“Where the Shadows Lie”: The Far-Right and “The Lord of the Rings” by Aimee Brown
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. She is also a big Lord of the Rings fan. These two facts are not unrelated as, beginning in the 1970’s, Italy’s far-right movement canonized J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and co-opted his various creations, setting up Hobbit Camps for young activists and popularising extremist bands with names like “Followship of the Ring”. Such politicised fandom is not even unique to the Italian context, as far-right admiration for “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) has become an international phenomenon. In the early days of the American-based website Stormfront, the first major hate site on the internet, there was a section dedicated to LOTR and white nationalism, and in 2019, actor Viggo Mortenson, who played Aragorn in the film adaptations, rebuked Vox, a far-right political party in Spain, for using his image to promote their message online. What is it about LOTR that makes it so popular on the far-right?
There are three main reasons, the first of which is the structure of the fantasy world that Tolkien created. It is a Manichean world in which good does battle with evil against a backdrop of clearly delineated races who mostly keep separate from each other. When Meloni says “I don’t consider ‘The Lord of the Rings’ fantasy,” it is to this which she is presumably referring. For the head of a party which has demonized immigrants and the LGBTQ community and called upon Italian voters to defend a beleaguered white Christian civilization against them, a good-us versus evil-them world view is not a fictional construct, but an accurate description of reality. Similarly, if a Manichean world view is compellingly descriptive for Meloni and the far-right, then separation between races is aspirational. Meloni cites LOTR as having taught her “the value of specificity”, a lesson which she applies to the necessity of protecting European culture from outsiders. As dwarves live with other dwarves and elves with other elves, so native populations must embrace xenophobia or perish.
The second reason for the far-right popularity of LOTR is the fact that it is steeped in Norse mythology. A professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien was one of the world’s foremost authorities on the literature of the Middle Ages in Europe, so it is unsurprising that his field of expertise would inform his novels. Unfortunately, Norse mythology has long been coopted by the far-right and implicated in some of its worst atrocities. For example, the white supremacist terrorists who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, and 10 people in Buffalo, New York this year all referenced it in their manifestos. Norse mythology resonates for the far-right because it portrays a warrior ethos predicated upon violence and a narrative that culminates in cataclysm and rebirth. Thus, far-right terrorists like to portray themselves as warriors wielding the power of Mjollnir against monsters at Ragnarök who, when they fall, are taken to Valhalla by Valkyries to feast eternally with the gods. Aragorn wielding the reforged sword of Isildur against the servants of the Dark Lord is entirely comprehensible within this imaginative paradigm.
Ironically, the final reason that LOTR is popular on the far-right is because it provides an alternative to the warrior ethos of Norse myth in the form of hobbits and their home, the Shire. With LOTR, Tolkien created a mythic world of medieval heroes and monsters and then placed a charming anachronism, a community of late 19th century English countryfolk, at its center. There is no equivalent to hobbits in Norse myth or medieval epics, and Tolkien uses them as a means of entry for readers into these unfamiliar worlds. In contrast, the far-right uses hobbits as an opportunity to play the victim. Ms. Meloni attended Hobbit Camp and not Elven Warrior Camp because the Italian neo-fascists wanted to portray themselves as diminutive underdogs, relatable victims instead of the heirs of Benito Mussolini’s bloody dictatorship. For them, Italy is the Shire, an agrarian Utopia menaced and laid waste by invading hordes, and its plucky defenders are those on the far-right. This is a useful imaginative construct that is readily applicable to any national context.
In August, Ms. Meloni expressed her regret that her busy campaigning schedule had thus far prevented her from watching the new Amazon Prime show “The Rings of Power”. It is unlikely, when she finally does so, that she will enjoy it. Ever since the first trailer for the series premiered, the far right has flooded online spaces with condemnations of it based upon the diversity of the casting. For far-right fans, the inclusion of people of color threatens a previously cherished white space and reproduces in miniature what they believe to be happening in the world at large. This is the Great Replacement, the idea that white people in Europe and North America are being actively replaced by non-white immigrants. This theory, first articulated by white nationalist author Renaud Camus, has subsequently been popularized by figures ranging from Éric Zemmour of France, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, and the American Tucker Carlson. Not insignificantly, it was also cited by the killer in Buffalo, New York. The far-right has a lexicon of ideas that transcends national borders and, it would seem, a fandom upon which it can project them.