Giorgia Meloni is set to unveil a new exhibition celebrating JRR Tolkein's 'The Lord of the Rings'. But why is the series such a key part of her political life?
Since Giorgia Meloni was elected as Italy’s first female prime minister, the politics pages of news outlets have focused on her globally divisive far-right politics. Over in the culture sections though, there’s been another focus. Meloni seemingly loves two things: populism and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series.
Her avowed fanship to J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy epic will reach a new apex next week when the prime minister opens an exhibition in Rome celebrating the British author.
‘Tolkien: Man, Professor, Author’ will open Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art on 16 November, in an inauguration ceremony led by Meloni.
Not only is Meloni playing the role as ribbon-cutter, the entire exhibition is somewhat a result of her personal interest in the author. Italy’s cultural ministry reportedly spent €250,000 to set up the exhibition.
Since Meloni’s election, she’s played a heavy-handed role in guiding cultural institutions towards positions politically favourable to her. As pointed out in one of our previous articles, she has appointed Vladimir Putin apologist Giampaolo Rossi as director general of the public service broadcaster Rai; Eurosceptic journalist Alessandro Giuli as president of MAXXI, a national contemporary art museum in Rome; former member post-fascist youth organisation Fronte della Gioventù Pietrangelo Buttafuoco as the president of the next Venice Biennale; and had the government itself take control of Rome’s Experimental Cinematography Centre.
Cultural narrative controlling moves are in-keeping with a playbook historically used by fascist political parties. Aged 15, Meloni joined the Youth Front of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a neofascist political party. MSI was transformed in 1995 into Alleanza Nazionale (AN) and distanced itself from earlier rhetoric via designating itself “post-fascist”. Much of the AN party now form Meloni’s current party Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) (Brothers of Italy).
How does ‘The Lord of the Rings’ fit into the wider scope of Meloni’s political career?
The 46-year-old politician first read the books aged 11. In her days as a young member of MSI, she attended the party’s Camp Hobbit Festival in 1993 and sang along with far-right folk band Compagnia dell'Anello (Fellowship of the Ring). Throughout her political life, she’s stuck close to symbols of the series, including a photoshoot with a Gandalf statue after she was first elected as an MP in 2008.
In terms of her actual political opinions, her anti-globalist agenda has been clearly signalled by referring to Italy as a Númenor analogue – a once-great human nation that falls due to human immorality. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah for fantasy nerds.
Not long after Meloni’s election last year, Euronews Culture interviewed Silvia Binenti, a PhD researcher at Britain's University College of London (UCL) on what her love of the epic series said about her views.
“The Lord of the Rings, unveiling strongly evocative political metaphors and powerful imaginaries of moral battles between right and wrong, is currently gaining a new wave of attention thanks to one of its prominent fans: Italy's premier-to-be, Giorgia Meloni,” Bineti said.
“Tolkien’s work offers plenty of material for speculations on its possible appeal to the far-right and its leaders, keen to protect the integrity and values of an enchanted motherland from monstrous enemies," she added.
It’s a relatively common occurrence for far-right figures to adopt the iconography of fantasy series like ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Many of them hark back to an era of simple black-and-white morality with ideas of chivalry and family values prioritised over modernity.
For all its qualities, these have been fair criticisms of Tolkein’s series. While his world building is fascinating, particularly the attention paid to languages, Tolkein’s sensibilities towards morality are largely straight forward. An evil Sauron and his army of orcs are intent on destroying everything beautiful and pure of the world of men, elves and dwarves. It’s a world-view that fits a simple fantasy tale but falls short of depicting the complexities of global politics. It also doesn’t help Tolkein’s case that he literally depicts evil as black and good as white.
Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in his notes on the exhibition notes how Tolkein’s work prioritises “the sense of community and nature, tradition, opposition to the most controversial and dehumanising aspects of modernity, self-sacrifice, the bond of friendship, courage, dedication, the sense of honour.”
Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is nonetheless a staggeringly impressive achievement in fantasy and laid the groundwork for so much of modern culture. An exhibition celebrating his works and its influence is therefore not unwarranted.
However, peer under the curtain and it may seem that Meloni’s fascination is far from pure.