ROUGH READER’S GUIDE
THE FLEETWOOD CORRESPONDENCE:
A DEVILISH TALE OF TEMPTATION
An Epistolary Novel by William Griffin
New York: Doubleday, 1989.
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
Copyright © 2010 by Henry William Griffin. All rights reserved.
Witty, sophisticated, surprising. The writing is slick as the devil himself. —JOHN L’HEUREUX. Humor and sound theology do not always go together, but both are in abundance in this charming novel. —MADELEINE L’ENGLE. A contemporary update of The Screwtape Letters. —DAN WAKEFIELD. Griffin satirizes laissez-faire theology, takes a few swipes at sectarian rivalry, and keeps the project rolling with wit and good humor. —KIRKUS REVIEWS. A witty, infernal correspondence peppered with devilish touches. —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. While C. S. Lewis was one of the heroes of my young adulthood, I have to say, despite my loyalty to him, that I think your story is more ingenious and more theologically insightful. —ANDREW GREELEY. A faithful mirth that laughs out loud at the chronicle of a persistently fumbled temptation into sin and faithfulness. —WALTER WANGERIN. I finished it in a single sitting because I was enchanted. —CALVIN MILLER, Here angels are the tough guys, roughly outmaneuvering their opposites. —KAREN BURTON MAINS. A delightful book! —KEITH MILLER. I was swept away by Fleetwood, a tour de force and engaging and charming. —JACOB NEUSNER. The most enjoyable and delightful reading I’ve done in years about topics that are so profound. —JOSEPH L. GIRZONE.
UNCLE Not named. In his prime, a warden or head of Tempter’s, one of the colleges or technical institutes in the Oxford aureole; now a mere ember of his former self, awaiting the final wisp in a hospice near Dimchurch. Could easily be mistaken for old Screwtape.
FLEETWOOD Possible recipient of the letters in Screwtape, which is a sort of correspondence course on how to tempt in the field. Having failed his practicum in London, and to avoid his being sent down from Tempter’s, he changed his name to Fleetwood and fled to America, where he felt the pickings would be easier, and so they were. He chronicled his success in a series of letters meant to annoy and irritate the last moments of his warden and mentor, whom he felt had communicated badness badly. Could easily be mistaken for Wormwood.
TEMPTAND Not named. Smart young woman with immortal longings in the advertising business; she lives in New York city.
OPPOSITE NUMBER While Fleetwood tries to tempt her, his Opposite Number is tending to her spiritual wants and needs.
SUITOR Smart young man, recently returned from a seminary, is profoundly attracted to the temptand.
New York City, 1963. Fleetwood hotly pursues the temptand; Opposite Number hotly pursues him. The action takes place in all the boroughs, with special stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the advertising agency, Cartier’s, St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Central Park, St. Moritz Hotel, New York Public Library, Russian Tea Room, brownstone apartment on East Fiftieth, Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island, La Guardia Airport, Strand Book Store, Doubleday’s store on Fifth Avenue, Circle in the Square Theatre, etc.
The novelist’s preface, dated September 29, 1988, Feast of the Archangels, covers some of the preliminary considerations.
ORIGIN “I thought that when I had finished researching, indexing, and proofing my biography of C. S. Lewis, I would be through with the Oxbridge professor of literature forever. Instead, when C. S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life was within weeks of publication, and as the fruits of my research continued to trickle in, there fell into my hands a manuscript of unusual character.”
SEQUEL “It look at first like a sequel to The Screwtape Letters, but of course it wasn’t, Lewis having written no sequel except “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” a fragment that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post” (December 19, 1959).
DIFFERENCES “A closer look at the manuscript revealed a number of substantial differences between the manuscript of Lewis’s epistolary novel, which at the present time is in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and the manuscript of what I am calling, quite arbitrarily, The Fleetwood Correspondence.”
COMPOSITION “Lewis wrote Screwtape in ink, his nib dipped into a well, his scrawl running from edge to edge of the onionskin stationery, leaving no space for margins. The author of Fleetwood, on the other hand, seems to have composed on a word processor and produced the text by virtue of a letter-quality, daisy-wheel printer, on twenty-pound bond paper; there are airy margins and, the manuscript having been burst and collated, micro-perforations on all four sides of the paper.”
CONTENT “The typescript reads as though it might have been written by Lewis himself; it couldn’t, internal evidence revealing that Screwtape had been composed during the Second World War; the young man who was Wormwood’s target, you will remember, was killed by an intracontinental rocket. Fleetwood, on the other hand, seems surely to have been written in the age of the intercontinental missile.”
LOCALE “The locale of the former is London; of the latter, New York, where Lewis never visited. And of course, the spelling in the one is British; in the other, American.”
LIKENESS “Differences apart, the two works have a remarkable resemblance. They both affirm that there is a devil, that this creature has other such creatures who are subservient, that they have personalities, that they have definite assignments on this earth, that sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. And, of course, they are both works of fiction, not directories of spiritual guidance. Whatever other resemblances or differences the two works have, I leave to the reader.”
CHARACTERS “The identities of both the writer and the recipient of the letters are unknown. Since Uncle and Nephew are notorious as code names in diabolic correspondence, and although some of the characters—I don’t know how else to describe them—seem to have names, I have not attempted to identify them further.”
DATES “The letters as I found them had no dates. I have had to arrange them in what seems a chronological order; the liturgical year helps, the first letters being written before Advent, the last ones at the end of Lent; those that I have not been able to place in this manner, I have inserted where they seem thematically comfortable. The ordering of all the letters, as indicated by the Roman numeral preceding each letter is mine.”
Further considerations may be be found in “Buffoon,” fourth chapter in Griffin’s C. S. Lewis: Spirituality for Mere Mere Christians (pages 96-119). A paraphrase of some of them follows.
DEVIL Through the centuries a writer could portray the devil in one of two ways. As a tragic figure, the destroyer, the ultimate villain who will corner you in a dark alley, put you in a death grip, and eat your soul out even as your life ebbs. Or as a comic figure, a baggy-pants figure of fun in medieval church plays inside and outside the church. Lewis chose the latter when he wrote The Screwtape Letters (1943); whatever else it may be, it’s a comic novel. Adorning the frontmatter are two epigraphs, one from each side of the Reformation.
The first is from Martin Luther. The best way to drive out The Devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.
The second, from Thomas More. The Devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.
This is sort of comedy often found in medieval European drama. In the mystery, miracle, and morality plays, the devil, if still a cosmic character, was becoming a comic character in baggy pants, who after a multitude of jokes and japes, all of which backfired, was sent scurrying off the scaffold with a good, swift kick in the arse, if I may use a proper British expression.
PLOT On Sunday, 14 July 1940, Lewis attended Holy Communion at Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry. During the liturgy he had a distraction. A poor soul making his life’s pilgrimage escorted by a guardian angel on the one hand and on the other by a fallen angel. Fine stuff for a novel, he thought, but given the odd characters—Screwtape, a senior tempter; Wormwood, a junior tempter; and an unnamed, bookish young man in London—what kind of novel?
EPISTOLARY On a shelf in Lewis’s library there stood a novel published in 1922. Confessions of a Well meaning Woman by Stephen McKenna. It contained twelve letters from the heroine to a “friend of proved discretion.” The letter writer was humorless, but the work itself managed to be quite humorous; there seemed to be a “moral inversion—the blacks all white and the whites all black.” The plot and the format having been decided, all that was left for Lewis to do was write it. He wrote 31 chapters; Griffin, 30.
Upon reading Fleetwood for the first time, Griffin’s wife Emilie noticed there was a remarkable resemblance between the temptand and herself; she had marked the offending passages in red but decided not to file.
Yes, Lewis’s Screwtape was the proximate cause for Fleetwood and yes, Griffin could have titled his book The Wormwood Correspondence, but he didn’t.
Screwtape wrote 31 letters; Fleetwood, 30; Griffin ran out of gas.
Fleetwood’s seventeenth letter describes his meeting Opposite Number, the archangel who works the same territory as Fleetwood; they’re immortal enemies. The meeting was civil enough, ending with Opposite Number weeping in his arms; apparently, he thought doctrine with regard to angels was dying out. Fleetwood had to assure him it wasn’t. Wonderful stuff for a play, and so Griffin wrote it. Opposite Number, a ten-minute play that will be produced by Spectral Sisters Productions, a community theater in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 2011.
Other than Screwtape and Fleetwood, there isn’t a great deal to read on dueling angels. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (December 19 1959), may be found in some editions of Screwtape. Jim Forest’s The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2004) comes to mind. Upon request from Orbis I gave the following quotable quote, which appears on the back cover of the Forest paperback. “The Wormwood File is a heavenly work. Read now, laugh now, but also repent now.”
First, people wanted to know if Lewis believed in devils; he said he did, but in such an intellectual way that readers felt he didn’t. He did, of course, and he knew firsthand in his own life how systematically the devil, singly and collectively, attacked him. Does the text of Fleetwood reveal that Griffin believes in the devil?
Second, nobody knows for sure how angels work, good ones or bad ones, but does it makes sense that angels are matched against each other?
Third, do entertaining novels like Screwtape and Fleetwood encourage or discourage belief in angels?
Fourth, recent English style manuals have been decapitalizing words like heaven and hell. The reason? They’re not geographical places. But the late William F. Buckley, conservative controversialist and observant Roman catholic, capitalized both words because they were theological places; moreover, they’re real, not imaginary. What’s in your style book?
Fifth, both Screwtape and Fleetwood are books about temptation; both Wormwood and Fleetwood are tempters by profession. Most have experienced temptation; few can claim that they’ve never fallen. But was it their fault or the tempter’s?
Sixth, three points of view. Who’s right?
Epistle of James: “Blessed the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life” (1:12).
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850): “Temptations can be gotten rid of.” “How?” “By yielding to them” (Le père Goriot, 1835).
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “I resist everything but temptation” (Lady Windemere’s Fan, 1892.
Seventh, in the first few centuries of the Christian era, the venerable old fathers of the desert liked to tell this story to their novices. To tempt the monks—eremites, stylites, cenobites—Lucifer sent legions of devils. To the nearby city of Alexandria, Egypt, which was flourishing on the Mediterranean coast, he had to send only one. The moral? The holier the temptands, the harder it was to tempt them successfully. Is there another moral?