Some of my favourite books are found at out-of-the-way second hand bookstores—a dying breed, I’m afraid. During a rainy drive through New Brunswick in June my wife and I stopped at Rags of Time bookstore, a tight, well-organized and overstocked shop run by a Japanese-Canadian bookmonger. Sensitive to budget, I purchased only two things: a letter collection of James Thurber and The Screwtape Letters in a special illustrated edition. It is not an edition I had seen before, so I was drawn to this inexpensive library copy first edition (1976).
This version has a few features. It is an evangelistic copy, published by Lord & King Associates—a group I’ve never heard of, though they have a facebook page with zero likes. There is a glowing preface written by Lewis’ posthumous editor, Walter Hooper, which I can now add to the near-book length collection of Screwtape forewords and prefaces in existence. Hooper’s foreword adds some to the reader’s understanding of Screwtape’s publishing history, but also adds to the Lewis legend, capturing the bookish professor sending home the scullery maid and doing the dishes himself, “up to his arms in soap-suds.” Hooper also notes that a cassette audio version is available (I have not found it), and that a motion picture is forthcoming: I’m still waiting on that one—Fox has had the rights for three generations now, but there is a rumour that X-men producer Ralph Winter will do the Screwtape film with Walden media.
The key features of this book, speculation aside, are the easy layout and the illustrations. After the original preface dated July 5, 1941, this edition has large pages with a visually engaging font, laying out each letter on two-and-a-half pages. The uniform nature of the book design allows for the subtle emphases of letter-lengthening as the thin plot climaxes toward the loss of the human soul to heaven. It also allows for the impact of the full-page illustrations laced between the pages.
The paintings are all by Wayland Moore, a celebrated American artist, now most famous for his sports paintings released for a mass market audience. His work would be best described as inspired by Screwtape Letters rather than a specific illustration of the book in order to enhance the narrative. The water colour paintings appear sporadically, a surprise to the reader as we see the moments in Screwtape that grabbed Moore’s imagination. Most of these moments are contextual, a layering of the landscape behind the letters. So we see a boy selling a newspaper, the collage of the victim’s imagination, a cocktail party, an old man reading by the fire, a young man reading by an old mill.
Some of the pictures I find to be overly sweet, perhaps a “water colour” view of life that simplifies the text. In some places, though, that innocent view sets to offset Screwtape’s demonic perspective. For example, as Screwtape goes ballistic when he finds out that Wormwood has let the human fall in love with a demure Christian, the saccharin rose-tinged couple in love is in profound contrast with Screwtape’s venomous tirade.
There are some places I’m not sure the pictures serve well. When talking of the “real, invisible presence” of God in Letter III, Moore has the human looking contemplatively at the reader, the background awash in fading symbols. I don’t think that captures the subtlety of Screwtape’s speech—or our real experience of God. It is the difficulty of trying to depict that which is both invisible yet concrete—how can we do that without telling a story, without telling a lie in some way to get at the truth (as Picasso instructs us)? The human’s “instantaneous liberation” in Letter XXXI fails, in this way, as Moore struggles to show what only the reader’s imagination can truly hint at.
The biggest risk, certainly, is his depiction of Screwtape. Moore offers a way between the comic and the terrifying with an impressionistic image, a washed out visage of darkness and indistinction. While I think his image of Screwtape works, the image on the cover with Screwtape at the desk looks staged and overwrought. My favourite painting is actually his interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ famous portrait, where he is lighting a pipe, shrouded in smoke, and looking into the camera. It is an instance, I think, where the painting is better than the photograph.
Overall, Moore’s pictures add to the excellent design of this edition of Screwtape. I probably shouldn’t have been rereading it just yet—only a month after a presentation of Screwtape at the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Colloquium—but since I was reading, this special illustrated edition made an engaging choice. And as I was reading while camping, my friends picked it up at the beach or near the campfire and were often drawn in to read a letter or two. I think, perhaps, that I see the value of a new edition in a better light, and will be on the hunt for those other lost editions of The Screwtape Letters—which, I assume, I’ll find in dying bookstores of the Western world.