Literacy 2008: Book 6: The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

A collection of letters sent from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, advising the younger demon on the best ways to tempt a human soul away from Christianity to become food for Hell.

Brilliant concept, with a ton of potential for satire. Has one moment where Lewis really takes advantage of the concept, and the effect is both darkly comic and shocking. Several passages have real insight into the human condition, in particular our capacity for self delusion, and our pointless fixation on novelty. Gives a good description of how The Seven Virtues interrelate, and how easily and subtly they can be corrupted into one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

And despite its fantastic concept, it ultimately conveys a very mature and modern conception of corruption and Hell: not just as a cataclysmic turn to evil, but as the gradual and almost imperceptible decay of the soul. Where the final punishment isn’t just torment, but being cut off from light, robbed of potential, and ultimately consumed.

Doesn’t really work as satire, since it’s clearly Lewis’ voice throughout — the end result doesn’t feel like an author inhabiting an evil character, but just as if he’d taken Mere Christianity and done a simple search-and-replace and negated most of the verbs. As a result, you don’t get a real sense of what Lewis is saying for much of it; you’re too preoccupied trying to do multiple reverse-translations in your head to get at the real message.

Has the same worldview as Mere Christianity: that of the conservative, white man living in the UK during World War II. Constantly takes a dismissive view of women, overvalues patriotism and automatically equates it with “courage,” and is repeatedly scornful of non-traditional values or really anything “modern.” (With frequent warnings that his views will be dismissed as “puritanical” or prudish, which come across more as being defensive than genuinely self-aware).

An additional piece, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” is included with this edition of the book. It was written long after the letters, it has its own introduction by Lewis, and it’s just awful. While the Letters read like the work of a clever and imaginative man who’s got genuine, universal insight combined with some quaintly outdated values, the last section just reads like an embittered crank writing a letter to the editor of the local paper. It’s a conservative, almost libertarian, political rant disguised as having spiritual relevance.

I’d thought that this would be a companion for Mere Christianity, but it turned out to be more a rewording of that book, with more specific examples. It’s more imaginative and clever than Mere Christianity, but also more difficult to read because of its attempt to be “satire.” And it’s a shame that “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” is included, because it leaves you with a negative impression of the whole book.