Fascists have latched onto Lord of the Rings as their foundational document

In World War II terms, most of us have probably concluded the obvious: Middle Earth is the land of the Allies, full of a hodge-podge of residents who are mostly good-willed, if imperfect and bickering in ways which prevented them from seeing the coming horror until it was too late. The Axis is the world of orcs and other evil armies, ready to commit whatever atrocities it takes in service to Hitler (Sauron).

But, as this article in today’s New York Times illustrates, modern fascist movements, particularly the one about to come into power in Italy, nurse fantasies and grievances based on a sort of Bizarro Middle Earth, where it’s always Opposite Day and the good guys are bad, and the bad guys are good:

Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader who is likely to be the next prime minister of Italy, used to dress up as a hobbit.

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 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 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 Ms. Meloni, 45. More than just her favorite 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 center, debate over the author’s racial and ideological biases, his view of modernity and globalization. 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 Ms. Meloni, who, the latest polls strongly suggest, will emerge from the election on Sunday as Italy’s first female prime minister — and the first descended from post-Fascist roots.

And that’s not all:

After [World War II] 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Croppi, one of the founders. The thinking was to move beyond the old symbols and to capitalize on the party’s isolation, smallness and victimization 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.” Mr. Croppi acknowledged that the camps had their fair share of Fascist salutes, but argued they were “ironic.”

Ms. 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.

In a way, some of this makes sense.

We already knew that right-wing forces in America, particularly the believers of QAnon fantasies, are populated in what some might once have considered surprising numbers of New Age-y health nuts and people who believe in horoscopes and Tarot cards. (Witness how many health club owners were arrested during the Jan. 6 insurrection.)

As it turns out, if you are an easy mark for charlatans who try to sell you crystals to give you strength and any number of unscientific fads for good health, you are also an easy mark for Donald Trump and Q.

(I have a friend, a successful, well-educated attorney of progressive note, who stages Tarot readings at his house. He does it mainly for entertainment purposes, but he also doesn’t completely discount mystical thinking. So I don’t want to paint people who believe in such things with too broad of strokes.)

All fascist movements have been built on fantasies and lies. It remains to be seen how powerful and enduring those lies become when you pair them with J.R.R. Tolkien.

The important takeaway for me is how the new fascist Right has been using these fantasies as ways to attract young people who are facing futures that are bleak compared to the optimistic, “the future always gets better,” world of their parents and grandparents. Even a college education — if young people can afford to go into debt for much of their adult lives — is not the guaranteed ticket to the middle class it used to be.

Progressives need to offer young people something more than “we’re not Donald Trump” to get and keep their loyalty. Student loan forgiveness was a start. But just a start.

The tent city at Camp Hobbit. The celtic cross, used here on a banner based on the Nazi flag, became a symbol of the movement emerging from Camp Hobbit. Via Atlas Obscura here.