by Devin Brown - “My dear Wormwood,” begins one of C. S. Lewis’s most unusual and most successful works: The Screwtape Letters. On May 2, 1941, British readers opened The Guardian, a weekly Anglican religious newspaper, to find the first in a series of thirty-one strange letters that would arrive in weekly installments, claiming to have been written by a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew, a novice tempter named Wormwood. -------------------------------------------------------------
When the entire collection was published in Britain in 1942 and in the states a year later, The Screwtape Letters became, as Alan Jacobs notes, Lewis’s “first truly popular book.” It would propel Lewis to international fame and eventually put him on the September 8, 1947 cover of Time magazine, where Lewis was pictured with a little devil on one shoulder and an angel’s wing over the other.
The origins for the series of devilish epistles can be found in a letter which Lewis wrote to his brother Warnie dated July 20, 1940. In it Lewis writes:
I have been to Church for the first time for many weeks owing to the illness…. Before the service was over—one could wish these things came more seasonably—I was stuck by an idea for a book which I think might be both useful and entertaining. It would be called As One Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’ The idea would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.
This spring, the 70th anniversary of Lewis’s classic masterpiece, Tyndale is releasing As One Devil to Another—a “fiendish correspondence” set down by Richard Platt in the tradition of The Screwtape Letters.
Walter Hooper, who wrote the Preface to the book, declares Platt’s collection of diabolical letters to be “a stunning achievement” and maintains that it reads “as if Lewis himself had written it.” This is high praise indeed, coming from Hooper who knows Lewis’s work better than anyone alive.
As One Devil to Another is a work that is as thoroughly enjoyable as it is deeply insightful. A penetrating commentary on our times as well as a needed reminder of timeless truths, Richard Platt’s latest work is sure to find a welcome home with Lewis fans.
I recently was able to ask Richard some questions about his devilishly delightful book.
Brown: The story is well-known of how Lewis came up for the original idea for The Screwtape Letters one Sunday while sitting in church. Do you remember where and how you came up with the idea for As One Devil to Another?
Platt: I remember it vividly. It is not the kind of experience that is easily forgotten. On the night of 9 October 2009, at 7 p.m., as I was enjoying a quiet moment with an after-dinner cup of tea, gazing out a window, thinking about nothing in particular, the book began. First, it simply occurred to me that there was a great deal of nonsense in this world that, in greater or lesser ways, was serving the cause of hell. Topics presented themselves. Then something very different happened. The first of what would be thirty-one letters began: I heard it, like an old familiar melody with pleasant associations. Incredulous ( Who would not be?), I ignored what I was hearing, but it would not stop. After two listless days and two sleepless nights I put pen to paper simply to relieve the pressure, and the floodgates opened. It was like taking dictation. The first three letters spilled out before I knew what I was about. Then the push came again and I was off. Five exhausting weeks later the last letter was complete, and the voice ceased. That is how this book came to be. As Lewis observed, no man can say ‘mine’ of anything.
Brown: Lewis said that in writing The Screwtape Letters he had never written with greater ease or with less enjoyment, that it produced ‘a sort of spiritual cramp’ and was all ‘dust, grit, thirst, and itch.’ What was your experience of assuming the fiendish persona?
Platt: Concerning the actual writing, I wrote with great ease as well. The greatest challenge was getting the words out as fast as they came. As to twisting my thought into the diabolical frame of mind, unlike Lewis, I enjoyed myself enormously. It is perhaps best not to speculate on the implications.
Brown: The Screwtape Letters is, most would agree, a timeless classic, a work that because it mostly deals with universal issues of the human heart will resist being dated. In your book you also deal with some timeless issues but also with some aspects that seem more modern. Can you talk about one of your timeless issues and one of the more contemporary ones you include?
Platt: I have attempted in As One Devil to Another a balance not so much of the timeless and the timely but of principle and application. Thus we have, for example, competition, suffering, pride and humility, good work, subjective versus objective standards, truth and falsehood, chance, faith, and love illustrated in academic life, nature, political correctness, modern technology, romance, death, homosexuality, and modern art. Happily for the narrative, there was much grist for my mill.
Brown: As One Devil to Another is at times really, cleverly funny—one might say devilishly funny. How important was humor to you and what do you think it adds to your story?
Platt: I think humor is essential to a book like this, to lighten the narrative by counterbalancing the oppressiveness of the weighty issues addressed. Without humor, it would be all ‘thirst, grit, dust, and itch.’ Humor is also a mightily effective weapon: the Devil, the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked. Some people share this quality.
Brown: In his preface, Walter Hooper states that the tone is sharper than anything from Lewis’s pen. I imagine the tone will raise more than a few eyebrows.
Platt: You should read the passages I deleted.
Brown: What kind of reaction would you like most to elicit in the reader?
Platt: I am hoping that the book will promote not indignation but vigorous dialogue. I have, however, had to address what we may call ‘flashpoint issues.’ Christians for some time now have been fighting a defensive war against the Enemy, parrying the blows rather than striking them. A man who always parries but never thrusts can never vanquish his foe. He can at best fight to an exhausted draw. The stakes are too high for the goal to be mere détente. The time has come to take the fight to the Enemy and see for a change how he likes the business end of the sword.
Brown: What will you be working on next? You’ve authored a one-man play about Thoreau. Have you considered adapting As One Devil to Another for the stage?
Platt: Yes. I’ve not only considered it but made considerable progress on a stage version. It should be ready for performance by the time As One Devil to Another is released in April. I’m also working on what Lewis would have called ‘a supposal,’ tentatively titled The Forest of Nede.
Brown: Everyone, it seems, has a story about how they first came across Lewis. Can you talk about your first contact with his work?
Platt: I first came to Lewis many years ago, at a time when I chose my reading companions merely for their stylistic excellence. Content, heaven help me, was a secondary consideration. Knowing my predispositions, a good friend placed in my hands Surprised by Joy. I’m still thanking him. It was presented to me simply as a masterly narrative, which surely it is. It was also the small end of the wedge. As Lewis wrote, ‘God is very unscrupulous.’ When we met for coffee the following week, I asked my friend what else Lewis had written. He was ready for me. I went home with a copy of The Case for Christianity. It was a rough ride for a lazy agnostic.
Brown: Do you read differently, or choose your reading differently, since you discovered Lewis?
Platt: Without question. Lewis changed everything. I still read for what Lewis called ‘innocuous merriment’. There is a time for recreational frivolity, and my choice for this is P. G. Wodehouse (a taste I share with Lewis). No one can touch Wodehouse for simple, good-humored fun. Beyond this, my tastes have become far more discriminating. What I ask now of a writer is not just to be led by a fine voice, though I still require this, but to be edified, uplifted, ennobled. I don’t want to see what slithers under the rock of the human condition unless I can be shown the way forward. If I want to wallow in the degradation of the human spirit – a subject dear to modern practitioners of ‘realism’ – I need only a newspaper or a television. I ask of the writer, “What nourishment is on offer? Can you give me an insight, a tool, a pathway, something with which I can be better than I am, and the will and optimism to enable me to use that insight?” Lewis has never failed me in this. Each time I put down one of his books I wonder why I ever pick up anyone else.
Brown: Everyone always wants to distill Lewis’s genius into one or two qualities, an attempt that is never totally satisfying. With that in mind, might you be willing to offer two or three qualities which, in your opinion, make Lewis’s writing so uniquely successful?
Platt: I refer you to James T. Como’s brilliant book, Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis. I would say, first: economy of expression. You will find few writers who can drive a point home and give you as much to think about in as few words as CSL. Second: clarity. You always know where you are and how you got there. This is a quality Owen Barfield actually teased him about, accusing him of saying everything he wanted to say three times (an astute observation). Barfield, himself a formidable but far more opaque intellect, could have learned something here. Third: when you read Lewis you are in the presence not only of a formidable intellect but of irrefutable, eternal, unadulterated Truth. Truth is alluring, bracing (if you can handle it), and powerful. Fourth: flexibility of narrative voice. Lewis is, in my experience, unique among great writers in this regard. The greatest writers, like composers, usually have what one might call a musical signature; a kind of tone or rhythm that instantly identifies them once you’ve heard it. It is never absent from their work. Lewis, in typically considerate fashion, is always thinking not of himself but of his reader, and adapting his voice accordingly. Yet when we engage with any of Lewis’s books, we encounter what Milton called ‘the precious life-blood of a master spirit.’ It is truly astonishing.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).