Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 05/14/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. In his inimitable style, Lewis plays devil’s advocate in an underworldly letter-writing campaign.
The Screwtape Letters arguably occupies second-from-the-top spot in the C.S. Lewis canon, following the unmatched and unparalleled epic collection The Chronicles of Narnia. To offer a critical review of either work might seem to be overreaching myself, except that I am assured by Leland Ryken in Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, that it is a grievous misreading to regard the classics as beyond criticism (‘criticism’ used in the broad sense of the term, not the narrow, negative sense). “The classics are worthy of our admiration and should make us feel humble,” says Ryken, “but we should not venerate them as something sacred.” He later exposes another way of misreading classics, that of assuming the classics are relics of the past. And so, I feel doubly assured that offering up a few humble comments about The Screwtape Letters is not some exercise in arrogance, nor treading on sacred ground.
The setting of The Screwtape Letters is certainly not sacred ground; quite the opposite. The action of the main story (devilish letter-writing) is confined to hell, which Lewis never really describes, except to identify a few bits of office furniture. A senior devil, namely His Abysmal Sublimity Under Secretary Screwtape, composes letters of advice to a younger devil, Wormwood, at roughly weekly intervals. Such a premise, of course, relies upon the Christian reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on at least two counts: that mentorship and training programs occur between demons of varied ages, and that there is a body of written demonic literature written by demons to demons, somewhere out there.
Lewis begins this satirical collection of letters with the briefest of prefaces, warning against “two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” In his lifetime Lewis was apparently accused of harboring “an excessive and unhealthy interest” in demons simply by virtue of having penned this volume, but his own testimony is that he garnered less enjoyment from writing these ‘letters’ than any other work of his. Also in this brief preface Lewis warns the reader against taking everything Screwtape says at face value, and to disregard the chronology of the letters, as demons generally disregard human chronology except as it impacts upon their diabolical schemes.
It would be far beyond the scope of a mere review to detail all the brilliant insights that Lewis, a.k.a. Screwtape, offers up in the course of the book. The back story behind the letters is that of a seemingly normal young Englishman in the 1930s and 1940s who becomes a Christian, struggles to maintain, sustain, and cultivate his young faith, falls in love, serves in the home guard during the war, and eventually throws off demonic influence altogether. Simply put, it is an exercise in failure for the young demon (Wormwood) assigned to the young man. But if the young man isn’t the main character, neither is Wormwood. Screwtape’s letters addressing Wormwood’s efforts to vex the protagonist in the back story are merely a vehicle for Lewis to play devil’s advocate (well and truly), and through that role, to advance Christian ideas about the relative ease with which demons play with the modern man’s (and woman’s) soul. Besides advising Wormwood to use all of the young man’s foibles to best (or worst) advantage, Screwtape also advocates the use of cultural forces at work in that era, such as the de-feminization of women in the 1930s and the loss of fixed concepts of truth and error. Needless to say, the devils also make use of universal perils such as the allure of worldliness and mankind’s inherent selfishness.
If John Milton’s stated aim in Paradise Lost was “to justify the ways of God to man,” then it can be fairly said that C.S. Lewis’ aim in The Screwtape Letters was “to expose the ways of devils in relation to man.” He has done an excellent job, as far as any human could, as far as I can tell.