The Screwtape Letters: Letters From A Senior to a Junior Devil
by CS Lewis
Published in 1942
Genre: adult; part satirical novel, part mindful self-help book
C S Lewis
CS Lewis is arguably best-known, and best-loved, for his children’s classics the Chronicles of Narnia, starting with The Magician’s Nephew and culminating seven books later in The Last Battle. The Screwtape Letters, however, is no children’s fantasy, so be warned!
The Screwtape Letters
As its title suggests, The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil, is a collection of letters from Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his bumbling nephew, Wormwood. It is Screwtape’s job in these letters to mentor his nephew in his role as “tempter”. And in case you can’t guess, the job of a diabolical tempter such as Wormwood is to meddle in the lives of us humans and steer us from the path of right and good, thereby tempting us over to the dark side and along the path to Hell. The human in question, known only as “the patient”, is a young British man, falling in love for the first time and living his life, blissfully unaware of Wormwood’s interventions, against the backdrop of the Second World War.
Through Screwtape’s 31 letters, Wormwood is given detailed advice on how to undermine the patient’s good qualities and Christian values, and in this way various facets of human life, along with our many failings, are highlighted. War, religion, sex, love, pride and gluttony are all put under the microscope. But, coming straight from the mind of a demon, it is – for us – as if this examination is being conducted in a mirror where black is white and good is bad. Get your head round this “diabolical ventriloquism” and suddenly what you have in your hands is a book full of mindful hints and self-help insights.
The Mundane and Ordinary
It is not just the big issues which are tackled in this back-to-front way. As Screwtape gives Wormwood a step-by-step guide on how to ruin the patient’s relationship with his mother, for example, we glimpse the more mundane everyday situations in which our own habits can easily cause arguments and irritation. Perhaps it is to these we should pay most attention. As Screwtape himself says: “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I love Screwtape’s understanding of passive aggressive behaviour, wanting the patient to “demand that all his own utterances are…taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and context and the suspected intention.” You end up with the perfect situation of being able to say things expressly to cause offence and then innocently being able to feign grievance at this when that offence is actually taken. Win-win!
Similarly, I adore Lewis’ depiction of the old lady who believes she is being virtuous when, presented with a plate of food, waves it away declaring “oh that’s far, far too much. Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.” Her determination to have things her own way, being couched in temperance like this, allows her to feel completely self-righteous without any compassion for the people who brought her the food in the first place. But she would be appalled if you actually called her on it!
Self Help Back to Front
Earlier, I described this book as being a mindful self-help book, which might seem strange given that on the surface at least, it appears to be the antithesis of mindfulness. For example, Screwtape urges us to “enter into” our emotions rather than step back and reflect upon them and to feel without acting. But remember, we are looking into a diabolical mirror and “whatever he welcomes, we should dread”. He advises us to live in the future “which can inflame hope and fear”. It is the future, he points out, which has the greatest hold over us humans. Gratitude, he says, looks to the past; love to the present while fear, avarice, lust and ambition are all firmly rooted in the future. Wise words indeed! You can see, therefore, that this is far more than just a novel. You need to give yourself time to really digest some of the bigger issues it raises.
And, for a few more interesting facts about Screwtape and his letters, check out https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/64351/12-things-you-might-not-know-about-screwtape-letters .
Happy reading and even deeper thinking!
Want to read more? Check out last month’s blog: The Ides of March and Whether you Should Beware!
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