by Will Vaus
When asked to write this review of The Illustrated Screwtape Letters I jumped at the chance. What was there to hesitate over? I love Lewis. I love books. This was a chance to get a free Lewis book. So I immediately said “Yes!”
Now, where to start in such a review? First of all, since The Screwtape Letters has been in print for sixty-seven years and is a classic of Christian literature and satire I see no need to review the text of one of C. S. Lewis’ greatest books. Therefore I shall confine myself to reviewing the illustrations. And to do that I think I shall start where Lewis would—by defining terms. Lewis often noted the importance of defining the meaning of words we think we understand. In fact, Lewis spent one whole book doing this: Studies in Words.
So I thought I would start by looking up the meaning of the word illustrated. According to Webster the English word, illustrate, comes from the Latin illustrare which means to make bright. And illustrare is related to the Latin word, lustrum, which means purification. Under the word, illustration, Webster’s third definition most pertains to our subject at hand: “Visual matter for clarifying or decorating a text."
These definitions lead me to the following questions regarding The Illustrated Screwtape Letters. Do the illustrations “make bright” the book? Do they offer “purification”? How well do they “clarify” or “decorate” the text?
First of all, there is no question that the illustrations by William Papas both “make bright” and “decorate” the text of The Screwtape Letters rather nicely. William Elias Papas was a political cartoonist, book illustrator and watercolor artist of Greek heritage born in South Africa. In the 1960’s and 70’s he worked for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Punch. He was commissioned by Collins Publishers in England to illustrate The Screwtape Letters, and the original illustrated version was first released in 1979. Papas had previously done illustrations for books by Malcolm Muggeridge and Pope John Paul I. He also illustrated one of my favorite books, Mr. God, This is Anna by Fynn. So, there is no question that Papas was a great illustrator. His sketches for The Screwtape Letters are colorful, imaginative, displaying a great sense of humor and whimsy. Moreover, the new Illustrated Screwtape Letters, released in 2009, is a beautiful hardback edition with bookmarker and gilt edging. It is truly a fine looking book to have in one’s Lewis library.
However, secondly we must ask: Do these illustrations offer purification? Do they clarify the text? My answer to these questions is, unfortunately: “no”. In order to set forth clearly why I believe these illustrations do not clarify Lewis’ text I refer the reader to what Lewis himself says about artistic depictions of the devil. Lewis’ comments are very nicely supplied in the Postscript to The Illustrated Screwtape Letters beginning on page 231 and ending on page 233. Lewis writes:
a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all....
In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish and consolatory angels of nineteenth-century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a tea-table paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say “There, there.”
The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognised as symbolical. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.
A little man may sometimes avoid some single error made by a great one, and I was determined that my own symbolism should at least not err in Goethe’s way. For humour involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age.
I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin”. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
Now, once we evaluate Papas’ illustrations of The Screwtape Letters by what Lewis says above, several things become clear. First of all, Papas’ picture of Wormwood as having bat’s wings and a pointed tail (for example on page xii), while following what Lewis notes is a traditional way of depicting the devil, does nothing to illustrate the much subtler portrait Lewis gives us in words.
Secondly, Papas’ illustrations also follow, in a way, the tradition of Raphael’s chubby, infantile, nude angels. While, rightly, not being as pretty as Raphael’s angels, Papas’ devils are just a bit too cutesy. Again, this is not in line with the manner in which Lewis depicts the devils in his text.
Thirdly, Lewis notes that the “rage, spite and obscenity” of Dante’s devils are, perhaps, closer to the reality of what demons are really like than the depictions of Milton and others. But is there anything in Papas’ illustrations which reveals this rage, spite or obscenity? Again, unfortunately, the answer to my mind is simply “no”.
Lewis especially notes that humor is something absent from Screwtape’s makeup. Now there is no doubt that there are many passages in The Screwtape Letters which lead the perceptive reader to laugh, or at the very least, produce a wry grin. But is it fitting to illustrate Screwtape with an air of humor and whimsy as Papas does? Again, I think the artist misses the mark. His illustrations convey nothing of the deadly seriousness, the gravity of hell.
Finally, we come to the most important disjunction between Lewis’ text and Papas’ illustrations. Lewis specifically says he likes bats much better than bureaucrats and that he is deliberately depicting Screwtape and Wormwood as members of a bureaucracy. Lewis’ devils are great managers, members perhaps of a police state. One might even make the case that Lewis had in mind some of the nastier members of his own university when he set pen to paper to describe Screwtape. Again, none of this comes through in Papas’ illustrations. Papas’ Screwtape is naked and has horns. How much more in keeping it would have been with Lewis’ text if Papas had painted Screwtape like one of the most urbane, tweed-coated, pipe-smoking dons at Magdalen College! Of course, Lewis’ own illustration of Screwtape, which it is somewhat of a delight to see in this illustrated edition, does not approach much more closely what I have in mind. But then, Lewis never claimed to be a good illustrator for his own books.