A Spoonful of Sugar—C. S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters

Bibliophilist Society, C.S. Lewis

Britton A. Taylor

This is the third part of our November series on C.S. Lewis’s epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters.

The Screwtape Letters is a literary work by C. S. Lewis consisting of a collection of 31 letters written from the perspective of Screwtape, an arch-demon who offers advice to his dear nephew on how to coax an assigned patient away from religion and away from “The Enemy” (who is God). In his letters, Screwtape describes in detail the ways in which gradual persuasion and temptation can be used to keep us as ignorant as possible of the existence and omnipresence of God. Screwtape teaches Wormwood, his nephew, the geniuses of exploiting his patient’s pride, selfishness, passiveness, and the other pitfalls of our human nature to the advantage of the demons.

Using the voice of a demon to provide us with important theological truths is no doubt an unexpected approach for a renowned Christian author to take, but Lewis decided to employ humor and satire to both convey basic Christian beliefs and to address the faults in our behavior in a way that would make us laugh and learn. This is because comedy can serve as a salubrious and/or subversive way to bring attention to controversial issues, including those that deal with our religious faith.

Lewis’s use of a diabolical narrator to teach basic tenets of Christianity has some risks, but it has advantages as well. When threatened or confronted, our first reaction is often defensiveness or retreat. However, when it comes to the “fight or flight” of our human nature, this response is not always a physical one: it is often psychological. When we are confronted with a critique of our way of living, too many of us make excuses to justify our behavior, or we become defensive and try to escape by pointing fingers in every possible direction.

Because Lewis understood our nature to defend and evade, he chose to take a more oblique approach to teaching Christian tenets by writing 31 letters from the perspective of a demon. After all, we as readers have an easier time taking responsibility for our wrongdoing when we see a demon tempter behind the scenes who is instigating mischief. By using an unexpected point of view and various types of humor, C. S. Lewis played an elaborate game of cat and mouse with the reader to hold them accountable for their own problematic behaviors. Not only did he cover controversial topics in a way that bypassed the fight or flight response of the audience, he also did it in a way that made them laugh.

With a topic as serious as the fate of each human soul, it takes a special approach for an author to provoke a humorous response from his readers. In his book What’s So Funny, sociologist Murray Davis discusses how and why people find humor in the unexpected. According to Davis, the unexpected takes us off our guard and makes us more amenable (or more vulnerable) to the underlying message of the author, similar to the way a spoonful of sugar disguises a dose of medicine.

By picking up a book written by a well-known Christian author, one would expect to read about how he or she could become closer to God and more obedient to Him, or perhaps how to correct any vices in their Christian walk. One would not expect to pick up a book by a well-known Christian author and read about the various ways to dilute and damage his or her religious walk, yet that is precisely what The Screwtape Letters consists of. The subject itself is not humorous, but the manner in which it is addressed is quite amusing.

Lewis uses the advice of Screwtape—who is always praising and encouraging bad Christian habits—to make us conscious of our faults and thus avoid them. Most books on basic Christian beliefs do not encourage us to remain blind and ignorant of our sins, which is why we chuckle and learn when Screwtape encourages mischief between a patient and his mother in Letter 3.

Though Lewis wants us on the whole to despise Screwtape and his tempter-nephew Wormwood, he makes Screwtape’s advice compelling to us because of its sheer invertibility. The critic Robin Hemley addresses the power of inversion in his essay “Relaxing the Rules of Reason” where he argues that we not only laugh at the unexpected, but we tend to also find humor in strangeness. Hemley calls this “comic reversal” where the comic flips a situation upside-down.

The humorist takes the world as it is and shows it to us upside-down. Yet, even tipped upside-down the world is still somehow recognizable, and from this perspective we’re often shown truths about the human condition that we’re blind to when we see the world right side up. (Hemley 60)

This is what Lewis is doing in The Screwtape Letters. Instead of considering our habits from above, we are considering them from the perspective of those below. This inverted perspective provokes laughter as well as vulnerability in the reader, and it avoids creating a sense of defensiveness that we might feel if Lewis were confronting us head-on. We can laugh at Screwtape’s account of how puzzlingly idiotic humans are, all while simultaneously becoming more aware of ourselves and our own behavior.

Another tactic utilized by Lewis is his comic use of ridicule throughout The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape regularly refers to God as “The Enemy,” so it is only fitting that the arch-demon would also use ridicule in an attempt to belittle and minimize the power of God. Ridicule is often used in politics or times of war to soften a hard target or make an enemy seem less powerful. The irony of Screwtape’s ridicule is that God is almighty and His power cannot be belittled.

Screwtape attempts to ridicule Christianity multiple times throughout his letters, and he often questions God’s motives for providing a plan of salvation for human souls. However, Screwtape often slips and reveals the truth to Wormwood for their war against faith:

We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in; He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. (Lewis 47)

Because Screwtape admits to the true goodness and virtues of “The Enemy,” he gets in some trouble with the Infernal Police, and Screwtape also presents the reader with a hole in his own logic. Even a demon cannot ridicule God without self-contradiction. The humor then, in this case, does not come from the ridicule itself. Instead, it comes from the ironic nature of Screwtape when he calls God loathsome and His disciples blind, yet is forced to admit truths such as this:

[God] really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what he has taken away with His left. (Lewis 84)

Lewis does not suggest that demons should take the blame for our bad decisions, or that any vice we possess within us is due to the persuasion of a demon. This impactful piece of literature is written with the intent of leading us to a level of self-recognition through humor. As the letters progress and as each amusing tactic succeeds or fails, we are involuntarily pushed to find our own bad habits and vices, and see them for what they are. As Screwtape encourages his nephew to keep his patient blind, we begin to see our own blindness. As Screwtape encourages his nephew to surround his patient with friends that will harm his relationship with God, we are forced to evaluate our own peers.

With a story-telling format and the use of comedy, C. S. Lewis is able to lower the subconscious defenses of the reader in a way that permits self-examination without the feeling of having been criticized or attacked. As Mary Poppins would say, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Lewis used comedy to “sweeten” his approach to the underlying issues plaguing many of us, and this message is better received with a hint of sugar.

(1). Diogenes, Marvin. Laughing matters. Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

(2). Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape letters: and Screwtape proposes a toast. HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. Print.