The Screwtape Letters

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Introduction by Richard Gilman. New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1988. 134 pp. ISBN 0-451-62610-9.

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Reviewed by Nancy-Lou Patterson

[This review originally appeared as “Screwtape Strikes Again” in Mythlore 14.4 (#54) (1988): 18, 59.]

I would imagine that a reader looking for a copy of The Screwtape Letters to tuck in a pocket for easy reference, would be glad to see an edition like this; it contains the original version of 1941 with all of its topical references (and their necessary touch, in a fantasy, of verisimilitude), as well as all its endless freshness, its originality, its capacity to touch the quick. Interestingly, it appears in a series entitled “The Best of Britain,” along with Moll Flanders, Silas Marner, and Oliver Twist. In other words, it has become a “classic work,” pace those who have wondered if Lewis’s apologetic works might become passe.

In his introduction, Richard Gilman, a Roman Catholic who is author of five books including a “spiritual autobiography,” praises “Lewis’s accounts and exegeses of Christian belief and doctrine” for the “logical nature of his arguments” (vii), which may come as a shock to certain quarters. He compares Lewis’s methods to Chesterton’s and Bernard Shaw’s for his use of “paradox, irony, and reversal as rhetorical instruments to throw light on what was conventionally opaque or denatured by familiarity.” This is true in the 1980s with our renewed interest in rhetoric as in the 1940s when a writer was still expected to be logical.

The book, for those who, nearly half a century after it was written, have never read it, contains thirty-one purported letters from the senior devil Screwtape to the junior tempter Wormwood, on the proper way to tempt his “patient,” an ordinary young Englishman in the darkest hours of World War II. Screwtape’s infernal advice is always the exact reversal of Christian teaching; he sees everything upside down and inside-out. This, far from being a mere device, becomes more and more penetrating as the book progresses, to the point where (dare I give away the plot?) the patient is saved. (Read it for yourself to find out how!)

Poor Screwtape: he concludes his arguments in The Screwtape Letters by lamenting, “All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end.” Not while new editions of Lewis’s trenchant masterpiece come readily to hand!


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