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The Lewis Legacy-Issue 84, Spring 2000

The Birth of Lewis's Idea for The Screwtape Letters

A survey of widely varying accounts. by Perry Bramlett
The actual event took place during the late church service on 21 July 1940

In books about Lewis this event is usually switced to after the early
morning service, and the date has been published as 14 July 1940. 15 July 1940, 20 July 1940, and autumn 1942. So far, Light in the Shadowlands is the only book that got it right.

1) Hooper/Green, C. S. Lewis: A Biography – “following the 8 o’clock
Communion at Holy Trinity, 15 July 1940…” (Quotes letter from CSL on 20 July to Warnie saying “After the service was over… I was struck by an idea for a book…”; also mentions Thisted’s Letters from Hell as possible influence)

2) Carpenter, The Inklings – “One day coming out of church at Headington Quarry on a summer Sunday morning…” (Quotes part of letter)

3) Sayer, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times – Lewis went to a “mid-day communion” (Quotes from letter saying “Before the service was over… I was struck by an idea…”)

4) Griffin, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life – Lewis attended “Holy
Communion at 8:00 am… Perhaps during, but certainly after, the service on Sunday, July 14, he got the image of a poor soul’s making his life’s pilgrimage escorted by a guardian angel on the one hand and the other by a fallen angel. As Lewis walked up the hill from Holy Trinity to the Kilns, the image developed into a story with characters… War, of course, would be raging… But the real battle would be taking place… on spiritual firmament. Good angel would have to do battle with bad angel. Instead of trying to create a blitzkrieg of Miltonic proportions, however. Lewis decided to pitch the battle at a somewhat lower level.”

5) Wilson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography – Says that his regular confessions
“brought before Lewis the drama of redemption of a perpetual game of cat and mouse with the devil” and that Lewis, after his first confession, tells of his idea for the book to a pupil at Magdalen (footnotes “oral testimony of Charles Monteith”; does not quote from letter or mention service at HT)

6) Hooper, C S Lewis: Companion & Guide – Says Lewis was “possibly still thinking of Hitler’s momentary persuasiveness (from a broadcast heard the previous week) when he went to Holy Trinity Church…” (Quotes whole letter from CSL to Warnie, saying “Before the service was over…”)

7) Coren, The Man Who Created Narnia – No mention

8) Swift, C. S. Lewis – No mention

9) Wellman, C. S. Lewis: Author of Mere Christianity – No mention

10) Arnot, The Secret Country of C. S. Lewis – No mention

11) Adey, C. S. Lewis: Writer, Dreamer & Mentor – “After a church service in July 1940…” (Mentions that “the obscure Danish book Letters From Hell, which Lewis started reading in 1916 but found disappointing, may have left some impression…”)

12) Gibson, C. S. Lewis: Spinner of Tales – “Lewis wrote his brother in July, 1940, that the idea for a new book occurred to him after attending divine service. He does not indicate that there was anything at church that caused the inspiration…” (Footnotes letter)

13) Sibley, C. S. Lewis Through the Shadowlands – “The idea for the book had come to Jack in 1940 as he explained in a letter to his brother…”

14) Glover, C. S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment – “The conception of The Screwtape Letters can be accurately dated by a letter to W. H. Lewis (Letters, p. 188) of July 20, 1940.” (Mentions “His letter to Harry Blamires on March 14, 1954, suggests ‘I had thought of having letters to the guardian angel from an archangel side by side with those from Screwtape to Wormwood in my Letters but funked it.”)

15) Gormley, C. S. Lewis: Christian and Storyteller – No mention

16) Glaspey, Not a Tame Lion – The Spiritual Legacy of C. S. Lewis – “The idea for The Screwtape Letters, the book that helped to make Lewis a household word, came to him at church one morning in the autumn in 1942.” (Quotes letter)

17) Peters, Simply C. S. Lewis – No mention

18) Walsh, The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis – “The idea came to him early one Sunday morning when he was leaving church and suddenly thought…” (Mentions the Green/Hooper biography and suggests that Lewis may have got the idea for this from a book by Valdemar Thisted, Letters From Hell, which he read while at Great Bookham. In the American paperback edition of the Letters Lewis mentions the influence of Stephen McKenna’s The Confessions of a Well-Meaning Woman and the spiritual cannibalism in David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. In any case, there was a long gestation period before he set to work on the epistles of Screwtape.”)