Today is the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Screwtape Letters in book form in the UK. As it has been a decade since I gave my last “Nefarious Nod to our Favourite Degenerate Demon” at the 70th, I thought I would catch readers up on all things Screwtape in the years between. After all, it was this collection of demonic letters that catapulted C.S. Lewis into international fame as a Christian controversialist and public intellectual.
It was also the book that provided for me an entirely new adventure of faith and scholarship that has carried me through all the years since.
How C.S. Lewis Conceived of The Screwtape Letters
Though it is now a work of great renown, The Screwtape Letters had a humble beginning in the imagination of an Oxford don in summer vacation during “unprecedented times.”
C.S. Lewis listened to Hitler’s strangely compelling speech to the Reichstag on the radio in the summer of 1940 in that first volatile year of WWII. A couple of days later, Lewis slipped into church on Sunday morning after a few weeks’ absence due to illness and fatigue. With some reluctance, Lewis sat through a sermon preached by Rev. T.E. Blieben. While Lewis found this clergyman boring, during that very sermon he was struck by an idea for the book. He wrote about the experience to his brother:
“Before the service was over—one cd. wish these things came more seasonably—I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first “patient.” The idea wd. be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.” (Hooper, Letters 2, 427).
The upside-down pattern of spiritual direction—the “other point of view” that is critical to the genius of Screwtape—was born in that moment.
You can read the whole story of Screwtape’s imaginative beginnings here, where I also try to clear up some complications in the scholarly storyline. What is clear is that from July 1940 into the spring of 1941, Lewis wrote Screwtape by hand, perhaps completing one letter a week (Sayer, Jack, 273).
How Screwtape was Introduced to the World
When he had finished the letters (as far as I can tell), he submitted them as a package to The Guardian, an Anglican paper where Lewis published other WWII-era essays. On Apr 25, 1941, the editor of The Guardian announced an upcoming series called The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.
From May 2 to Nov 28, 1941, the letters were published serially–a weekly burst of creativity and artistry that focussed the spiritual life during a period of fear, worry, violence, and loss.
We will return to the question of the Screwtape Preface presently, where Lewis prepares the reader in a creative way to read these pieces of demonic epistolary fiction. 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. 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.”
As I discuss it in detail here, it is a shocking beginning for the unprepared. Who is Screwtape? Who is Wormwood? Why is Wormwood being commended for encouraging connections with materialists (atheists? naturalist? worldly people?)? Why is he rebuked for using argument as a foundation for action?
The original Screwtape Letters were an extreme use of in medias res with the potential to leave the reader completely befuddled. We all “get” Screwtape now because the genre of demonic epistolary fiction is something we might expect. It is part of pop culture. Back then, though, it was entirely new. 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.
Within a few weeks of this serial Screwtape, editor Ashley Sampson stumbled upon the Letters and convinced Geoffrey Bles to publish them. Through 1941, Lewis prepared the manuscript for publication, including writing the preface on Jul 5, 1941, sending manuscripts to friends for safe-keeping (see the story here, here, and here), and going through a revision process that is now mostly lost to us in history.
Finally, on Feb 9, 1942, The Screwtape Letters was published by Geoffrey Bles in the UK, followed by an American edition in 1943.
The timeline of Screwtape meeting the world is a bit complex, from the initial moment that sparked Lewis’ imagination, to Lewis’ 1959 sequel “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in the Saturday Evening Post, to Screwtape‘s influence in the world. For those that are interested in the details, I work them out here in this piece.
Upon publication, Screwtape was so immediately popular that it was reprinted several times a year over the next decade. I don’t know any biographer of C.S. Lewis‘ life as a writer or his afterlife as an author that doesn’t include Screwtape as a critical feature of who he was and what influence he had on the world. I have found it intriguing to put his somewhat surprising writing Screwtape in the context of his writing life (see here, here, here, and here). However, Screwtape is also important in the development of C.S. Lewis’ public profile. Although Lewis’ BBC talks and Screwtape came about simultaneously, they were each critical in Lewis’ development as a public figure.
In the 1940s, Time magazine was one of the reasons that Lewis ascended in the literary and religious imaginations of Americans. In a review of The Great Divorce, Lewis is described as a
“ruddy, balding British Author (The Screwtape Letters, etc.), a convert (1930) from well-bred skepticism to the Church of England…” (Time, 3/11/1946, Vol. 47, Issue 10).
Likewise, in the Time review of Lewis’ George Macdonald anthology, he is most prominently recognized as the author of Screwtape (Time, 6/2/1947, Vol. 49, Issue 22). Eventually, in 1948, C.S. Lewis warranted a Time cover with two headlines–“Don v. Devil” and “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis: His heresy? Christianity”–where he is described as a “celebrity” whose platform was built upon The Screwtape Letters. In one of the lamest journalistic comments I have ever read, Lewis was described by Time as a
“man who could talk theology without pulling a long face or being dull.”
I don’t know anyone who has catalogued the breadth of influence that Screwtape has had within popular culture as a whole. That Monty Python’s John Cleese narrated a Grammy-nominated audiobook of The Screwtape Letters is some indication of its impact.
For Christians, Screwtape remains a powerful resource for spiritual growth and cultural criticism. Even for people who viewed the world differently than Lewis, Screwtape still has power and charm. The Screwtape Letters are part of a curriculum I designed called “A Weekend of Reading to Change Your Literary Life.” Teaching Screwtape to local Bible studies has been extremely fruitful for me. More broadly, this peculiar book has been formational to folks like Billy Graham, W.H. Auden, Neil Gaiman, the Oh Hellos, William Lindsay Gresham, and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Any number of writers have attempted a Screwtape voice with their pen, including Os Guinness, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, and my own mean self (it’s harder than you think). I have used this method in my teaching, which resulted in my first work of Lewis scholarship (Teaching Screwtape for a New Generation). And Screwtape begs for adaptation, like The Screwtape Letters Special Illustrated Edition by Artist Wayland Moore or my “Christmas miracle,” The Screwtape Letters Marvel Comic Book, for which Neil Gaiman provided an Introduction. It seems to me that we seem to see Wormwood and Screwtape reborn in various parts of popular culture.
As a writer, teacher, and blogger, Screwtape has stimulated my thinking over the years. I have written about Screwtape and impossible beauty, Screwtape on Pleasure and Distraction, and more complex reflections, like “The Living Lie, But Dead Men Tell the Truth: The Screwtape Letters and Ivan Ilych.” And then, in our “current social moment” (I’ll love when that phrase is done with), “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary: What Screwtape Taught Me About my COVID Experience.” I am still navigating through the intimate pressures of life.
I have also had the chance to think about The Screwtape Letters in the broader digital world, such as my conversations on the “Pints with Jack” podcast (“The Screwtape Letters on Extremism and Spiritual Life during a Pandemic” or my convocation address at Maritime Christian College. I also enjoyed conversations about “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” on “Pints with Jack” (part 1 and part 2) and the “All About Jack” podcast. And I have been able to occasionally feature other people’s work, like William O’Flaherty and his new book, C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell, or Ella Ramsay with a perceptive analysis of “Lewis’ Epistolary Style” in The Screwtape Letters.
The Cosmic Preface to The Screwtape Letters
But it goes deeper than just mere cultural influence, theological playfulness, or artistic possibilities for me. Screwtape was an essential part of my path to becoming a C.S. Lewis scholar in the first place, and I tell the story in some detail here.
The Screwtape preface has become a famous part of speculative literature history. In writing the preface to guide the reader into this peculiar new work, Lewis followed the long tradition of epistolary fiction–novels written as letters, diary entries, records, and the like. As we encounter the Letters, it isn’t that Lewis wrote these Screwtapian bits of correspondence; rather, as he says in the preface published in your copy of The Screwtape Letters, he has discovered them somehow:
“I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.”
It is a pretty piece of work. But behind this “published preface” is an archival piece, a handwritten preface that Lewis wrote as his first attempt to invite a broader readership into The Screwtape Letters. This preface includes a deeper dimension to Screwtape in Lewis’ imagination.
Beyond all the intriguing aspects of the handwritten preface, is the particular discovery that Lewis makes a link between Screwtape and his Ransom books–Out of the Silent Planet, published before Screwtape in 1938, and Perelandra, which he was writing at the time that Screwtape was moving toward publication.
This is the first sentence of what I call the “Ransom Preface” or the “Cosmic Preface”:
“Nothing will induce me to reveal how my friend Dr. Ransom got hold of the script which is translated in the following pages.”
This is the original discovery I made in the Wade centre archive at Wheaton college in 2012. Since that point, I have spent years working on the implications of a “Ransom Cycle” that includes Lewis’ ineptly named “Space Trilogy” combined with Screwtape and other writings in the Ransom universe.
In 2013, I published the entire Ransom Preface in Notes & Queries. In 2014, I travelled to Mythcon at Wheaton College in Norton, MA, to share my discovery and initial thoughts with the fantastic (in more ways than one!) community of myth-lovers and fantasy fans. Then, in 2016, I returned to the C.S. Lewis and friends conference at Taylor University with some further analysis in a paper I entitled, “When Screwtape Haunts in Eden: Testing the Possibilities of the Screwtape-Ransom Speculative Universe” (see more here and here). I then worked this material into a lecture for my students, which I have published on Youtube.
Eventually, I was able to publish “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters” in Mythlore–the journal of the society that hosted the original Mythcon where I presented my initial findings. This paper is the culmination of several years of doing analysis and testing the material in writing, teaching, and conversation. Beyond formal conferences and academic journals, I have occasionally been able to speak about my findings in a more popular setting, including local college courses, university classes, and events like my “Pints with Jack” conversation in 2020.
My work with The Screwtape Letters and the Ransom Cycle has continued since. Recently, I teamed up to do some archival work with Charlie W. Starr–C.S. Lewis handwriting expert and the first person to note in print that a Ransom Preface even existed. Charlie and I did some work on what we think to be the “Archangel Fragment,” Lewis’ single attempt to answer Screwtape with letters of angelic advice. You should be able to see bits of our paper, “The Archangel Fragment and C.S. Lewis’s World-Building Project” here, but you can order a copy on Amazon.
How to Work on The Screwtape Letters Yourself
Of course, the best way to study The Screwtape Letters is to ignore everything I have said and to pick up the book and read. Once you have read it in your cheap, well-worn used copy, you can find Screwtape in various editions–like audiobooks or stage performances or graphic novel adaptations. And when you have read it until has begun to work on you, you may want to think about finding resources to walk with Lewis in his unusual experiment in spiritual theology and cultural criticism.
Then, and only then, I may be of some help. Here are some pieces that may support your work:
The Screwtape Letters as a Manuscript and Archival Research on C.S. Lewis
- How Screwtape was Introduced to the World
- A Manuscript List and Timeline of The Screwtape Letters
- The Lost-But-Found Works of C.S. Lewis
- C.S. Lewis Manuscript Collections and Reading Rooms
- Photographic Plates of C.S. Lewis’ Manuscripts and Letters
- The Marion E. Wade Center: An Archive Review (and my follow-up post)
- A Guide to Doing C.S. Lewis Research at the Bodleian: From One Who Started Badly (which is based on this experience)
- The Reading C.S. Lewis Chronologically Project
My Scholarly Work on C.S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters
- A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters (Paper Link, with Resources, and see this podcast)
- Why Didn’t Someone See it First? Discussing the Screwtape-Ransom Discovery (Blog Post)
- When Screwtape Haunts in Eden: A Lecture on C.S. Lewis’ Fantasy Writings (Lecture)
- Neil Gaiman’s Introduction to The Screwtape Letters, Marvel Comics Edition
- Double Irony, Visual Delight, and a Missed Opportunity: The Screwtape Letters Marvel Comic Book
- Teaching Screwtape for a New Generation (Conference Talk)
- Dorothy Sayers’ Sluckdrib Letter: Not The First Screwtape Copycat … But Close
- Snigsnozzle: The First Screwtape Copycat by Charles Williams
On Screwtape and the Ransom Cycle
- What is the Significance of Worc(h)ester in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle?
- Two Different Prefaces to C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength
- “The Country Around Edgestow”: A Map from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength by Tim Kirk from Mythlore
- Why is Merlin in That Hideous Strength?
- Losing the Safety of the Real in That Hideous Strength
- George Orwell’s Review of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (and see this note)
- George Orwell’s 1984 and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: A Conversation about Influence and Pride of Place
For more, check out “The C.S. Lewis Studies Series.” Best wishes on your Screwtapian adventures.
So fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and discoveries with us. Screwtape remains such an iconic work of both fiction and spiritual teaching. It was an incredible accomplishment for Lewis, although I wonder how much he realized of how influential it was? Your discoveries of the tie-in to the Ransom cycle add a lot of depth to the book. I’m looking forward to exploring all the links and videos you have shared here.
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Hey thanks so much for this note! I think he had some idea of what s
Screwtape was doing in the world, so I don’t think he had any imagination that it would have lasted more than a few years
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Wow – thanks for this! Lots I haven’t caught up with yet, but I was delighted to begin by catching up with the excellent “bits of our paper, ‘The Archangel Fragment and C.S. Lewis’s World-Building Project'”!
A couple immediate reactions to “The Archangel Fragment” text and the children and bears context. I wonder how much this is written in ‘Inklings context’ and especially in interaction with Tolkien? For what the Archangel says about “hold[ing] back our strength and nurs[ing] its tiny freedom” very much reminds me of things Tolkien says about Gandalf in particular and the Valar and Maiar in general in their interactions with Men, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves – inviting the question, what instances do we have of Tolkien saying such things in writing in the likely time-frame of the composition of “The Archangel Fragment”? (It also seems compatible with remarks in letters by Charles Williams about the first version of the novel which he started over as All Hallows’ Eve.)
And, “the children instructing the bears” reminds me of Tolkien’s ‘Of the Land and Beasts of Númenor’, first published as Part Three, XIII in Carl Hostetter’s edition, The Nature of Middle-earth (2021), pages 331-41. There, Tolkien (or whoever the ostensible author of the piece is) tells us (p. 335) “The bears, the black bears especially, had curious dances of their own; but these seem to have become improved and elaborated by the instruction of Men.” Now, Carl Hostetter says “Christopher Tolkien dated this text […] to c. 1965” (p. 331). But the idea could have been present earlier in Tolkien’s work on Númenor (and is compatible with the playful bear references in the later Father Christmas letters to Priscilla). An intriguing analogue in any case…
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Oh, this is a striking response, David. I will have to think on it!
The combination “children” and ” bears” also makes me immediately think of 2 Kings 2:23-24, of which this glimpse is the opposite, which leads to the second thought of Isaiah 11:6-8, though ‘instructing’ seems to go beyond the range of senses I can find for the verbs in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin often translated ‘ lead’.
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Here’s a piece I wrote for the New York C. S. Lewis Society many years ago. It is (c) Dale Nelson. It bears on a possible origin of The Screwtape Letters.
Jack and the Bookshelf #2
Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier
—Zero hour had come, the fateful moment had arrived. He swung the great funnel, lined it upon the advancing orbs. . . . He let the power pour through. . . . ‘One for Mayo!’ he hollered, jigging on his seat. ‘One for Webb! One for Beach, you dirty stinking gobs of parasitic lousery!’”—
And so humans strike back at the Vitons, who are usually invisible to humans but perceptible to prepared eyes as “ultra-blue vampire” spheres. But now the Vitons have been exposed, these powers who have exploited humans for ages, promoting rumor and hysteria, inflaming race hatred and violence in the name of religion, subtly provoking humans to make war, so that the strong emotions that Vitons feed on will be stimulated. Many odd, unaccountable events, such as mysterious disappearances, sightings of fireballs, etc., turn out to have been due to Viton activity. At last, however, humans can rebel against these hidden masters.
Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier originally appeared in print in the first issue of the American magazine Unknown, dated March 1939. The author (1905-1978) was British, despite his “Yank” pulpster style. A British book version appeared in 1943 from the very obscure house of World’s Work. The American specialty house Fantasy Press released a version of the story in 1948. Sinister Barrier was issued as a British paperback, undated but probably published around 1952. A list of the books in Lewis’s personal library prepared in 1969 includes Sinister Barrier, but describes it as “n.d.” (no date). It’s possible that whichever edition Lewis owned had belonged to his wife, Joy Davidman Lewis. Lewis’s copy is not owned by Wheaton College. My guess is that the missing book was the British paper edition.
In a letter to I. O. Evans, dated 31 [sic] Sept. 1957, published in the third volume of Lewis’s Collected Letters, CSL says he’s read Sinister Barrier and finds it the “best of its kind.” What kind was that? Presumably, Lewis refers to science fiction stories in which human beings are secretly controlled or influenced by inhuman creatures.
Lewis’s own Screwtape Letters is, of course, something similar. In that book, Lewis writes from the point of view of the devils. They are invisible; they are aware of, and influence, the thoughts of human beings; they have subtly promoted conflict throughout the centuries; it’s generally in their interests to remain undetected – – all of which is true of the Vitons. Screwtape says, “We want cattle who can finally become food” (Letter 8); the Vitons feed on violent human emotion. The devils despise the “hairless bipeds” (Letter 14), while the Vitons are “‘cruel and callous sultans’” and humans their “‘half-witted slaves.’”
Is it possible that Lewis’s Screwtape Letters owes something to Sinister Barrier? Lewis did read American pulp magazines,* and it could be that copies of that issue of Unknown crossed the Atlantic soon after U. S. distribution occurred, and one of these copies came his way in time to suggest the Screwtape idea. In a letter to Warren Lewis that CSL began on 20 July 1940, Lewis describes the origin of what became The Screwtape Letters. He had been sitting in church that morning and his mind wandered. It occurred to him to write a book of supposed letters from a senior devil to a less experienced tempter. (See Lewis’s Collected Letters, Vol. 2.) The possibility of influence isn’t ruled out by this chronology.
Lewis acknowledged the stimulus of other science fiction authors, such as David Lindsay, but doesn’t seem to have admitted to conscious influence from Russell. Probably, then, it would not be true to say, “Screwtape was a Viton!” Perhaps one reason Lewis was impressed by Sinister Barrier whenever he did read it, was its thematic affinity, despite Barrier’s slam-bang pulp-mag style, with his own book, already written.
— Dale Nelson
*See my article “Is Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy Indebted to ‘Yank Magazine’ Science Fiction?” CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 37:4 (July-August 2006; Whole Number 414): 18-19.
“Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier” (Jack and the Bookshelf #2). CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 38:4 (Whole Number 420; July-Aug. 2007): 18-9.
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Dale, that’s super cool. Thanks for sharing this. I would not likely have encountered it any time soon otherwise. It would be a tight timeline for the Unknown mag publication for it to be an influence of Lewis–but hearing about such a story might also have an effect.
How do we talk about an “emergent” effect, when things emerge simultaneously in culture? Like Mark Twain & C.S. Lewis, quite different in many ways, create these demonic stories quite independent of each other.
Or one could say that the timing was really favorable — enough time for the magazine to cross the Atlantic and go on sale in Woolworth stores, as did happen with American magazines in England (discussed in my “Yank Magazine” article, attested by such as Arthur C. Clarke). In other words, such magazines probably did not stay on sale in the Woolworth stores for months and months, so if CSL were going to see the issue, he’d have needed to (quite possibly) before he got the Screwtape idea.
It’s only a possibility, and while I’d be tickled to learn of additional evidence in support of the idea, I doubt that it’s correct, if only because, when CSL definitely did read the novel, he didn’t say anything along the lines of “I read this in magazine form years ago,” etc.
But he unquestionably did read those “highly coloured” American magazines and acknowledged their influence on him at least twice (see The Great Divorce), etc. As the magazines become available in digital form, CSL researchers may delve into them and who knows what might turn up … ?
I didn’t think you overread the possibilities, and I don’t think it’s out of the realm of the plausible that it came across Lewis’ vision. I suppose some historian knows if this is one of the magazines that got exported.
British historian of the sf magazines Mike Ashley would probably know.
My hunch is that Unknown was imported, as it was a sister magazine of Astounding, which was.
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