Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Devilishly Good Time: A Review of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters

Title: The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: The Macmillan Company (1943)
Pages: 160 (but according to GoodReads it's 224 so I'm counting it as such for my 1,000,000 pages challenge)
How I Came By This Book: This was suggested to me by the always awesome Nonners so I picked it up at my library
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior "tempter" named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as "the Patient."

Screwtape holds an administrative post in the bureaucracy ("Lowerarchy") of Hell, and acts as a mentor to Wormwood, the inexperienced tempter. In the body of the thirty-one letters which make up the book, Screwtape gives Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in the Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine. Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as the greatest good, and neither demon is capable of comprehending or acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it. (from GoodReads)

Review: Best known to the world at large as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis' was a prosaic writer whose numerous fiction and non-fiction works espoused his beliefs and explored Christianity in a deep and meaningful way. The Screwtape Letters is a Christian text, yes, but its lessons stretch beyond the boundaries of Christianity, breaking down the barrier between theology and philosophy. It is a funny, thought-provoking book in which even the most godless of heathens can find enjoyment.

C. S. Lewis
(If I ever become a famous author, this is the kind of picture
I want on my book jackets--me in a huge chair with a huge book.)

Wormwood is in trouble; his "patient" has become a Christian. Even after spending all that time chipping away at his soul, Wormwood has been unable to fully secure him for the denizens of Hell. "Affectionate" Uncle Screwtape is determined to set his inexperienced nephew right and writes him a series of letters giving him advice as to how best to turn the patient from God and into the clutches of the Devil. This advice ranges from helping the patient find worldly friends who find God to be laughable to getting the patient to try different churches to making him too proud of his religion so that he commits the mortal sin of getting a swelled head. As the book progresses, the "Patient" turns closer to God and Wormwood gets closer to being food for his fellow demons.

I've made no secret of my views of religion and spirituality, but I've also made no secret of my interest in other viewpoints. When Nonners suggested I read this book, I took one look at the synopsis and went, "Oh, yeah, this book's going to be amazing." And I was right. Although short, this slim volume packed a big punch. Screwtape, although a demon, is strangely likable in a "wow, you're a crazy psychopath" kind of way. It's not that I want the demons to win out in the end (although, I do like it when villains succeed), it was that he was funny and was so set in his ways that he became a laughable character.

The strength of this isn't in Screwtape himself, though; it is, instead, in the way that Lewis gets you to think about things. Yes, the humor is a big plus, but the meaning of the book is far more important. As someone who has spent a decent amount of time studying Greek philosophy, I found that there were parallels between Lewis and Plato. The same questions that Lewis raises have been around in one form or another since the dawn of time. What is the nature of love? What does it mean to be pious? How does friendship influence belief? Lewis also explores man's predictability, the ways in which humans act and interact, and the deleterious effect of pride (known as hubris in Platonic dialogues). Although meant for a Christian audience, I argue that The Screwtape Letters can have implications for people of any (or no) faith.

Hey there, Plato!

At its heart is a story of betterment--you shouldn't want things in excess, you shouldn't allow yourself to be felled by pride, you shouldn't turn away from your beliefs because of the people around you, etc. Lewis's Screwtape talks about fear and courage, love and hate, good and evil; all are things which most people deal with on an almost daily basis. I'm in no way suggesting that Lewis intended the book for such a wide-reaching audience, but that's beside the point. Whether he intended it or not, The Screwtape Letters is readable regardless of your views on religion.

The only real issue I had with the book was Screwtape's (and, by extension, Lewis') dismissal of history. As I have a BA in history and intend to study the subject for the rest of my life, I am, of course, biased. Regardless, I believe that the assertion in this book that history is useless and that it only serves to confuse people as to the nature of Christ or, really, any historical figure is wrong. Scholarship of any sort can be incredibly useless and, while there are historians who try to rewrite history for their own ends, there is merit in the construction of a historical Christ and in the exploration of history in general.

Obviously, Lewis and I are of different minds, but the passages in which he bashes history were truly the only cringe-worthy ones that I found. Other than that, I found The Screwtape Letters to be an enjoyable book, one that I would probably read again. Even with my limited theological knowledge, I found that understanding the Biblical references wasn't difficult at all and, from an historical perspective, it was fascinating to read about World War II from the fictional perspective of a demon. It didn't hurt that my copy was published only a year after the book's initial publication.

I found myself engaged in Wormwood's struggle to net the "Patient's" soul and, if I can perfectly honest, the book was almost too short. Even though it came to a satisfying conclusion, I wanted more. Lewis' mind works in such a fascinating way and the mixture of religion and philosophy drew me in completely. I'm giving The Screwtape Letters 4 out of 5 Gabriels. 1/2 a star gets docked for the length, another 1/2 gets lopped off because I didn't like what Lewis said about history. I don't care if that sounds biased or childish or selfish. It's my blog. :)

Favorite Quotes:
It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out. (p. 25)
I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. (p. 53)
...hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful--horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he Fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame. To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore defeat his courage. (p. 147)
Most Hilarious Note Found in the Book:

As this is a library book, there was a little bit of writing in it. At the top of letter sixteen, someone had written the following:
 Shows the author, after all, subject to the disadvantages of being Anglican, not Catholic.
Lewis, who was a devout Anglican, probably had no such thought in his mind when he wrote that letter. What makes this note even funnier, however, is that, in a later letter, Screwtape advises his nephew to turn the "Patient's" religious feeling into pride, which is a great sin. My college is historically Catholic, although it hasn't been religiously affiliated for years, and my guess is the person who wrote that note all those decades ago was probably a Catholic...a very proud Catholic. Whoever it was hopefully learned their lesson after reading Screwtape's letter on pride.



  1. I really enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia but I never read anything else by C.S Lewis, mainly because I was ignorant to the fact that he had written anything else until a few years. This sounds really interesting so perhaps this'll be my first trip into Lewis' writing outside of Narnia!

  2. Where was that part that Screwtapes talks about history?? I forgot.

  3. Oh and btw, if you like this book you should go back and read the Out of the Silent Planet series.

  4. Great review! I read this book a long time ago and I remember really enjoying it. C.S. Lewis has written a lot of great books.

  5. Kayleigh: It really is a great book; short, too. I knocked it off in only a few hours.

    Nonners: There's a couple of references, but I've already taken the book back to the library so I don't remember where they are. He talks about the Historical Perspective and about the damage that the historical Christ does to Christians. Out of the Silent Planet is (I think) on my list for next month. If not I'll be reading it in July.

    Anne: Thanks! I'm definitely going to be reading more of them. I'm not really picky about what I read, although there are some books that I will never pick up (granny-porn romances being just one category), but religion and philosophy fascinate me. Besides, Nonners tends to sell me on a lot of books I might not have picked up without a little prodding and I'm sure she'll convince me to read even more Lewis than I'm already planning on. :)