A Cosmic Find in The Screwtape Letters (Preparing for Taylor)

Ransom_CycleI’m exciting to be presenting a paper next week at the 10th Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University, in Indiana (see more here). I am talking about my “Cosmic Find” that links The Screwtape Letters to Lewis’ science fiction. As I busily read and reread texts, edit papers, and prepare slides, I realize that I am going to be fairly brief about the whole “discovery” (really, it was a recovery). I will be focussing on Perelandra, and breezing through the background. So I wanted people at the conference and interested readers to have a place to get some of this exciting background. Here is my blog on “A Cosmic Find in The Screwtape Letters.” I’m also excited to be returning to the Wade at Wheaton once again–where all the magic began.

I am excited to share this intriguing research breakthrough with all my Pilgrim in Narnia readers.[1] As many of you know, I have been working on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters for a few years now. It is time to invite you all into some of the things I have discovered.

After presenting a paper on teaching Screwtape in 2012, I traveled to the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College near Chicago. I was working on background material for my PhD thesis and was excited to make this pilgrimage.

Honestly, it wasn’t going very well. I had gone to look at the marginalia in Lewis’ Bibles—to see if his notes and highlights could tell us anything about his Bible reading habits. All I really found was that the things Lewis underlined or marked seemed to be beautiful passages. Beyond that, I found very little.

After a day and a half of doing routine things and not getting very far, I asked the helpful staff for their typescript of The Screwtape Letters. This was Lewis’ first popular book, and it was a treat to spend some time with the file.

The screwtape letters by CS Lewis 1st edThough it was C.S. Lewis’s BBC talks that made his voice well known throughout Britain, his fame was begun with The Screwtape Letters. The Letters are a correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon, and his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter with his first field assignment. Each letter was printed serially May 2 through November 28, 1941 in the Anglican weekly, The Guardian. Readers clamoured for copies of the The Guardian, and the book that came out in 1942 was a bestseller in the U.K. and in America.

Intriguingly, the demonic letters were printed in the Christian newspaper with no preface. This inevitably led to some confusion among readers,[2] so Lewis took the opportunity of the book publication to write a preface. Your edition of The Screwtape Letters most likely has a preface dated July 5, 1941. As is common with epistolary fiction, the preface introduces readers to the demonic dialogue to follow, but does so by pretending that the letters are nonfiction:

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.

Part of the fun of Screwtape is the idea that we are listening in on a conversation from another world.

I was thrilled to visit the famous handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters at The Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library in 2012. The Berg file, though, does not include the preface.

Little known, seldom viewed by researchers,[3] and not yet integrated into scholarship, the handwritten manuscript of the preface to The Screwtape Letters is still in existence. Included in the Wade’s typescript of the Letters is the handwritten preface dated July 5, 1941. What is surprising about the handwritten preface is that it is really quite different than the first edition preface or the one you see printed in your copy.

Screwtape-Letters18062lgAs it turns out, this is a find of cosmic significance.

Open up your copy of The Screwtape Letters (or look in the Google books preface here). You’ll see there are four paragraphs, including the one that I quoted above—just the single sentence drawing the reader in to the correspondence which “fell into my hands”—the “my” being C.S. Lewis, the undersigned. The second paragraph is about the kinds of errors we might fall into when treating with devils, while the third is a reminder that the author of the letters is not be trusted even on his own account: besides the tool of deception, a demon like Screwtape might be (and is no doubt often) self-deceived. The last paragraph deals with issues in aligning terrestrial and diabolical time. It is set in the war, but that is all we know.

This is the preface that has stood for nearly 75 years in all the major editions. This, however, was not the preface that C.S. Lewis first penned in 1941.

Or, at least, not precisely.

The handwritten preface comprises five paragraphs, not four. Except for a couple of points, it shares with the published preface three of its four paragraphs. The first paragraph, while similar in its core idea, is differently worded and introduces a new character; this character is also the subject of an entirely new paragraph and the single change in the final paragraph. Adding a paragraph changes the length of the preface pretty dramatically. The published preface is 281 words in total; the new paragraph in the handwritten preface nearly doubles the length. The new paragraph has 201 words, for a total of 485 in the handwritten preface.

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis avon 1940sWhile adding a new paragraph is certainly exciting, the most significant difference in the preface comes not from the length, but from a shift in content. In short, Dr. Ransom from the Cosmic Trilogy becomes a character in the Screwtape correspondence.

We all know Ransom as the main character of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—as well as the failed time travel piece, “The Dark Tower.” Although this WWII-era “Space Trilogy” is remembered only by SciFi fans and C.S. Lewis readers, I have focused a great deal on the Trilogy here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. Not only do I think they are important works on their own account, but my discovery at the Wade has made me realize how very important they are.

Remember now how the published preface begins:

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.

Now look at how the handwritten preface begins:

Nothing will induce me to reveal how my friend Dr. Ransom got hold of the script which is translated in the following pages.[4]

Isn’t that amazing?!!

Perelandra by CS LewisThe two introductions do the same thing, but the effect is entirely different.

First, note that it is Dr. Ransom who discovers Screwtape’s letters, not C.S. Lewis.[5] Lewis is still a character in this drama. Instead of the discover, he is the publisher—the same role that he played in Out of the Silent Planet, where he tells the story of Ransom’s trip to Malacandra in novel form as a way of getting the information out into the public. In Out of the Silent Planet, with the help of angelic Eldila, Ransom learned the Malacandrian language. He then discovers an interplanetary demonic conspiracy that is going to affect Earth. With Ransom as discoverer of these demonic letters, we are tempted to make the link between Screwtape’s approach and the conspiracy that Lewis and Ransom are trying to stop.

Second, we now see that Screwtape’s correspondence has been “translated.” Dr. Ransom is a linguist—a student of words—so it is no surprise that he can work as a translator. But what is the demonic language that Screwtape uses (if it isn’t English)? And if it is a special demonic language, how did Dr. Ransom learn it?

The fourth and final paragraph of the published preface always included a key detail about Screwtape’s fictional universe:

…in general the diabolical method of dating seems to bear no relation to terrestrial time…[6]

screwtape1We know that Lewis has thought about the questions that world-builders ask. He thought about time (diabolical), and the nature of the characters (deceivers and self-deceived). As it turns out, he also thought about language.

In 2013 I published the handwritten preface for the first time in the Oxford journal, Notes & Queries.[7] I will quote from that here, sharing with you all the discovery that explains the language of Screwtape’s world:

But it is, however, too late to make any mystery of the process whereby Dr. Ransom learned the language. [8] The original of these letters is written in what may be called Old Solar – the primitive speech of all rational creatures inhabiting the solar system. How Ransom came to learn it I have already related in a book called Out of the Silent Planet; but when I wrote that book he and I were both mistaken in supposing it to be the local speech of a single world – that world which its inhabitants call Malacandra. We now know better, but there is no time within this preface to discuss the problems of extra-terrestrial philology involved. But it should be added that the translation is necessarily very free. The capital letters used for pronouns when they refer to that Being whom Screwtape describes as the Enemy are, for example, a most ingenious device of Ransom’s for representing a quite different (and involuntary) phenomenon in the original. On the other hand many words mentioned where Screwtape is discussing what he calls “the Philological Arm” were already English, for naturally devils whose terrain is England are well skilled in the language of their proposed victims.[9]

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 1960sNo time for “extra-terrestrial philology” indeed! This paragraph is a tease. Still, we discover that Screwtape was not speaking a specifically demonic language. Dr. Ransom, the interstellar philologist, learned the Old Solar language on Malacandra. Old Solar is Hlab-Eribol-ef-Cordi, the language shared by all non-human ‘rational’ beings (Hnau) in the universe from the beginning of time (or near to it). Humans have long since lost the language after the fall of Adam and Eve, but it is spoken both by the terrestrial species of other worlds—Hnau, or rational, sapient beings of various shapes—as well as the celestial beings, trans- or multi-dimensional angel-like creatures called Eldila (singular ‘Eldil’) in the Ransom books.

What does this all mean?

I’m glad you asked. The implications are still being worked out. David Mark Purdy conducted a genre study of The Screwtape Letters that includes the implications of this handwritten preface. David and I have chapters that appear in a new book coming out in early 2016, called Both Sides of the Wardrobe. David will talk about his work in Screwtape here on A Pilgrim in Narnia next year.

Dark Tower and Other Stories by CSLewisThe failed time travel novel, “The Dark Tower” is considered by some as a forgery. I became convinced that it was an authentic (though not very well written) Lewis story when I saw the manuscript at the Bodleian last year. Still, some language analysis using computer models found that it is doubtful that Lewis wrote “The Dark Tower.”[10] These studies compare “The Dark Tower” with the other Ransom books and decide, in one way or another, the data doesn’t fit. Now that we know that Screwtape is part of the same fictional universe, in the same series, written in the same period, I suspect that the kind of language used in Screwtape might create a better data set that we can compare to ”The Dark Tower.” In short, you need to run the tests again.

As you might guess, there are intriguing possibilities about how we reread Screwtape as part of the Ransom Universe. More immediately pressing, though, is the question of how we read the Ransom Trilogy with Screwtape. Indeed, we don’t really have a “Trilogy” anymore, though there are other 5-book trilogies that I enjoy. We now have a Ransom Cycle, with four published books in four different genres, and an incomplete story in a fifth genre.

I am working now on a paper called “A Cosmic Shift in the Ransom Cycle.” I presented my findings last year at Mythcon and received great comments back. In this paper I think about what Lewis was doing when he built a fictional world. Then I look at what it might mean to reread the Ransom Cycle with The Screwtape Letters. I look in detail at the first two chapters of Perelandra, using a Screwtapian lens to show how the books fit together.

I hope to have this paper ready for publication in early 2016. If you are a scholar interested in reading a draft and providing criticism, let me know. Meanwhile, I would encourage readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia to try the project for yourselves. Read Lewis’ WWII-era fantasy project in this order:


[1] This paper was made possible by generous access to materials and support by three American archives: The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, IL; The Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations., NY; and The Christoph R. Keller Library, General Theological Seminary, NY. Permission to quote is graciously provided by The CS Lewis Company Ltd., Poole, UK. Many thanks to UPEI for a research grant that supported my travel to the Wade centre.

[2] See C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (London, 1961), 5. Here Lewis talks about a reader who apparently canceled his subscription because the Letters were positively diabolic. That letter to the editor was never published in The Guardian.

[3] I have only seen a single reference to the unpublished preface, and that quite recent and a footnote: Charlie Starr, Light: C.S. Lewis’s First and Final Short Story (Hamdon, CT, 2012), 118.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London, 1942) 9; manuscript excerpts: ‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis, n.d., n.p. CSL/MS-107, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.

[5] Lewis describes the convention later as, ‘the imaginary C.S.L. who has somehow tapped a diabolical correspondence’; see 9 Oct 1960 letter to publisher Jocelyn Gibb in Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963 (New York, 2007), 1196.

[6] Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 10.

[7] Brenton D.G. Dickieson, “The Unpublished Preface to C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters,” Notes and Queries 60.2 (2013): 296-298. If you have trouble getting a copy, let me know.

[8] Italicized words were underlined in the original handwritten text. You can check the published article for words that were crossed out and rewritten.

[9] Dickieson, “The Unpublished Preface,” 297.

[10] A.Q. Morton, “Once. A Test of authorship Based on Words which are not Repeated in the Sample.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 1 (1986): 1-8; Jeffrey R. Thompson and John Rasp, “Did C. S. Lewis write The Dark Tower?: An Examination of the Small-Sample Properties of the Thisted-Efron Tests of Authorship,” Austrian Journal of Statistics 38.2 (2009): 71-82. See the original accusation of forgery most fully in Kathryn Lindskoog, The C.S. Lewis Hoax. Portland: Multnomah Press, 1988.

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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40 Responses to A Cosmic Find in The Screwtape Letters (Preparing for Taylor)

  1. Ronald Davies says:

    Perhaps Out of the Silent Planet and Dark Tower should be classified as Wellsian Space (OSP) and Time (DT) Travel on the analogy of Miltonian (Per) and Arthurian (THS) Fantasy!


    • I’m sorry this slipped into my spam net. But I have found your great comment.
      Yes, OSP as Wellsian Space Tale is quite good, and has symmetry to it. Dark Tower sits out of step with them all–perhaps that’s okay, as Lewis never finished it!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – this is great!

    Question (which you have probably addressed elsewhere – more than once? – and I’ve lost track of!): both versions of the Preface are dated 5 July 1941 – which is in the midst of the weekly publication (a third of the way through, and, judging by my ‘perpetual calendar’, on the Saturday after the tenth letter had appeared on Friday), now, how much do ‘we’ know about how this fits in with (a) writing the letters, and (b) getting a book-publication of them ready?

    Another: whichever version was first, that 5 July date was retained and published – how and why?

    Field for wild future speculation: how might this fit in with Tolkien’s working on the Lord of the Rings including inventing the ‘black speech of Mordor’ (mostly known from the Ring verse) and its relation to Valarin and his thoughts and work on that language? For example, are Old Solar and Valarin analogous conceptions, but quite distinct in detail? (I’ve just been starting to try to swot up on the ‘black speech’ via the Tolkien Gateway, which led me to Valarin, too, and various interesting links about both, but I know next-to-nothing about these matters, and certainly not the fine points of chronology – as far as known or likely – about their invention, working out, alterations, etc.). But, for example, might talking about the ring verse at an Inklings session have lead or contributed to thinking about Old Solar on Lewis’s part, and might they have discussed such things? So that, for example, Lewis might have tried out the Ransom preface on (an assortment of) the other Inklings?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Where does Lewis say what about ‘Old Solar’? Does saying “when I wrote that book he and I were both mistaken in supposing it to be the local speech of a single world – that world which its inhabitants call Malacandra”, signal a development in Lewis’s thinking from ‘Malacandran’ to ‘Old Solar’? How does – or might – the composition history of Perelandra come in, here?

      Not that while you’re busy getting ready for next week, you have to do anything about addressing any such questions and ideas I blithely toss out!


    • I’ll have to come back to this question, but I have worked out the chronology somewhere, but not with Tolkien. I just read through JRRT’s letters of the period, and he was well into the first draft of Return of the King by Screwtape. I’d have to line it up, but I don’t know that we even have T’s early drafts. And by “we” I don’t mean me!


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  7. Long before the Screwtape Letters there was Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, composed by Satan himself, written to his archangel pals in heaven. http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/twain/letearth.htm


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  15. kategladstone says:

    I have trouble getting a copy of the NOTES & QUERIES copy of Lewis’s original preface, because the link you gave is dead. How can I get a copy of that original prefac? You said that you would help.


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  29. Carmen says:

    Stumbled upon the blog via a birthday present of Boxen. Just to say I enjoy your writing style and I find your scholarship refreshing.


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