“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern."— British man of letters C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), Preface to The Screwtape Letters (1942)
Seventy-five years ago his month, as the free world confronted the gigantic evil of Fascism. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis was published in Britain. The point of its satire was lost on at least one reader, a country clergyman who, during its serialization the prior autumn in the British church paper The Guardian, had canceled his subscription, telling the editor that "much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical."
Well…yes. Screwtape, a veteran demon in the service of "Our Father Below" (do I have to explain who that is?), writes a series of letters to his nephew and protégé Wormwood on how to tempt a “patient” (a suddenly vulnerable human being) over to their side. As time goes on, however, Screwtape becomes increasingly frustrated because “The Enemy” (i.e., God) continually demonstrates that “His love for man…is not mere propaganda, but an appalling truth.”
This hellish comedy exhibits its cleverness both in the literal way it imagines its setting (as hinted in the above quote, the underworld is seen as a bureaucratic “lowerarchy”) and its voice. (Screwtape, chastising his far too optimistic nephew: “So you ‘have great hopes that the patient's religious phase is dying away,’ have you? I always thought the Tempters' Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure.”) Altogether, it demonstrated what A.N. Wilson's 1990 biography called Lewis’ “ability to see through human failings, his capacity to analyse other people's annoyingness, [and] his rich sense of comedy and satire.”
The Screwtape Letters found a ready audience for its clever mix of theology and mirth, selling out its 2,000-copy first printing immediately, then another two printings in March, and at least one million copies in print by the turn of the century. It has also been adapted for audio, with John Cleese as the sputtering older demon, and for the stage, in a production mounted by the Fellowship for Performing Arts.
All of this represented a triumph for Lewis, who found writing the book tough going—not because he had writer’s block, but because he felt that trying to understand Satan and his minions was dangerous to his own spiritual health. It solidified his growing reputation as a master of Christian apologetics (Mere Christianity) and Christian-influenced fiction (The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe).