The future of Italy will soon be in the hands of a woman inspired by the hobbits of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy literature, as Alan Austin reports.
THE SUMMER of 1420 in the Shire was magnificent. Most babies that year were ‘fair to see and strong’, with bright eyes and blonde hair — as well as furry feet. Some of those descriptors fit incoming Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who leads the hard-right party, Fratelli d'Italia – Brothers of Italy – except maybe for the feet.
A coalition of right-wing parties won the majority of seats in Italy’s national elections on 25 September. As leader of the dominant party, Meloni will be confirmed as Italy’s first woman PM later this week.
Meloni has been the subject of countless analyses across the globe, ranging from fulsome approval to grave fears about the neo-Nazi history of her party — being a descendant of the Italian Social Movement (ISM) established in 1946 by a minister in Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Two writers – Jason Horowitz in the New York Times and Sébastian Seibt in France 24 – have highlighted the strong association Meloni has had with the hobbits of Middle-earth created by an English linguist and novelist nearly 100 years ago.
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 the British writer JRR 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.
So what is the connection between Tolkien and Italy’s far right?
Sébastian Seibt claims Tolkien's works ‘have often been associated – more or less wrongly – with an ideology close to the extreme right’. He suggests the battles of elves and men against the orcs parallel the struggle against foreign invaders. The simplicity of life in the Shire, according to Seibt, reflects ‘a conservative belief in the author that the world must be preserved against decadent modernity’.
Thoughtful reading of Tolkien’s novels in fact affirm liberal, communitarian and multicultural values much more than those associated with fascism.
Xenophobia versus inclusion
Tolkien avoided the racism and colour prejudice evident in other contemporary fantasy literature. The Calormene villains in CS Lewis’s works were swarthy, bearded men ‘with long, dirty robes and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads’. Their city smelt of ‘unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions...’
Lewis’s Narnians, in contrast, were ‘fair and White’ and walked ‘with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed’.
Some of Tolkien’s heroes were White. But so were several villains, notably Saruman the White. (Thorin’s nemesis Azog is White in Peter Jackson’s movies, but not profiled in the original novel.)
Racism certainly existed in Middle-earth:
‘Mr Butterbur shook his head. “If there’s a few decent respectable folk on the roads, that won’t do no harm,” he said. “But we don’t want no more rabble and ruffians. And we don’t want no outsiders at Bree, nor near Bree at all. We want to be let alone.”’
That, of course, is not Tolkien’s view. It is the opinion of Barliman Butterbur, described by Strider as ‘a fat innkeeper who only remembers his own name because people shout it at him all day’.
Tolkien’s ideal community is in fact diverse and multicultural:
‘The Big Folk and Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found.’
The multicultural mission
The central decision in Lord of the Rings embraces diversity comprehensively. The council of Elrond at Rivendell was charged with taking the ring of power back to the Mountain of Fire, where it had been forged by arch-villain Sauron, in order to destroy it. The council chose a Fellowship of two men, four hobbits, one dwarf, one elf and one wizard. Okay, a bit lacking in gender inclusivity, but certainly multi-ethnic. The unfolding story revealed the value each contributed to the quest.
Capitalism is the curse
If Tolkien has any message relevant to contemporary economics, it favours social democracy over individualist capitalism:
‘“It all began with Pimple, as we call him,” said Farmer Cotton... “He’d funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folks about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more, though where he got the money was a mystery.”’
The purpose of life
The OECD’s Better Life Index has a category titled ‘Work-life balance’ with the sub-category ‘Time devoted to leisure and personal care’.
Italy ranks first among the OECD members on this measure by a fair margin, with France and Spain coming next.
This could be enhanced further if Italians henceforward are inspired by the dying words of Thorin Oakenshield, spoken to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins:
‘There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!’
Ms Meloni’s contributions will be revealed in due course. Her identification with hobbits may just be an image-softening facade, as some have claimed. Her divided nation will benefit greatly if she follows the precepts of Thorin rather than Mussolini.
Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.
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