Right-wing rings of power: The far-right's bizarre obsession with Lord of the Rings

Right-wing Lord of the Rings fans find archconservative lessons in Middle-earth. Why?

Published February 16, 2023 1:00PM (EST)

Peter Thiel (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Peter Thiel (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

For most Lord of the Rings fans, hobbits are the portly little folk of Middle-earth who live in homes carved out of hillsides and spend quiet lives smoking pipe-weed, singing songs and drinking ale. 

But some influential hard-right figures in our world see the lives of those endearing "halflings" — free from government intervention and overreach — as close to societal perfection. 

Billionaire tech mogul and Trump's early Silicon Valley ally Peter Thiel spent his teenage years reading and rereading The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy now lives on in his business empire decades later. 

Thiel was so shaped by the vision of hobbit life that the Palo Alto offices of his multibillion dollar firm, Palantir Technologies, are informally known as "The Shire." In Tolkien's writings, the Shire is a countryside region inhabited by hobbits. Thiel's version, however, lacks the grassy hills and hobbit holes that have charmed fans for generations. 

Thiel's Shire was Palantir's brick and glass headquarters — at least until pressure from local activists helped convince the company to move its base of operations to an industrial complex in Colorado. While some of Palantir's employees have referred to themselves as hobbits, their offices are actually populated by software engineers and machine learning researchers.

Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, is one of many prominent hard-right figures everywhere from Silicon Valley to the Italian political scene who have been profoundly affected by J.R.R. Tolkien's writings. Some such Tolkienites credit that fantasy world with helping to shape their understanding of our own.

It all raises a question: What do their interpretations of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of Tolkien's legendarium say about them?

Palantir is one of Thiel's six firms that pull extensively from Middle-earth geek-speak, with names like the demigod inspired Valar Ventures and the elven valley-themed Rivendell One LLC. 

Palantir Technologies is named for Tolkien's palantíri, indestructible "seeing stones" used for fortune telling and observing events across great distances in Middle-earth (palantir is the singular form of the word). Like those interconnected crystal balls, Thiel's firm specializes in data mining and large-scale surveillance, so the name seems appropriate. 

According to Andy Ellis, an information security expert and lifelong Tolkien fan, Palantir's name may be apt, but it was "not well thought through." 

"I've always thought Palantir was the most foolish name for a company," Ellis says. 

In The Lord of the Rings, the palantíri corrupt nearly all who use them. When the good wizard Saruman uses one to spy on the peoples of Middle-earth, he is drawn in by its power and ensnared by the Dark Lord Sauron, who utilizes the seeing stone to get the once-wise man to serve him. 

Users of Thiel's Palantir technology have, critics allege, been similarly lured down a dark path. The company has been accused of facilitating the human rights abuses of some of its biggest clients. Amnesty International says that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used Palantir technology to track undocumented migrant workers in Mississippi and plan raids that led to the separation of children from their parents. 

When Amnesty inquired about the company's partnership with U.S. immigration authorities in 2020, Palantir's director of privacy & civil liberties stated the way their products were used in immigration enforcement "raises legitimate and important questions for us about our complicity in activities that, while lawful, may nonetheless conflict with norms and values that many of us hold." 

Matt Mahmoudi, an adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty, says the surveillance firm's projects cross moral lines. 

"Palantir has been trying to convince people that they have a privacy and civil liberties council" that ensures the company doesn't break the law, Mahmoudi says. "But that is not necessarily consistent with the safety and protection of human rights." 

According to Mahmoudi, the mass-surveillance projects that Palantir is involved in, and the lack of transparency surrounding those projects, represent "a slippery slope toward the erosion of basic freedoms." Palantir did not respond to a request for comment.

The double-edged sword

Billionaire Palmer Luckey, founder of the virtual reality company Oculus (known for its headsets), named his defense company after a powerful artifact of Middle-earth: Andúril, a sword made from the shards of a weapon that defeated the Dark Lord.

In our world, the defense contractor Anduril is a very different military tool. The company, which Thiel's Founders Fund invested in early on, builds artificial intelligence-focused defense technology and sells its products to government agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Under the Trump administration, the company began building surveillance towers along the Mexico-U.S. border that track undocumented immigrant crossings using object recognition. Computer scientists and human rights groups have accused virtual border wall projects like Anduril's of increasing migrant death rates by pushing people toward less monitored, more hostile terrain.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has described the towers as partners that never sleep or blink

To Tolkien fans, that description might conjure up images of Sauron's fiery, ocular watchtower rather than the weapon used to defeat his evil forces.

The gold standard

Admiration for Tolkien is more rule than exception in some influential parts of the tech industry according to Ellis, who works at the cloud-security firm Orca Security.

"Tolkien was one of the few things [early tech] geeks had in common growing up, so it was easy to make references to it," Ellis says. The shared cultural language gave entrepreneurs a reservoir of references to bond over. It also allowed tech world-builders to piggyback off one of the English language's most prolific world-builders. 

For Thiel and Luckey, using Middle-earth terminology in their business dealings is not just some whimsical literary exercise. It is a nod to the libertarian philosophy they perceive in Tolkien's world. 

Patrick James is the author of The International Relations of Middle-earth, an analysis of real-world geopolitics through the lens of Lord of the Rings. Also a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, James says that nearly any ideological group can find something to latch onto in Tolkien's works.

So, what do conservative libertarians find so appealing about Tolkien's fantasy world? 

"No government tells the free peoples [Elves, Men, Dwarves, and the sentient-tree people called Ents] what to do," James says. "There really isn't much government at all." Instead of a bureaucratic committee, an independent coalition correctly decides to send a fellowship to destroy the One Ring and stop Sauron from establishing a dictatorship over Middle-earth.

Libertarians see that when crisis comes to Middle-earth, good people willingly share resources without explicit government mandates. Public investment largely goes toward defense, so when foreign hordes invade, there are usually enough swords and shields for willing fighters to take up arms against them. Charismatic leaders usually rise to the top thanks to their heroism and overcome immense hardship to fulfill their destinies.

This is, of course, a fantasy world where right and wrong are objective, there is little reference to any complex sexuality, and people hurt in battles either heal quickly or die fast. 

In a 1943 letter to his son, Tolkien outlined his political opinions as leaning "more and more to Anarchy," but emphasized he meant ­— "abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs." 

While the limited government of Tolkien's Anarchy seems in line with what many modern libertarians say they support, the Anarchism of Tolkien's era is a far cry — and 80 years — from Thiel and Luckey's libertarianism. 

Thiel and Luckey seem primarily interested in reducing the tax-collecting capacity of government. Their political contributions and lobbying show that they fund candidates for political office who increase government control over citizens' personal lives (and bodies). Thiel and Luckey have donated to political candidates who merge Christianity with nationalism, and seek to ban abortion entirely, as well as undermining democracy by falsely claiming that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. 

Tolkien's writings do not address those issues, nor do they explore the opposition to economic regulation backed by his conservative fans. 

"Where is the economics in Middle-earth?" James asks. There is no Wizard Stock Exchange or Elf supply chain outlined in Lord of the Rings. 

Take the Dwarves. Their economy seems to be based around the mining of precious resources. They delve deeper and deeper into the bowels of mountains, until they are punished for their ambition and greed by monstrous forces they awaken. 

Dwarf commerce and the exchange of gold and silver coins are as close as Tolkien gets to fleshing out his fantasy world's economics. And in the Shire, Hobbits "have something that doesn't even really look like capitalism. They don't seem to have any sort of economy set up," James says.

Make the shire great again

Free-market hardliners aren't the only conservatives with deep admiration for Middle-earth. 

Italy's recently elected hard-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni may be the most devout Tolkienite to ever hold elected office. As a teenager in 1993, Meloni spent time at "Camp Hobbit," an Italian political fantasy retreat for the country's far right. On her personal webpage from the '90s, she called herself Khy-ri the Undernet Dragon and wrote that Lord of the Rings is "of course," her favorite book.

So, what might a politician who has praised Italy's World War II-era fascist leader and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini find appealing about a trilogy that offers a searing critique of  authoritarianism? 

In a conversation with the New York Times last year, Meloni outlined what she sees as antiglobalization messages in Lord of the Rings. Meloni pointed to the fact that each of Tolkien's races benefit from the "value of specificity," meaning they had particular cultures and identities that were worth preserving. She extended the same logic to the people of Europe's sovereign nations. Italians — like hobbits and Elves and Dwarves — are unique and should protect against anything that threatens their identity, she suggests. 

James points to another plotline from which Meloni may have taken inspiration. At the end of the trilogy, the quartet of hobbits from the Fellowship return to the Shire to find their idyll overrun by Saruman and his henchmen, who have turned the once-bucolic countryside into an industrialized wasteland and enslaved its residents. 

"To someone like Meloni with a romanticized sense of the past," James says, "it's easy to say 'Look at The Lord of the Rings — it was so much better once upon a time. Rapid changes came, others began intruding, and everything got worse.'" 

Meloni is the most visible representative of a post-fascist culture whose unifying mythology draws on Tolkien. After the collapse of Mussolini's government, the remaining fascist movement shifted away from revering strongmen and toward idealizing "the little guy in his rural old-fashioned shire assailed by a vast but faceless far off industrialized evil force," Mussolini biographer Nicholas Farrell wrote in The Spectator early last year.

For Meloni, the creator of Middle-earth is a genuine traditionalist icon. "I think that Tolkien could say better than us what conservatives believe in," Meloni asserted to the Times.

Woke Tolkien?

Tolkien's politics were at times aligned with those of today's right wing, but he was born in 1892, and the forces that forged his worldview were radically different from those that shaped the perspective of anyone alive today. Two world wars and industrialization marked him. He lived in a pre-globalized and far less cosmopolitan era than our own. 

At Tolkien's time, Middle-earth offered somewhat forward thinking portrayals of some topics that even today might be mocked as "woke."

More than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined the right to interracial marriage, Tolkien portrayed taboo-breaking relationships between different races in his books. A subversion of gender roles and even cross-dressing made the tide-turning heroism of one woman possible

As for the hobbits at the center of the story, they are underestimated due partly to their physical attributes — they are less than four feet tall with large and hairy feet — but end up playing crucial roles in defeating evil in a rebuke of what today might be called ableism. There are also plenty of messages about destroying nature at one's peril in Tolkien's works, such as the deforestation of important woodland.

Still, Tolkien didn't intend to explicitly inject his politics into Middle-earth. In a forward written for the 1965 republication of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: "As for any inner meaning or 'message,' it has in the intention of the author none."

He continued: "The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."

Thiel, Luckey and Meloni were clearly moved by Lord of the Rings — moved to the far right. Their interpretations of the text do not reveal a right-wing underbelly to Middle-earth, but they might highlight the vast chasm between what is in front of them and what they want that world to be. 

As James puts it, "The amazing thing is that what you see in Lord of the Rings says more about you than it does about the storyline."

By Jeremy Lindenfeld

MORE FROM Jeremy Lindenfeld

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