Magic, Monsters, and Make-Believe Heroes

How Myth and Religion Shape Fantasy Culture

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Douglas E. Cowan
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Magic, Monsters, and Make-Believe Heroes aims to discover the contours of fantasy culture and explain why these works hold such power over us. It is very successful in doing so. To the first point, the book develops a clear rubric to identify works of “fantasy.” Fantasy conjures magical worlds, in which the impossible happens as a matter of routine. Fantasy asks us to sympathize with heroes, unique characters who invite us to join a quest. And fantasy is populated by monsters, supernatural creatures who guide the heroes on their quest or whose evils must be overcome (3-4).

Author Douglas E. Cowan examines a wide range of cultural products under the term “fantasy culture.” Cowan discusses everything from the female hero of the Alien films (Ridley Scott, dir., 1979) to the mothers (real and surrogate) in Disney’s Snow White (Walt Disney, producer, 1937), the magic of Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, 1997-2007), the card-based role-playing game Magic: The Gathering, the martial arts film Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, dir., 1978), J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits in The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tokien, Allen and Unwin, 1954-6), the many versions of Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, MacMillan, 1865 and Tim Burton, dir. Alice in Wonderland, 2010), LARPers who act out Dungeons and Dragons quests, and much more.

The book aims to answer two crucial questions about fantasy culture. These are: “why are we so eager to invest in storyworlds that, on the surface, can’t possibly be true?” and “why do we continue to tell the same stories, over and over?” (xiii).

In other words, this book scrutinizes the deep narrative structures of fantasy. It tries to understand the power these impossible stories hold over the human imagination. It seeks to understand why people tell and retell the same kinds of fantasy stories—and love doing so.

Contributing to a scholarly lineage stretching back through the work of J.Z. Smith, Eliade, Frazer, and Campbell, this book suggests that the impossible stories of fantasy and the impossible stories of religion come from the same basic human need. Religion, just like fantasy, tells people the stories we need to hear to make sense of the world and to find our place in it. In other words, this book argues that religion is “a product of the mythic imagination” (23). Religion and fantasy are the same. This is not to say that religion is more true or more false than fantasy, or that fantasy stories are mere “corruptions” of religious stories or religious stories in disguise.

Rather, this book suggests that the impossible stories of religion—the story that Moses parted the Red Sea or Muhammad traveled to Heaven on a mythical horse named Buraq—are the product of the same basic human impulse as the impossible stories of Harry Potter, the Hobbits, and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Cowan contends “what become religious stories arise from the same psychological and imaginative strata as do epic fantasy, fairy tales, myth, and legend, stories through which we locate ourselves in the world and structure meaning” (192).

By turns, I found this book provocative, challenging, enlightening, confusing, and frustrating. Much of the confusion and frustration had to do with the writing style, which is very informal and conversational. To a great extent, this suits its subject matter, as one’s writing can only be so formal and academic when you’re talking about board games and children’s stories. However, the book sometimes made inside jokes, asides, and other winks to readers “in the know” that I found distracting.

These inside jokes and informal asides are also symptomatic of a deeper issue in popular culture studies toward which this book treads near—the presumption of fandom. At the heart of this issue is the notion that the works of popular culture we study are awesome, that our reader does share or ought to share our admiration of them, and that the significance of these works is self-evident. This is an issue endemic to popular culture studies, and this book occasionally falls prey to it.

The presumption of fandom sometimes leads scholars of religion and popular culture to substitute splashily written connoisseurship for clear, detailed, rigorous academic argumentation. In the preface, this book announces that it is “something of a love letter to the stories with which I grew up . . . the stories that were, and continue to be a significant part of my life-support system” (xii). It’s great to feel passionately about the things we study, but loving something can distract us from the critical analysis that ought to be the aim of the scholarly enterprise. Long sections of this book recounted the plots of movies or stories, then treated them as self-interpreting.

In several places, I wanted the book to stop trying to convince me to love its subject and instead provide a clearer statement as to why I was reading about this or that movie, story, or game instead of another. Scholars have an obligation to explain ourselves if we approach popular culture with more “love” and less criticism than other kinds of religious texts or artifacts. It’s all too easy to slip from critical religious studies of popular culture to theologies of the geeky, where the scholar becomes an evangelist instead of an analyst. Nonbelievers, grown-ups, and muggles will probably find it difficult to enjoy this book.

Overall, this is a very fun, provocative book that I recommend heartily for scholars interested in film, popular culture, and theories of magic. It tackles a humungous topic with great verve, good humor, and strong insight. This book will be especially useful for undergraduate classes about religion and film, or courses about religion and popular culture. I would also highly recommend this as a text for undergraduate classes about religious studies theory. Cowan’s writing style will be a hit with students, as it tackles tough topics like mythmaking, magic, and the meaning of “religion” in an approachable way.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew T. Coates is an Instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University.  

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas E. Cowan is Professor of Religious Studies and Social Development Studies at Renison University College. He is the author of Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver ScreenSacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television, and, most recently, America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King.


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