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March 2024 Issue [Easy Chair]

Leggete Tolkien, Stolti!

If you had asked ten-year-old me about my favorite author, I would have replied unhesitatingly that it was J.R.R. Tolkien. The experience of reading The Lord of the Rings had been the most significant of my young life. It was a forbiddingly long book, and I was given to carrying my battered copy around, so that people knew I’d finished it. More importantly, it was my first exposure to a truly expansive quest narrative, and I was filled with wonder that a single person could imagine an alternative world so thoroughly. It was, in that sense, my first model of authorship, of the strange magic trick of producing something from nothing. Tolkien’s aesthetic seemed to draw from some deep well of meaning, resonating with inchoate feelings about nobility and purpose that contrasted painfully with the pettiness of my own suburban existence. I didn’t just want to read about Middle-earth, I wanted to live there, to be inside a narrative space where the boundaries between good and evil were clearly drawn, where I could be a hero, instead of an awkward and often unhappy small boy.

Later, as an undergraduate at Oxford, I studied Old English and occasionally drank at the Eagle and Child, otherwise known as the Bird and Baby, the pub where Tolkien and the Inklings, a group of dons that included C. S. Lewis and Nevill Coghill, would gather to read from their works in progress. I came to understand how Tolkien had used his training in Germanic philology and his knowledge of the roots of Northern European literary tradition to create the atmosphere that had so moved me. I had also become aware of the political conservatism of his vision of yeoman hobbits puttering about in the organic rural idyll of the Shire. Though I never lost my affection for Middle-earth, I put it aside as one of the childish things that, as an adult, I no longer needed.

So it was with a particular set of emotions that I took my own ten-year-old son to see an exhibition called Tolkien: Man, Teacher, Author, at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. It was billed as a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Italian edition of The Lord of the Rings, and the city had been coated in posters for weeks. Even for such a popular writer, whose work has sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world, the importance given to this anniversary seemed peculiar. The venue was also unexpected—an art museum more associated with postwar Italian avant-garde movements like Arte Povera and Transavanguardia than the fantastical imaginings of an Oxford don. To enter the show, my son, his friend, and I walked past displays of painting and sculpture by Piero Manzoni, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Francesco Clemente, before finding ourselves in front of a traveling trunk stenciled with the Tolkien family name, an object presented with all the reverence of a saint’s relic.

My son and his friend had little time for the material that interested me, a collection of Tolkien’s books that included his copy of Henry Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, a textbook I had used as a student. We hustled on to a room with an impressive display of editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from around the world, and then through several rooms of fantasy art, some of it atmospheric, most of it merely kitsch. A section intended to affirm Tolkien’s special connection to Italy included memorabilia from a family vacation and Linguaphone language-learning records. The final room contained replicas of costumes from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and a Lord of the Rings pinball machine.

It was a thin show, which did little to illuminate the sources of Tolkien’s art, and was unlikely to convert anyone who wasn’t already a fan. Yet it had been given a huge marketing budget and its opening was attended by the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and the minister of culture, who had personally overseen its development. Talking to reporters, the minister of culture characterized Tolkien’s work as standing for “community” and “tradition” against “attempts to distort and drown everything in nihilism.”

Both fantasy and nihilism feature heavily in the political rhetoric of Italy’s ruling right-wing coalition. Meloni, a well-known fan of fantasy, used to blog as “Khy-ri, the little dragon of the Undernet.” Her party, Fratelli d’Italia, runs an annual youth conference called Atreju, after the hero of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. It’s a tale in which nihilism is the very definition of evil. The world of Fantastica is being destroyed by the Nothing, the manifestation of hopelessness and the loss of dreams.

Though the Tolkien display in the National Gallery avoids any mention of politics, Tolkien is a cultural talisman of the Italian far right, and the exhibition is a major victory in a campaign to counter what it sees as a leftist stranglehold on cultural institutions. Tolkien’s conscription as a warrior in a cosmic culture war between “tradition” and “nihilism” goes back to the first Italian publication of The Lord of the Rings fifty years ago. The book, which had already become popular in the English-speaking world, was turned down by a major publisher, which didn’t think it had a market. It was eventually brought out by Rusconi, an emerging publishing house that was establishing its name with editions of books by esoteric reactionary thinkers such as Ernst Jünger, Joseph de Maistre, and René Guénon. The editorial director of Rusconi, Alfredo Cattabiani, had previously produced scholarship on Maistre (who was an aristocratic enemy of the French Revolution), and translations of the French monarchist novelist Georges Bernanos and the Nazi collaborator Pierre Drieu La Rochelle.

In the Seventies, during Italy’s so-called Years of Lead, the country was highly polarized, and political violence from the left and the right threatened to collapse a shaky democracy ruled by a series of unstable Christian Democrat governments. Rusconi was firmly on the right, and Cattabiani’s work as a publisher was aimed, as one admiring critic put it, at breaking the “Marxist and Enlightenment monopoly” on Italian culture. Italy had a tradition of esoteric occultism, personified by Julius Evola, the author of gloomy (and deeply racist) screeds such as Men Among the Ruins and Revolt Against the Modern World, and an opposition to Enlightenment values was seen by his followers (who included many disaffected young right-wingers) as opposition to technocracy and “soulless” consumerism. The “tradition” evoked by the group of intellectuals around Cattabiani and Rusconi was not just an affection for the customs and manners of old Italy, but a “perennial tradition” and a kind of antirational cosmic wisdom that went back to the dawn of history, and in some versions further than that, to Hyperborea, the mythical polar birthplace of the “white race.”

Thus Tolkien arrived in Italy as part of an ideological project that saw tradition and mysticism as weapons in a culture war that also had a material and violent dimension, in the form of kneecappings, street battles, bombings, and assassinations. The new fantasy epic was championed by neofascist intellectuals such as Gianfranco de Turris, a friend of Cattabiani and expert on Evola, and Marco Tarchi, one of the ideologues of the so-called New Right. For them it was a text that stood for spirituality and idealism against the material and technological culture of modernity. Aesthetically, fantasy was often opposed to neorealism, a preferred aesthetic of the left. Intellectual battles were fought, with leftist figures such as Umberto Eco rounding on Tolkien’s defenders.

Meanwhile, the book found a following among “black” (or right-wing) Italian youth, who liked the environmental and ruralist elements of the hippie counterculture, but rejected the politics and culture of the “red” left. In 1976, the MSI (the Italian Social Movement, a political party founded by veterans of Mussolini’s puppet Republic of Salò) launched an antifeminist women’s magazine, intended to show that neofascist women were no longer the upright mothers and housewives of the old days, but modern and powerful. They called it Eowyn, after a minor female character from The Lord of the Rings who looks after her elderly uncle, then heads into battle against cosmic evil. “Why Eowyn?” asks one early issue.

Eowyn is a woman who . . . does not want to look like a man. . . . Eowyn is all of us, women who fight this society, who fight against Marxism and capitalism, alongside men who believe and act like us.

Their symbol was the yin-yang, intended to show that men and women were complementary. One founding editor was the daughter of Pino Rauti, a politician who was involved in some of the most extreme groups of the postwar Fascist right and was implicated in coup attempts and terrorist bombings.

In 1977, the youth wing of the MSI started a series of outdoor festivals known as “hobbit camps,” which incubated a new generation of far-right activists. Hobbit campers listened to folk-rock music, gave Roman salutes, and decorated things with Celtic crosses. Slogans derived from Middle-earth emerged, such as “Le radici profonde non gelano,” or “Deep roots don’t freeze,” and the simple “Leggete Tolkien, stolti!” or “Read Tolkien, stupid!” The search for a third position that was neither secular-liberal consumer society nor Eastern-bloc communism was to be profoundly influential, even after the end of the Cold War. Its force is still felt in contemporary American right-wing populism. Tolkien was one of its most prominent Italian symbols.

A few weeks after I went to see the Tolkien exhibition, I found myself the lone non-white face in a crowd of aging neofascists, who had gathered in a conference hall belonging to a defunct far-right splinter party just off the Piazza Navona in Rome. The event was called Tea with Tolkien—and the Right Took the Best Seats. The mood was genial, even jolly. Old friends greeted one another and settled down to listen to what amounted to a series of victory speeches, celebrating the success of the exhibition, which had attracted media attention and large crowds. On the podium was the curator, Oronzo Cilli, and a kind of who’s who of right-wing Italian Tolkien fandom. Isabella Rauti, the Eowyn editor, now an undersecretary of defense, reminisced about her father giving her and her sister permission to attend their first hobbit camp. Introducing the critic Gianfranco de Turris, the moderator talked about how Tolkien represented “values uncontaminated by extreme rationalism.” De Turris relitigated his fights with Umberto Eco, and scoffed that, in the communist milieu, The Lord of the Rings had been forbidden reading. Umberto Croppi, one of the hobbit camp founders, talked about the right’s creativity and anticonsumerism. One of the few younger people, a fortysomething politician, grumbled about the “politically correct” casting in a recent Lord of the Rings Amazon series. Almost everyone made mention of the “cultural hegemony” of the left, and their pleasure in denting it by mounting a show about hobbits and elves.

As they laughed and congratulated themselves, I thought about a friend of mine, the British fantasy writer (and lifelong antifascist) Michael Moorcock, imagining how angry all this would have made him. In 1978, as Italy’s Tolkien craze was in full swing, he wrote an essay excoriating the sage of Middle-earth. “The sort of prose most often identified with ‘high’ fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room,” he wrote.

It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. . . . It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies.

The Shire fantasies of the Italian right have no place for migrants, or gay families, or women who want to assert their reproductive rights, instead of carrying swords in imaginary battles. The question, as always, is what such comforting lies conceal.

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