Last week I published a review essay on a delightful and problematic Marvel adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. In “Double Irony, Visual Delight, and a Missed Opportunity: The Screwtape Letters Marvel Comic Book,” I praised the adaptation for its art and design, noted some weaknesses in adaptation and missed opportunities in the unique genre of graphic novels, and talked about the key irony of a comic book adaptation of The Screwtape Letters–i.e., that a critical demonic device of Screwtape to destroy souls is to keep the idea of demons as comical figures at the front of the public imagination. Overall, I was pleased by the book and thought it a great find for Lewis lovers and comic book fans.
Since then, someone sent me a snapshot of the introduction to an edition that is slightly different than my own gifted copy of the Marvel Comics version of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This other edition does not reproduce Lewis’ own 1941 preface as mine does. Instead, it has a special introduction written by Neil Gaiman.
As readers will know, Gaiman is not simply a giant in the fantasy world–outside of the horror genre, I think American Gods is the most important work of fantasy on the continent–but one of the new generation pioneers of the graphic novel medium. He is also a lifelong Narnia fan–and, we discover here, a lover and appreciative reader of Screwtape. Leaving beside any technical matters you might normally find in an introduction, Gaiman still manages to orient the reader to the book in their hands while giving us a sense of what he loves about Screwtape as a theologically interested but not specifically religious reader.
Besides some good swipes at the American Christian culture war (the ’90s one, not the current one) and a perceptive description of Narnia, Gaiman draws the reader to Screwtape for entertainment, delight, and wisdom. Gaiman’s perspective of Screwtape‘s impact has reminded me of that larger group of readers of Lewis that keep coming back to his works.
Gaiman also displays a certain proclivity to complex sentences–a habit that I share and no doubt has developed out of a working team under Screwtape’s sharp tutelage. Among Gaiman’s demons, the Pratchett-Gaiman revelation of Crowley in Good Omens is doubtless, at least in the creation of the M25 highway outside of London, one to make Screwtape proud. In other respects, however, Screwtape would be deeply disappointed in and ravenously affectionate for Crowley. I hope you enjoy this introduction!
Clive Staples Lewis put it best in his preface to the original book—of which the volume you are holding is an illustrated abridgement. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” he said. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” And with that he began his story of redemption, moral advice and good digestion, subtitled “letters from a senior to a junior devil”, written originally as a series of essays in the Guardian newspaper at the time of the outbreak of World War II.
Wormwood, the junior devil, is diligently tempting, as best he can, an unnamed young everyman, and reporting Downstairs in a sequence of epistles—that we are never shown. Screwtape’s replies, which make up the body of the book, are a series of advices, remonstrances, thoughts and occasional memoirs concerning the road to Hell, and the more difficult road to Another Place (about which Screwtape finds it uncomfortable to think).
Screwtape is, make no mistake, a demon, and a very good one. Screwtape would find it amusing that people think he and his ilk spend time recording messages on rock and roll albums, and recording them backwards at that. They have better things to do—as you’ll find out in the pages that follow.
The late C.S. Lewis is probably best known today for his series of seven novels set in and around the country of Narnia, on a far world inhabited by giants (both the really big, stupid kind and the smaller ones, who eat people), not to mention fauns, fallen stars, amazingly wicked witches and talking animals; a world in which Father Christmas rubs shoulders with Greek gods, and boys undergo Pauline conversions when transformed into Dragons. (I occasionally wonder what he’d make of the current tendency amongst certain groups of people who consider themselves Christians to condemn all fantastic literature as a demon-inspired plot to distract people from what Screwtape so derisively refers to as “real life”. But then, we’re probably back to that “excessive and unhealthy interest” I mentioned earlier.)
I first read The Screwtape Letters when I was nine years old—I bought it from the school bookshop, a pre-teenage Narnia addict—and was relieved on rereading it recently to find it as fresh and delightful and even as wise as I found it then, and would urge anyone who enjoys this book to hunt down the original (still in print after all these years) which is longer and has even more of Screwtape’s counsel in it, and the subsequent volume, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.
The world Screwtape gives us is one of battle between the flesh and the spirit, in which Hell is purely spiritual and Heaven has the loathsome (to Screwtape) advantage of having once been incarnate. As a writer, with a regrettable tendency to stumble into theological terrain, I find Screwtape, via Lewis, a source of delight—as much for the questions he leaves unanswered as for what he tells us: I find myself wondering if Screwtape—and Wormwood and Glubose, Toadpipe, Slubgob and the rest of the Lowerarchy—have voices that whisper to them, too. I wonder whether angels write each other letters, and, for that matter, what angels feed on…
But I fear I stray from the task at hand, which is that of introducing you to the entertaining and educational material which follows.
So, ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I hand you over to His Abysmal Sublimity Under-Secretary Screwtape, T.E., B.S., etc., and his sage advice…
Note: I fixed a couple of typos. If I have mistranscribed anything, please let me know.