How Screwtape was Introduced to the World

The screwtape letters by CS Lewis 1st edNext 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 DickensBleak 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:

Apr 25 ad close2We 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.”

May 2 let 1aIt 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?

J.P. Stevenson

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.

May 2 TOC

 

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in Fictional Worlds, Original Research and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to How Screwtape was Introduced to the World

  1. Callum Beck says:

    This means that the fascinating intro you found at Wheaton, that connects the Letters to Ransom, was an afterthought; the Letters initially stood alone, and then he later considered connecting them to the trilogy, though ultimately rejected this connection.

    Like

    • Yes, that’s absolutely right. I think the whole preface was an afterthought–a necessity. I suspect the preface connection to Ransom was just a literary experiment, then abandoned.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Will I be (ahem) playing the devil’s advocate if I suggest he could have thought of this experiment in some form from the beginning, but only committed it to paper after serial publication?

        Like

        • The Ransom thing? Maybe. If you look at Michael Ward’s work, we see a Lewis is far more organized and structured creator. I’m not fully convinced, though he is imaginatively integrative. I think it’s like how Numenor (spelled wrongly) shows up in That Hideous Strength. Lewis thought it was cool, and so he did it.
          Sorry, not a very sophisticated theory!

          Like

  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Nice job of contextualizing. I wish more of those who write on Lewis would pay attention to such matters.
    I have wondered (knowing how playful Lewis could be sometimes) whether the “country clergyman” was another of his inventions. I know of no independent corroboration. But of course the letter from which Lewis quotes could have vanished in one of the Kilns’ famous bonfires (if the Editor had sent it to Lewis), or else along with other things from the Guardian’s files when that periodical ceased (which would also account for the Collected Letters not giving us Lewis’s reply). So now I’m the one who’s inventing. We’ll never know. Does Occam’s razor come into play? Does the style of the purported quotation shed any light?

    Like

    • Thanks Charles. I did this work early, by instinct, and sat on it for a while. Honestly, it comes from working in biblical studies for those years, where context is everything. I think there is a value in reading a poem or story cold, words on a page. But if I am doing an integrated project of thought and biography, I need as much of the context as I can get.
      I have wondered what you just said out loud, but haven’t voiced it. I tend to skirt away from saying “C.S. Lewis did X” unless I can know for sure–especially when it is a little sketchy. Here is what I wrote in a footnote in an as yet unpublished paper. It is the closest to a published critical letter I could find:

      I was not able to find this letter in the Letter to the Editor section of The Guardian, so evidently it was never printed and the story was shared personally between the editor and Lewis. Notably, there was only one negative Letter to the Editor regarding The Screwtape Letters. A P.D. Ellis offers a cautious critique, suggesting that, “Satire always seems to me to be a dangerous weapon, and especially so in searching and relentless days like these. Mr. Lewis will win a lot of applause for his caustic cleverness from readers who like that kind of thing, but I think he runs the risk of doing more harm than good. The unhappy impression I get from his writings generally is that men and women are the perpetual victims of the malice in the universe, and that this malice is as deep or deeper than Divine Love. And that is a hideous view. It seems to me that a wounded soul in the hands of Mr. Lewis might receive further hurt and be thrust deeper. But very likely I have got him all wrong, if so I apologize for my presumption in writing like this” (Oct 24, 1941).

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A good footnote! Slightly informed impression: cancellation letters and letters to the editor need not overlap, though they might. Perhaps interesting to compare Dorothy L. Sayers’ remarks in The Man Born to Be King.

        Do ‘we’ know anything more about A.P.D. Ellis? A finely-honed piece of self-satisfied nastiness, to my thinking, that letter (“But very likely I have got him all wrong”- right!).

        Liked by 1 person

        • A good point about the cancellation letters. If I was an editor, I would not print a cancellation letter. What did Sayers say? I have read the intro essay, which is a theory of Christian writing I guess.
          I don’t know P.D. Ellis! Is it worth noting that I disagree with him?

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            “Is it worth noting that I disagree with him?”

            Something might be added to the footnote, I suppose: but, how much to say?

            I would strongly disagree with “It seems to me that a wounded soul in the hands of Mr. Lewis might receive further hurt and be thrust deeper”, as to the likelihood of this. Does Screwtape conduce to despair, or some kind of ‘fatalism’, rather than hope? But I can imagine Lewis giving it serious thought as a criticism. To a good extent, The Great Divorce could be seen as answering it, whether there was any intention on Lewis’s part to answer such criticisms there, or not. And/or the Broadcast Talks, for that matter, in being clear rather than leaving it to the audience to puzzle it out.

            More generally, satire is always worth a discussion (probably inconclusive, but elucidating). But need one always embark on it?

            On a different scale is “that this malice is as deep or deeper than Divine Love”, which while indeed addressing Lewis is in fact (as far as I can see) obliquely addressing a major ‘Christian issue’, re. ‘eternal damnation to Hell’.

            But should one try to address such things, en passant, in a footnote, and, if so, how?

            Like

            • I agree that satire is a risk. It always is, and will definitely wound. But hope can wound too.
              I don’t know how one addresses these things. I’m glad Lewis wrote all the letters before handing them in. Otherwise, he would have adapted them as he went (or would have been tempted to).

              Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for such a splendid essay, and reconstructed experience! “Perhaps it is best that Screwtape was introduced this way to the world.” It is exhilarating – Lewis or the editor or both, apparently thinking ‘toss ’em in at the deep end!’ or something analogous: a real puzzle piece (Golden Age detective story and crossword lovers, try this!).

    Nearly a year after the end of the ‘Phoney war in the west’, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia
    still working together, paper shortage, a year-and-a-third of rationing ratcheting up step by step, all the bureaucracy, all the propaganda – and here comes this letter. To proceed anachronistically, ‘Wormy-leaks’: whose medicalized (‘patient’), ideologized (‘the Enemy’), technocratic internal memo is this? ‘Left-wing’? ‘Right-wing’? One of ‘our’ ministries, think-tanks? (whiff of NICE in the making). Or even someone in the Church Hierarchy (was, say, Hewlett Jones as ‘business-like’ as this)?

    But… that science-fiction touch: “the humans” – ! (Well’s Martians? Capek’s Newts?) And then, “Our Father below”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah says:

      Yes, I wholly second David’s comment.
      Did the editor really only receive one critical letter? I can understand the confusion of the “country clergyman” (even if thought up by Lewis himself) seeing how the first Screwtape letter appeared side-by-side with Abbot of Pershores’ ‘Prayer in Wartime’ without any preface; a great way to appear in wartime, coming in under the radar.
      The Ransom-preface still was an exciting discovery even if just a literary experiment. Would there be any unfound links to the grey city in the Great Divorce?

      Like

      • Ah, those humans!
        Did the editor really only receive one critical letter? I don’t know. There are only 6 letters to the editor about Screwtape, which I find fascinating. Why so few? Did the editor only select some? Some of the other ones a pretty lame, if my memory serves me right. Perhaps no one wrote in.
        I think we should remember that Screwtape is a viral phenomenon. The vast majority of the Guardian copies would have received a chuckle, and then used to wrap potato peelings or light a fire. But it built, toward a book, and then the BBC added to it. But it was a slow build. So perhaps the earliest readers didn’t get the importance of what was happening. After all, history always seems to happen in the past!
        The “unfound link” to the Great Divorce is the connection of author narrator through the WWII-era lit. It is in the Ransom Trilogy, the Dark Tower, Screwtape, and Great Divorce (probably). In every case Lewis is fictionalized in a speculative world that is largely linked. GD is the most speculative, but follows the spiritual logic of Screwtape and Ransom.
        I suppose that is worth a blog sometime!

        Like

        • Hannah says:

          So there actually might be a link to the GD, if only very speculative? I had not thought of the author narrator, but that makes sense. A blog on that would be great!
          That such a ‘viral phenomenon’ was possible in a pre-social media era, through newspapers and so few letters, eg no twitter! The slow build sounds like the leavening of dough.
          Yes, we often seem to miss the importance of what is happening around us.
          Somehow, Lewis did not seem being caught in the moment, often having such a great ‘timeless’ perspectives, probably through his way of reading books, alternating contemporary with old ones?

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thinking out loud… there might be an interesting sort of strand in Jane’s apparently ‘true’ dreaming in THS, in whatever all is going on in The Dark Tower with – mental travel? (I need to reread it again…!), and with the dream-vision of GD. (Lewis is good in Discarded Image about thoughts about dreams, if I’m remembering it properly.) Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers might come in here, interestingly, too – and The Book of Lost Tales.

            Like

          • Yes on the relative timelessness. I would wish that he was aware of his embeddedness. For example, he had concerns about empire and colonialism, but is not overly self-critical about this (or about the privilege of his class). I think it could have deepened his work.
            On the other hand, I think in WWII he was relatively connected to a particular culture: not high art, but a popular sense of art, a dim sense of politics, an understanding of war and history, an expertise in literature, and a pretty good sense of what people could understand about theology (see Screwtape or Mere Christianity).
            By the time he sat down to write Narnia, he no longer had that sense of connection with culture. He refers to himself as “old” many times, and I think that he simple feels content to take his hands off of the steering wheel of cultural connectedness and let others do it.
            Did others do it?

            Like

            • Hannah says:

              I was really thinking of his expertise in literature and insights in theology and philosophy, like how the thinking of people has been changing through the ages (e.g. in ‘the Discarded Image’ and ‘Abolition of Man’). And know very little of his political views; could they have been influenced by his Irish upbringing? I do remember reading about that now and the clashes with his father about it …

              Liked by 1 person

              • Hannah says:

                A summary of that change in thinking is in his introduction to ‘The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth’ by D.E. Harding (see comment at the bottom of the oddest inkling blog of 17 sept 2015: https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/charles-williams-and-doctor-who-part-2-cabbalistic-beliefs-about-words/ ). Wonder what you make of it …
                And if I remember correctly he himself recommends that kind of reading in ‘God in the Dock’ for gaining that kind of perspective?

                Like

              • Hi political views are anti-Labour (after the war, after a pretty bad late 40s government), anti-Marxist (on philosophical grounds), and was an avowed Democrat (because people can’t be trusted to be dictators or oligarchs). He though hierarchy not an evil or good, but potentially both, neutral–whether that was in marriage, the workplace, or the state. He was generally conservative, and suspicious of vapid progressive notions. He also resisted the idea of the state gaining too much control because it reduces human freedom and ingenuity. Yet he does not align very well with either the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney conservatives of the 80s, or the corrent movements in England and the U.S., where the essence of culture is economic. He also has some left-leaning things, like a suspicion of the colonial project and an appreciation for English health-care.
                That’s a bland summary, I know. He generally stayed out of political dogfights, but his letters reveal a lot. He grew more nuanced politically as he aged, but had a couple of fuddy-duddy notions near end of life.
                I have found his response to Harding in the essay and in the letters so very strange, but it has been a years since I read them. I would have to go back.

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                D.E. (Douglas) Harding seems like an interesting example of Lewis’s post-war, mid-Narnia readiness to go on ‘connecting’ (check out his Wikipedia article and the linked obituary).

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I didn’t see your 7:11 p.m. before i posted my Harding, but I probably would still have submitted a variant of it: I haven’t reread the whole Harding intro in ages, am not up on all the correspondence, and have not read the Harding book introduced, or any other, which leaves me at the level of, ‘the fact and phenomenon of this connecting is noteworthy, however strange it may seem or prove to be’.

                Like

              • I think it is a good thought. I don’t think Lewis totally pulled back from cultural criticism. But he dropped to a lower level of engagement, and used the smell test of his own base to find partners in doing that job.

                Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              “Did others do it?”

              I think of George Grant as an example of one who did. I’ve just been reading the barest overview of the influence of Alcuin’s students from Charlemagne’s Palace School – what of Lewis’s formal students (including people he supervised), those who attended his lectures or the Socratic Club (of whom Grant is an example) – or the Inklings, and his readers – perhaps especially those he corresponded with?

              The ‘connection’ and ’embeddedness’ question(s) reminds me, for what it is worth, of David Jones’s review of Williams’s Arthurian poetry, reprinted in Epoch and Artist.

              Perhaps a lot of the sort of cultural connectedness you sketch for the 1940s became more and more a sort of ‘counter-culture cultural connectedness’, as dominant culture(s) alienated ever further from the ‘cultural strands’ Lewis had connected with when he got (so to put it) ‘demodernized’ in the late 1920s-early 1930s from the ‘modern Lewis’ of the ‘ninteen-teens’ (the author of the early letters to Greeves and of Spirits in Bondage).

              Liked by 1 person

              • Goodness, I think you are right, it was always a ‘counter-culture cultural connectedness’–which is awfully tiring after a while. There are all kinds of theories with Lewis’ pullback from apologetics, not least his getting beat up by a girl (Anscombe, a woman actually). My theory is far less sexy: he just got tired of having to think in that way all the time and keep up the pace of a public intellectual (radio talks, editorial and the like).
                George Grant, yes–an important Canadian intellectual. Does he have influence elsewhere? A whole group of American apologists and evangelists emerged after WWII, though in a decidedly more partisan way.

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Good question about Grant outside Canada: in general, the O’Donovans have probably brought him to wider English-speaking attention (as I’ve tried to help do, in a ‘modest’ way). I don’t know how much ‘specialist’ academic attention there may be (e.g., among poliitical scientists, bioethicists).

                Harry Blamires is another interesting example, as is, perhaps, Martin Lings (though I don’t know how much he refers explicitly to Lewis). Do James Joyce readers encounter Lewis via Blamires? And who-all via Lings – Islamic scholars, among others?

                Liked by 1 person

              • I know that Blamires is read by Christians thinking about culture, but nothing else.

                Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I wonder if anybody clipped them out and put them in a scrapbook – ’cause, you never know, it might not get reprinted in book form, and, anyway, a couple shillings saved…

          Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Another thought: how might the grey city of GD and the devils in Screwtape apparently getting at their victims straightaway be related to each other? In GD, there’s that fearful waiting for ‘them’ to come out, once it’s quite dark… but in Screwtaoe, they seem already out in force. To compare Dante, does Screwtape show ‘ lower circles’ of hell than GD?

          Like

          • I don’t know. Good questions. I’m rereading Dante right now. I still feel like a Dantean infant. The Architechtronics blow my mind. I’m like someone who looks at the Mona Lisa and says, “that would look good on a t-shirt.”
            CSL doesn’t follow Dante’s logic of hell in GD, and yet Dante is behind GD in many ways. Lewis-MacDonald are like Dante-Virgil, traveling on their way. Both are located–hell in Dante is very Italian, as purgatory in GD is very British. Both show the consequence of sin as eternal in some way.
            Yet the self-surrender principle of GD is different. If one can die to self in GD, then one can find the way to the mountains bearable. Actually, one wouldn’t even notice the journey after a while!
            Yes, the Grey Town must be the very lowest levels of hell (or its circumference). Screwtape seems to have no hold on the beings in the Grey Town or the bright valley. The work of the devils is done, and the question is whether the individual ghost can undo some of that work.

            Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Could you remind us how you’ve gone through this journal from 1939 to 1945? Wow! What a lot of work, and a fascinating opportunity!

    Do you happen to remember if it was Williams’s Witchcraft that was reviewed in this issue?And by whom? And how it was, as an interview?

    Like

    • Hi David. It sounds more impressive than it really is. I went to New York City–the closest archive I could find with the paper–and pulled 1939-1945. Then I flipped through them, looking for C.S. Lewis stuff and getting a general feel of Anglican issues during the period. Then I took slides of CSL things.
      But no, I don’t know anything about Williams. Honestly, he wasn’t on my radar, and I only had one day!

      Like

  5. Esdras says:

    Hello Mr. Dickieson! I’m from Brazil (so my English is not so good! Sorry!) And I’m studying and writting about TSL in my post graduate – I don’t know how you call this education level. My researches need something deeper than I can get in our University´s library. Please, I need your help, cause I found this Homepage and saw some pages of the Guardian, the original support of TSL. Could You, please, give me a link or something like this to find the originals publications that bring the 31 letters of TSL? My e-mail is e_alexandresilva@yahoo.com.br Thank you for your attention!

    Like

  6. Pingback: When Screwtape Haunts in Eden: Testing the Possibilities of the Screwtape-Ransom Universe | A Pilgrim in Narnia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s