Editor's pick
5 min read

Status, grievance and resentment: C.S. Lewis on the surprisingly modern business model of hell

60 years after its author’s death, The Screwtape Letters image of hell as an unscrupulous business is still relevant. Simon Horobin tells how C.S. Lewis came to author the influential bestseller.

Simon Horobin is Professor of English Language & Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford University.

A comic book style cartoon of a small squat devil looking quizzed in hell.
A scene from Marvel Comic's version of The Screwtape Letters.

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. 

For Lewis, the war did not present a radically different situation, but rather aggravated and clarified the human condition so that it could no longer be ignored. 

The Screwtape Letters are the product of the war years, during which Lewis wrote many of his most popular works. It was in 1941 that he delivered the first of his broadcasts for the BBC Home Service, which launched his career as a public apologist for the Christian faith. In 1942 Lewis published Perelandra, the sequel to his first space travel novel Out of the Silent Planet (1938), in which his hero, Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist – another nod to Tolkien – is summoned to Venus to prevent a second fall. Although it was published in 1950, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with four children being evacuated to the countryside to escape the London blitz. In setting his stories in outer-space or the fantastical world of Narnia, Lewis could be accused of writing escapist fiction that avoided the realities of a world in conflict. Lewis, however, believed that the war had not created a new crisis, but rather brought into clearer focus an ever-present struggle between good and evil.  

For Lewis, the war did not present a radically different situation, but rather aggravated and clarified the human condition so that it could no longer be ignored. As he remarked in the second of his Broadcast Talks:  

‘Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage’.  

The key point, writes Screwtape, is to fix the patient’s attention on ‘real life’ – but don’t let him question what he means by ‘real’. 

Lewis’s message to a country living in fear of occupation by German troops was that the invasion had already happened. They had been summoned not to their country’s defence, but to its liberation. When the Pevensie children stumble into a snow-covered Narnia under the control of the tyrannical White Witch, they are told in hushed whispers of the rumours of Aslan’s return: ‘“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”’ It is a reminder that Aslan enters Narnia as a rebel, intent on overthrowing the Witch and installing the rightful kings and queens on the thrones of Cair Paravel.  

The Screwtape Letters do not ignore the war during which they were written; Wormwood’s patient is killed in the London bombing. But, for Screwtape, a war is of no value unless it results in winning souls for his Father Below. His advice to his nephew is concerned with diverting the patient from engaging with universal questions by distracting him with everyday preoccupations and sense experiences. While these might involve the immediate conflict, they could also be the excitement of a new romance, a falling out with a friend, the prospect of promotion, or an obsession with food. If the patient should begin to speculate about spiritual matters, Screwtape advises Wormwood to deflect him with academic theories and philosophies that avoid confronting the question of whether the Christian faith might actually be true. The key point, writes Screwtape, is to fix the patient’s attention on ‘real life’ – but don’t let him question what he means by ‘real’. It is ironic, Screwtape observes, that, while mortals typically picture devils putting ideas into their minds, their best work is done by keeping things out.  

Despite numerous requests for sequels, Lewis was reluctant to twist his mind back into the ‘diabolical attitude’ and revisit the spiritual cramp it produced. Numerous spin-offs have appeared to fill the void, with Screwtape emails, audio and stage performances and even a Marvel comic book adaptation. Despite this, readers continue to turn to the original work. After all, Lewis’s depiction of hell as an unscrupulous business concern, whose employees are perpetually concerned about their own status, nursing grievances and resentment, speaks to our modern age just as much as it did to Lewis’s own. 

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.