How The Lord of the Rings became a symbol for Italy's far right

On its surface, The Lord of the Rings is often read as a story about an epic battle between good and evil. But in the decades since it was first published, the series has taken many different meanings, including for neo-fascists in Italy who have adopted it as a potent symbol of their beliefs.

For Italy’s neo-fascist ruling party, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic is a fitting symbol of their beliefs

Left to right: Benjamin Walker, Morfydd Clark and Robert Aramayo are seen in a promotional image for Amazon Studios' The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. (Amazon Studios via AP)

On its surface, The Lord of the Rings is often read as a story about an epic battle between good and evil. 

But in the decades since it was first published, the series has taken on many different meanings, including for neo-fascists in Italy who have adopted the tale as a potent symbol of their beliefs. 

Although the link between J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic and Italy's far-right is not new, it's a phenomenon that has re-surfaced with new vigor since politician Giorgia Meloni was elected as the country's prime minister

Meloni's party has its roots in neo-fascism; she's also a proud devotee of Middle Earth lore.

Italy-based journalist John Last has spent time researching the links between The Lord of the Rings and Italian fascist movements. He spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about how the Italian prime minister's love for Tolkien is deeply interwoven with her politics.

You have suggested The Lord of the Rings has quite a different meaning, depending on where you are in the world. Tell me how this epic is understood in parts of Europe as opposed to North America.

When you think about The Lord of the Rings in the North American context, you might think of the hobbits as a kind of fairly harmless group of protagonists, and it being a fairly clear story about good versus evil. But in Europe, there's this sort of interesting intellectual history that connects Tolkien's work and his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, with this sort of darker intellectual tradition that's connected deeply with fascism and the far-right. 

A man with a beard and glasses stands with a blue sky and castle-like building in the background.
Italy-based journalist John Last has researched the links between The Lord of the Rings and Italian fascist movements. (Submitted by John Last)

And that group doesn't see The Lord of the Rings as a story of simple country folk, fighting a battle of good versus evil, but they see in that same story a lot of themes about progress, modernity, the battle for identity for the past, and the future that we in North America don't really think about when we read these texts. 

At the heart of the relationship in Italy between the far-right and a love of The Lord of the Rings, is an ideology called traditionalism. What do I believe in, if that's my worldview?

So to make it very simple, what traditionalism believes in is this idea of a primordial ancient tradition that is fundamentally opposed to modernity. And so one way of understanding this is that the typical narrative about modernity, about progress since the French Revolution is that it's progress. Like, we've been moving forward; things are getting better.

What traditionalism does is it inverts that logic. It says, every one of those steps towards progress — representative democracy, egalitarianism, women's emancipation — those are all steps away from this tradition that is really the pure thing that orders society, that gives our lives meaning. 

And so with that comes this vision of history as one of apocalyptic, long-term decline, where we are inexorably headed towards a worse society, where we are getting further and further from that ancient tradition that bound us together.

And of course, with that comes racial elements, this idea that there once was a kind of purity to our societies that came from racial homogeny that has been miscegenated [interbred] over time in a way that has made our societies worse. 

And traditionalism has always kind of been marginal to fascism and to far-right thinking in Europe. It's never been the central theme. But one of the things that it's had an outsized influence on is the philosophy of fascism, the way that fascists and neo-fascists think about their place in the world, think about history, and think about the sort of ideology that their societies are based on.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni gestures with her hands as she gives an interview.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is a self-described Lord of the Rings fan. (Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press)

And if we bring this back to The Lord of the Rings, when you look at Middle Earth, where do you see traditionalism? 

It's in Aragorn's claim to divine kingship, for instance. That's a traditionalist idea; that monarchy comes from birthright, it comes from ancient lineage and nothing, no amount of dislocation can change that. 

It's there in the elves and the fact that they possess a kind of primordial wisdom, which the hobbits immediately recognize. Whenever they see elves, they're sort of entranced by them, right? And that's because hobbits are close to that tradition, but they don't have it, whereas elves live that tradition, right?

And it's there in Mordor's inversion of it. You see it in the fact that Mordor and the agents of Mordor, like Saruman, are engaged in industrial activity. They're burning trees, they're building plants, and that is a very traditionalist idea. 

Traditionalism emerges at a time when factories were relatively new phenomena, and the same with urban living and all of those things. And so, it's fundamentally a reaction to that kind of world.

Is it clear to you, from what you've read, what you've gathered, what you've researched, how much of this existed in Tolkien — existed in the original [text] — and how much was just sort of wallpapered on by decades of fascists who are trying to find their own new heroic narrative?

There's been a really lengthy debate among experts of Tolkien about how much of this stuff is present in the text. There certainly is racial essentialism. A lot of the early critics of Tolkien talked about how there were class distinctions between orcs and hobbits and race of men.

But let me put it this way: if Tolkien saw what neo-fascists in Italy thought of his book today, he would probably be a little disappointed to say the least. He never very much liked Hitler, and the Nazis. And unlike a lot of conservatives of his time, he didn't really look at the fascist project and see hope or see the sort of fulfilment of his ideology.

Tolkien was a much more small-c conservative. He cared about the Shire, and that idea of sort of small communitarian, simple living. The grand narratives of statehood that these fascists and neo-fascists are endorsing is fundamentally a little bit at odds with the sort of simple Shire folk. 

The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien is seen in this 1967 file photo. (Associated Press)

The prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, has a long history with Lord of the Rings. Her party, Fratelli D'Italia, brothers of Italy, is rooted in neo-fascism. Has Meloni been explicit about why she loves the saga, as someone who is on the very far right of the political spectrum?

People on the far right of the political spectrum are very rarely explicit in public about anything these days, especially when they become prime minister of Italy. But she has been explicit in saying that this text, for her, is not really fantasy. It's a kind of manifesto. 

And of course, she has long seen the world in mythological terms. She's modelled herself after some of these characters. She's organized and rallied around these images. Her last speech on the election campaign last fall, she was introduced by a line from Aragorn, from the books. 

You've been giving a lot of thought to this for a long time — this relationship between The Lord of the Rings and the far right. Has it changed the way you approach the series? Is there any part of you that can curl up with them and say, I'm going to binge and turn off my critical faculties for the night?

No, unfortunately. But one thing I would say is that I don't know if The Lord of the Rings, for me, at least was ever that. I think it always engaged me on a deeper level, like it has for so many other people. There was always a degree to which it encourages you to think about this magnificent fantasy world in a way that's much deeper.


Tayo Bero


Tayo is a radio producer and writer with CBC. A self-proclaimed foodie, she is also passionate about equity, inclusion and making sure the people around her stay woke. Find her on Twitter at @tayobero

Produced by Arman Aghbali. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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