Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow (Harper & Row, 1978)
Equal parts allegory and fable, The Book of the Dun Cow is one of those rare books that transcends genre boundaries to appeal to a broad range of readers. Key to this unique trait are the theological underpinnings Walter Wangerin, Jr., embedded in the very heart of the book. Christian in outlook from page one, The Book of the Dun Cow owes much to the Narnia cycle of C.S. Lewis half a century before. Clearly, Wangerin's novel is a literary descendent of Lewis' much-loved fantasies, but also apparent is that an equal debt is owed to George Orwell's landmark Animal Farm. Where Orwell's novel is bleak, bitter and hopeless, Wangerin's offering is a hopeful one albeit no less hopeless and perhaps only a hair less bitter.
The premise of the story is one that should be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a fantasy novel. In a purer, more innocent time before the emergeance of man, an ancient evil Wyrm entombed within the Earth seeks to break free and destroy all of Creation. Standing between Wyrm and freedom are the animals of the world, Gate Keepers charged by God with keeping the faith, literally. When Wyrm discovers a flaw in his prison in the form of the old, heirless rooster, Senex, he acts quickly to exploit the weakness and take revenge upon all of his captors, bringing a reign of darkness over the world.
The execution of this story, however, is where Wangerin truly shines. In comics today, there is a never-ending debate over continuity whether What Has Gone Before is an asset to storytelling, or if it's a hinderance, placing unnecessary shackles on creativity. Wangerin faces his own, prosaic version of that question, and his response to the challenge is marvelous. To escape his confinement, Wyrm dupes Senex into fathering Cockatrice a mythical half-chicken, half-serpent creature hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad. Evil and powerful, Cocatrice enslaves Senex's subjects and abuses Senex's harem of hens, forcing them to breed him an army of basilisks. The land is polluted and ruined, and when the animals finally revolt, it is far too late. Their opposition is mercilessly crushed, and the handful of survivors take refuge far away, in a land ruled by the rooster Chauntecleer.
Chauntecleer, it becomes apparent early on, is not your traditional hero. He is vain. He is arrogant. His temper is short and he takes himself far too seriously. All things considered, he's not a very likeable rooster. But he is a just ruler, willing to sacrifice his all for the greater good of his animal subjects. Despite a secret, sordid past, he has a pure and honest faith in God, symbolized by his regular crowing of vespers among other manifestations of his devotion. When the survivors of Cockatrice's rampage turn up, he instantly falls in love with the lovely hen, Pertelote. This love, and the family they build together, lightens the darkness in Chauntecleer's soul. When the blight of Cockatrice unexpectedly threatens to overrun Chauntecleer's realm, and the world is sealed off from the rest of Creation, it is all the rooster can do to protect his subjects in the face of overwhelming odds. Fortunately, he doesn't fight alone. Lending a hand or a paw, as it were are John Wesley Weasel, basilisk-fighter extraordinnaire; the Dun Cow, a mysterious and silent prophet; and Mundo Cani Dog, a mournful victim of both Chauntecleer's barbs and his own ominous fate.
Part of the appeal of The Book of the Dun Cow is that anyone picking it up can derive a certain satisfaction from a surface reading alone. Biblical and theological knowledge are not necessary, since the plot and narrative are clear and straightforward. The symbolism is there for those who know to look for it, however, just as it is in Lewis' Narnia books, and knowledge of that background adds another level of enjoyment and meaning to Dun Cow, which is ultimately a tale of sacrifice and redemption. Beyond the obvious religious symbolism, however, is an additional layer Wangerin has woven into the text which makes the book shine for me all the more. He has taken mythology and made it work for him even the contradictory bits and a knowledge of the original source material raises the work to an entirely new level. Chauntecleer is a traditional medieval name for a rooster, particularly in fable, and Pertelote is a hen loved by the rooster Chauntecleer in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Dun Cow itself derives its name from the oldest surviving manuscript of Irish literature, written by Irish monks in 1100 A.D. upon vellum derived from the hide of St. Ciran's "dun cow" at the monastery of Clonmacnoise.
The myth of the cockatrice is clouded and confused with that of the basilisk, in some cases the two creatures being considered one and the same, and others regarding them as distinct or even mutually exclusive. These myths are deftly interwoven here, with Cockatrice coming into existence in accord with the most common mythos, and begetting the basilisks. The conflation of the various myths and legends is not only logical, it is inspired. The deadly breath of the cockatrice of mythology is effectively used here, as is the deadly, cursed venom of the basilisk. Even the traditional weaknesses of the cockatrice and basilisk the crowing of a rooster and the bite of weasels are given more resonance and depth here, particularly during the penultimate clash of good and evil between Chauntecleer's and Cockatrice's forces.
There's more here, much more, than could easily be touched upon without turning this review into a literary thesis. Part of the joy of this book is that unexpected discovery awaiting on every page. I seriously doubt Wangerin laid a single word to paper without considerable forethought.The book is thoroughly steeped in history from beak to tail feather. While time has somewhat dulled the revelatory impact of Book of the Dun Cow in some ways it feels very much a product of the 70s and can almost be viewed as quaint by cynical contemporary readers it is still a powerful story. There are no corners cut here, no cheap plot devices invoked by the author to get his anthropomorphic characters out of tight spots. Every victory won is marked by tremendous pain. Every defeat lost is marked by untold suffering. There is no bravado in the face of evil here, only terror and self-doubt. Yet despite this, the animal heroes press on, paying terrible prices all for their courage.
This is by no means a happy book, but it is engrossing and thought-provoking, with a complexity that belies its seemingly straightforward narrative. Certainly, it's a work worthy of anyone's library.
[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]