The Screwtape Letters
Maybe they do. It’s hard to imagine that a trilogy about a lion and a piece of furniture is solely responsible for most of the works of a long-dead author still being available in print. Especially when some number of those works deal with sin.
Or maybe a great writer is just a great writer. That could be the case with Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis (1898-1963), who is, as I like to say, the real deal. A first-rate scholar (Oxford-Cambridge branch), a novelist, best friend of J.R.R. Tolkein, a late-in-life finder of true love and the mind behind some of the most widely read Christian apologetics. A phony like me is humbled by the likes of Lewis.
More than most scholars Lewis reached a wide public, an even wider public than the typical public intellectual. I think, in part, that’s because he shared similar concerns. Lewis was a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland and the sectarian issues had to impress upon a fertile young mind an awareness of others that comfort doesn’t always.
(Lewis’ family pretty obviously had Welsh origins. But he always considered himself Irish and retained a connection to the land of his birth. We’re all Celts, I say.)
The book at hand, more fruit of my Cambridge harvest, seems to have an evergreen place with the reading public. I’ll say flat-out at the beginning that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I think it’s possible to just enjoy the book for its writing but I tend to think that about most any well-written book. If you’re the sort, though, who feels oppressed by the evangelical aspects of Christianity or thinks religious belief is something best kept to oneself, well then, time to move on.
That’s because Lewis is decidedly Christian (he did, after all, pen a book entitled Mere Christianity). And he is decidedly not a squishy Christian, by which I mean someone who has applied their reason to the New Testament and is ready to help any organized group think their way to a promised land where all people are good and most behaviors are acceptable and the world will live as one. I’m pretty sure that’s postmillenialism and I’m betting Lewis is having none of it.
What he’s having, or more accurately giving us, is the delightful creation of Screwtape.
You see, Screwtape is a devil. More specifically, he is a seasoned, experienced Tempter which appears to be both a calling and some sort of Civil Service designation, a GS13 with a nice adjustment or two.
Technically I believe he is an Undersecretary of Something in the employ of Satan’s, ahem, government. I’ve seen references to an Infernal Civil Service and yet don’t recall actually seeing that in the book which, religiosity aside, is a riotous send-up of civil service and bureaucracy.
The novel, I think there’s no choice but to call it a novel, takes an older form. Like Pamela or Fanny Hill, it is an epistolary novel. Everything we learn about our characters we learn from the letters written by Screwtape. And what letters. Screwtape has a way with words that most governmental types simply don’t. The recipient of this verbal largesse? None other than Screwtape’s very own nephew, Wormwood, a tyro of a tempter, a blame-shifter and, truth be told, a royal screw-up.
Here’s just a bit of endearing uncle-nephew correspondence, after things have started to go wrong, that gets so away from Screwtape he sends himself into a tizzy:
“So! Your man is in love–and in the worst kind he could possibly have fallen into–and with a girl who doesn’t even appear in the report you sent me. You may be interested to learn that the little misunderstanding with the Secret Police which you tried to raise about some unguarded expressions in one of my letters has been tidied over. If you were reckoning on that to secure any good offices, you will find yourself mistaken. You shall pay for that as well as your other blunders.” (p. 117, letter 22)
Feel the family love.
I suppose we shouldn’t expect civility let alone love between denizens of evil. And make no mistake about it, on the eve of World War II when Lewis conceived and executed this work, evil was real and rampant. I’d venture to guess that one of Lewis’ main points is that evil is always real and rampant and that we dismiss that notion at our own risk.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Screwtape again:
“I sometimes wonder if you young fiends are not kept out on temptation-duty too long at a time–if you are not in some danger of becoming infected by the sentiments and values of the humans among whom you work. They, of course, tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda.” (p. 154, letter 28)
Lewis has a deep feeling for where humans go wrong. He’s at is best when Screwtape is instructing Wormwood in just why a particular course of action will lead to a desired end. Screwtape may delight in the souls who fall into eternal damnation; his creator feels the Christian compassion one is supposed to have for his fellow imperfect humans.
So popular was Screwtape that Lewis himself, in a short note after the main text and before a supplemental coda, tells us he was relentlessly implored to write more. Doing so, he tells us, would have been easy but not fun. “The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp,” are his exact words.
Yet write once more he did. That coda is in the form of Screwtape’s after dinner remarks at the Annual banquet for young devils at the Tempter’s Training College.
His speech is precisely the sort of thing that makes a good liberal-minded person twitch and probably, post-twitching, lament the small-minded views of conservatives. A truly engaged intellect might go so far as to try to establish a connection between religion, conservatism and small-mindedness. That might only prove Lewis’ point.
I’d quote it at length but it’s entirety is too rich to do justice by culling. You can find it in pdf form here. Almost every soul-destroying action proposed by Screwtape in it has been enacted in the years since Lewis last wrote. You tell me if you think things have really gotten better.