, Lewis stresses the principles of Universal Morality and the similarities between all Christian sects. The two epigraphs to The Screwtape Letters, from the father of the Protestant Revolution, Martin Luther, and the Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas Moore, underscore Lewis’s effort to bridge the gaps between Christian denominations. Lewis’s other Christian writings include the books Miracles and The Problem of Pain.

The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel—a story told by letters—first published in 1942. The letters, which were initially serialized in the thenAnglican newspaper, the Guardian, were a way of spiritually coping with the British involvement in World War II. Screwtape’s advice about how to tempt the Patient during the War, therefore, was extremely relevant to The Screwtape Letters’ initial readers. And, when Screwtape scolds Wormwood for being too excited about the War, Lewis is lightly satirizing the war coverage dominating the rest of the Guardian’s pages. The novel as a whole can be read as a self-help book in reverse. Through Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood, the reader is alerted to the potential pitfalls on the path to Heaven. The reader can see the devils the Patient cannot and, ideally, change before it is too late.

One of The Screwtape Letters’ earliest literary precursors is Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the first section, The Inferno, Dante describes his descent through the circles of Hell. And Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel, Frankenstein, raises similar questions to The Screwtape Letters about the nature of the human soul, virtue and vice, and the monstrous. Lewis mixes satire into Shelley’s epistolary formula and “updates” Dante’s vision of eternal suffering into a modern corporate bureaucracy where vicious devils work as pencil pushing secretaries. The book was a best seller in its own time, and it has been adapted for the stage, film, television, and radio. Though Lewis himself is said to have found writing the letters extremely tedious and to have vowed never to write a similar letter again, more recent authors have adopted Lewis’s style and format. Some spinoffs, like Walter Martin’s ScrewtapeWrites Again, revisit Lewis’s characters. Others, like Barbara Laymon’s The Devil’s Inbox, have carried Lewis’s satire into the Internet age.