Who is Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters?

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In the C.S. Lewis novel, 'The Screwtape Letters', Wormwood is the recipient of the letters from his Uncle Screwtape. In this lesson, we will learn more about this character.

The Lowerarchy of Hell

Even in Hell, there is a hierarchy (or Lowerarchy as it is called in the Underworld), and Wormwood is at the bottom of it. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is a series of letters from a senior official in the Underworld, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, who has just been assigned his first patient, or human, to try to tempt to sin. In this lesson, we will learn more about Wormwood's character.

The Name

Why would C.S. Lewis choose a name like Wormwood? Perhaps because Wormwood is an intensely bitter herb that is used to stimulate the imagination and increase sexual desire. It can also be used to create alcoholic beverages. What better description for a tempter from Hell who has been assigned to distract his patient from God? We see examples throughout the letters of tempters stimulating the imagination to focus on future worries that will never happen or to create miscommunications between humans.

Wormwood is also mentioned in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament of the Christian Bible:

'The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water-- the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.' (Rev 8:10-11)

The interpretations of this passage vary by denomination, but regardless of belief, it is apparent that Wormwood is bitter and infects whatever it touches.

Wormwood is an intensely bitter herb.

Wormwood is Incompetent

As each of the letters is addressed to Wormwood, the reader never hears Wormwood's voice, but we learn a great deal about him from his uncle's response to him. At times, he stumbles into asking a good question almost by accident, but much of the time, he has such limited knowledge of Man and the Enemy (God), that without direct guidance from his Uncle, he basically is watching from the sidelines and hoping things turn out his way. For example,

  • By allowing his patient to experience some healthy pleasures, the patient was made aware by contrast of his engagement in unhealthy pleasures with his new friends.
  • Instead of infecting his prayer life, Wormwood let his patient become aware of his tendency to be distracted, resulting in the patient praying for help.

When things don't go well, Wormwood doesn't take responsibility for his actions. He blames it on Uncle Screwtape's 'singularly unfortunate', or ill-advised, decisions. It would never occur to Wormwood that it was his own execution of the strategy rather than the strategy itself that was at fault.

Wormwood Shows Vengeance

After Screwtape made it clear that he had no intention of helping Wormwood if he fails his mission, Wormwood attempts to report Screwtape to the Secret Police, accusing him of heresy because of some 'unguarded expressions' in an earlier letter, where Screwtape said that the Enemy loves humans. The Underworld does not believe in love and thinks that the Enemy has an ulterior motive for paying so much attention to humans.

After this stunt, Screwtape writes the following: 'Meanwhile I enclose a little booklet, just issued, on the new House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters. It is profusely illustrated and you will not find a dull page in it.'

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