“My dear Wormwood” is a phrase many readers will instantly recognize as the opening to C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Screwtape Letters. The book contains a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to his nephew Wormwood who is just learning the ropes on how to most effectively tempt his first human (aka “patient”). Though the book itself is well-known and widely read, the background to its creation is a fascinating story. In this post, we’ll not only explore the writing of The Screwtape Letters, but also list adaptations of the book over the years, study resources, and highlight our Lenten Reflection series on the book that begins at the Wade Center on February 21, 2018.
C.S. Lewis first mentioned his idea for writing The Screwtape Letters in a letter dated July 20, 1940 to his brother Warren, who had returned to active duty as a Major in the Army during World War II. Lewis had been attending a worship service at his church, Holy Trinity in Headington Quarry, when a thought crossed his mind. As he explained to his brother:
“Before the service was over … I was struck by an idea for a book [which] I think might be both useful and entertaining. It [would] be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’ The idea [would] be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”
Elsewhere, Lewis notes that The Confessions of a Well-Meaning Woman by Stephen McKenna and Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay played influential roles in Screwtape’s composition as well. (Lewis’s 1961 preface to The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast)
It isn’t clear how long it took Lewis to write The Screwtape Letters, but Walter Hooper surmises that it was probably finished by Christmas 1940. (C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996 p. 268) The actual writing process was a tedious one for Lewis due to the mindset he had to adopt while writing in a diabolical guise:
“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. … [T]hough it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. 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.” (Lewis’s 1961 preface to The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast)
In 1940 The Guardian, a weekly Anglican newspaper, had published Lewis’s articles titled “The Dangers of National Repentance” (March 15) and “Two Ways with the Self” (May 3). When Lewis offered Screwtape to The Guardian they agreed to serialize all 31 letters which ran in weekly installments from May 2 through November 28, 1941. The letters proved to be very popular, and later were gathered together and published as a book the following year. Lewis dedicated the book to his friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, but Tolkien was puzzled by the gesture (see Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter draft to Michael Tolkien #252, November or December 1963). And, as Humphrey Carpenter reports, not altogether pleased with the book itself: “for as somebody who believed profoundly in the power of evil [Tolkien] thought it foolish to trifle rather facetiously with such things.” (The Inklings. Pt. 3 Ch. 5. Houghton Mifflin, 1979: 174-5)
As a result of his concern that the Screwtape typescript at his London publisher might be destroyed in a German bombing raid (a justifiable fear in WWII Britain), Lewis sent his handwritten manuscript for safekeeping to his friend Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun at the convent of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage. When she later attempted to return it to Lewis, he told her to sell it. This handwritten manuscript is now in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. The typescript is held at the Wade Center under the call number CSL / MS-107 in our C.S. Lewis Manuscript collection. The Wade’s typescript also includes a handwritten preface which has been examined by Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson. You can read Brenton’s findings in “The Unpublished Preface to C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters,” Notes and Queries 60.2 (2013): 296-298 and on his blog.
The publication of The Screwtape Letters, along with his BBC Radio talks during the 1940s (which were later issued in book form as Mere Christianity), combined to give Lewis heightened recognition as a Christian spokesperson. One example of this was the September 8, 1947 cover of Time magazine that featured an image of Lewis with the caption “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis: His heresy: Christianity.” As a result of this increased profile, Lewis’s fan mail also grew significantly during this time, requiring hours every day for him to write responses to his correspondents.
REVIEWS & SCREWTAPE PROPOSES A TOAST
Following are some brief extracts from contemporary reviews of The Screwtape Letters:
“The book is sparkling yet truly reverent, in fact a perfect joy, and should become a classic.” (Manchester Guardian, February 24, 1942)
“Mr Lewis possesses the rare gift of being able to make righteousness readable, and has produced a pretty piece of homily lit by flashes of insight” (New Statesman and Nation, May 16, 1942).
Charles Williams, fellow Inkling and Wade author, wrote two favorable reviews on The Screwtape Letters in The Dublin Review (July 1942) and Time and Tide (March 21, 1942). His Time and Tide review titled “Letters in Hell” is written as a parody Screwtape letter addressed to “My dearest Scorpuscle.”
Not everyone was as receptive or appreciative of Lewis’s efforts in this book. In his 1961 preface to Screwtape, Lewis reports one humorous instance where a country clergyman, not understanding that that the letters were meant to be read from an opposite point of view, withdrew his subscription from The Guardian stating that “much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical.”
Despite requests to write additional Screwtape letters, Lewis’s only subsequent Screwtape offering was prompted by an invitation from The Saturday Evening Post that he said “pressed the trigger.” (1961 preface) Published on December 19, 1959 as “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Lewis switched from an epistolary approach to having Screwtape offer a talk at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young devils. This fictional address later appeared in a new edition of The Screwtape Letters in 1961, and is included in most editions today.
Due to the book’s popularity and impact on readers, The Screwtape Letters has received various treatments over the years through audiobooks, dramatizations, adaptations, and so on. The non-comprehensive list below includes a few examples of these Screwtape variations.
- British comedian John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) provided an audiobook reading performance of The Screwtape Letters released by Audio Literature in 1988 (San Bruno, California). Cleese’s recording was nominated for a Grammy that same year for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording. This recording will be used at the Wade’s Lenten Reflections on Screwtape in February. See details at the end of this post.
- Joss Acland did a voice reading of The Screwtape Letters for the HarperCollins audiobook released in 2000. Acland was the actor who portrayed C.S. Lewis in the 1985 television drama of Shadowlands.
- Dear Wormwood: A Play in Three Acts is an early dramatization of The Screwtape Letters for the stage in 1961 by James Forsyth. It was later renamed Screwtape: A Play.
- The Screwtape Letters stage play adapted by Anthony Lawton with The Mirror Theatre Company. A 90-minute two-person play punctuated by varied dances including tap, Latin ballroom, jazz, martial arts, and rock, along with whips and fire-eating. Performed various times since 2000.
- The Screwtape Letters stage play adapted by Max McLean with Fellowship for Performing Arts. A 90-minute production that has done national and international tours and been seen by over 500,000 people. Its most recent run was in London 2016-2017.
- The Screwtape Letters audio dramatization by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre (2009) features the voice of Andy Serkis as Screwtape. Serkis played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson. The recording features a multi-person cast and sound effects.
- An illustrated edition of The Screwtape Letters was published in London by Collins in 1979. The lively illustrations by William Papas add humor to the text and have been featured in several subsequent editions including a Folio Society edition in 2008, and an enhanced edition by HarperOne in 2009.
- Marvel Comics and religious book publisher Thomas Nelson produced a comic book adaptation of The Screwtape Letters in 1994 in the “Christian classic series.”
- In addition, there are a number of parodies and publications that have adopted the style of Screwtape. These include the following:
- Screwtape Writes Again by Martin Walter (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House, 1975)
- The Snakebite Letters by Peter Kreeft (Ignatius Press, 1998)
- The Screwtape Email by Arthur H. Williams Jr. (Trafford Publishing, 2006)
- The music group The Oh Hellos released the album Dear Wormwood which they have described as a form of speculative fiction from the point of view of “the patient.”
- In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin’s teacher is named “Miss Wormwood” — her name, according to creator Bill Waterson, is based on the apprentice devil in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.
- Lewis himself may have borrowed the name “Wormwood” from a Biblical star mentioned in Revelation 8:11, although it is also a plant name, and a name meaning “something bitter or unpleasant.”
For those interested in learning more about The Screwtape Letters, here are some additional resources:
- The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition (HarperOne, 2013). Contains an introduction and helpful notes and annotations throughout the text by Paul McCusker, both prefaces by Lewis (from the original 1942 and 1961 editions), and Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
- Video course on The Screwtape Letters by Dr. Jerry Root for from the C.S. Lewis Institute. Available free online with study guide and handouts.
- O’Flaherty, William. C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell: A Companion and Study Guide to The Screwtape Letters. (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2016)
- Vaus, Will. Speaking of Jack: A C.S. Lewis Discussion Guide. (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2011)
- Even more!
LENTEN SERIES AT THE WADE CENTER:
During the Lenten season this year, the Wade Center will host reflections on The Screwtape Letters: Wednesdays at noon in the Wade Center’s Bakke Auditorium beginning on February 21 and extending through March 28, 2018. These reflections will be led by David J. P. Hooker, Professor of Art and Art Department Chair at Wheaton College, and Elaine Hooker, Catalog Librarian of the Wade Center.
Since Lent has historically been a time of repentance for Christians, The Screwtape Letters offer an opportunity for readers to take a fresh look at the patterns of behavior in their own lives and consider places where change may be needed. Through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis presents our own brokenness to us so creatively that he enables us to see our lives from a new perspective. Traditionally, Lent is also a time for slowing down, reflecting and re-focusing. Elaine Hooker will share information and artifacts related to this work taken from the collections of the Marion E. Wade Center, while David Hooker will share how this work has become a regular and beneficial part of his own spiritual practice over the last 10 years.
For more information, contact the Wade Center at 630.752.5908 or firstname.lastname@example.org.