Guest Blog by Ella Ramsay: Does Screwtape Tell the Truth about Wormwood? An Analysis of Lewis’ Epistolary Style

 Ella Ramsay is a student at Colonel Gray High School and wrote this literary critique of The Screwtape Letters as part of her extended essay requirements for the International Baccalaureate program.


The essay will analyze how accurately Wormwood is described by his Uncle Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. It is important to explore how truthfully he is described within his Uncle’s letters because his own letters are excluded. The single sided epistolary style forces the reader to rely solely on Screwtape for a character sketch of his nephew. By considering Screwtape as a character, Hell as a setting, Lewis’ writing style, the letters themselves, and the nature of demons, a conclusion will be formed. In order to examine this issue, the letters, which were originally published in a 1941 weekly periodical, will be analyzed. In addition to using The Screwtape Letters, some of Lewis’ own letters will be examined to understand his writing style more accurately. As well as written sources, a personal interview was conducted with a University Professor from the University of Prince Edward Island who teaches The Screwtape Letters. Finally, some commentaries and modern day “Screwtape Letters” were consulted to understand others’ interpretations of the issue. By conducting research and analysing the text, it can be concluded that there is no certainty surrounding the depiction of Wormwood due to a lack of understanding of demons and of Hell. Therefore, the accuracy to which Wormwood is depicted is dependent on the readers’ opinion of Screwtape as a character.

 Is Wormwood Accurately Depicted in The Screwtape Letters by Screwtape or Distorted by the Single Sided Epistolary Style Used by Lewis?

Clive Staples Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was first introduced to the public when a serial column he wrote for a church newspaper became widely read. The column followed a senior demon named Screwtape’s letters to his nephew Wormwood. Each letter contained advice about different areas of trouble for Wormwood. The letters from Screwtape to Wormwood were published, while those written by Wormwood were omitted. Later, they were compiled as a book.  The Screwtape Letters follows Screwtape’s advice to his nephew Wormwood about how to bring the human he was responsible for to Hell. The question follows, is Wormwood’s character accurately depicted within The Screwtape Letters by his uncle Screwtape, or does the narrator’s selfish and dishonest personality distort his nephew’s likeness? It is necessary to explore the accuracy to which the characters are described to ensure an accurate understanding of the letters.

Because The Screwtape Letters are written in single sided epistolary style, Screwtape is the only voice the reader hears, unless he is quoting a letter he had received from Wormwood. Although The Screwtape Letters is only Screwtape’s view point, there is a well developed plot and extensive character development within. However, because it is written from his viewpoint only, there are a few questions to consider, including the development of Wormwood’s character. First, it is clear that it is not a one sided endeavour by Screwtape, because in his fourth letter to his nephew he mentions Wormwood’s, “amateurish suggestions” in his “last letter” (Lewis 15). This evidence demonstrates that Wormwood is also writing to Screwtape, and that Lewis chose to leave his letters out. By writing solely through one character, Lewis was aware that the story would be framed around Screwtape’s perceptions and opinions, as well as influenced by his character. Wormwood’s character is clear to the reader, but only through Screwtape’s description of him. The question follows, how accurately is Wormwood’s character shown through his Uncle’s letters?

In order to explore the accuracy to which Wormwood’s character is described, we must first decide what defines Screwtape as a character. Without an understanding of his character, a discussion on the accuracy to which Wormwood is described cannot begin. Screwtape is a demon, a word which has a connotation of being evil. However, it is important to note that Wormwood is also a demon, and that their goals are much different from that of the human reader. It is important to consider good and bad qualities from the perspective of a demon when exploring Screwtape and Wormwood as characters. What Screwtape considers to be right would be wrong for a human, but would be right to a fellow demon because they are working towards the same goal of bringing people away from God, or the one they call, “the Enemy” (Lewis 93). Bringing Wormwood’s designated human away from Christianity is Screwtape’s goal in writing to his “nephew” (Lewis 15). Screwtape says in his fifth letter, “if our workers know their job, [they will withhold] all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!” (Lewis 21). In this quotation he pinpoints the goal of demons; to attempt to avoid any presence of Christianity which could interfere with someone’s damnation. Screwtape, however, is an “under-secretary of a department” (Lewis 15). He is helping Wormwood, but says in his first letter, “From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!” (Lewis 4), stating that although he is helping Wormwood, it is not his duty. Although this appears to be an act of kindness, it becomes clear that Screwtape is doing it only to gloat, stating that Wormwood is, “naive” (Lewis 1) and, “amateurish” (Lewis 15), suggesting that he could not do it without his help. Screwtape brags as if to say that without him he could not do it, and that he is talented enough to do his job as well as manage mentoring this incapable young demon. Screwtape’s condescending manner is evident in the above quotes about Wormwood and others, showing that his personality traits affect the way Wormwood is described in his letters.

Screwtape’s title as “under-secretary of a department” (Lewis 15) is mentioned, which places him in a job of importance in Hell. Although the reader does not gain much knowledge about his work, they do become aware of his most significant character traits, one of which is malice. This trait is showcased in the opening of the majority of his letters. He immediately introduces each letter with an insult of some sort, calling Wormwood “naive” (Lewis 1), “amateurish” (Lewis 15), and even telling him in the twenty seventh letter that he seemed to be, “doing very little good at present” (Lewis 147). Screwtape creates a teacher-student dynamic with his insults because of the theme which all of his insults carry. They are not only mean, but are aiding in assuring that Wormwood remains inferior in every way to Screwtape. Throughout his letters, even through to the aforementioned twenty seventh letter where Wormwood was successful in tempting the patient away from Christ a few times, he does not recognise these accomplishments. Of course, a demon is not expected to be kind and loving, for if Hell knew of love then Hell would no longer exist. However, at a Training College at which Slubgob teaches, which is mentioned by Screwtape in his eighth letter, young demons are taught what the mutual and important goals are in Hell. All demons, including Screwtape, were aware of what would be considered positive and negative results to Satan because of the education they would receive. As a result, Screwtape should be encouraging about Wormwood’s accomplishments, not in the earthly and friendly sense, but in a mechanical and effective sense.

Because Screwtape ignores his responsibilities as a mentor and under-secretary, as well as chastises Wormwood for not achieving more, his self-centered and power hungry personality becomes more apparent. His job as under-secretary is not to teach, but he says he is the best teacher and puts down those with that title, shown when he says, “I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure” (Lewis 37). This quote also shows his whole-hearted desire for superiority, and not only with his nephew. Finally, he is also deceptive. Screwtape catches himself in his eighteenth letter in what he knows are sentences peppered with heresy when he speaks about God’s love for all. In the letter following, there is a change of tone and it appears as though there is another voice speaking. He says, “I have been thinking very hard about the question in your last letter”, and calls Wormwood, “my dear boy” (Lewis 99). This quote is the first time that Screwtape appears to consider a question from his nephew as worthwhile, without chastising him as he had done in every letter before. He even strays from his malicious name-calling to address Wormwood in an endearing manner – the only time it happens within the body of Screwtape’s letters. This change shows his ability to transform his character in order to maintain a comfortable sense of superiority, and also shows how, “deceptive he is in diplomacy” (Dickieson). This sense of superiority is evident in his interactions with his nephew.

The eighteenth letter is one of the most significant elements to explore when considering the accuracy to which Wormwood’s character is described in the letters. When Screwtape is threatened, Wormwood appears more intelligent because Screwtape says he will carefully consider his questions, and also asks his nephew to send him a report when he next writes (Lewis 102). The implications here are that Wormwood does in fact have questions of substance and will have promising results to relay. The value of this correlation cannot, however, be solely based on this one piece of evidence. Another element which should be considered is the way Screwtape greets his nephew in his letters.

Screwtape opens each of his letters, save his last, with “My Dear Wormwood” (Lewis 1), and closes with “Your affectionate Uncle Screwtape” (Lewis 4). At first this could appear to be a stylistic decision made by Lewis to emphasize Screwtape’s two-sided character, with kind bookends to his letters contrasting the harsh words within. With some exploration into Lewis’ writing, however, it can be concluded that it was not a planned technique. Lewis wrote thousands of letters during his life and most are contained within the three-volume The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, compiled by Walter Hooper.  Lewis opens most of his letters with, “Dear” (Hooper 483) or, “My dear” (Hooper 496), and the other greetings are only slight variations of this greeting. He also closes most often with, “Yours” (Hooper 922), “Yours ever” (Hooper 168) and, “Yours sincerely” (Hooper 154), and again varies only sometimes with closures very similar to those mentioned above. It appears that Lewis did not use a planned technique for The Screwtape Letters, but instead wrote them in the way he was so well acquainted with from his many years of letter writing. They were short, concise, and politely and kindly introduced and ended, just as Lewis’ own letters were. A letter from September 5th 1947, from Lewis to Dr. Warfield M. Firor, shows his signature greetings as well as his clear and concise manner of writing,

Dear Dr. Firor,

Is it to your kindness that I owe a handsome supply of stationery which has just arrived from Lucas Bros. Inc., 22/E Baltimore St., Baltimore? There is no other indication of the sender, but if you are the man, please accept my most grateful thanks for your continued kindness to me. I am just a little doubtful though if it is you, for I see you make no mention of such a parcel in your last letter.

With all best wishes,

yours sincerely,

C.S. Lewis

This letter written to a Doctor shows his style, but it is also important to consider his letter to those closer to him.

Lewis wrote to a woman named Mary who he never met in person but with whom he exchanged many letters with for a little over a decade (Lewis, “American Lady”). He became close with her and told her about his mother’s death and his writing endeavours. His style remains the same when writing to someone he is close with as shown in his letter to Mary dated the 16th of May, 1963 (Lewis, “American Lady” 113),

Dear Mary

Sorry to hear of all your expenses. I have directed Harcourt Brace to send you a little extra. No time to write; my brother is ill and of course the mails have chosen that moment to be unusually heavy.

Yours Jack

From observing his letters it is evident that the general framework remains the same. This shows that Screwtape’s greetings are not meant to be contrasting his personality or giving him a constant element of kindness, but are the result of Lewis’ practice with letter writing. Except for his final letter where this pattern changes, the opening and closings should not be considered when observing whether his personality would affect the way he described Wormwood because they are not a result of his personality, but are instead part of Lewis’ personality.

When the deadlines for each letter are considered it also supports the conclusion met in the above paragraph. They were not first written in book form, but were released weekly in 1941, from May to November in an Anglican Periodical called The Guardian (Griffin). This deadline meant constant production and work on the weekly epistolary series. Lewis converted from Christianity to Atheism in his younger years but returned to Christianity in 1931. The Screwtape Letters is written from the point of view of a demon mentoring his nephew demon, about how to bring Christians away from God, to a certain end in Hell. Because of Lewis’ faith he was certain the subject matter was true and was invested in the topic which made it a heavy piece to write. Lewis was quoted as saying, “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment . . . it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, [but] it was not fun, or not for long. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded” (Feit). With the combination of the dark writing style, the weekly due dates, and his comfort level with epistolary writing, the greetings of each letter can be discounted as the results of editing and carefully planned technique, and understood as a result of Lewis’ constant writing and a necessity for the form of the letter. Therefore, we should not see kindness in greetings as a kind of soft demon trait on Screwtape’s part.

With an understanding of Screwtape’s character, an understanding of the accuracy of Wormwood’s character depiction can be explored. Firstly, the character traits which are presented for Wormwood are, “naive” (Lewis 15), “amateurish” (Lewis 15), long winded, shown when Screwtape says he takes “a great many pages to tell a very simple story” (Lewis 63), unintelligent, asking Wormwood in his fourth letter if he “begin[s] to see the point” (Lewis 4), unsatisfactory (Lewis 82), “insolent” (Lewis 119), ignorant (Lewis 87), “disgusting” (Lewis 120), and a “pitiful fool” (Lewis 171). Through Screwtape, Lewis depicts Wormwood as continually and consistently useless and unable to not only carry out his work, but also maintain a conversation.

The character of Wormwood is one whom the reader only hears from or about through Screwtape, thus making him the literary filter between Wormwood and the reader. However, this role means he is able to hold back and present whatever details he desires regarding his nephew. This role raises the question, is Screwtape selectively allowing some characteristics to pass through and others to remain unseen, thus sketching a biased and untrue portrait of Wormwood? To decide, it is important to consider Wormwood as a character himself and his intentions.

From the analysis previously mentioned, Screwtape can be clearly described as self-centered, deceptive, and oppressive. Because he is self-centered, he would not be concerned with the depiction of others, but instead with how he is perceived. Within the letters, Screwtape presents himself as being a superior figure with vast intelligence. He is rude and unlikeable – even to other demons – due to his self-centeredness and aggressive and diminishing attacks on other members of Hell. All of these factors support the idea that Screwtape would indeed distort Wormwood’s character within his letters to make himself feel superior.

It is also important to note that these letters are private, although it is likely they are being intercepted and read when they are sent back and forth. The nature of the privacy of the letters is hinted at in the eighteenth letter. Screwtape talks about how his comments in his previous letter could have been misconstrued as heresy, but were actually poorly explained elements of a story (Lewis, “Screwtape” 99). He would not have felt the need to explain without the fear of being found out, or perhaps explaining after possibly already being confronted about it. However, outside of this exception, Screwtape is privately addressing Wormwood. The nineteenth letter also mentions that Wormwood asks his uncle whether he thinks “being in love is a desirable state for a human or not” (Lewis 101). This letter is one of the few times that Screwtape mentions any of Wormwood’s concerns and the only time which he mentions it without mocking him. This inclusion shows that Wormwood is aware of the rules of Hell and even questions his uncle wryly, knowing the answer to be no, and backhandedly telling his uncle he made a big mistake, and that he is indeed aware of it. Screwtape is only kind to Wormwood in this letter. Interestingly, Wormwood also appears to show adverse characteristics to those which Screwtape had attached to him in the prior and future letters. The transformation of Screwtape’s personality, which leads to a change in Wormwood’s, is evidence to support the fact that Wormwood is wrongfully depicted.  Of course, the description of his naivety and inexperience are true, as he was a new demon, but his un-intelligence and foolishness were exaggerated by Screwtape so he himself would feel more powerful. These facts are easily accepted as his uncle was forever looking to gain power over whomever he could, and even superiority over his nephew through scathing private letters would bring joy to this malicious character. Therefore, the quick change in Wormwood’s character when Screwtape is in fear shows inconsistency, and supports the argument for Wormwood’s inaccurate depiction.

In addition to these elements, there is the consideration. The letters are written by a demon in Hell. The description of Hell has many elements which are drawn from scripture, but Hell is not a tangible or understood “place” within the book. Without a full understanding of Hell, Lewis used creative description and studied assumption of certain elements. There is no solidity to the setting, and there are few understood truths or rules. An example of the unclear rules of Hell within the literary fiction of The Screwtape Letters  is the uncle and nephew relationship which these demons have – an earthly relationship that cannot be attached to un-bodies, non-sexual souls. This loophole within Hell, a place  Tilda Swinton & Skandar Amin Casper Keyneswhich Lewis has attempted to correctly create, can also be related to another of his works where he intertwines two separate places. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Queen produces, “several pounds of the best Turkish Delight” when she let a, “drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box” (Lewis, “Lion, Witch, Wardrobe” 39). A Queen in Narnia could not understand or know what Turkish Delight is because she is not from Earth, in the same way that Screwtape is a demon and cannot be related, in the earthly sense of the word or a bloodline, to anyone. This relationship, in addition to knowledge of an unknown place, means that the setting and everything in it cannot be viewed as complete or concrete. This means then, that the character of Screwtape cannot be concluded to be truly malicious and self-centered, because there is no awareness on the readers’ part of the rules and roles of Hell.

What has been decided to be malice could in fact be his character criticising others for not working as hard as he to achieve the standard of work. This viewpoint was taken by F. L. Wells from the Department of Hygiene at Harvard University  when he speaks of Screwtape’s, “delicacy of moral sensibility, shall we call it, in reverse”  and the “catastrophic behaviour” which is a result of how, “emotionally involved [he is] with his work” (Wells, 39). The quotation shows that Wells believes he is evil in the human sense, but has enviable qualities from Hell’s standpoint. In an article from 1999, Peter Wehner writes a “Screwtape Letter” about how Lewis and Screwtape might react to religion and politics at the turn of the century. Although he does not mention Screwtape’s personality specifically, he writes eloquently and in great detail about the topics and develops Screwtape to be knowledgeable and intelligent (Wehner 18-20). Screwtape could in fact be the most honest and driven demon within Hell, but because there is no known or certain rulebook for this place which is known, one is unable to make a certain decision about his personality, but only a studied assumption. This means that judging whether Wormwood’s character is truthfully depicted or not is truly impossible because the character of Screwtape cannot be understood either without a knowledge of Hell as a place. However, Lewis says in the preface, “the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle. I have made no attempt to identify any of the human beings mentioned in the letters; but I think it very unlikely that the portraits, say, of Fr Spike or the patient’s mother, are wholly just. There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth” (Lewis IX). Lewis says that Hell is full of lies because its leader is a liar, and that perhaps Screwtape has been lied to as well. There is no truth, and no desire for it to be found, which only supports the idea that he would write Screwtape as deceptive, and as a character who would distort the person to whom he is writing, if not solely to provoke them. He also says that the portraits of the humans are not wholly just, and through the idea that the leader of Hell is spinning his territory into a web of lies, implies that the characters within the unearthly setting are also not all inclusive and truthful portraits. From this, it can be concluded that none of the characters within are truthfully depicted.

Lewis’ single-sided epistolary work follows the journey of a young demon attempting to learn the rules of Hell and his job with the help of his uncle. The development of plot and characters is recalled by only one character, his uncle Screwtape. With the story being told from only one point of view, there is bias and distortion present. Screwtape’s oppressive and egotistical character presents the other characters through a cynical and negative lens, describing them as what he perceives them to be, which is always inferior. Following the evaluation of Hell as a setting and its influence on the analysis of characters, the conclusion remained the same. Wormwood is depicted inaccurately from every angle, whether it be from Screwtape’s untrue depiction of him, or the fact that the setting is unable to house anything factually concrete because it is partially man created.

Works Cited

Dickieson, Professor Brenton. Personal Interview. 13/11/2011.

Feit, Sandy. “The Screwtape Letters.” In Touch Ministries. 2011: n. page. Web. 29 Dec. 2011.

Griffin, William. C.S. Lewis, The Authentic Voice. Lion Publishing Limited, 2005. Print.

Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II, Books, Broadcasts, and War 1931-1949. New York, United States: Harper Collins, 2004. Print.

Lewis, Clive Staples. Letters To An American Lady. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967. Print.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins, 1950. Print.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Screwtape Letters. New York: HarperOne, 2001. Print.

Wehner, Peter. “A Screwtape Letter 1999: What a Senior Devil Might Think about Religion and  Politics.” Politics and Witness. (1999): 18-20. Print.

Wells, F.L. “The Beans of St. Boloph’s; and Other Letters to Screwtape (1).” American Imago; A Psychoanalytic Journal for the Arts and Sciences. 5.1 (1948): 38-64. Print.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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15 Responses to Guest Blog by Ella Ramsay: Does Screwtape Tell the Truth about Wormwood? An Analysis of Lewis’ Epistolary Style

  1. robstroud says:

    Ella did an outstanding job in her analysis. Alas, when studying demons everything outside of the Scriptures themselves is suspect. The Father of Lies and his minions simply can’t be trusted to tell the truth in any regard.


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