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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.