The Screwtape Letters is a satirical work of fiction that gives the reader a window into the spiritual world using the vantage point of a demon named Screwtape. In a series of letters to his young nephew, Wormwood, Screwtape instructs him in how to bring about the downfall of the young man he has been assigned to plague.
There are so many memorable passages and wise insights in this book. Often when we look at something from an opposing stance we are forced to see things we would not have seen from a position of agreement. This is the device C. S. Lewis uses in The Screwtape Letters and he does it exceptionally well.
He warns us that there are two equal and opposite errors we believe about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence and the other is to believe and have an unhealthy and excessive interest in them. He reminds us that the devil is a liar and that Screwtape is not always seeing things truly, himself.
Lewis said of this book that he’d never written anything more easily or with less enjoyment; that it was easy to twist his mind into a diabolical attitude but it was spiritually stifling. The world he had to enter ‘was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness and geniality had to be excluded.’
Some highlights of this book:
Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and, even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!
Wormwood’s ‘patient’ is a young unmarried man and the setting is at the start of WW2. Screwtape encourages him to turn the man’s gaze on himself. He also advises him on ways to inculcate pride, selfishness, lust and fear in his patient and to exploit him during his dry spells:
Now it may surprise you to learn that in His effort to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else…
He cannot ravish. He can only woo…
He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs – to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than through the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best…He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
Whatever their bodies do affect their souls. Whenever there is prayer, there is the danger of His own immediate action.
In the last generation we promoted the construction of…’a historical Jesus’ on liberal and humanitarian lines; now we are putting forward a new ‘historical Jesus’ on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines.
Martin Luther said that ‘the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.’ Lewis uses his sharp wit and inspired imagination to open our eyes to the true nature of the spiritual world & to help us understand that there are spiritual beings whose purpose is to undermine our faith and prevent the formation of virtues.
I’ve used this book with students around the age of about 14 or 15 years and up.
18 thoughts on “The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942)”
I love this book because of its brilliant, perspective-challenging ideas. My teens and I read it a few years ago, and I'm actually longing for an excuse to get it back out and read it with them again because they are now a few years older and more experienced. I never thought about what it must have cost C.S. Lewis to write such a story, though. I'm glad you found and included that bit of biographical information. It makes the book more of a treasure.
It was interesting to read that. I'd never thought about it either but I remember when I was reading Anthony Esolen's book, \”Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child,\” that he used a similar approach. Sometimes it felt like there was a certain strain in his writing as he took on the opposite perspective to that which would be natural for him.
I read this for the first time just a year or two ago. What fascinating insight Lewis had! This is one to reread multiple times.
I have read some CS Lewis but I have not read this. It sounds different. I may read this. Even though I generally disagree with Lews’s worldview, I find him a lively thinker and writer who is often worthy reading.
I agree, Barbara & I feel that way about many of his books. I'd dipped into this one a few times before my kids read it but this was the first time I'd read it thoroughly.
Brian, Lewis is one of my favourite Christian apologists because of the ability he had to take difficult topics and look at them in a unique sort of way & make them more understanable – one of the reasons most of my kids liked his books in their mid-teens. I'm hoping to read 'Surprised by Joy' which is basically autobiographical – the story of how he came to faith in his early 30's after rejecting it around the age of 13.
I have only read the Narnia books but have had this one on my mental TBR for some time now. Your review makes me want to get to it soon! I am pretty sure \”Wormwood\” is referenced in other works of fiction…Harry Potter maybe?
Ruthiella, I think wormwood is a type of bitter bush or herb. The word is used metaphorically in the Bible to indicate bitter sorrow or calamity so I’m supposing Lewis got the term from there.
Wonderful review, I might have to reread this…again.
Thanks Jeanette, I'm in the process of re-vsititng some of his books I've read ages ago & also those I haven't read before.
I've read some of Lewis's other works, but have been unsure of trying the Screwtape Letters. I'm sure it takes the reader on a spiritual journey. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.
Caleb, thanks for taking the time to comment.I've read a number of books by Lewis but hadn't really been interested in The Screwtape Letters. However, it was well worth reading, so I'm pleased I didn't pass it by 🙂
I have a thing for book covers, in fact I have books about book cover art. I really like the gargoyle on this cover. It's haunting.I have had a few people in my life that had an unhealthy and excessive interest in demons. They both turned out to be mentally ill, which made me wonder about the demonic influences in their own lives.This book contains such good insight. I read it every couple of years.
I think Martin Luther had the right idea in that respect, Sharon!
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