Throwback Thursdays are where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
This one goes waaaay back to the heady days of 2012. It is a post I wrote from a used bookstore discovery before I had visited the archives at the Marion E. Wade Center. My wife was rightly doubtful when I picked The Screwtape Letters. After all, how many editions did I need? I couldn’t articulate then what I now know to be true of my work: It is important how people read C.S. Lewis’ work, and so it is important how it is presented to the world. Plus, The Screwtape Letters continues to be important to my academic work, like my “Cosmic Find in The Screwtape Letters.”
Though I am not a big fan of watercolour painting, I still like these illustrations in helping me think about the text–though they are certainly dated. I have become increasingly critical of the Americanization of this volume, but that itself is telling. I thought this post was worth re-sharing and I have allowed the plates to shine a bit more in this reblog. If you click through the links or use the search feature, you will see that I have a couple of dozen posts on Screwtape. I hope you enjoy!
Some of my favourite books are found at out-of-the-way second hand bookstores—a dying breed, I’m afraid. I don’t think I am alone in this, the joy of discovering first a new bookstore, and then seeing what treasures await inside.
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 had (in 2012) 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 (which I have detailed here), 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, 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 (in 2012) 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 watercolour 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 “watercolour” view of life that simplifies the text. In some places, though, that innocent view offsets Screwtape’s demonic perspective well. 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.