Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

Off The Shelf this April: The Screwtape Letters

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.

Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil

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.

Take 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 .

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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Posted by TA Blezard in Adult Literary Fiction, Books, Literature, Reviews, 0 comments

Sharp Objects


HBO’s Sharp Objects

I hate going against the grain, I really do, especially when so many people love it, but I have to say that I’m not particularly enjoying HBO’s psychological thriller ‘Sharp Objects’, which I catch weekly on Sky Atlantic. And before you shout irately, casting about for a sharp object to hurl at your screen, let me just qualify that by saying ‘but I absolutely loved Gillian Flynn’s debut novel (of the same name, of course) and have loved all her subsequent, equally disturbing books too’. It is just the TV adaptation I am struggling with.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the story centres around Camille Preaker (hauntingly played by Amy Adams), a troubled semi-alcoholic reporter with the St Louis Chronicle. Having feebly tried to leave her past behind, she is reluctantly assigned back to her home town of Wind Gap, a sleepy Missouri backwater, to cover the mysterious disappearance of two young local girls. Once more holed up in her family’s lavish mansion while she completes her reports, Camille is forced to reunite with her estranged family. And suddenly you understand the reason why there is definitely more than just water in her trusty Evian bottle…

First there’s her emotionally manipulative, super creepy mother Adora Crellin (played by Patricia Clarkson), a woman whose primary concern is to ‘keep things nice’ and maintain her public image as town matriarch. Then we have Camille’s precocious, duplicitous half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlon): Southern Belle in pinafore dress by day and roller-skating, pill-popping hell-raiser in hot pants by night. We complete the triangle with the stunted, passive step-father (coolly played by Henry Czerny) who would rather lose himself in his classical music under a pair of noise-cancelling headphones than deal with the real life noise that is the Crellin-Preaker family. Throw in a dead sister and a stunning self-harming habit and who wouldn’t be as messed up as Camille Preaker clearly is?

So what’s not to like? Gillian Flynn excels at complex female characters and unexpected plot twists. And the cast are magnificent with their chilling performances and undertones of menace.  It’s a moody, atmospheric piece of TV, largely fostered by withering looks and pregnant pauses punctuated by muttered responses. And that’s when it gets difficult for me, literally. I actually have to have the subtitles on to catch a lot of what is being said. Then there are plenty of scenes shot in dim, shadowy interiors, all setting the mood and adding that marked sense of sinister realism but not exactly easy on the eye. Finally, add to that the relentless jumping back and forth of the timeline as we are filled in on Camille’s traumatic background via a series of dreamy flashbacks and you end up straining to see and hear and feeling somewhat exhausted and confused at the end of it.

But then again, perhaps that is exactly how we are meant to feel. After all, how better to get inside the head of our lead character? Maybe that’s what Marti Noxon, who has adapted this brilliant tale, was gunning for, and in which case achieves. I’m not convinced but you decide for yourself. One thing is for sure, I am hooked enough to keep tuning in to this suspenseful and deeply unsettling world. I just may have to have the volume and the contrast cranked up a little further than normal to fully appreciate it.




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