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The Screwtape Letters

Screwtape redirects here. For the musical project "Screwtape", see Drew McDowall.

The Screwtape Letters is a work of Christian satire by C. S. Lewis first published in book form in 1942. The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of an earthly man, known only as "the Patient."

Screwtape (along with his trusted scribe Toadpipe) holds an administrative post in the bureaucracy ("Lowerarchy") of Hell, and acts more as a mentor than a supervisor to Wormwood, the inexperienced tempter; almost every letter ends with the signature, "Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape." In the body of the thirty-one letters which make up the book, Screwtape gives Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in his Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis provides a series of lessons in the importance of taking a deliberate role in living out Christian faith by portraying a typical human life, with all its temptations and failings, as seen from the demon/devil's viewpoint. Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as the greatest good, and neither demon is capable of comprehending or acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it. A preface included in some older publishings of the book included a short dialog on the subject of whether Lewis believed demons to be fact or fiction, exemplifying Lewis's belief that despite the fictional storyline of the book, he believed Satan and demons are not fictional; further, that he held a view that they exist for a decidedly evil purpose which must not be portrayed innocuously in art and culture at the risk of obfuscating their true nature.

Versions of the letters were originally published in The Guardian, and the standard edition contains an introduction explaining how the author chose to write his story.

While The Screwtape Letters is one of Lewis' most popular works, Lewis claimed that the book was "not fun" to write, and he "resolved never to write another 'Letter'." (See his Preface to Screwtape Proposes a Toast.) However, in 1959 he wrote an addendum, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which takes the form not of a letter but rather an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters' Training College for young demons. It first appeared as an article in the Saturday Evening Post.

The Screwtape Letters, along with Screwtape Proposes a Toast, has also been released on both audiocassette and CD narrated by John Cleese of Monty Python and Joss Ackland.

Plot summary

Dedicated to his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, The Screwtape Letters comprises thirty-one letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew, a young demon named Wormwood. Screwtape's letters contain advice for how to turn Wormwood's "Patient", an ordinary man living in war-time England, toward the "Father Below" (Satan/the Devil) and away from "the Enemy" (God).

After the first letter, the Patient converts to Christianity, and Wormwood is given a severe rebuking and threatened with the "usual penalties" at the House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters. Wormwood's task is now to undermine the Patient's faith as well as to tempt him to commit explicit sins which may result in his ultimate damnation, thus reflecting the Catholic-Anglican view on mortal sin and salvation. It is important to note, however, that the nature of the explicit sins is discussed in such a way as to give rise to a thoughtful and reflective speculation of the nature of the distance sin creates between God and Man, as Screwtape explicitly tells Wormwood that "the gentle, sliding slope of habitual small sins is better" than any grandiose sin (presumably murder, rape, sexual immorality, etc.) in terms of securing the eventual damnation of the Patient.

Throughout the book Lewis attempts to show the reader how it is not the large sins that are most effective in sending "patients" to Hell, but instead it is the small thoughts and actions which Wormwood attempts to deviously encourage in his patient's mind which can gradually cause the Patient to turn away from God. Screwtape does not mention sexual-temptation until the 9th letter, though the Preface notes the compilation is somewhat random not chronological.

Lewis's use of this "correspondence" is both varied and hard-hitting. With his own views on theology, Lewis covers areas as diverse as sex, love, pride, gluttony, and war. Lewis, an Oxford scholar himself, suggests in his work that even intellectuals are not impervious to the influence of such demons, especially in regards to being led towards placated acceptance of the "Historical Point of View."

In the last letter, it emerges that the Patient has been killed during an air raid (World War II having broken out between the fourth and fifth letters), and has gone to Heaven. Wormwood is punished for letting a soul 'slip through his fingers' by being handed over to the fate that would have awaited his patient had he been successful: the consumption of his spiritual essence by the other demons. Screwtape responds to his nephew's desperate final letter by assuring him that he may expect just as much assistance from his "increasingly and ravenously affectionate" uncle as Screwtape would expect from Wormwood were their situations reversed.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast sequel

The short sequel essay Screwtape Proposes a Toast, first published in 1959, is Lewis's criticism of levelling and featherbedding trends in public education; more specifically, as he reveals in the foreword to the American edition, public education in America (though in the text, it is English education that is purportedly held up as the awful example).

The Cold War opposition between the West and the Communist world is explicitly discussed as a backdrop to the educational issues. Screwtape and other demons are portrayed as consciously using the subversion of education and intellectual thought in the West to bring about its overthrow by the Communist enemy from without and within. In this sense Screwtape Proposes a Toast is more strongly political than Screwtape Letters where no strong stand is made on political issues of the day, i.e., World War II.

Cultural references

In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Calvin's first grade teacher is named Miss Wormwood.

In the animated video to U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me", a copy of Screwtape Letters is seen falling from Bono's hand. Bono's characters "MacPhisto" and "The Fly", as seen in this and other video and on U2's Zoo TV Tour, were inspired by Screwtape, among other characters.

The author Peter Kreeft wrote a book "in the style of" The Screwtape Letters called The Snakebite Letters.

Author Randy Alcorn wrote a book similar to The Screwtape Letters called Lord Foulgrin's Letters. In Alcorn's book, references are made to demons, known only as "ST" and "WW" (for it had become a crime in Hell to even speak their real names), who had their letters found by a human and were punished by Beelzebub for their incompetence.

In the 2006 book The Top Ten, a compilation of "top ten novels" lists by different writers, David Foster Wallace names The Screwtape Letters as his favorite novel.

Orthodox Christian writer Jim Forest has written a book entitled The Wormwood File: Email from Hell, in which Wormwood, now a more senior demon, is coaching his own protegé Greasebeek in the proper temptation of a 21st century man.

In his series of very short stories, The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, the science fiction author Michael Swanwick wrote the story titled Dysprosium in the style of a new, recent letter from Screwtape to Wormwood. In this story, "dysprosium" is described as an "element of confusion and miscommunication in language", something which has been a great success story for the Infernal Establishment.

Screwtape appears in the story "The Ministry of Lies from the collection "Fire from Heaven and Other Stories" by Philip Marshall.

Comic book adaptation

Marvel Comics and religious book publisher Thomas Nelson produced a comic book adaptation of The Screwtape Letters in 1994.

Film adaptation

On Wednesday, January 31, 2006 it was announced that Walden Media had bought the rights to turn the book into a feature film. Walden Media is the same company that previously developed Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series. Ralph Winter (X-Men, Fantastic Four) and Douglas Gresham (Lewis' stepson) will co-produce. "With the right script," Winter said, "dealing with temptation and that whole upside down world, it could be a very, very interesting movie. And it's going to be dark. This isn't a light, happy, Narnia piece."

Stage adaptation

The Fellowship for the Performing Arts obtained from the Lewis estate the rights to adapt The Screwtape Letters for the stage. The initial production opened off-off-Broadway at Theatre 315 in New York City in January 2006. The initial three-week run was extended to eleven sold-out weeks by popular demand, and closed only because the theater was contractually obligated to another production. It was co-written by Max McLean (who also starred) and Jeffrey Fiske (who also directed). A second, expanded production opened off Broadway at the Theatre at St. Clements on 18 October, 2007, scheduled to run through at least January 6, 2008.

Audio drama

Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, which received a Peabody award and multiple Audie awards for excellence in broadcasting and production, was granted the rights to dramatize "The Screwtape Letters" as a feature length audio drama. Production began in 2008 and a fall 2009 release has been announced.

Bibliography

References

External links

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