A lifelong fan of J. R. R. Tolkien, Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was first in line for last year’s exhibition on him in Rome. Like others before her, Meloni has appropriated Tolkien’s fantasies to refashion fascism for the 21st century.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni speaks at Atreju 2023, a far-right conference named after a character from a fantasy novel. (Massimo Di Vita / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

All winter, in a room of Rome’s National Gallery of Art, a flatscreen TV was playing the Lord of the Rings movies on repeat. Nearby was a Lord of the Rings pinball machine, and an LP called “J. R. R. Tolkien reads and sings his Lord of the Rings.” Silhouetted against an open doorway, through which one could make out pieces from the museum’s collection of nineteenth-century and modernist art, a headless mannequin was wearing a sparkly white dress. When I visited, I couldn’t work out which character it was supposed to represent. Galadriel, the lady of the woods, maybe.

The display had been arranged for the benefit of Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister and the leader of the post-fascist Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party whose coalition government currently heads the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Meloni loves fantasy fiction. Most of all she loves the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford professor whose genre-inaugurating Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been associated with the far right in Italy. She has posed next to statues of Gandalf. She has quoted Tolkien in her articles and in her speeches. “To me,” she has said, “Lord of the Rings is not fantasy, more a sacred text.”

In September 2022, Meloni led Brothers of Italy, a party that had rarely polled above 5 percent throughout the 2010s, to a commanding national victory. The phones must soon have been ringing at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, which against all previous curatorial form announced it would be mounting an exhibition to celebrate the life and work of the prime minister’s favorite author. Meloni attended the opening personally. Press photos showed the forty-seven-year-old in her trademark cream blazer, flanked by ministers as she beamed at the Middle-earth themed pinball machine.

The prime minister’s attendance at the exhibition’s opening drew global attention for two reasons. First and foremost, it ought to be an objectively embarrassing way for an adult, let alone someone in charge of running a country, to behave. Secondly, Meloni’s nerdy passions seem to present some ideological consistency to a figure whose political instincts have so far proved stronger than her convictions.

In one corner of Rome, ministers cluster around colored ink drawings of orcs and elves. In another, young men gather to give fascists salutes.

In opposition Meloni opposed the European Union (EU) and aid to Ukraine, and threatened a naval blockade to stop migrant boats in the Mediterranean. In office, she has walked back those positions, earning praise from establishment figures on the center left and right. The battles she picks are a mixture of farce and menace. She has attacked the civil rights of same-sex parents — a party spokesperson described surrogacy as “a crime worse than pedophilia” — and banned lab-grown meat. She has cleansed the national broadcaster, RAI, of center-left voices and appointed far-right figures to important positions in Italy’s large and influential cultural sector. Naturally, right-wing extremists throughout the country have been emboldened by her presence in office. In one corner of Rome, ministers cluster around colored ink drawings of orcs and elves. In another, young men gather to give fascist salutes.

At present, Meloni continues to exist in political superposition. Mainstream news outlets have lauded her for talking Viktor Orbán into supporting military aid to Ukraine, with CNN going so far as to call her the new Angela Merkel. Meloni herself has her eyes on the Italian constitution, which she hopes to reform to her own advantage. Eighteen months into office, the true nature of her political aims remains up for debate. Is she a fascist in post-fascist clothing? An extremist at heart but an ordinary neoliberal in office? The new power broker of a right-wing Europe? Or just another Italian prime minister? And what does she see in the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien that she considers so essential to her politics?

Political Fantasies

In Rome, at the National Gallery, the curators gave us inklings of a shared disposition or common ideological ancestor. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to a failing colonial family who were forced to move back to the British midlands shortly afterwards. On the floor of the exhibition’s first room was the trunk that carried the young Tolkien’s possessions halfway across the earth. He would have been too young to retain memories, but a note of deracination and exile was firmly struck. On a wall nearby, was a quote from one of his late letters lamenting “this harder, crueller and more mocking world into which I have survived.”

The show is called “Tolkien” and subtitled “author, professor, man,” which is like calling it “we have no material — and no thesis either.” Staged by the city’s unloved National Gallery of Modern Art, it had the air of something thrown together at the last minute from a limited archive, probably by curatorial subcontractors. I wandered around, reading the endless wall text and listening to thirty-two bars of cheap fantasy soundtrack echoing on a loop from another room.

The show proceeded chronologically. The first two rooms overwhelmingly featured books that were (often loosely) connected to Tolkien’s life as an amateur fantasy author and full-time professor of Anglo-Saxon. Having exhausted Tolkien’s biography, the exhibition moves on to a huge floodlit display of his books in dozens of different languages, but no argument to connect those Anglo-Saxon primers to this vast theatrical success.

Lacking ideas, the curators stuck to anecdote. In one room was a dinky reconstruction of Tolkien’s study. On the wall, a film played where he recalled the genesis of his work — the moment he suddenly wrote in a margin somewhere, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Even this is a simplification. The world of Middle-earth dates from just after the war; it was the revelation that its heroes should be hobbits that came later on.

Last came the flotsam and jetsam: a room full of Lord of the Rings fan art and another full of Middle-earth merchandise. The credits to The Fellowship of the Ring were playing on the TV when I visited. I approached the pinball machine, but it did not seem to be playable. At the front desk, I asked why Italy’s National Gallery of Modern Art was hosting a show about Tolkien. The woman shrugged. “They are passionate about Tolkien,” she said. “Che fortuna.”

The youth wing of Italy’s post-fascist movement quite consciously adopted the language and symbolism of Tolkien’s world to replace its own disgraced ideological aesthetic: swastikas were out, and Celtic crosses were in.

The Italian far right’s appropriation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels was instant and successful. An essay written by the historian Elémire Zolla appeared in the first Italian edition, which argued that Tolkien’s novels were a defense of tradition and spirituality and polemics against modernity, materialism, and degradation. Zolla argued that Tolkien’s books were a parable for the battle that traditionalists and conservatives had to fight against modernity, the “evil” which sought to annihilate “every careless beauty” from the world. “Tolkien has written about what we face every day,” wrote Zolla.

The youth wing of Italy’s post-fascist movement quite consciously adopted the language and symbolism of Tolkien’s world to replace its own disgraced ideological aesthetic: swastikas were out, and Celtic crosses were in. In the late ’70s, a series of Tolkien-themed youth festivals were convened under the name Camp Hobbit. Grainy footage from the event shows topless youths buying books from outdoor trestle tables and painting Celtic designs on ancient walls.

It was certainly a convenient aesthetic for the far right. The Norse ambience of Tolkien’s imagination was at one remove from the Celtic bunkum of Julius Evola, a neo-Nazi mystic and self-described “superfascist” who held sway among Italian fascists in the immediate aftermath of the war. The success of Camp Hobbit, however, was built on more than a shared love of Anglo-Norse decorative motifs. Its founders had the same insight that Tolkien had back in Oxford, marking student papers, about the size that a hero should be. “The idea to call it Camp Hobbit came from a real strategy,” one of the founders told the New York Times recently. The aim was to align the camp’s attendees with the underdog heroes of Tolkein’s novels: “not the warrior Aragorn, but the little hobbit.”

The Little Dragon

Hobbits are stubborn, hirsute traditionalists, who resent travel and even small changes to their diet. They are English, then, but they are also Italian. Most of all, they are caught up despite their size in a war for the preservation of everything good and green and old in a world that wants to tear those things down.

Voices on the Italian left have criticized all this Tolkieniana, arguing that it has repacked the eternal militarism that was so vital to fascism proper as a metaphor, a reference, a form of cosplay. If the idea of war was a central plank of Mussolini’s fascism, the argument goes, then today the far-right simply pretends to be at war. On the eve of Meloni’s election, the actor who dubbed Aragorn in the Italian Lord of the Rings films introduced the candidate at her final rally in Rome. “There may come a day of defeat,” he said, adapting a famous battle speech form the third film, “but it is not this day. This day we fight.”

We can be certain that J. R. R. would not have approved, though not necessarily on political grounds. Tolkien was no socialist, but no fascist either. He seems to have been drawn to conservatism as a form of perpetual elegy. Tolkien’s sense of the good attached strongly to water mills, ponies, trees, and old books — emanations of virtue that were menaced by the march of Sauron’s armies in Tolkien’s fiction and by mass industrialization and world war in his life.

What Tolkien would have hated was the mixing of the world he had created with the one he lived in. This was something he wouldn’t put up with. He hated the Nazis, but always denied the commonplace that the Lord of the Rings was even loosely inspired by World War II. The armies of evil from the east, he insisted, were not metaphors for the Nazis or for communism, nor did the idea for a ring of power arise from destructive powers humanity gave itself in the twentieth century. He wanted to keep his books separate from the world outside them. Only when pushed would he admit that the blackened wastes of Mordor arose, in some way, from the blackened wastes of the Somme, through which the young Tolkien marched for months in the summer of 1916.

As the show in Rome made abundantly clear, Tolkien lived in books, in the margins of books, in the dictionaries that underpinned them. After he had written his bestsellers, he spent his life disentangling the world of the story from the story itself, enumerating at extraordinary length the linguistics and geography and history of Middle-earth. It was a retreat into certainty. A story is ambivalent and means many things to different people. A world is composed of facts and offers scope for policing in proportion to the world maker’s capacity to invent detail. It is somewhere that people who are disturbed by the protean power of narrative can go to feel secure.

As a young woman Meloni was renowned in online circles for her pugilism, her extreme politics, and her imposing command of fantasy lore. She lurked on far-right internet forums posting under the name ‘Khy-ri, the little dragon.’

This is one reason why fantasy fandoms argue so bitterly. Another is that fantasy has a way of making children feel like adults and adults feel like children, a blend of proprietorial longing that lends a furious intensity to squabbles between rival burrowers.

There are shades of the typical case in Giorgia Meloni. As a young woman she was renowned in online circles for her pugilism, her extreme politics, and her imposing command of fantasy lore. She lurked on far-right internet forums posting under the name “Khy-ri, the little dragon.”

Early on though, Meloni seems to have realized that this literature could act as a bridge to people who otherwise wouldn’t have liked what she said. As a member of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) she gave talks to schoolchildren dressed up as a hobbit. She also appeared on French television as a young activist, saying “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.”

One of those things is more palatable than the other, and while Meloni deliberately dropped Mussolini, she did not drop the fantasy act. One extraordinary example of this is her far-right conference, Atreju. Meloni founded the conference as a fantasy-themed politics and discussion meet-up very much after the mold of Camp Hobbit. She named it after the boy hero in Michael Ende’s fantasy novel The Neverending Story. Atreju is now described by at least one conservative website as the biggest event in European conservatism. Last year, Rishi Sunak and Elon Musk were in attendance. It’s easy to imagine a future in which, for the European right, all roads lead to Rome.

In The Neverending Story, an epic fantasy novel now indelibly associated with its animatronic fever-dream film adaptation, a warrior called Atreju has to fight off the advance of “the nothing,” a mist that annihilates everything in its path. Meloni has described the nothing as “an enemy that tries to wear down the imagination of youth by stripping it of values.” I feel an urge to be sniffy here. To sell yourself as a candidate of substance, while literally battling an enemy called “the nothing,” is an obvious absurdity. That’s one way of looking at Meloni: as someone whose culture war will collapse, eventually, in the absence of a plausible enemy.

I’m not sure it’s where I’d put my money. The average lifespan of an Italian government is about four hundred days. Meloni’s is seventeen months young and riding high in the polls. Her center-left opposition is unpopular and her rivals on the right are, for the moment, defanged. This year, she turns her eyes to the Italian constitution.

The constitution needs reform and has needed it for decades. (Just ask all the administrations that have tried to reform it). One government a year is a disaster for any country. It can only lead to an appetite for strong, decisive leaders, sooner or later. Meloni’s proposed reforms would see the prime minister elected directly and offer a parliamentary majority to whichever party got the most seats, no matter their total vote share: a first-past-the-post system for an entire country. Its aim is clearly to put Meloni and her party in power unassailably. For now, all outcomes are possible. Perhaps Meloni’s coalition topples before her popularity, the electorate groans, and the carousel goes round again. But if she carries her reforms into law, it will be harder to argue that we’re looking at mere cosplay.

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