November 22nd is the sixtieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, an event that was overshadowed by the assassination of JFK on the same day. Although he is best known today as the author of the Narnia stories, the obituary that appeared in The Times newspaper a few days later noted that it was in fact The Screwtape Letters which sparked his success as a writer.
Initially published as a series of letters in the church newspaper The Guardian, The Screwtape Letters appeared in book form in 1942. The idea came to Lewis during an uninspiring sermon at Lewis’s local parish church in the Oxford suburb of Headington, in July 1940. Provisionally titled ‘As one Devil to Another’, the book would form a series of letters addressed to a novice devil, called Wormwood, beginning work on tempting his first patient, by an older, retired devil, called Screwtape. In finding Screwtape’s voice, Lewis was influenced by a speech given by Adolf Hitler at the Reichstag and broadcast by the BBC. What struck Lewis about the oration was how easy it was, while listening to the Führer speaking, to find oneself wavering just a little.
Lewis dedicated the volume to his friend and fellow Oxford academic, J.R.R. Tolkien. After Lewis’s death, having read an obituary in the Daily Telegraph claiming that Lewis was never fond of the book, Tolkien noted drily:
‘He dedicated it to me. I wondered why. Now I know.’
Despite Tolkien’s misgivings, the public devoured the work and it quickly became a bestseller. Although, as Lewis pointed out, numbers of sales can be misleading. A probationer nurse who had read the book told Lewis that she had chosen it from a list of set texts of which she had been told to read one in order to mention it at an interview. ‘And you chose Screwtape?’, said Lewis with some pride. ‘Well, of course’, she replied, ‘it was the shortest’.
Not all readers approved of its sentiments. A country clergyman wrote to the editor of The Guardian withdrawing his subscription on the grounds that much of the advice the letters offered seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical. The confusion no doubt arose from the lack of any explanation surrounding their circumstances; in a later preface Lewis gave more context, though refused to explain how this devilish correspondence had come into his hands.
Its publication by Macmillan in 1943 brought Lewis to the attention of readers in the United States; when Time magazine featured an interview with him in September 1947, it carried the title ‘Don v. Devil’. A picture of Lewis featured on the magazine’s cover, with a comic image of Satan, complete with horns, elongated nose and chin, and clutching a pitchfork, standing on his shoulder.