Summary of The Screwtape Letters, written by C. S. Lewis in 1941.
The framework for the book is a series of letters written by Screwtape, a high-ranking devil in the bureaucracy of hell, to his nephew Wormwood. The letters have to do with Wormwood’s main assignment: to corrupt the soul of a Christian man and to lead him, in the end, to perdition. If he fails, his own soul becomes forfeit in the unending miseries of the nether regions.
“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment,” said Lewis concerning this book. The subject matter depressed him. “The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.” The book is short by Dickensian standards, at about 170 pages.
Lewis simply jumps in. He offers no background, no overarching geography so familiar to those who have read Tolkien, no primordial history in the manner of Milton’s Paradise Lost. We are dropped flat into an exchange of letters between the old devil and the young devil. Already here Screwtape is instructing his protégé in the ways of killing a soul. “Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. [Today Screwtape would use the word “cool” or “awesome”.] That’s the sort of thing he cares about… By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?”
Things begin to go badly wrong for Wormwood right away. In the second letter, Screwtape writes this: “I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties… In the meantime we must make the best of the situation.” In the third letter, Screwtape lays out one of the most effective stratagems for sidelining the young Christian: “Keep his mind on the inner life… Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones.” It is especially important for Wormwood to address his patient’s prayer life: “Encourage him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.” This will resonate with the inner-directed spirituality of our own times, complete with our prayerless lives.
You can see how this is going to go with Wormwood and his “patient.” As the book unfolds, the younger devil tries to tempt his patient to more and more extreme and wicked sins, while Screwtape advises caution. “The safest road to hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”. Remember Christian’s “Enchanted Grounds” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress?
In Letter XXII, Uncle Screwtape is punished by his supervisor by being turned into a large centipede. This happened, he says, as he had been in the midst of a diatribe against music and silence: “Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the universe a noise in the end. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress…”
Had the use of the word “Heaven” In his earlier diatribe doomed Screwtape to become a centipede? We don’t know. But it may have been forbidden in Hell to even mention the existence of Heaven. Again, how like our times this is, when the idea of a humanly fulfilled eternal life is widely dismissed and ridiculed.
Meanwhile, the “patient,” as humans are called, has fallen in love with a young, Christian woman, and this only makes things worse for Wormwood. “My dear Wormwood,” writes Screwtape, “through this girl and her disgusting family, the patient is now getting to know more Christians every day, and very intelligent Christians too. For a long time it will be quite impossible to remove spirituality from his life. Very well, then; we must corrupt it.” Screwtape devises a plan: they will attack at the borderline between politics and theology.
“You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a ‘historical Jesus’ to be found by clearing away later ‘accretions and perversions’ and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition… We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers. For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy, not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists; He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”
The quest for the “historical Jesus” has been a frequent tool of intellectuals to turn people away from the Christ found in the
Gospels. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is but the latest in this two hundred year series. Early Christianity, we are told, was far more diverse and interesting than the later formulations of the Church allowed. The secret is to go back and discover the point at which the early vitality was frozen in creed, to strip away the orthodoxy and reveal the more interesting Jesus of the earliest times. This is the meaning of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood at this point. The Jesus Christ of the biblical Gospels must not be allowed to stand as he is depicted there.
In the end the patient dies in an air raid and goes to Heaven. Screwtape tells Wormwood that his, Wormwood’s, judgment is at hand, and that he will become a part of his daily diet. The devils are, first of all, cannibals of one another, and now it is time for Wormwood to suffer for his failures. One thinks of the Greek myth of Prometheus, where the proud hero goes to Hades for giving fire to mere mortals and suffers eternally by having his liver eaten daily by an eagle.
One of my favorite parts of this book comes a moving passage in Letter VIII:
“You must often have wondered why the Enemy [Screwtape’s name for God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids him to use. Merely to override a human will would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo… He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. 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 during 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. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with, the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. 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 round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
The Screwtape Letters comprises 31 letters, a perfect number for reading over the course of a month as daily devotions. As an exposition of the diabolical mind at work in the affairs of men, it is still unsurpassed, seventy-five years later.