The cultural appropriation of politics. When Tolkien turns right-wing.

Rome, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visits the exhibition dedicated to the British writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien.

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The cultural appropriation of politics. When Tolkien turns right-wing.

Written by Valentina Isernia

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni went all out and held a state exhibition dedicated to the father of fantasy literature that rekindled a long-simmering ethical debate on the cultural appropriation by politics of symbols and characters of the collective imagination.

The exhibition “Tolkien. Man, Professor, Author“, dedicated to the British writer, philologist, conlanger and linguist considered the father of fantasy literature, ended on 11 February at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome. An event that is apparently part of the normal cultural promotion of a country, but which has raised many questions: are the government and the Fratelli d’Italia party, whose head is the prime minister, making political use of the author of The Lord of the Rings?

The question is almost rhetorical and has its origins in a debate that has actually been going on, discreetly, for more than 50 years. An exquisitely Italian debate, as it has never been relevant in other countries: was Tolkien left-wing or right-wing?

The historical roots of the issue: Hobbit encampments and Shire gatherings

The first edition of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings arrived in Italy at the height of the “Years of Lead”, when the Italian Social Movement was searching for an identity that would no longer tie it to the strongly repudiated identity of fascism. The publication of the complete story took place in 1970 and the Rusconi publishing house entrusted the preface to Elémire Zolla – very close to the ideologies of the New Right – who exalted the clash of history between technological progress and the subjugating power of a disembodied authority and a group of brave comrades who represented, each in a different way, the values of tradition, purity, and spirituality. Let us also remember that Tolkien was a fervent Catholic.

From the publication onwards a whole series of initiatives followed, promoted by the Youth Front in response to the street movements of the Left, inspired by Tolkien’s story, such as the “Hobbit Camps” or the  County Gatherings “: cultural, social and entertainment events that flourished until the early 1990s with the intention of creating networks among the young militant “nerds” of the Right. The reference to Tolkien’s ideology was only external, and it mattered little that many other things in his poetics were left out and did not fit in at all with the party’s identity.

In a clever move, the Right had appropriated something that militants on the Left had strongly rejected: the marketing strategy that had led to Tolkien’s publication in Italy was, in fact, intended to attract a left-wing audience along the lines of what had happened in the US.

The first reprint even received a wrapper that read: “The hippies’ bible”. However, Italian literary critics of the time, uninterested in spiritual references and Celtic mythology, immediately dismissed the book as “right-wing”, “racist and reactionary”.

As the well-known professor of Medieval History Franco Cardini explains in an article: “In the USA, Tolkien became the guru of the Flower Power and Easy Rider kids, of those who opposed the Vietnam War and dreamed of the magic bus in Kabul. With an apparent paradox, in Italy these voices of protest and these cases of renewal of young people’s horizons were not taken up by the official “left”, which in the sixties and seventies monopolised and regulated cultural life, but by the “opposing” fringes of the left and the right. However, if the radical left had its idols in Vietnam, Cuba and Che Guevara, Tolkien became instead the banner of a small but interesting right-wing patrol which, inspired above all by the anti-totalitarian and communitarian thinking of Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite, distanced itself from the sterile neo-fascism of the official MSI.

A heated and silent clash

Two important things happened in the following decades:

–  In Italy, two strongly opposing factions formed, led by associations that would soon become a reference point for Tolkien fandom: a battle began, mainly in the form of publications, essays and web debates, to decide to whom Tolkien belonged, left or right;

–  Tolkien’s works became cross-media: Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings hit the cinemas; the spread of merchandising and the creation of games and video games made Tolkien’s stories available to a much wider audience, reaching even those for whom the author’s writing was too articulate and difficult.

Giorgia Meloni: the “nerd” premier and her state exposure

Since taking office, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has begun to comment more and more frequently – in interviews, at rallies, in some public outings and in her autobiography – on her passion for Tolkien and to speak of having been a “nerd” as a child. The term is used in the most improper and cosmetic way because we know that nerd culture is much more complex and articulate.

Starting with an account of herself as a person, drawing on affective components, she then used the author as a source of inspiration for her party line, culminating in a large and costly state exposé – thus at taxpayers’ expense – which, as the foreign press – from the ‘Times’ of London to the ‘Guardian’ via ‘El País’ – also noted, seems unusual if it is dedicated to a figure who has very little to do with the nation.

Another fanciful appropriation by the Italian right, still perpetrated by Fratelli d’Italia and Giorgia Meloni, concerns the annual Atreju event, named after the protagonist of The Neverending Story by German writer Michael Ende. A choice opposed by the author’s heirs, who have publicly expressed their ban on using the name for political purposes: “A work of art belongs to the whole of humanity and not to a political group. It is incomprehensible that a political movement should have taken possession of a work of art and use it for its own purposes. We thank our Italian readers for protesting against this instrumentalization”.

Again, as the writer Roberto Saviano points out, the reasons why Atreju should represent the Right seem incomprehensible: “There is nowhere in The Neverending Story to suggest that there is any spiritual or factual proximity between the character Atreju and what those who identify with the Fratelli d’Italia political grouping stand for”.

Motives and dangers of cultural appropriation

If there are no close links with an author’s thought and vision, why appropriate his symbols? Let’s go back to the motivations of the 1970s: to create a cleaner, more flattering frontal image and defeat the political adversary, with cultural references even more deeply rooted and popular today thanks to the media dissemination that has taken place over the years.

The seriousness of misinterpreting and misappropriating these symbols lies in imposing a misreading, a misrepresentation of the vision of reality, which in literature is a normal subjective, interpretative, and personal process, but which in politics becomes a propagandistic instrumentalization. Because words are important, and if the mind grasps one to which it attributes a positive meaning, it will be prepared to take on board events and messages in a positive way.  

Unfortunately, the authors are no longer with us to respond and the misappropriation of their thought, which they wanted to universalise by expressing it with the allegory of the fantastic, is therefore even easier to manipulate.

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The cultural appropriation of politics. When Tolkien turns right-wing.

Written by Valentina Isernia

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni went all out and held a state exhibition dedicated to the father of fantasy literature that rekindled a long-simmering ethical debate on the cultural appropriation by politics of symbols and characters of the collective imagination.

On 11 February the exhibition “Tolkien. man. professor. author“, dedicated to the writer considered the father of fantasy literature, closed at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome. An event that has raised many questions: are the government and the Fratelli d’Italia party, of which the Prime Minister is head, making political use of the author of The Lord of the Rings?

The question has its roots in the history of Italian politics and has led many to argue heatedly about Tolkien’s political position: was he left-wing or right-wing?

The historical roots of the issue: Hobbit encampments and Shire gatherings

When Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was published in Italy, the Italian Social Movement was looking for an identity that would no longer tie it to fascism. The publication took place in 1970 and the Rusconi publishing house entrusted the preface of the volume to Elémire Zolla – very close to the ideologies of the New Right – who exalted in the story the clash between technological progress and the power of a faceless authority and a group of brave comrades representing tradition, purity, spirituality.

After its publication, the Youth Front initiated a series of cultural activities inspired by Tolkien’s story, such as the “Hobbit Camps” or the “Shire Meetings”. These were intended to bring together and connect young militant right-wing “nerdy” militants with a very superficial appeal to Tolkien’s ideology.

It was a clever move to defeat his political opponents on the cultural level, as Italian literary critics of the time had accused the book of being “right-wing”, “racist and reactionary”. In other countries, such as the United States, it was, on the other hand, highly appreciated, especially by young leftists.

A heated and silent clash

Two important things happened in the following decades:

– Tolkien fans are divided, led by the associations that are their reference point, and a battle begins to decide to whom Tolkien belongs, left or right;

– Tolkien’s works become cross-media: films, games and video games arrive, merchandising and the stories become available to a much wider audience.

Giorgia Meloni: the “nerd” premier and her state exposure

Since taking office, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has increasingly – in interviews, at rallies, on some public outings and in her autobiography – begun to express her passion for Tolkien and to talk about being a “nerd” as a child. Even if the term is used incorrectly and does not respect the culture she represents.

Beginning with an account of herself as a person, she starts to use the author’s thoughts also to talk about her party line, up to a large and costly state exhibition – made with taxpayers’ money – which many considered unusual as it was not about a character who was part of Italian history.

Another name linked to fantasy literature used by the Italian right and the Fratelli d’Italia is that of Atreju, the protagonist of The Neverending Story by German writer Michael Ende, which is now used as the name of an annual political event. The writer’s own heirs have publicly expressed a ban on using the name for political purposes, stating that a work of art belongs to all of humanity and not to a political group.

As in the case of Tolkien’s thought, there is no real connection between the thought of the character Atreju and the politics of the Right.

Motives and dangers of cultural appropriation

So why use names and symbols that do not fully belong to the party? To create a cleaner and more positive self-image and to defeat the political adversary by referring to personalities who are even better known and appreciated today.

This is a serious action, because by using a name or a positive symbol, you can change the way people perceive the reality of things and make propaganda.

The authors are no longer with us to respond and their thinking, which they conveyed universally through the use of the fantastic tale, is therefore even easier to manipulate.

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