An Analysis of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters
I recently reread C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters while on vacation. C.S. Lewis, in his usual insightful way, makes a great point in the book about the seat of human decision-making and motives—our will. The book is written from the perspective of a devil, Screwtape, who is instructing a new tempter on the art of claiming ‘a patient’ for an eternity in Hell.
The advising devil’s main goal is to give this new low-level devil ways to guide his human target away from God and towards Satan. Screwtape, in giving this advice, speaks often of a hunger he has—and which all devils have—of absorbing human souls (and other devils) into their being. This motive—as well as the fear of punishment—is why devils do what they do. This absorption is a process of literally tasting and eventually devouring the patient’s soul. In this way, the devils engorge their own self with us, in order to make us an extension of their own wills and thereby increase their own selfhood at our expense. In the end of the story, the new tempter becomes food for Screwtape and his dinner guests because he failed to win over the soul of his patient.
Of course, Lewis admits that this literal consumption of souls in the book represents a spiritual and metaphorical reality in our world—that Satan himself seeks to conquer and gain as many human souls for his dominion as he can. Lewis terms it ‘spiritual cannibalism.’ As Lewis says of Satan in the Preface, “His dream is of the day when all shall be inside him and all that says “I” can say it only through him.”[i]
This same truth can be seen in many books and movies as well. In the Harry Potter story, the dementors are beings who will literally absorb people’s life force into themselves if given the chance. The ‘Dementor’s Kiss’ is the act of a dementor sucking out a person’s soul. In many ways, this can be a picture of what happens in spiritual warfare—when a human loses his or her soul to ‘The Enemy Below.’
There are also other stories I can think of which tell of a being, an entity that grows stronger with each soul it absorbs, ravishes, conquers, or eats. It is the universal plot line of assimilation, in which a villain or villains seek to eliminate individuality and free will by creating a kind of hive mind. Remember the often-quoted line of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation when trying to assimilate others? “Resistance is futile.”
But there is also another parallel truth that must be spoken of in relation to Satan’s hunger and assimilation of human wills to serve his ends. God in love—rather than absorbing souls—seeks to make each of us His sons and daughters. God wants mini mes, replicas of Himself. This happens through a process of sanctification rather than assimilation. Lewis’ Screwtape character makes this point elegantly in the book. As Screwtape explains to his protégé: “[God] really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. 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. Our aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”[ii]
Satan can only imitate God. Satan only knows how to pervert, in a poor imitation, what God does—in uniting believers to Him. Satan and his devils absorb on the basis of selfish love, whereas God and His angels replicate on the basis of selfless love. Both absorption and replication involve the human will. Because by either process, humans become what they idolize, follow, and serve—whatever or whoever they give over their will to work for.
While the opposite processes and designs Satan and God have for human wills and souls was what struck me the most in rereading this book, there are so many more nuggets of truth to glean from this short book: the battlefield of the mind, that life is a series of troughs and peaks, that pride is the gateway to all vices and sin and humility the gateway to all virtues and goodness. I advise my readers to take the time to read The Screwtape Letters, as it will truly be a refreshing and nourishing meal.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. xii.
[ii] Ibid, p. 38.