Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis (1942)

The Screwtape LettersThe Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where do I begin unloading this colossal bag of thoughts that are raging in my mind since yesterday? Well, my friend, you seem to be the victim today. So be it. Don’t term me evil; it is just the scent of one, I lived with for the last five days.

Actually, this work is hardly anything except for a bunch of letters, from a senior to a junior; it is nothing more than a series of succinct correspondence, gathered cannily and disbursed even more astutely to the promising newbies. Now, have we all not rubbed shoulders with atleast once such genial senior in our lives? Incidentally, this exchange happens to be between Uncle Screwtape and Wormwood who, well, under a generous dignity granted by Lewis, call themselves “Tempters”; I refer to them as Devil (Spirit). And they are up against “Him”; the one who lives in the churches and to whom the world attributes its goodness and life. 

Essentially, this work chalks out some theories on how the Devil should lure the “patient” or the human, away from his allegiance towards “Him” and secure him firm and consistent with himself.

This very concept takes my bow for it takes a lot to stand on both sides and view a situation without apathy or bias. In this deliciously curated work, the satire, the cynic, the comic and the subtle; all find place, and rightfully so. As for Screwtape, the breaking fragments of the world and the striking resemblance it holds to a colored hoax, is the doing of “Him”, and so he takes the fundamental ingredients of daily life like belief, love, marriage, gluttony, cowardice, fidelity, freedom, unselfishness and ownership and holds them, not aloft, instead face down. Screwtape draws sinister pleasure in observing the perpetual longing of the human to be star-struck about future and in the process, losing the all-important, all-pervasive present. He also makes a mockery of prevalent falsities in society where something as harmless as jazz can chain its women to strive for svelte figures at the expense of vitality; something as uplifting as art and fresco can underline the derisive palpability of nudity. He also takes a dig at the preconceived notions of love and marriage and the obtuse manner in which the happening of one is regarded as a prerequisite for justification of the other.

He basks in the hackneyed idea of ownership that drives the callous human. He spells it eloquently:

“It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counselors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.”

This book is a goldmine of veiled satire and I chuckled at the expressions, if not always at the latent intentions. Most of, what I call lyrical sarcasm, emanates from the failures of Wormwood and the wise senior never fails to pull him up. While explaining him the nuances of “Unselfishness”, he says:

“A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others.” And he suffixes it with, “She’s sort of woman who lived for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.”

However, for all the chinks in “His” armour that Screwtape so vehemently drills into Wormwood’s head, there are certain things he himself cannot fathom and hence, cannot overcome. He admits that the power of love, which flows freely from “His” altar, is a puzzle Evil’s years of research have failed to crack. It is a kind of impregnable shield; a sort of ultimate immunity. The simple pleasures of life like reading a book, drinking tea or taking a stroll uplifts humans’ spirits to such insurmountable levels that reaching them becomes a distant dream; conquering them, then, gets out of question. There is also an all-numbing admission of “His” influence when Screwtape writes,

“As you ought to have known, the asphyxiating cloud which prevented your attacking the patient on his walk back from the old mill, is a well-known phenomenon. It is the Enemy’s most barbarous weapon, and generally appears when He is directly present to the patient under certain modes not yet fully classified. Some humans are permanently surrounded by it and therefore inaccessible to us.”

I am not giving away what culminates at the end, not because it would foil interest but because it is not significant.

The picture that Lewis paints by the time he puts his last stroke, is a mélange of ideas which although tilted to project one side as glorious, does not undermine the merits on the other. It is more of a congregation of two schools of thought on a line where students (and teachers) can change side at any instant. Even for a believer in Supreme Power, I paused at many points and examined the validity of the arguments earnestly. Let me say all said was not lost.

Thank you, C S Lewis; I realized I was not all that wood after all.

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One thought on “Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis (1942)

  1. Pingback: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, C S LEWIS! | fleetingbrook

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