Next week we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the book that made C.S. Lewis a household name: The Screwtape Letters. It was first serialized in The Guardian, a relatively minor Anglican weekly. Screwtape joins Charles Dickens‘ Bleak House, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Stephen King‘s The Green Mile as books that you and I can pick up any time but original audiences had to patiently wait for.
While no one has had to know patience like fans of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, C.S. Lewis’ demonic letters were released one at a time from May 2 through Nov 28, 1941. As it was WWII, paper was scarce, and “many people who had never heard of The Guardian before sought it out just for the letters” (Sayer, Jack, 273). Finding copies may have indeed been a challenge. An advertisement on the front page in the May 9, 1941 issue of The Guardian—repeated occasionally throughout the year—warned that “…due to the scarcity of paper” copies would only be available through subscription or by direct order.
Being one of the first readers of The Screwtape Letters would have been an historically improbable event. Published in an obscure, short-run, relatively local religious newspaper, it would be likely you would have read it second hand, borrowing someone’s tea stained and rolled up copy. To get the full letters most Brits and all the rest of us had to wait until they were released in 1942 in the UK and in 1943 in the US.
Why did Lewis choose The Guardian for his demonic find? Before The Screwtape Letters, Lewis had published three pieces in The Guardian: “The Dangers of National Repentance” (Mar 15, 1940), “Two Ways With the Self” (May 3, 1940), and “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (Jan 10, 1941)—the first of these in particular having prompted a number of responses from readers. The Guardian was one of the few newspapers that Lewis had ever read, and he felt the editor had been generous with him in the past. He offered the manuscript of Screwtape to no one else and took The Guardian’s terms of £2 per letter for the 31-letter run.
On Apr 25, 1941, one week before the Letters began, the editor ran a two-column width ad that read:
We can see that the editor is very excited about the series, but stretching a bit. This was before Lewis’ work on the BBC, so he would have been known to a relatively small group of people. He was notorious as much as noted as an Oxford don. Having impressed academics with his The Allegory of Love and The Personal Heresy, he also sullied his name with a weird allegorical conversion story (Pilgrim’s Regress) and a suspiciously referential romp into Science Fiction (Out of the Silent Planet). The Problem of Pain had been out for a year, but I’m not sure what impact it had had as of yet. I suspect that more readers of The Guardian would have pretended to read Allegory of Love than had actually gotten around to read it.
Still, the publisher is hopeful: “A keen demand is expected; order The Guardian now!” Having gone through this journal from 1939 to 1945, I never saw the editor use an exclamation mark with such vigour. He truly hoped that the Letters would be a hit.
He was certainly right.
But there is one feature that is missing in the lead up to the publication of this demonic conversation: the preface. I have in my library no fewer than six different prefaces and forewords to Screwtape. The preface is essential to reading The Screwtape Letters as it prepares the reader for the upside-down nature of the content within a fictionalized prefatory note. Plus, the original handwritten preface shows us how Lewis played with the fictional worlds he was building.
Honestly, though, the Letters would be confusing to the unwarned reader. One early subscriber testifies to this. Lewis the story of a “country clergyman” who wrote to The Guardian’s editor, “withdrawing his subscription on the ground that ‘much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical’” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters & Toast, 5). Without a prefatory key to give context, the unimpressed clergyman is perhaps right to be confused.
Intriguingly, the very first public release of the Letters in The Guardian offers no such preface, or even a note of explanation; it simply begins:
“My Dear Wormwood—I note what you say about guiding our patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïf? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches.”
It is a shocking beginning for the unprepared, an extreme use of in medias res with the potential to leave the reader completely befuddled. We all get Screwtape because the genre of demonic epistolary fiction is now something we might expect. While the editor’s little note may prepare regular readers to expect a Christian academic, readers not expecting a new, satirical genre may well be surprised.
Certainly, though, Lewis’s invention was not lost on most readers. J.P. Stevenson wrote to the editor from The Athanæum on Oct 3, 1941 with a witty response to Letter XXII, where the demon Toadpipe is forced to finish the letter according to Screwtape’s dictation after the senior demon found he had lost his physical faculties, suggesting, in essence, a (Dis)Honourary Doctorate for Screwtape:
Sir—The distinctions that follow and adorn the name of the now transmogrified Mr. Under-Secretary Screwtape leave me pleasantly puzzled. Can it be that T.E. indicates a Tempter Emeritus? And if B.S. is the best that he was able to do for himself as a young devil e Coll. Jud. Isc., could not a grateful university now welcome him in gradum Doctoris in Satanitate dishonors causa?
This reader understood instinctively what the upside-down version of a Doctor of Divinity might be, and responds with appropriate Screwtapian pretentiousness.
Perhaps it is best that Screwtape was introduced this way to the world. The lights are dim, the print a bit smudged, the layout old even for its time, the copies few. And the readers: Screwtape first came to the world for those who had ears to hear. And he remains this way to us now: strange and alienating to some, a piece of quaint literary trivia to others, and yet so very transformational to those who can truly find their way to this unusual book.