CLOSE
istock (background)
istock (background)

12 Things You Might Not Know About The Screwtape Letters

istock (background)
istock (background)

C.S. Lewis’s most popular non-Narnia novel is a delicious, perceptive treatise on the weaknesses of human nature. Here are 12 little-known facts about The Screwtape Letters, its development, and its enduring impact.    

1. It Took Lewis A Little Over Six Months to Write All 31 Letters.

In July 1940, Lewis came up with the idea of a senior demon named Screwtape mailing trade secrets and frank pointers to his greenhorn nephew, Wormwood, who has been charged with corrupting a human soul. Inspired, the author worked at breakneck speed, frequently knocking out an entire letter in one sit-down session.

2. Originally, These Dispatches Ran as a Serial.

Having already submitted material to a now-defunct Anglican gazette called The Guardian, Lewis was in good standing with its editor, who released the first “Screwtape Letter” on May 2, 1941. Every week, another hellish correspondence would appear, until the last one hit the stands on November 28. Readers devoured them en masse, and before long, publisher Geoffrey Bles converted Lewis’ series into a book

3. The Newspaper Proceeds Helped a Charitable Cause.  

The Guardian offered Lewis two pounds per letter. Refusing payment, he insisted that a fund dedicated to the widows of Church of England clergymen receive this money instead.

4. One of the Human Characters Was Probably Based on a Woman Lewis Lived With.  

Lewis wasn’t the sort who would go back on a promise made to a fallen friend. In WWI, he and a comrade named Paddy Moore agreed that if either man should perish, the other would take care of his surviving parent (both had already lost one—Lewis’s mother succumbed to cancer in 1908). Paddy ultimately died on the French front, leaving Janie King Moore behind. After the war, Lewis moved in with and tended to her.    

The overbearing Mrs. Moore could be a very difficult person. Lewis’ older brother, Warren, was disgusted by her manipulative, “insincere” personality. “She … interfered constantly with his work,” Warren recalled, “and imposed upon him a heavy burden of minor domestic tasks.” In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’ fiction clearly borrowed from his reality. Wormwood’s mortal “client” has an exacting mother who’s described as “a positive terror to hostesses and servants.” Almost every C.S. Lewis biographer under the sun believes that she was also, in fact, a caricature of Mrs. Moore. 

5. Some Readers Didn’t Understand That the Letters Were Satirical.  

During their run in The Guardian, one angry clergyman canceled his subscription. Evidently, this fellow mistook Screwtape for an actual (and terrible) theologian doling out sincere spiritual tips. The outraged church official wrote the editor to complain that “much of the advice given in these letters … [seems] not only erroneous but positively diabolical.”

6. The Author Didn’t Enjoy Writing Them.

“Of all my books,” Lewis admitted in a 1963 interview, “there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” He found The Screwtape Letters “dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life and decided to put them in the form ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” 

7. Their Success Prompted Lewis to Hire His Brother as an Aide.  

Screwtape’s newspaper premiere triggered a typhoon of fan mail. Since Lewis couldn’t keep pace with it all, the novelist asked Warren if he’d consider becoming his paid personal assistant. This turned out to be an excellent job for Warren, whose responses to these admirers were so clever and so well-composed that they could easily pass for his sibling’s handiwork. 

8. The Book Version Is Dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien, Who Didn’t Appreciate the Gesture.

Published in 1942, it turned into a runaway bestseller destined for eight reprints before the year’s end. Crack open any copy today, and you’ll find “To J.R.R. Tolkien” inside. But truth be told, Lewis’ longtime friend found the story disturbing. Plus, Tolkien knew just how little his colleague personally thought of it. It should come as no surprise, then, that he was less than thrilled with this particular shout-out.

9. Lewis Considered Writing a Companion Novel from An Angel’s Perspective.

At first, the concept of some new messages detailing “archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel” delighted Lewis. But his standards were too high and that project never took off. “Mere advice would be no good,” Lewis lamented, “every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.”

10. A Brief Sequel Appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. 

Lewis never penned another devilish letter, but when asked to do so by the Post, he did churn out a speech on behalf of his most sinister creation. In 1959's “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the demon gives a mealtime speech at the Tempter's Training College for Young Devils somewhere in Hell. Topics addressed include democracy, education, and—of course—religion. 

11. Multiple Authors Have Written Unofficial Follow-Ups.

A certain fiend opines on everything from gossip to pornography in Screwtape Writes Again (1975) by Martin Walter. Then there’s The Screwtape Email (2006): a self-explanatory postscript courtesy of Arthur H. Williams Jr. But perhaps the best-regarded of all is The Snakebite Letters: Devilishly Devious Secrets for Subverting Society as Taught in Tempter’s Training School  (1998) by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. “I’m sure Lewis wanted such ‘plagiarisms,’” proclaims Kreeft’s introduction. “The Screwtape Letters invented a new genre, a new species; all I’m doing is breeding another specimen.” 

12. Calvin and Hobbes Included a Recurring Player Named After Screwtape’s Nephew.

Bill Watterson has acknowledged that Miss Wormwood (Calvin’s long-suffering teacher) was named for the naïve tempter, “as a few readers have guessed.” Lewis himself probably borrowed the moniker from a Biblical star mentioned in Revelations 8:11.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
arrow
literature
12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dan Bell
arrow
Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios