We've all been there, Uncle Screwtape


My favorite line in The Screwtape Letters comes in Letter 22, as the writer, the demon bureaucrat Screwtape, launches into what Southern moms call a conniption fit over the failures of his correspondent, his nephew Wormwood. A bracketed editor’s note informs us that at this point “the MS breaks off and is resumed in a different hand.” Screwtape, now dictating, begins:

In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede.

To which I say: Who hasn’t pitched such a fit that they’ve turned into a bug?

I laugh every single time I read this line, not only because it’s hilarious but because I recognize a little of myself in it. A lot of myself, if I’m being honest. Especially since Screwtape continues (now dictating):

Now that the transformation is complete I recognise it as a periodical phenomenon. Some rumour of it has reached the humans and a distorted account of it appears in the poet Milton, with the ridiculous addition that such changes of shape are a ‘punishment’ imposed on us by the Enemy. A more modern writer—someone with a name like Pshaw—has, however, grasped the truth. Transformation proceeds from within and is a glorious manifestation of that Life Force which Our Father would worship if he worshipped anything but himself.

There’s a lot to unpack here, including some pretty dense allusions to Milton and George Bernard Shaw, but what I want to point out for the purposes of this post is the assertion that “transformation proceeds from within.”

A simple sermon illustration that I heard a number of times growing up should be a sufficient gloss: the teabag. Hot water brings out the flavor that’s already there. You can’t ascribe any tea-like qualities, any teaness, to the boiling water itself; all the tea flavor in the end product comes out of the teabag. And if, after boiling and pouring and steeping, something is wrong with the tea, the source of the problem should be obvious. The question always posed by this illustration is, of course, what qualities does the proverbial hot water bring out of you?

This is not a question I would be proud to answer.

Screwtape, of course, perversely tries to claim his transformation as a victory or a show of strength. He embraces this punishment and tries to own it, “a glorious manifestation” of his true nature, which is selfish and all-consuming. And so this otherwise comical moment of high dudgeon ends up illustrating or at least foreshadowing something Lewis argues elsewhere: “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

The Screwtape Letters remains one of Lewis’s best not only because of its insight and the way it provokes often uncomfortable self-reflection—as here—but because it’s so funny. There are several good audio versions of Screwtape, but the best is that of Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, who does comic rage like no one else. You can listen to him read Letter 22 here.