J’Annine JOBLING, Fantastic Spiritualities. Monsters, Heroes, and the Contemporary Religious Imagination. London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2010. pp. 216. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-567-03047-4.
Reviewed by Linda MALONEY, Calvary Episcopal Church, Underhill, VT 05489

This is a serious work of literary and theological criticism. The author examines four contemporary works of fantasy: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An introductory chapter on “Fantasy and Spirituality” is followed by two on the theme of “transforming selves,” focused on Harry Potter and Earthsea. Two more chapters, on “metaphysics and transcendence,” then address His Dark Materials and, again, Earthsea. Buffy and Harry Potter are then examined under the rubric of “transforming worlds,” while the last two chapters consider Buffy and His Dark Materials in terms of “the good and the monstrous.” A Conclusion summarizes the book.

Jobling examines her subjects also in terms of gender roles and social hierarchies. She concludes that none of the four (unlike, say, The Chronicles of Narnia) is overtly related to a Jewish or Christian framework—except inasmuch as His Dark Materials is an explicit rewriting and reversal of the myth of the Fall. She finds Taoist elements in Earthsea and some relation to Buddhism in Pullman’s work. Nevertheless, all four of these works are resonant with religious models of ethical and compassionate behavior, even though there is no ultimate metaphysical referent—no Creator, no Wholly Other. It would be worthwhile weighing Jobling’s observations in light of the “why” question of ethics and compassion.

The worldviews here expressed, “contingent, immanent, anti-dualistic, anti-dogmatic,” Jobling finds congruent with postmodern spirituality. Study of these works may lend itself also, she suggests, to the kind of bricolage practiced by people constructing their own spiritualities outside formal traditions or frameworks. As a current series in the Toronto Globe & Mail finds that while thirty years ago only one percent of Canadians counted themselves as “non-religious,” today the number is twenty-three percent, books like this one, and the materials it examines, may be of increasing relevance both to seekers and to those who hope to guide them in their quest.


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