This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of one of C.S. Lewis’ most important books, “The Screwtape Letters.”
Have you read it?
In this classic, Lewis re-imagines Hell as a gruesome bureaucracy where a senior demon, Screwtape, corresponds with his nephew and apprentice, Wormwood. The younger spirit’s assignment is to corrupt a newly converted Christian young man living in London during the tumultuous days of World War II. Through the letters, Lewis examines Christian morality, temptation, and good and evil.
“The Screwtape Letters” helped solidify Lewis as one of the most renowned writers of his time. The beloved masterpiece still sells about 150,000 copies every year. Here are three things about this beloved masterpiece you might not know.
1. “The Screwtape Letters” wasn’t originally a book.
The Screwtape Letters were originally released as a weekly series in an Anglican periodical, The Guardian, between May 2, 1941 and Nov. 28. The letters were an instant hit, and they were published as a book in February 1942. It’s been in print ever since.
2. C.S. Lewis refused payment for his original work on “The Screwtape Letters.”
The Guardian was to pay Lewis £2 per letter, but he refused his earnings, asking instead that his earnings go to a fund dedicated to the widows of Church of England clergymen instead.
The gesture was only one example of Lewis’ generosity. He also had a charitable trust set up – The Agape Fund – that anonymously distributed two-thirds of his royalties to help people in need. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Lewis’ income eventually went to charity.
3. Writing “The Screwtape Letters” took its toll on Lewis.
In what might have been his final interview, C.S. Lewis shared he didn’t enjoy writing “The Screwtape Letters.”
“They were dry and gritty going,” he said. “At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.”
Moreover, the diabolical nature of the book pushed Lewis into a depression of sorts after writing it. Dr. Robert Banks, a leading scholar of Lewis from Australia said that, “Day after day of having the Devil as an interlocutor took its toll on Lewis.” The subject matter was almost too dark for Lewis to write about and engage with in such an all-encompassing manner.
In the last decade or so there’s been a renewed interest in the writings of Lewis, and rightly so. I was recently asked to share the top ten books I’ve ever read and I included Lewis’ classic, Mere Christianity. It’s had a profound impact on my faith. I’ve been inspired by his many other books and essays and I’ve always been intrigued by stories of his colorful and eccentric personality.
For example, my friend Graham Baird, lead pastor of Mission Street Church in Camarillo, Calif., has studied Lewis for years. He recently shared that when Lewis taught at Magdalen College in Cambridge, he had a unique way of signaling the end of the 20-minute chapel services.
Lewis’ office and rooms were just above the chapel. Before going down to the service, Lewis would set his electric tea kettle – which took about 20 minutes to heat up – and plug it in. That meant if those congregated in the chapel room below heard the loud whistle of Lewis’ kettle, they knew the service was going longer than the allotted time and it was time to wrap up! (But as much time-sensitive as Lewis apparently was for chapel, it should be noted he never missed a service.)
Before I sign off, I want to recommend a new way for you to experience “The Screwtape Letters.” Focus on the Family Radio Theatre recorded the first ever full-cast dramatization of Lewis’ classic. The four-hour production features an award-winning cast, including Andy Serkis (who voiced Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy) as Screwtape.
Here’s a behind-the-scene glimpse into “The Screwtape Letters” audio drama:
You can purchase “The Screwtape Letters” in our online bookstore.