Giorgia Meloni, the favourite to lead Italy's next government, has made no secret of her passion for fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose classic The Lord of the Rings has long been a favourite of Italy’s post-fascist right – despite the British author’s distaste for extremist politics.
When Meloni was first elected to cabinet in 2008, becoming Italy’s youngest-ever minister at 31, she vowed she would not be corrupted by the “ring of power” – a reference to the ultimate prize at the heart of Tolkien’s works. Later that year, she posed for a magazine profile next to a statue of Gandalf, the bearded wizard who roamed Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth.
Fourteen years on, Meloni's right-wing coalition was on course to win a clear majority in a general election on Sunday, making her the favourite to become the country's first woman prime minister. True to form, she wrapped up her campaign with a nod to another Tolkien hero, Aragorn, whose fiery battle speech she referenced at her final campaign rally in Rome.
Meloni, 45, has made clear she regards the legends of the rings of power as a lot more than fantasy works: they inspire her worldview and politics.
“I think that Tolkien could say better than we can what conservatives believe in,” she told The New York Times, which investigated her lifelong fascination with Tolkien’s world in an article published this week.
‘Little dragon of the Undernet’
Meloni was 11 years old when she first read The Lord of the Rings, four years before she joined the youth wing of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). In her early 20s she appeared in chat rooms under the nickname Khy-ri, calling herself the “little dragon of the Undernet (a popular chat platform)” and discussing her passion for fantasy literature – and Tolkien’s works in particular.
In real life, Meloni would dress up as a Hobbit – the diminutive, hairy-footed dwellers of Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth. She and her fellow youth activists would gather at the “sounding of the horn of Boromir (a protagonist of The Lord of The Rings)”.
As The New York Times’ Jason Horowitz wrote: “All of that might seem some youthful infatuation with a work usually associated with fantasy-fiction and big-budget epics rather than political militancy” – were it not for the role played by Tolkien’s mythology in inspiring generations of post-fascist youths.
Tolkien himself always rejected claims that his works carried a contemporary political message; he abhorred totalitarian politics. Yet, his epic tales of fair-skinned warriors fending off dark hordes of invading orcs have long fuelled accusations of racial bias. Similarly, the Hobbits’ sentimental attachment to their unspoiled Shire has been described as a rallying call for xenophobia and the rejection of modernity.
According to such interpretations, Tolkien’s oeuvre provides metaphorical inspiration for Meloni’s obsessive defence of “Christian civilisation”, traditional family values and national borders, which she sees as being menaced by globalisation, societal changes and immigration.
Meloni’s frequent references to The Lord of the Rings are no surprise for Paolo Heywood, an anthropologist at Durham University who has researched Italy’s fascist movements. Far-right movements around the world “have always been fascinated by the images of manly Nordic heroes found in Tolkien's work”, he explained.
In the case of Italy’s far right, the fascination dates back to the early 1970s, following the publication of a first translation of The Lord of the Rings, prefaced by the philosopher and scholar of mysticism Elémire Zolla.
In Zolla’s view, Tolkien’s myths “represented a perennial philosophy that must be viewed as an outright rejection of the modern world”, wrote Tobias Hof, a cultural historian of European fascist movements at the University of Munich. This reading of Tolkien’s work was popular with a far-right youth that felt stifled by the old guard of the MSI and was looking for new inspiration, said Hof.
This search for new heroes came at “a period in which left-wing and far-left youth movements were dominant – and in which those at the other end of the spectrum felt isolated”, said Heywood.
In that respect, the adventures of Frodo the Hobbit were both a rallying cry for the far right and a “cultural reference they could share with others their age”, he said.
In the late 1970s, the far right’s Tolkien-mania inspired the creation of “Hobbit Camps”, where fans of the author gathered for book readings, political debates and far-right rock concerts, in what some described as a “fascist Woodstock”.
The camps ended in 1981, when Meloni was just 4 years old. Just over a decade later, however, she attended a revival of the festivals, dubbed “Hobbit 93”, in Rome. There she sang along with the far-right band Compagnia dell’Anello (Fellowship of the Ring), whose song “Tomorrow Belongs to Us” was an anthem of MSI’s youth wing.
A PR stunt?
While such gatherings energised youths from Meloni’s generation, their actual influence on Italy’s post-fascist right remained limited, said Piero Ignazi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna, noting that the Hobbit Camps were organised by a minority wing of the MSI.
Broadly speaking, “one shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of Tolkien’s oeuvre in the culture of the Italian far right”, Ignazi explained, suggesting that the focus on the fantasy author had a lot to do with Meloni’s communication strategy.
“It’s part of her personal branding, the image of woman who is less aggressive than other far-right figures, and whose cultural references are accessible and acceptable to all,” he said.
The focus on Hobbits, Elves and other fantasy creatures has the added advantage of overshadowing less palatable aspects of the far right’s repertoire, starting with figures from Italy’s fascist past, added Heywood.
“She’ll never skip an opportunity not to talk about Benito Mussolini,” he said, referring to the former fascist dictator, whom Meloni praised early on in her career but now studiously avoids mentioning.
Instead, by playing up her passion for Tolkien, Meloni can have it both ways, Heywood said: appealing to the broader public while giving a nod to veterans of the Hobbit Camps.
This article has been translated from the original in French.