Screwtape and the Hogwash Express

My dear Ragwort:

Only a chump such as yourself could have moved so swiftly from the success of your recent paper to the dreadful situation you now find yourself in with your young man. You were bamboozled by the ignorance of humans. Don’t deny it, it is what happened. You believed what you were told without considering the providence of the information; in this case, our own propaganda! And now, you wretched cretin, your young man is in a perilous position indeed, and – despite the prevarications of your note – you have no one to blame but yourself.

Allow me then to summarise what you yourself took far too many words to attempt to explain. Your young man, raised by parents we have led into lives of comfortable, insulated secularism reinforced by pseudo-scientific atheism, has been awakened in the most disastrous way possible to the reality – or, if his awakening is not (yet!) that advanced, then he is at least now aware of the possibility – of the existence of the supernatural.

You, Ragwort, are an idiot. Your young man is all of nine years old. We call him a ‘young man’ because of course he isn’t: he is a child, with the concomitant immaturity of childhood. His opinions are unformed; his patterns of thought, speech and behaviour are not yet set in stone. The rigidity of middle age, to which we look forward as a great preventative when it comes to malign spiritual influences (churches, evangelists and the like), is not yet in effect. Your young man is still malleable, ductile, mouldable. As such, he can be influenced. We set great store in this: this is when we can shape that middle-aged rigidity to conform to our wishes. But do not think that our efforts at this point go unopposed. The Enemy moves, Ragwort, and though His ways may be mysterious they are, to us at least, evident. And nowhere are they more apparent than in the imaginations of children.

It is repellent, is it not, that children, until we teach them otherwise and instil the deadly boredom that suffocates any hint of spirituality, almost universally demonstrate that same streak of creativity that the Enemy so enjoyed when He made the world in the first place. How much better for us when the children grow up and we teach them that everything is dull, drab, grey, gritty and tasteless? We rob the world of its textures and teach them to call their acknowledgement of our lie ‘realism’. The Enemy shows them wonders; we teach them to shrug as though miracles were the party tricks of a third-rate conjuror. When Moses demonstrated the Enemy’s power in the courts of Pharaoh, we matched it using third-rate conjurors, and so doing dealt a very real blow to the Enemy’s status. But sooner or later we find ourselves cruelly outmanoeuvred; we can copy, but we cannot create. We can mimic but not make.

Children, on the other hand, can imagine more than they see, pretend more than they know, make up their make-believes. And in so doing they pose a threat to us, because they can imagine us. We can be real to them in a way that most adults find difficult to envisage. Most grown-ups (more accurately, ‘grown-dulls’) do not remember the sheer vividness of childhood. This is of course to our advantage, as we can use it to poison almost every experience. Jadedness, far more than cynicism, dulls the wits and spirits of our patients. But childhood is painted in primary rather than pastel colours, and – more importantly – a child’s vivid imagination to some extent breaks down the fourth wall between mundane and spiritual experiences.

You may wonder at that term, the ‘fourth wall’. It is a most excellent description of the barrier, in a play or a film or television programme, between the act and the audience. There are films, plays and even comic books that break that barrier, but in so doing they disquiet and discomfit the audience. My point, however, is that a child’s imagination breaks down the ‘fourth wall’ between them and us – and, even worse, the Enemy’s own celestial agents.

This can be a catastrophe, and is one of the reasons for our current strategy. In past ages our stealthy nature was not called for: we could directly terrorise humanity. We could walk and be seen to walk; we could meddle and be known to have interfered. We enjoyed the sweet taste of rank and justified terror. We were abroad, and we could torture as we saw fit. When the ‘fourth wall’ was broken down we could capitalise on the fear the humans felt at the true nature of things: now, of course, we have almost entirely reversed that policy. We are unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. I saw on a recent website about demonology that even Satanists trying to summon us described their own worst moods as ‘demons’! The extent to which they can con themselves into a ‘spirit of anger’ and then defend this as a clear-cut case of possession is astonishing.

But these individuals comprise a tiny minority, however much we might find them amusing playthings, and it is with the majority that we must concern ourselves. Our standing orders are very clear. There is to be little to no direct engagement. Our best work is being done now to lead to humans like your patient’s parents – comfortable materialists, atheist without really being aware of it, using their non-religiosity as a badge of some kind of social sophistication. I trust you are in close communication with Grubnut and Hagnose concerning the boy’s father and mother? A concerted attack may be your best option for dealing with this stain on your copybook, this present darkness on your record.

Don’t deny or attempt to minimise your failure, Ragwort. And don’t come whinging to me about ‘unforeseen consequences in the aftermath of reading one of our own texts’. It was never ‘our text’; it was merely one we made use of in the minds of some people nearly as ignorant about the Enemy’s methods as they are about ours. The seven novels in question, featuring a boy wizard, elevate the virtues of loyalty, courage, wisdom and sacrifice; they warn against the vices of ignorance, idolatry, intolerance and racism. These are not our values. How much better for us if children read these books and saw as their role model Lucius Malfoy, rather than the boy Potter?

You were hoodwinked, I know, by our own desperate attempts to prevent children learning from the Enemy’s lessons, planted like landmines, throughout the novels. You were misdirected. You, like so many who have never actually read the books, have been persuaded – by our own propaganda! – that the real focus of the novels lies in the use of magic. Since magics have been forbidden to the humans by the Enemy, we can draw attention to this clear transgression, and, with skilful assertions (real arguments would fail too quickly to be anything but a hindrance), imply that the purpose of the books is to make a host of little Aleister Crowleys. Of course this is palpable nonsense: Aleister Crowley’s core dictum, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ is antithetical to the ethos of the Potter novels.

Our assertions work in this case because people now have taken refuge in the kind of intellectual laziness we have only been able to instil in the aftermath of really impressive intellectual or scientific achievement. Let the men and women of Scotland believe that the hard mental labour has already been performed. Convince them of this. The benefit to us is that they are less likely to question what they are told. The spirit of inquiry that so dominated, say, the Enlightenment, has been mostly expunged. Do you have any idea the triumph this represents? I heard a fearsome Christian the other day say in exasperation “You can’t question just everything!” Had he thought the matter through (our job, as always, is to ensure that he never does) he would have realised that the exploration of the limits of his ignorance is one of the most beneficial (or, to us, most dangerous) things he could have done, as it teaches humility and leads to situations where he is likely to encounter the Enemy in ways and at times that are, frankly, incalculably hazardous. Under such circumstances real communion is possible, and under no circumstances should this be permitted.

If people thought a little bit about the stories in question they would realise that the magical content of them is incidental, a mere mechanism by which the real story – Potter’s growth as a person and his triumph over evil – progresses. Such things have been done before, of course. They are hardly anything new. Our technique has been to present them as though they represented some radical new threat. Of course such a belief is hogwash. It works because, as I’ve explained before, to you and others, ignorance is our greatest ally, and all our efforts pale into insignificance when compared to the damage done by unthinking Christians spouting what is obvious claptrap.

To illustrate more fully what I mean I am forced to turn to a figure who looms large in my history, and against whom some of my most bitter struggles were fought. For that reason I tend not to speak of him, as he represented all that I hate about patients who are far advanced in the Enemy’s service. Although he was never my patient directly, he nevertheless exercised considerable influence over the progression of my career. I was lucky, frankly, not to be served as a delicacy to Our Father Below when the disgusting creature published my confidential letters to my nephew. I refer, of course, to the infamous human you, and every demon, know by the name he himself hated: Staples.

Staples published, like Rowling, a series of seven fantastical novels for children. Like Rowling, his heroes frequently make use of magic, including what looks very much like black magic (at the beginning of The Silver Chair, for example, the children draw what seems to be a pentagram in order to make contact with spiritual forces they do not understand). Heroic characters exist who make use of magics clearly banned (we have made sure great criticism has been levelled at Rowling for including a ‘teacher of divination’, while equally ensuring that few remember the characters Glenstorm and Cornelius, both astrologers, both ‘good’ characters, who appear in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian respectively). And both sets of good characters in both sets of novels set themselves against what seem like insurmountable objects and dark forces only to triumph by practising the Christian virtues. The morality of both series is the same.

The primary difference between the two chronicles – and it is here that our real strength lies, if only it were not counterproductive to draw attention to it – is in the manner by which that triumph is achieved. As I have just explained, both sets of characters practise Christian virtues in order to succeed. But the Narnians do so while acknowledging the Lion. Dumbledore’s Secret Army only have each other. There is no acknowledgement of a greater Other in Rowling’s books. This is in our favour. Unfortunately, if we draw attention to the fact, we are in danger of sparking a much wider and more perilous debate – namely, must there be a Christian subtext to every children’s book? Although the debate itself is not of great concern the thought required to form an opinion is, because everyone will have to re-evaluate the books they read as a child. There is no obvious Christian message in Enid Blyton’s novels: are they therefore as potentially ‘harmful’ as Rowling’s? What about fairy tales? Is it time to stop telling the story of Humpty Dumpty because he didn’t put himself back together after three days?

The debate would be an unwelcome and widespread foray into spiritual matters, and having worked so hard to create a spiritually soporific country I find it hard to conceive of a more calamitous awakening. For that reason we are forced to fight on another, more tenuous front: the use of magic as a narrative device. We must rely on people being unable to read any kind of subtext, which is why although we have only had sporadic success in the UK we have achieved much more in the United States. I am not succumbing to the charms of the social sport we ourselves developed recently, ‘Yankee Bashing’, but merely stating a simple and obvious fact. The people who are protesting most loudly against the Harry Potter novels are the people least capable of evaluating them sensibly. They tend to be in the United States because we have so skewed their perspective on education and the separation of church and state that it is now almost impossible to teach any of the great works of literature written in English in the last thousand years for fear of inadvertently dragging the Enemy into the discussion. For hundreds of years the primary subtext of literature was religious, and ignoring that fact (which is, again, a simple and obvious one) ensures that it is now very difficult to teach a balanced English Literature course that in any way reflects the difficulties and subtleties of the literature involved. To judge from the arguments being advanced against the Potter novels from that quarter one would assume that these same people consider Spenser’s Faerie Queene a treatise on the dangers of falling asleep in the woods!

And what of those occasions when the subtext is definitely and defiantly in our favour? Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy is a case in point, although one over which there has been considerably less furore. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, Pullman has not sold as many books as Rowling, and the people braying for blood at this point are not going to attack a more valid target when they’ve already got their sights fixed on a more obvious one. Secondly, his own subtext to some extent works against him. So while he may have God as a senile old angel who eventually dies, and as many other blasphemies as we could think of, he is almost catastrophically handicapped by having to work within a Christian frame of reference. If you wish to destroy Christianity you do not take as your source text Paradise Lost! Apart from anything else, his distortions rapidly become so obvious that they defeat his own purpose. I heard one Christian recently say of the book: “I’m glad Pullman’s God dies at the end. His God is not one I would wish to worship. And, of course, I don’t.” In some respects Pullman’s trilogy is almost more dangerous to us than the Narnia books. Narnia tends to be bought for children by friends or relatives who are already in or near the Enemy’s camp. Dark Materials is bought by our sort of people, the kind who are too ‘sophisticated’ to have much to do with religiosity, for children whom we want to see as our sort of people; but it forces them, in order to fully appreciate the books, to go away and voluntarily find out more about the Enemy, His plans, and the forces at His disposal. In terms of spiritual awakenings, Pullman’s is perhaps the rudest of all. It comes in our lupine clothing and turns out to have the Lamb of God underneath.[*]

However, all is not yet lost. Toadpipe, my secretary (I think you know him?) has reminded me that it is time for ‘Old Harry’s Game’, a radio programme to which I am quite devoted. Humanity is often in error about our true nature, but they are seldom so comical in their mistakes. I shall speak to you anon, but until then,

I remain, as ever,

Your fiend and mentor,


Wholly Dishonourable Under-Secretary for Inhuman Resources

[*] Of course I am speaking figuratively. Pullman couldn’t work out a way to dismiss the Enemy’s son – nor could we, so we were unable to help – and so Christ makes no appearance whatsoever in the books, weakening their anti-Christian stance yet further. We have devoted considerable time and effort to concealing this fact.


About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
This entry was posted in Screwtape's Commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Screwtape and the Hogwash Express

  1. Pingback: Screwtape and the Temptational Synod « Starlingford Chronicles

  2. Pingback: If you teach, you will be judged more strictly « Starlingford Chronicles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s