How 'Lord of the Rings' and fantasy fiction inspires Italy's potential leader Giorgia Meloni
Giorgia Meloni, poised to be Italy's first female prime minister, is a fantasy fanatic. She doesn't see 'Lord of the Rings' as just a series of novels, but as a sacred text that decides her politics
As a youth activist in the post-Fascist Italian Social Movement, she and her fellowship of militants, with nicknames like Frodo and Hobbit, revered The Lord of the Rings and other works by British writer J R R Tolkien. They visited schools in character.
They gathered at the “sounding of the horn of Boromir” for cultural chats. She attended ‘Hobbit Camp’ and sang along with the extremist folk band Compagnia dell’Anello or Fellowship of the Ring.
All of that might seem like some youthful infatuation with a work usually associated with fantasy-fiction and big-budget epics rather than political militancy.
But in Italy, The Lord of the Rings has for a half-century been a central pillar upon which descendants of post-fascism reconstructed a hard-right identity, looking to a traditionalist mythic age for symbols, heroes and creation myths free of fascist taboos.
“I think that Tolkien could say better than us what conservatives believe in,” said Meloni, 45. More than just her favourite book series, The Lord of the Rings was also a sacred text. “I don’t consider ‘The Lord of the Rings’ fantasy,” she said.
Tolkien’s agrarian universe, full of virtuous good guys defending their idyllic, wooded kingdoms from hordes of dark and violent orcs, has for decades prompted scholarly and convention centre debate over the author’s racial and ideological biases, his view of modernity and globalisation. More recently, his works have also provided a fertile shire for nationalists who see themselves in his heroic archetypes.
But in Italy, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the maps of Mordor have informed generations of post-fascist youths, including Meloni, who, the latest polls strongly suggest, will emerge from the election Sunday as Italy’s first female prime minister — and the first descended from post-fascist roots.
Meloni — who leads the hard-right Brothers of Italy party, has called for a naval blockade against illegal migrants and warns her supporters about the dark, conspiratorial forces of internationalist bankers — first read Tolkien, a conservative who once called Hitler a “ruddy little ignoramus,” at age 11. She became a fantasy fanatic.
In her early 20s, she surfaced in chat rooms under the nickname Khy-ri, calling herself the “little dragon of the Italian undernet.” More recently, she named her political conference Atreju, an Italian rendering of the name of the hero of The NeverEnding Story, best known as a 1980s cult film featuring a flying animatronic character that appeared to be half-dragon, half-Labrador retriever.
As a government minister in 2008, Meloni posed for a magazine profile next to a statue of the wizard Gandalf. In 2019, she honoured a manga character, Captain Harlock, the “space pirate,” as a “symbol of a generation that challenged the apathy and indifference of people.” Last month, she lamented that her busy campaign schedule had kept her from mainlining Amazon’s new Rings of Power series.
But Meloni’s otherworldly interests have as much to do with politics as personal taste.
“The genre of fantasy in Italy has always been cultivated by the right,” said Umberto Croppi, a former member of the Italian Social Movement who is now the director of a national association of public and private agencies in Italy’s culture industry. He said that the two worlds shared a “vision of spirituality against materialism, a metaphysical vision of life against the forms of the modern world.”
The modern world did not work out so well for the die-hard fascists who stayed loyal to Hitler and Benito Mussolini after the official Italian government switched sides to join the Allies during World War II.
After the war, many of those fascists flocked to the Italian Social Movement, but the party’s efforts to reintegrate into Italy’s institutions eventually hit a wall.
Its younger members, feeling excluded from civil society, seized on an Italian edition of The Lord of the Rings, prefaced by Elémire Zolla, a philosopher who was a point of reference on the hard right and who argued that Tolkien was “talking about everything we confront every day.”
That resonated with a small group of the party’s Youth Front, already bristling at the cultural dominance of the left. They saw themselves, as one of their leaders, Generoso Simeone, put it, as “inhabitants of the mythical Middle-earth, also struggling with dragons, orcs, and other creatures.”
Seeking a more palatable alternative to quoting Mussolini’s speeches and spray-painting Swastikas, which, Croppi pointed out, “was easy to reproduce on walls,” in 1977, they created the first “Camp Hobbit” festival.
“The idea to call it Camp Hobbit came from a real strategy,” said Croppi, one of the founders. The thinking was to move beyond the old symbols and to capitalise on the party’s isolation, smallness and victimisation by violent leftist enemies to make their hero “not the warrior Aragorn, but the little Hobbit — we wanted to get out of this militarist, heroic idea.”
The party’s old guard was perplexed. But with the support of hard-liners, Camp Hobbit festivals emerged as formative touchstones for the young activists. Celtic cross flags that meshed perfectly with the Tolkien aesthetic waved.
The band Fellowship of the Ring played songs about European identity, including what became the anthem of the party’s Youth Front, “Tomorrow Belongs to Us.”
The song echoed a ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by a member of the Hitler Youth in a chilling scene in the movie Cabaret. Croppi acknowledged that the camps had their fair share of fascist salutes but argued they were “ironic.”
When Meloni entered the picture as a teenage activist in the Youth Front in Rome in the 1990s, the far-right — especially in the capital — was still in a trenchlike mentality, struggling to break with the previous generation.
Francesco Lollobrigida, a leader in Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy (as well as her brother-in-law), said that he and others had a desire starting in the 1980s “to break with the patterns of a party that still had inside of its people who had been in the Social Republic, who had done fascism.”
Meloni, seated across from him, agreed.
“There was a desire to get out of that,” she said.
Meloni attended a new iteration of Camp Hobbit in 1993, which she called a “political laboratory” and where she sang along with Fellowship of the Ring and discussed culture and books.
“We read everything,” Meloni said.
The bookstore of choice for the hard right in Rome was Europa, just outside the Vatican walls. On a recent visit, it displayed titles like Mussolini Boys and The Occult Origins of Nazism. A picture of Hitler stood watch above the register next to a cup of pens.
Europa has a section dedicated to Julius Evola, an esoteric, deeply taboo, Nazi-affiliated Italian philosopher who became a favourite of Italy’s post-fascist terrorists and bourgeoisie-loathing nostalgists. Evola argued that progress and equality were poisonous illusions.
“A bit boring,” Lollobrigida said of Evola’s work.
Meloni said that, instead, a more influential writer at the time was the more mainstream Ernst Jünger, a German former soldier who sought to make sense of war but also glorified combat.
But for Meloni, all of those took a back shelf to The Lord of the Rings. She said she had learned from dwarves and elves and hobbits the “value of specificity” with “each indispensable for the fact of being particular.” She extrapolated that as a lesson about protecting Europe’s sovereign nations and unique identities.
In the 1990s, after becoming the leader of the youth wing of the National Alliance, the party that succeeded the Italian Social Movement, Meloni started her own political festival, which she called “similar” to Camp Hobbit. But this time, she named it Atreju. “It was the symbol of a boy in battle against nihilism, against the nothing that advances,” she said.
She joked that Italians could hardly pronounce Atreju, but she said that the annual conventions, including the first one, in 1998, which was about the dangers of globalisation, had reach.
“We wanted to say that globalisation, you have to govern it,” she said. “If you look around, we weren’t wrong, were we?” she added.
At the Atreju convention in 2018, the guest of honour, Steve Bannon, walked by patriotic posters of “Italy’s heroes” and desks selling Evola-themed t-shirts and works by Evola.
Meloni’s supporters have interpreted her calls to defend Italy from mass migration — and the replacement of native Italians by invaders — as a battle cry to protect Middle-earth.
This month, at a rally in Sardinia, Davide Anedda, 21, the leader of the local youth wing of the Brothers of Italy, wore a t-shirt reading “Hobbit.”
“If you’re not from our world, it’s very hard to understand,” Anedda said, explaining that Hobbit was a post-fascist far-right rock band and that Tolkien had written “a fundamental part of our history.”
And for Italy, maybe a part of its future.
Meloni, who seems poised to grab her own brass ring after decades in the political trenches, said that her understanding of power and its ability to corrupt and isolate a person was “closely tied to Tolkien’s reading.”
“I consider power very dangerous,” she said. “I consider it an enemy and not a friend.”
Jason Horowitz, c.2022 The New York Times Company