Demiurgic Beings: A Platonic word in Tolkien

Back in 2016, I was very privileged to watch the “lost recordings” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1968 interview for the BBC. Those were previously unbroadcast offcuts from a filmed interview with Tolkien by John Izzard, a small part of which had ended up in the 1968 BBC Two programme, “Tolkien in Oxford”. Dr Stuart Lee found the unused offcuts in the BBC archives, extracts from which were then broadcast in 2016 as part of an Archive on 4 episode on BBC Radio 4: Tolkien: The Lost Recordings. I was interviewed for this latter programme, and therefore was invited to watch all of these film “rushes”, which offered new glimpses into Tolkien’s thoughts on a number of issues, not only related to his mythology, but also to his life and times. Dr Lee has now published the entire “reconstructed” interview (combining the parts that were broadcast in 1968, and the offcuts he discovered later) in Tolkien Studies, volume 15.

One of the things that struck me while watching these “lost recordings” was a specific word Tolkien used, which I knew he had used in another BBC interview, and he had also referenced a handful of times in his legendarium drafts and notes. The word is “demiurgic” and Tolkien used it consistently in his later writings to refer to the Valar. Here is the relevant extract in the “lost recordings” (from 43:23 till 44:56): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b07mvd5z

 

And here’s my transcription:

Dimitra Fimi: There’s been a long discussion in scholarship about providence in Middle-earth, about how such, certain things,… they don’t happen, there is no fate or destiny, but somehow things are… you know, there is, there is some sort of divine plan for things to go a certain way. He seems to confirm that here, that there is… that certain things converged so that Frodo is the Ringbearer and the mission’s going to go towards a particular direction.

Tolkien: You must have, I think, in this kind of narrative something that has same emotive… situation as, as the gods… the Olympic gods and other gods in, er, …

Dimitra Fimi: I’m Greek originally, and I grew up with the classical myths and, and, the gods of Olympus etc., er, and when I went to university and studied English, it made a huge impression upon me that one man can create an extended mythology that is as complex and as multi-layered as something that, you know, a culture has created.

Tolkien: … to His design, but which he’s had the existence of… first created minds and spirits, the demiurgic angelic spirits, where they appear as the Valar, or Powers. They’re not gods…

Dimitra Fimi: When he talks about the Valar, you know, he says that they’re not gods, they are creative, they are angelic powers, but they have the position that gods have in other mythologies, so his old religious sensibility’s still there, you know, you can’t have many gods… you’ll still have a monotheistic system, but they have to fit with the idea of what a mythology is and how it works. He has talked about that in letters, but the fact that he’s bringing it in, in this context, er, with all the technical terms, you know, involved, erm, feel, you know, it just shows how strongly he’s, he’s engaged with all of this.

Now, when recording my part of the interview, I did talk a lot more about this term, “demiurgic”, and that’s why in my response to Tolkien’s words (above) I am referring to “the technical terms” Tolkien is employing here (in radio interviews you always end up recording a lot, with the full knowledge that the programme makers will use what fits with their time-frame, programme structure/narrative, etc.).

“Demiurgic” is a word that comes from Greek δημιουργικός (creative), itself an adjective derived from δημιουργός (creator). The OED rightly glosses demiurgic in a more complex way: “Of or pertaining to the Demiurge or his work; creative”, because Demiurge (or demiourgos) is a term best-known from Platonic philosophy to refer to the Maker or Creator of the world (rather than just “skilled worker” or “artisan”, which would have been the more generic meaning).

But the moment we enter Platonic territory, things get more complicated. In Plato the Demiurge is the being who shaped the physical, material world based on a “model” (the Forms or Ideas), but not necessarily exactly successfully (I am, of course, oversimplifying here – hundreds of studies have grappled with Plato’s concepts on this, which are sometimes rather contradictory). What is more, in subsequent Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Gnostic philosophical traditions, the originator of the world (“the One”) is separate to the Demiurge (the one who shaped the world into physical existence). Some commentators of Plato, such as Proclus, actually proposed a number of demiurgic gods with different functions, e.g. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades as a demiurgic triad, subordinate to “the One”, the first God.

Does that sound familiar? That’s because it is. As we know from the cosmogony of Arda, as described in The Silmarillion, Tolkien offers us something very similar to the Platonic “One”, Eru Ilúvatar as the primary/One God (the ultimate originator of the world), and a series of lesser beings (but still way superior to Elves and Men) who physically shape the world, often with a specific focus: the Valar. Compare for example Proclus’s demiurgic triad (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades) with Manwë, Ulmo, and Aulë in Arda. It does make sense, therefore, that Tolkien calls the Valar “demiurgic angelic spirits” in the extract above. What is more, as per my comment above, this particular function that the word “demiurgic” implies, allows Tolkien to accommodate in his mythology both a monotheistic system (Eru Ilúvatar as the prime God) and a mythological, polytheistic system with multiple “gods” (or beings who sort of take the position of gods as we know them from different mythological traditions).

Tolkien used the same word and concept in an interview only a few years before the one above, this time interviewed by Denys Gueroult for the BBC in 1965. When Gueroult quizzed him about the existence of some divine presence in The Lord of the Rings, this exchange followed (from 31:21 till 32:37): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p021jx7j

Transcription:

Gueroult: I would have thought a story of this sort was almost dependent upon an intense belief in some theocratic division, some hierarchy.

Tolkien: There is, indeed. That’s where the theocratic hierarchy comes in. The man of the twentieth century… must… of course, see that you must have, whether he believes in them or not, you must have gods in a story of this kind, but he can’t make himself believe in gods like Thor and Odin, Aphrodite, Zeus, and that kind of thing.

Gueroult: You can’t believe that the men in your story would have called on Odin?

Tolkien: I couldn’t possibly construct a mythology, which, which had Olympus or Asgard in it, it, on the terms in which the people who worshipped those gods believed in. God is a, supreme, the Creator, outside it, transcendent. But the place of the gods is taken (so well taken I think that, that it, it really makes no difference to the ordinary reader) is taken by the angelic spirits created by God, but created before the particular time sequence which we call the World, which is called in their language Eä, ‘That which is, that which now exists’. Those are the Valar, the Powers. It’s a construction, you see, in my mythology in which a large part of the demiurgic… thing has been, er, has been handed over to powers who are created there in the hand of the One.

Tolkien had already used the term “demiurgic” in some notes and drafts of his legendarium in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so his use of this term in these two 1960s BBC interviews is not unprecedented. In a reflective document now known as “Myths Transformed” (probably dating from April 1959), in which Tolkien is contemplating fundamental concepts about the framework of his mythology, he calls the Valar “demiurgic beings” (Tolkien, 1993, p. 370). Similarly, Varda’s efforts to “kindle” stars occurs during what he calls a “demiurgic period” and those efforts themselves as described as “demiurgic labours”, “demiurgic work”, and of “demiurgic kind” (ibid., pp. 387-9). Varda, of course, fulfils exactly a demiurgic role: she is responsible for the physical creation of one element of the material world. Very appositely, Melkor’s fall is also attributed to “a vast demiurgic lust for power and the achievement of his own will and designs, on a great scale… Melkor was more interested in and capable of dealing with a volcanic eruption, for example, than with (say) a tree” (ibid., p. 395). In another text from around the same period, the philosophically-inflected “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” Tolkien notes:

The existence of the Valar: that is of certain angelic Beings (created, but at least as powerful as the ‘gods’ of human mythologies), the chief of whom still resided in an actual physical part of the Earth. They were the agents and vice-gerents of Eru (God). They had been for nameless ages engaged in a demiurgic labour completing to the design of Eru the structure of the Universe (Ea); but were now concentrated on Earth for the principal Drama of Creation: the war of the Eruhin (The Children of God), Elves and Men, against Melkor. Melkor, originally the most powerful of the Valar, had become a rebel, against his brethren and against Eru, and was the prime Spirit of Evil. (Tolkien, 1993, p. 330)

Again, here, we have the idea of the Valar as demiurgic deities coupled with their status as both “angelic” beings (and so closer to the Judeo-Christian tradition) and as “gods” of human (pre-Christian) mythologies. As I noted above, the idea of “demiurgic” beings was a helpful one to support and explain this bridging of a Christian spiritual system with a “pagan” pantheon (something that is evident from the very first drafts of Tolkien’s mythology in The Book of Lost Tales).

There has been some work on Tolkien’s Platonic and Neoplatonic resonances. Verlyn Flieger in Splintered Light briefly mentions the Platonic echoes of Eru and the Valar; Jyrki Korpua’s thesis expands on this and offers some important new insights; and Jonathan S. McIntosh’s The Flame Imperishable explores points of contact between Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas and the evolution of Christian theology as expressed in Tolkien’s work. But I think there is still work to be done.

I am not offering any conclusive discussion or analysis here – I am just musing on a word, which seems to have come up in Tolkien’s work and interviews from the late 1950s onwards (though, doubtlessly, he would have known it at least since his undergraduate days) as a way of thinking through and reflecting upon his own mythological system. As a Greek speaker, I loved listening to Tolkien pronouncing it (see audio links above) and I also found it rather surprising that the anonymous transcriber of the unbroadcast rushes in the BBC archives had been unable to identify what the word was, and has just written down a question mark. But I guess it’s the sort of word that you either know, or you don’t. I think it is asking for attention and further consideration.

Reference:

Tolkien, J.R.R. Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One: The Legends of Aman, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

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