Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.
The above is the warning that is given to readers in the preface of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters -a classic that was first published in book form in 1942. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wow, you’re really late on reading that.” And, yes, I would have to agree with your statement. The Screwtape Letters (as well as all of C.S. Lewis’ works) have been around for a long time. I, like so many people, had previously read Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia -a series of fantasy stories that includes seven books and of course a few of those have already been turned into motion pictures. My husband and I are currently reading the series with our kids, and I wanted to check out some of Lewis‘ other works.
I had seen quotes from The Screwtape Letters and heard people reference it, but I had never read it. I knew that it was about demons and hell, but aside from that I had very little information about it -other than it had some really awesome quotes and it was a highly respected piece of literature among both the Christian and Non-Christian communities.
I admit that when I first sat down to read it, I was completely expecting it to be a lot like The Chronicles of Narnia had been, only darker and instead of kids and talking animals, it would be about demons. In my head, this seemed completely reasonable and I was looking forward to a cute demon story that would also contain a valuable life lesson and some intelligent insight. What I got, however, was something much more impressive.
The Screwtape Letters is a series of 31 letters composed by the demon Screwtape who is writing to his nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood is an under-demon who is just learning the ropes of being a tempter. There is no narrative or dialogue, the entire book is simply Screwtape’s letters of advice and guidance to his nephew.
In these letters, uncle Screwtape is trying to advise Wormwood in the best ways to tempt his patient -the person that Wormwood has been assigned to watch over, tempt, deceive, and most importantly, to keep him from being of any use to the “Enemy”. Now, this is where you have to remember who’s writing these letters. Screwtape is a demon, and a seasoned demon at that, so the “Enemy” is God, and “our Father” is the devil. Both are referenced throughout the book, and it takes a little getting used to, but eventually, you catch on.
As you start to read through the letters, you quickly come to realize that Wormwood is the black sheep of the family. He’s a complete and utter screwup. He can’t seem to do anything right with his patient and no matter how much good advice and direction Screwtape tries to give him, he keeps failing miserably. I will say that I have to give Screwtape mad props for all his patience with him though. Through all his bumbling, Screwtape continually encourages him, and keeps trying to help no matter how bleak the situation seems to be. He’s a good uncle.
I think the most notable thing about The Screwtape Letters, is also the most frustrating thing about them. Through all of Screwtape’s words of advice and experienced-based knowhow, I kept finding myself agreeing with what he was saying. As he’d write both suggestions of how to tempt his patient and give observations and facts about how things are, I couldn’t help but agree. This is where I would have to stop myself and remember Lewis’ reminder from the beginning of the novel.
The devil is a liar.
So where does that leave me? I have no idea. Reading The Screwtape Letters was a unique experience in that I found myself being morally divided -should I agree with Screwtape or should I adhere to Lewis’ warning? It was a constant internal conflict through the entire book, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how much of it I agree or disagree with. I will say this, however, even now I find myself quoting Screwtape. Isn’t that probably a bad sign of…something? Indubitably. But, I think in the end, the fact that I was so torn only goes to show the brilliance of the piece and the way Lewis is able to fascinate and lure the reader in, even to get them to agree with a demon.
At the end of The Screwtape Letters, there’s a bit of a continuation entitled, Screwtape Proposes A Toast. According to the preface of this part of the book, Screwtape Proposes A Toast was not a part of the original novel, but was later added after Lewis had been asked for years to continue the demon-penned letters. Lewis’ stand had always been that he could have gone on writing Screwtape’s letters forever, but that he had to stop since he did not enjoy it, and was not comfortable while writing them -that his thoughts had gone to a dark place and everything had started to come out just a little to easy for his liking. Perhaps he was feeling that same torn emotion that I was experiencing while reading them.
The Toast added on at the end is exactly that. It depicts good ol’ Screwtape at a dinner of such, in hell, and he stands up to give a toast/advice to all the under-demons who are present. It has the same confusing -yet alluring- quality of the original letters. I’m very glad that it was added.
All in all, I think C.S. Lewis‘ The Screwtape Letters was an excellent read. I’ve never read anything quite like and I don’t suspect to ever read anything like it ever again. It’s truly a brilliant little piece of awesomeness. It will make you think, second guess, scratch your head, and forget what side you’re on. But in the end, it’s an eye-opening of a read.
At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest,
Your affectionate uncle