Why is Bilbo Baggins a fascist favourite?

8 January 2022

6:00 PM

8 January 2022

6:00 PM

If you were asked to think of a perfect fascist, never in a month of Sundays would you suggest Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. Hobbits such as he, after all, grow no more than four feet tall and have slightly pointed ears and a round jovial face. Their feet have leathery soles and are covered with brown fur. They hardly ever wear shoes, let alone jackboots. Hobbits dress in bright colours, favouring yellow and green, definitely not black; and though capable of great courage and amazing feats in the proper circumstances, they are a little shy.

No creature, surely, could be further removed from the macho ‘new man’ with which the founder of fascism, Benito Mussolini was determined to replace the fascist class enemy: the pipe and slippers middle classes? And no creature’s loyalties could be more different either. For hobbits are on the side of good and fascists on the side of bad, aren’t they?

Yet ever since the 1970s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits and their quest to save Middle Earth from wicked Sauron have enjoyed cult status in Italian post-fascist circles. At one point, there were even hobbit summer camps at which the resident rock band was called La Compagnia dell’Anello (The Fellowship of the Ring). A post-fascist newspaper, which went by the ironic title of La Voce della Fogna (The Voice of the Sewer), urged readers to participate in the camps because ‘Gandalf is alive and fights for us!’ It was at these hobbit camps that, in a deliberate attempt to cut links with the past, the Celtic Cross first began to replace the Fascio Littorio – the bundle of bound rods with axe head – which was the symbol of authority in ancient Rome and then the symbol of fascism.

Earlier this week, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia which vies for pole position as Italy’s most popular party in the polls, posted on her Facebook page (which has 2.3 million followers) a message to mark the anniversary of Tolkien’s birthday, 3 January 1892:

‘He brought up so many of us with his stories, so rich in values and meanings, which taught us to believe and to dream – Thank you for everything. Below is a photo of Tolkien lighting his pipe over which are written the words of Gimli to Elrond ‘Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens”

Meloni’s Tolkien post attracted over six thousand likes and hundreds of comments, not all of them favourable. ‘Shame on you Giorgia Meloni!’ wrote one angry follower. ‘Everything they (the government) are doing is anti-constitutional. And you? You talk about Lord of the Rings…you are out of your mind.’

In a similar post in 2020, the pint-sized Meloni, who does look a bit like a hobbit – albeit a very glamorous one – said she hoped her six-year-old daughter Ginevra would soon start to read and learn from the ‘unforgettable’ works of Tolkien. This love of Tolkien is nothing new: in a 2002 magazine interview, Meloni said that for the existential and cultural formation of her party’s youth members ‘our Bible is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.’

So what explains this reverence for Tolkien’s works? The answer lies in the fact that, after the death and destruction caused by fascism in its original incarnation, post-fascists – whose enemies remained communism and capitalism – were desperate to find a new mythology and set of heroes which did not hark back to the fascist past. Whereas the original fascists idolised the dictator – Il Duce – and the totalitarian state and war, post-fascists idolised the little guy in his rural old-fashioned shire assailed by a vast but faceless far off industrialised evil force.

Italy’s post-fascists and others on the far right identified more easily with such heroic fantasy than their counterparts on the left. The champagne socialists in charge of Italy’s mainstream culture had swiftly decided that even though Tolkien’s books were hugely popular with hippies, such banal nonsense peddled a reactionary – ergo fascist – view of the world.

They were not alone in their disdain for Tolkien: British communist historian and peace activist E.P. Thompson even claimed that the breakdown of nuclear arms talks between America and the Soviet Union was the fault of American negotiators reading too much Tolkien. The American edition of ‘Protest and Survive’, his 1980 pamphlet urging the West to abandon nuclear weapons unilaterally, was entitled ‘America’s Europe: A Hobbit Among Gandalfs’. In his view, Tolkien had deliberately and wrongly, of course, equated Mordor with Soviet Russia. And naturally, for some, the portrayal in Tolkien’s books of a pagan world was also seen as evidence of Wagner-fuelled Nazi-fascism.

But Tolkien was most definitely not a fascist, let alone a Nazi. He was a Catholic, a conservative and a monarchist but also a self-declared anarchist. And while he did support Franco in the Spanish Civil War against the Soviet-backed republicans, he did so because of his Catholicism, through which he opposed communism as much as he did fascism – and Franco was not a fascist but a nationalist. As Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1943:

‘My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. (…) The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.’

While traditional fascists opposed the cult of the hobbit, they lost the argument. Now, the hobbits are on top – in the shape of 44-year-old Meloni who could very possibly be Italy’s next prime minister – and Italy’s first female one. Her party still attracts die-hard fascists but they are a dwindling presence. For, as she has repeatedly said:

‘In Fratelli d’Italia there is no space for fascist nostalgics.’

She is determined to transform her post-fascist party into a genuine – rather than woke – conservative party inspired by Tolkien and another great Englishman whom she reveres: Roger Scruton. They would be proud of this, and so should we be.

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