The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 3

Literary sources for The Screwtape Letters

        This is part 3 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here; to see part 2, click here. In part 1 we introduced the Screwtape Letters and provide a brief outline of the book. In part 2 we began an analysis of the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. The two most obvious literary sources for The Screwtape Letters are (1) the biblical teachings on angels, demons, and sin, and (2) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this section on the literary sources of the Letters we are considering, first of all, how these two primary sources have inspired Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and we will then go on to point out some of the other sources that are referred to (and sometimes quoted) in the Screwtape Letters. In part 2 we considered the biblical inspiration behind the Screwtape Letters. Today, in this blog post, we will consider the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost on the Letters.

Lewis’s dependence on Milton’s Paradise Lost

            Paradise Lost is an Epic poem that portrays the events leading up to, and following, the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. John Milton, the author, was a protestant poet, with puritanical and reformed theological tendencies, who lived in the 17th century. Paradise Lost is often praised as being on the same literary level as Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. In Paradise Lost the reader is provided with a dramatized account, based on the biblical accounts, of the fall of Satan and his successful attempt to tempt the newly created Adam and Eve into sinning against God. Lewis’s Screwtape letters, based upon the overall feel of the book, could almost be seen as a product of the world as it is portrayed by Milton. That is, one finds oneself in essentially the same world as that portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Let’s look at some elements that Lewis brings into the Screwtape Letters from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

            First of all, one wonders if the following lines from Paradise Lost were not the inspiration for Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Milton puts the following words in the mouth of Satan, “To do aught good never will be our task, But ever to do ill our sole delight, as being the contrary to his high will whom we resist. If then his providence out of our evil seek to bring forth good, our labor must be to pervert that end, and out of good still to find means of evil; which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb His inmost counsels from their destined aim.”[1] Note also how Milton has Satan proclaim, “To me shall be the glory sole among the infernal powers, in one day to have marred what he almighty styled, six nights and days continued making.”[2]

Secondly, Lewis brings uses essentially the same geographical elements as Milton. In Milton, Hell is below an enormous abyss of nothingness, and, in order to move earthward from Hell, one must pass upward through the chaotic nothingness.[3] Milton describes Satan’s fall from heaven as follows, “Nine days they fell; confounded Chaos roared, and felt tenfold confusion in their fall Through his wild anarchy, so huge a rout encumbered him with ruin: hell at last yawning received them whole, and on them closed, Hell their fit habitation fraught with fire unquenchable, the house of woe and pain.”[4] This is the geography of the universe that we find in both Milton and Lewis: Hell at the bottom, Heaven at the top, and the created universe somewhere in between. We see Lewis’s portrayal of Hell as downwards from earth and Heaven in a number of sections.[5] Of particular interest is Lewis’s description of the hierarchy of fallen angels, when he says, “this question is decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I.”[6] Note how Lewis has Hell, and the ranks of angels, descending ever downward till it reaches the throne of Satan.[7] Lewis discusses, in “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages”, this topography as the imaginative cosmological geography of the Medieval mind.[8]

A third element, which could also be considered as a geographical element, is the description of Satan’s throne. In Paradise Lost Milton describes the construction of the infernal kingdom.[9] Once the fortress is built Satan calls a demonic council, and Milton provides the following description, “High on a throne of royal state, which far outshone the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind, Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold, Satan exalted sat, by merit raised to that bad eminence.”[10] Lewis is most certainly referring to this throne when he has Screwtape say, in the Screwtape Letters, that the loss of the young man “re-echoes at this moment through all the levels of the Kingdom of Noise down to the very Throne itself.”[11]

            Fourthly, Milton describes the demonic worship of Satan, as follows, “Towards him they bend with awful reverence prone; and as a god extol him equal to the highest in heaven: Nor failed they to express how much they praised, that for the general safety he despised his own.”[12] Satan is described, a little later, as “hell’s dread emperor with pomp supreme, and Godlike imitated state.”[13] This description of Satan in Milton is certainly imitated by Lewis when he has Screwtape describe Satan as, “Our Father”,[14] and when he talks about the “Miserific vision”[15] (the opposite of the beatific vision).

            Fifthly, the most obvious use of Milton, in the Screwtape Letters, is found in the twenty-second letter where Screwtape all of a sudden turns into a large centipede. “In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede.”[16] Screwtape continues by noting that “I recognise it as a periodical phenomenon. Some rumour of it has reached the humans and a distorted account of it appears in the poet Milton, with the ridiculous addition that such changes of shape are a ‘punishment’ imposed on us by the Enemy [God].”[17] Lewis is referring to the section of Paradise Lost where Milton has God punish the fallen angels for having facilitated the fall of man, as follows: “So having said, a while he stood, expecting their universal shout and high applause to fill his ear, when contrary he hears on all sides, from innumerable tongues a dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn; he wondered, but not long had leisure, wondering at himself now more; his visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare, his arms clung to his ribs, his legs entwining each other, till supplanted down he fell a monstrous serpent on his belly prone, reluctant, but in vain, a greater power now ruled him, punished in the shape he sinned, according to his doom: he would have spoke, but hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue to forked tongue, for now were all transformed alike, to serpents all as accessories to his bold riot.”[18] Milton then explains the scene that took place, by noting that, “Thus were they plagued and worn with famine, long and ceaseless hiss, till their lost shape, permitted, they resumed, yearly enjoined, some say, to undergo this annual humbling certain numbered days, to dash their pride, and joy for man seduced.”[19] Not only is this section a direct use of Milton, but it is also Lewis’s way of revealing the demonic habit of lying to themselves and of re-interpreting divine actions and ordinances. In the world that Lewis has created for The Screwtape Letters, Milton’s description is surely taken to be true, but Lewis has Screwtape denying Milton’s description (this is a divine punishment), and re-interpreting the phenomenon as a manifestation of the Life Force.[20] Is this not what all fallen and sinful creatures constantly do with the words and works of God?

            There also seems to be a reference to Paradise Lost when Lewis has Screwtape describe what happened when Satan was cast from heaven. Screwtape says, discussing the love of God for humans, “I do not see that it can do any harm to tell you that this very problem was a chief cause of Our Father’s quarrel with the Enemy. When the creation of man was first mooted and when, even at that stage, the Enemy freely confessed that he foresaw a certain episode about a cross, Our Father very naturally sought an interview and asked an explanation.”[21] This makes us think of the episode in Paradise Lost where God made an announcement, to the angels, about the Son.[22]

            Finally, we see the “passage broad, smooth, easy, inoffensive down to hell”,[23] that Milton describes as having been built by Death and Sin. This way to hell reappears in Lewis’s Screwtape Letters when Screwtape states that “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”[24] This, of course, in both Lewis and Milton, is most likely a reference to what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14.

            We have tried, here, to note some of the more obvious allusions to, or uses of, Milton’s Paradise Lost. There may be many others, as, we propose, the Screwtape Letters is, a product of Lewis’s mind from the world of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This, we propose, should not be too great of a surprise, for, we think, both the Screwtape Letters and Paradise Lost are nothing more than imaginative portrayals of the world of the Bible.

Read part 4 here.

[1]John Milton, Paradise Lost (2004; repr., Oxford: OUP, 2008), 8-9 (bk. 1, lines 158-168).

[2]Ibid., 210 (bk. 9, lines 135-137).

[3]Ibid., 55-60 (bk. 2, lines 850-1055).

[4]Ibid., 166-167 (bk. 6, lines 871-877).

[5]Lewis, TSL, 156.

[6]Ibid., 102.

[7]See also, Ibid., 156.

[8]C. S. Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Medieval Ages”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 41-63.

[9]Milton, PL, 26-27 (bk. 1, lines 676-730).

[10]Ibid., 30 (bk. 2, lines 1-6).

[11]Lewis, TSL, 156.

[12]Milton, PL, 44 (bk. 2, line 477-482).

[13]Ibid., 44 (bk. 2, line 510-511).

[14]This can be found coming off the pen of Screwtape throughout the various letters, cf. Lewis, TSL, 57, 97, 109, 110, etc.

[15]Ibid., 112.

[16]Ibid., 114.


[18]Milton, PL, 255 (bk. 10, lines 504-521).

[19]Ibid., 257 (bk. 10, lines 572-577).

[20]Lewis, TSL, 115.

[21]Ibid., 97.

[22]Milton, PL, 132-135.

[23]Ibid., 249 (bk. 10, lines 304-305).

[24]Lewis, TSL, 65.

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