The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, abridged by Jane Marshall

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 18-22 November 2013
Broadcast to mark the fiftieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis' death (on the same day that J. F. Kennedy was assassinated), The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel written by Senior Demon Screwtape to his subordinate Wormwood, who has been charged with securing the damnation of a British man known only as "The Patient."
First published in 1942, this satirical work emphasizes the importance of sustaining the Christian faith during times of extreme stress - for example World War Two.  Wormwood is given various strategies to help undermine the Patient's faith but fails to carry any of them out with any success.  On the contrary, the more extreme the circumstances (bombing, homelessness), the stronger the Patient's faith becomes.  Screwtape's vision of a dog-eat-dog world where individuals are all out for themselves fails to be realized.
As I listened to Simon Russell Beale's evocative reading of the work (he has a particularly evocative voice that vividly communicated the various tones of Screwtape's discourse -hectoring, persuasive, irate and finally exasperated), I was reminded of Ben Jonson's 1616 comedy The Devil is An Ass, where an apprentice demon is sent to earth to practise his wiles, but finds himself completely lost.  The major difference between the two works is one of tone: whereas Jonson satirizes the rapacity of the Jacobean world (which is far more evil than even the Devil could imagine), Lewis wants to show how faith can transcend all mortal sins, including sex, love, pride and gluttony as well as war.  Although the Patient dies at the end of the novel - the victim of an air raid - he slips through Wormwood's fingers and ascends to Heaven.
The Screwtape Letters is perhaps Lewis' most popular work for adults (as opposed to the Chronicles of Narnia which were intended for children).  This Book of the Week production showed why: it was both accessible yet very funny.