Phil's Reviews > The Screwtape Letters: Also Includes "Screwtape Proposes a Toast"

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
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's review
Jun 16, 2011

it was ok
Read from June 12 to 16, 2011

I have read the Screwtape Letters several times now (at least 5) and I have always admired the ingenuity that would think of such a literary device as letters from a devil to be a vehicle for a broader message, especially from the Christian literary community.

Undeniably, CS Lewis belongs to an older and more respected community than the current establishment which puts out such utter trash as the Left Behind novels and other cringeworthy books. Still, Lewis was writing in a vein that few before had dared to broach: the dark side of Christianity. A great many Christian authors, for a myriad of reasons, choose to write insipid stories of "heroes of the faith" and only rarely venture into the depths of evil. In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis does not just tip his toe in evil, he submerges himself and swims.

Lewis' literary brilliance is revealed in the complete and utter twisting of everything people experience in normal human interactions from something innocent, innocuous, or normal into something perverted, sinister, and more than likely the result of demonic interposition.

Whether or not Lewis actually believes that the devil and his minions do such things to us in real life is unclear, and is not really the point of the Screwtape Letters. Lewis' overall goal is to make his readers understand the peril in living life on autopilot without realizing what is at stake in every action, and more importantly, in every intention and impulse. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis uses the Screwtape Letters as a vehicle for his theological philosophy and his religious beliefs: he infuses each letter with a wealth of information on the daily business of Christian life. However, it is for this very reason that I find fault with the Screwtape Letters.

The Screwtape Letters follow a general storyline, one that is set in England during WW2, most likely during the incessant bombing runs by the Germans. It has several main characters: the senior devil Screwtape, his apprentice or protege Wormwood, the unnamed subject of their joint attack, the subject's girlfriend, and a few other incidental characters. And that is about the breadth of the information given about the characters. I understand that Lewis was not writing a story, and was merely using the guise of a story as a vehicle for his religious agenda, but I feel that his spiritual message could have been communicated much more clearly and powerfully through a story that humans could completely relate to, and that would have been a human story, not a demonic one. No matter how "convicting" Screwtape's assessment of human behavior may be, it is still clinical, informational, and written up as sinister advice. Actually seeing the "real world" results of such nefarious plotting would be even more devastating. There was a wealth of connections to the human psyche that Lewis could have made, and didn't.

Lewis acknowledges one fault that he himself saw in the Screwtape Letters, but that was no more than a lack of an antithetical set of Letters from a senior angel to a guardian angel. He says that he could not write this set of letters because he felt unworthy to speak for heaven, and unable to write on a "high" enough level to emulate heaven's language. Sure, that side of things would have been nice, but it would have been even more alienating to a human audience. What Lewis, apparently, failed to realize is that the true failing of the Screwtape Letters is not in their scope, but in their intersection with humanity.

Still, I cannot ignore the genius of the work in so completely adopting a voice, a demeanor, and a point of view and keeping it entirely consistent throughout the entirety of the Letters. The Screwtape Letters is a worthy work, despite its minor flaws, and it really showcases the mastery of CS Lewis in fiction.

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06/12/2011 page 12
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