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The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 1

Introduction

            I sat down, the other day, to write out my thoughts and observations concerning C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, and I thought that it might be interesting to post them as "a" blogpost. 35 pages later it crossed my mind that it might be too long for one blogpost. As such, I will be publishing, over the next couple of days, a series of blogposts on the Screwtape Letters. This, the first publication is a brief introduction to my notes, which I propose as a form of commentary.

            The ScrewTape Letters is, without a doubt, one of the most popular books that C. S. Lewis ever wrote. A short summary of this book might look something like this: One of the most powerful studies of sin and human nature to be published in a work of fiction. Some would certainly say that this description might just as well apply to Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, or to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and with reason. One of the features that distinguishes The Screwtape Letters from Crime and Punishment or Frankenstein is that it is not a story, nor is it written as a narrative, but, rather it is presents itself as a collection letters from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew, a junior devil, Wormwood. A second distinguishing feature of this book is that Lewis gives us an inside look at what is really going on in spiritual warfare, and he does so in a manner that is clearly inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. C. S. Lewis, even in the preface, does not step out of the fiction. Rather, in the preface to this book, he presents himself as the editor of a collection of letters,[1] and states: (1) that he is not at liberty to explain how he came to possess these letters, (2) that he did not attempt to identify the people mentioned in the letters, or to put the letters in their chronological order, and (3) he warns the readers to be careful in reading these letters as, “the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”[2] This last point, by the way, is of supreme importance for understanding this book. As we read this book we must remember that the devil is a liar, that his supreme enemy is God, and that his greatest pleasure is keeping man away from God, and this in any way possible. In what follows I will provide a brief overview and outline of the book, I will attempt to point out any literary sources that C. S. Lewis draws upon, and I will then conclude with a systematic summarization of the main things that we see in this book.


Overview and Outline

            The book is composed of 31 letters and a preface. Each letter (except for the last) is written by Screwtape who is offering advice to his nephew Wormwood with the purpose of “helping” his nephew supply Hell with another soul. Almost every letter touches on a different subject, though some of the letters might be said to form a short series on related subjects. There is a perceptible story that flows through the letters: the life of a young man who goes through a number of life experiences such as going to church, falling in love, entering into different social contexts, hearing of the great war, and then going to war. Throughout the progression of this young man’s life the demon Wormwood does his best, relying on his uncle’s advice to some extent, to keep the young man from actually becoming interested in the Enemy—God. These different life events form the background for some very insightful discussions of human nature, sin, the nature of time, God, demons, and the nature of Hell. I will here provide a list of the main themes of each letter.

Letter 1: Reading, Reasoning, and Rhetoric
Letter 2: How church can keep us from God
Letter 3: How Familial relations can keep us from God
Letter 4: On prayer
Letter 5: On war and “contented worldliness”
Letter 6: Introspection as a distraction from actual holiness.
Letter 7: On going to Extremes (i.e. - factions in the church, pacifism, etc.)
Letter 8: On the ups and downs of human life
Letter 9: How the downs can draw men away from God
Letter 10: How friends can draw one away from true spirituality to superficial spirituality
Letter 11: Using laughter and Humour to draw men away from God (a consideration of different types of humour, and their relative tendency towards virtue or vice)
Letter 12: On losing the first love for Christ, and becoming complacent.
Letter 13: On true pleasure and pain versus apparent pleasure and pain.
Letter 14: On humility and its dangers
Letter 15: On how man’s temporal nature can draw him away from God (focusing on the past or worrying too much about the Future).
Letter 16: How church hopping, certain types of preachers, and pithy church debates can draw men away from God.
Letter 17: On Gluttony and its worst forms.
Letter 18: On Sex, Love, and Marriage
Letter 19: On Love and falling in love
Letter 20: How the physical appearances of men and women (especially nudity) can be used to destroy marriages.
Letter 21: On ownership or possession or anything, but especially of “our” time
Letter 22: On pleasure (with a brief section on music and noise)
Letter 23: On the search for the historical Jesus (with a brief section on social justice)
Letter 24: On spiritual pride at being part of an “inner circle”
Letter 25: How the contemporary fascination with “change” and “newness” and abhorrence of “stability”, “permanence”, and “tradition” leads to Heresy in the church.
Letter 26: On how “unselfishness” can be used to create strife and enemity.
Letter 27: On Prayer and Divine foreknowledge (with a section on the historical approach to reading old books—for more on this see Lewis’s essay, “De Audiendis Poetis”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.[3])
Letter 28: The difficulty of persevering in the faith throughout one’s entire life (and how prosperity can draw men away from God).
Letter 29: On hatred, fear, and cowardice
Letter 30: How Fatigue can lead one into sin
Letter 31: Wormwood’s failure

Go to Part 2.


[1]C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil (1942; repr., Glasgow, GB: Collins-Fount Books, 1981), 9.

[2]Ibid.


[3]C. S. Lewis, “De Audiendis Poetis”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 1-17.

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