Tolkien’s Demiurges

In his conception of angelic beings with the power and freedom to fashion a world according to their choosing, Tolkien’s purpose was to capture, as he puts it, something of the “beauty, power, and majesty” of the gods of the ancient mythologies. One of these ancient myths he seems particularly to have had in mind is the creation-story of Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a work that was tremendously influential in both early Jewish and Christian patristic and later medieval thought.[1] In a number of places, Tolkien describes the sub-creative work of the Valar as “demiurgic” (MR 330, 370, 387, and 401), an evident allusion to the divine demiurge of the Timaeus who fashions the changing, visible world by looking to the order, intelligibility, and beauty of the unchanging, invisible, yet eternal and “living model,” and reproducing as much as possible that order within the realm of a pre-existing yet hitherto unorganized matter.

Surprisingly, given the interest of Tolkien’s readers in his Platonic inheritance noted in the Introduction, the extent of the parallels—to say nothing yet of the equally remarkable differences—between the Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus has yet to receive a thorough investigation. The most comprehensive comparison to date must be John Cox’s study mentioned in previous posts, which draws attention to the fact that, like Plato’s demiurge, “everything else [besides the Ainur] that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur,” a pattern Cox finds paralleled in the Timaeus’s account of the divine demiurge, “a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls ‘gods’ and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.”[2] Cox finds in both narratives, moreover, the same “progression from the Creator, to intermediate creating powers, to the visible creation.”[3] Both creation-myths, accordingly, present worlds of “stark contrasts” between the invisible, eternal, and unchanging divine realm of being on the one hand and the visible, temporal, and changeable realm of becoming on the other.[4] Cox further points to the resulting themes of emanation and imitation associated with these structures as they manifest themselves in both Plato and Tolkien.[5]

[1] Plato’s Timaeus, Meno, and Phaedo, for example, were the only three of his dialogues known throughout the medieval period. On early Jewish, Roman, and Christian readings of Plato’s Timaeus, see Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? On the reception of Plato’s Timaeus in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, see Dutton, “The Uncovering of the Glosae Super Platonem of Bernard of Chartres” and “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”; Chenu, “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century”; Gregory, “The Platonic Inheritance”; and Gibson, “The Study of the Timaeus in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” On Aquinas’s own knowledge of Plato’s Timaeus, see Hankey, “Aquinas and the Platonists.”

[2] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 58-9.


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