Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun CowThe Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2003 (25th Anniversary Edition).

Summary: This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth with Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

“Marooooned”. This modern-day animal fable (first published in 1978) begins with this mournful and persisting cry from Mundo Cani Dog who, against the will of Lord of the Coop Chauntecleer, finds refuge with the hens of the coop and an array of other beasts from Ebenezer Rat to Lord Russell the Fox to John Wesley Weasel and the mysterious Dun Cow who appears at crucial turns in the fable. Chauntecleer brings order to this world, crowing the hours summoning the beasts to work and blessing them at night.

Gradually the character of this lordly rooster emerges as he takes on the Rat who is eating the hens’ eggs, and later as he rescues the children of Wee Widow Mouse and finds and rescues the Beautiful Pertolote, a mysterious refugee hen of sorts. Love blooms between these two, and marriage and chicks, even though she refuses to speak of the terror from which she has fled.

What the beasts of the earth do not realize is that they are also the Lord’s keepers, who keep the evil Wyrm from escaping the underworld to reek havoc on the cosmos. But Wyrm finds a vehicle for its evil intent in an old impotent rooster of another brood, Senex, who against nature lays an egg which hatches into the wicked Cockatrice who kills his father and breeds hordes of basilisks, venomous serpents who devastate the land.

In the spring, the horror comes south to the land of Chantecleer, who mobilizes the beasts (including the ants) to meet the horde of basilisks, who crows them to battle, and comes face to face with the Cockatrice and then the deeper evil of Wyrm. The climax of the story involves Chauntecleer, the mysterious Dun Cow, and the surprising Mundo Cani Dog.

The tale explores the question of how a seemingly ordinary figure rises to extraordinary heroism answering a call that seems to come from both within and above.We also see a tale of the conflict of good and evil, in which the beasts, who are in fact the keepers of the earth, must forsake the ordinary loves of daily life for extraordinary peril to preserve the order of the universe. It is a tale that has been told in various forms from early English Beowulf to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The genius of Wangerin is to create a kind of “animal farm” without humans where the animals are characterized by foibles, nobility and self-sacrifice, unlike Orwell’s brutal world.

Despite the fact that this book was a National Book Award winner, I passed it up for many years until one of the students I work with recommended it (thanks Katherine!). This is one of those books I wish I had read sooner, and might well read again because of the depths in this seemingly simple story that need more than one reading to explore. Like the stories of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, children and youth may enjoy this story as well as adults. Only time will tell but this is one of those books that could become a timeless classic. The only question in our highly urbanized, technological society, is whether children (or adults) will understand a story with roosters, dogs, weasels, and a mysterious dun cow. One can only hope…

4 thoughts on “Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

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