Most people know Ian Fleming as the creator of James Bond, and, as has been noted before, a remarkable badass himself. Despite his well-documented personal achievements in the British government and as a writer, Fleming was also deeply mired in occultism, leading to a strange and mysterious Bond universe more intrinsically tied to Victorian occultism than the modern spy we know today. The story of Fleming’s creation of Bond takes on new light when considering Fleming’s connections.
The story begins with the author Richard Deacon, who in the 1960’s wrote a book on the famous English alchemist John Dee. In it he alleged that Dee was the James Bond of his time, serving as an adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and acting as a spy in some of the largest plots of the time. He also said that Dee was the first to use “007” in his correspondence with the Queen, the code meant to represent a lorgnette and meaning for the queen’s eyes only. While Deacon’s work has been roundly criticized by Dee scholars, there are some basic truths that served as the foundation to his work. In Dee’s time spying was prolific throughout the courts of Europe with prominent intellectuals often being employed as they had easy access and a good cover. The famous philosopher and founder of modern science, Rene Descartes may have even served as a Jesuit spy to infiltrate occult societies during the Thirty Years’ War.
It should also be stressed that the word “occult” is misleading at this time. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries alchemy and mysticism were indistinguishable from science. Many, including Newton and Boyle, believed in the spiritual aspects of nature and often kept their work hidden to keep the arcane traditions secret. To keep these secrets, alchemists and mathematicians developed codes – John Dee in particular is often credited with forays into cryptography. Already there are two links between alchemy and James Bond – espionage and codes. This emblematic view of the world would get re-interpreted in the late 19th century by the spiritualist movement, and alchemy would become more about personal transformation than actual transmutation of metals. This sets up the context for Flemings early life, and here’s where things start to get weird.
Richard Deacon is the pen name of Donald McCormick, a British author responsible for numerous books on intelligence agencies and personal friends with Ian Fleming. McCormick would eventually go on to write a biography of his friend in 1993. McCormick authored several books on secret and occult societies, including the Hell-Fire society which was also associated with espionage. Fleming also shared a deep enthusiasm for the occult, having grown up in the shadow of occult-obsessed Victorian England. In his schooling Fleming even went so far as to contact the psychologist Carl Jung to translate one of his papers on Paracelsus. Jung, who also shared an interest in occultism, had examined the works of the sixteenth century alchemist Theophrastas von Hohenheim, who went by the name Paracelsus, and compared them to themes within psychology. Fleming’s link to the occult didn’t end there.
Working for British intelligence undoubtedly must have piqued an interest in cryptography and the different types of ciphers at work during the war. It also put him in touch with the most looming occult figure of the age, Aleister Crowley. Crowley represented everything that was right and wrong with the occult, and brought magic and ritual to the public’s eye. However, he was also a spy. It was certainly not public knowledge at the time, not simply because he had to maintain cover, but because the British government did not want to be seen as associating with a man people called “The Devil,” and Crowley didn’t want his followers seeing him associating with the government. Crowley maintained contact with Fleming and Maxwell Knight, another Occult enthusiast whom Fleming reportedly based his character M on. In Casino Royale you can see Crowley in the character of “Le Chiffre,” a corruption of the word cipher.
At the forefront of the occult revival in London, Crowley believed he was re-introducing ancient and esoteric knowledge and in doing so, revealed himself as the re-incarnation of English alchemist Edward Kelley. And this rounds out our weird history of James Bond, as Kelley was the best friend of John Dee, so close that they even shared each other’s wives. Is it possible that McCormick painted Dee as a James Bond character to impose his friend’s interpretation onto the past? McCormick had claimed Crowley was a spy before it was made public and so perhaps knew things through Fleming that others did not. The link between James Bond and John Dee will continue to be shrouded in mystery, yet perhaps the best way to look at them is as a lesson for history. We try to examine the past with our own tacit knowledge of the present. Late nineteenth century occultists saw Dee’s alchemy as hiding secrets to a personal spiritual transformation yet in reality Dee and others were just doing basic “science” at the time. I put science in quotes because at this time science as we know it still does not exist but falls into a broader category of natural philosophy. Just as alchemy was re-interpreted into the new age spiritualism we know today, perhaps so were Dee and Kelley. Two figures on either side of Fleming, McCormick and Crowley serve to link James Bond to his early English predecessors, and thus bringing the occult baggage along.