Adam Roberts:

Representation in the sense of ‘how texts figure and inscribe the world and its concerns’ overlaps with another sense of the word: representation in the sense of not occluding or effacing the variety of groups and peoples that actually make up the world….

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are no churches or temples in Middle Earth; no priests or popes among the population. This is not because Lord of the Rings is an irreligious book. On the contrary, as Tolkien said (in a letter to his friend, the Jesuit priest, Robert Murray): ‘the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’

We could put it this way: LotR is not a mimetic novel — there is no actual Middle Earth which it aims, accurately, to reproduce. It is a metaphorical novel: a novel about Christian revelation, about power and temptation, about resilience, hope and love.

So here’s the question: would it enhance the way LotR expresses its religious meanings to add temples, priests and congregations to its storytelling and worldbuilding? Or would it (as Tolkien believed) dilute and undermine it? 

It seems clear to me that Tolkien’s choice was, in the long run, a wise one — even though it was risky in the sense that millions of readers did not and do not perceive the “fundamentally religious and Catholic nature” of the book. But then, a good many of those readers probably would not have been receptive to a more direct appeal to their spiritual sensibilities, which they may not have had or may have had only to a small degree. Insofar as Tolkien wants to commend his own understanding of the cosmos, he directs his writing to those who are if not open-minded at least open-hearted, willing to entertain at least in their imaginations a richer and deeper world than the everyday. To use George Macdonald’s terms, Tolkien is more interested in awaking a meaning than conveying one. 

But in the present moment, and in relation to present concerns — concerns that Adam turns to elsewhere in his post — any such indirection will probably be ineffective. For the Extremely Online Discourse Police, the sole purpose of language is to declare allegiances and repudiations, and you can’t do that effectively if you “tell the truth but tell it slant.” The good news is that this moment will not last, and (again) in the long run Dickinson is exactly right to say that “Success in Circuit lies.”