How Tolkien’s hobbits got political
What do Italian conservatives and American hippies have in common? A love for The Lord of the Rings. Though JRR Tolkien insisted his books were apolitical, his fantasy epic has fueled movements across the political spectrum and around the world.
Giorgia Meloni, a huge Tolkien fan, became Italy’s first female prime minister and its most conservative since World War II last year. At her final campaign rally, Pino Insegno – the voice of Aragorn in the Italian-dubbed version of “The Lord of the Rings” – introduced her by invoking Middle Earth’s Kingdom of Men with “Sons of Rohan, my brothers, people of Rome … the day of defeat may come, but it is not this day!”
Now, Insegno’s voice can be heard throughout Italy’s new Tolkien exhibit, a €250,000 traveling exhibition funded by Italy's culture ministry and opened by Meloni herself last week in Rome. Meloni, who considers the trilogy sacred texts, said that “Tolkien could say better than us what conservatives believe in.”
Meloni’s tribute to Tolkien is no coincidence. “The Lord of the Rings” has influenced Italy's conservative movement since the fall of Mussolini.
After the Italian government flipped sides to join the Allies during World War II, fascists flocked to the Italian Social Movement, aka MSI, and they were largely excluded from post-war culture and politics. Veterans of fascism embraced Tolkien’s series, which was released in Italy in 1970 with a preface by Elémire Zolla, who argued that the books represented conservatives’ rejection from the modern world and an allegory about “pure” ethnic groups fighting against the contamination of foreign invaders.
The books provided MSI with a means of reconstructing a post-fascism hard-right identity. Rather than identifying with the warrior Aragorn, MSI glorified the hobbits, who reflected their party’s weakness. They even established “Hobbit Camps” for young activists, molding a new generation of conservatives to see themselves as an underdog fellowship fighting against the “Lidless Eye'' of the European Left.
Meloni, like many members of the Brothers of Italy Party she helms, grew up attending these camps (yes, costumes were involved). In her biography, she explains that she sees “The Lord of the Rings” as a nationalistic, anti-globalization, and hyper-conservative tale that has given her a way to explain her struggle to preserve tradition in socially acceptable terms.
Meloni rose to power on nationalistic rhetoric. She has called for a naval blockade against illegal migrants and warned her supporters about the conspiratorial forces of globalism. She has evoked the hobbits' battles against invading orcs in speeches calling for stricter immigration policy.
By playing up her passion for Tolkien, Meloni can appeal to the broader public’s love for the books while nodding to conservative hobbit camp veterans.
But Tolkien has also been a champion of the left. The hippies of the 1960s loved hobbits too.
It was a time of rapid social change in America, accelerated by 42 million Baby Boomers coming of age at a time when “The Lord of the Rings” was required reading. In 1966, Time Magazine wrote that “going to college without Tolkien is like going without sneakers.” The trilogy’s sales skyrocketed throughout the 1960s, outselling the Bible in 1967 and 1968, much to their devout Catholic author’s dismay.
The story was an escape for a generation haunted by the Vietnam War and determined to upend the established order. “Frodo Lives!” became a popular slogan for the counterculture movement, which – like Italian neo-conservatives – latched onto the political subtext of diminutive hobbits launching a revolution.
So what are the politics of Middle Earth? Tolkien expert John Pagano, a Barnard professor, thinks that the author would disagree with Meloni’s appropriation of his life's work.
“Whenever [the books] are co-opted by people to enhance their own power, it's flying in the face of Tolkien’s point. Galadriel refuses the ring, Aragorn refuses the ring, Gandalf refuses the ring, the whole idea is to eventually give up absolute power.” Having fought in the trenches and lost friends during World War I, and having sent his two sons to fight in World War II, Tolkien launched the series in 1954 with a deep distrust of unchecked power.
Pegano doesn’t think Tolkien would be keen on being associated with Meloni’s immigration agenda either. “I mean, what is it that saves Middle Earth? It was a coalition of the various races that joined together in a communal endeavor to push back against evil.”
“It's not shutting down your borders and demonizing others who don't quite fit.”