So far this month, I’ve been talking about books that aren’t household names, but can be found in your average Barnes & Noble and have a bit of a following. Now let’s move on to something really obscure.
Neither The Book of the Dun Cow nor its sequel, The Book of Sorrows, can be found in any B&N I’ve been to, even though the former won a few awards back in its day (1978). It was even made into an off-Broadway musical a few years ago, which I would love to have seen. But it will never be a movie. Which is probably a good thing, but it also means this brilliant book will never have the fandom it deserves, and the genius of Walter Wangerin, Jr. will continue to be under-appreciated.
What are these books like, you ask? Well, if you’ve read the Redwall series, picture something a little like that–except the talking animals behave a little more like real animals (no swords, castles, or clothes), and the story is MUCH darker. Trust me, don’t read Dun Cow to your eight-year-old. Read it yourself. If you’re an adult in a fandom, you can probably handle a little emotional trauma by now, and this story is well worth it.
A brief summary of the plot: Chauntecleer the rooster is the capable, if sometimes self-centered, ruler of a kingdom of animals. At the beginning of the first book, he’s just concerned with keeping the scoundrel Ebenezer Rat under control and the excessively-mournful dog, Mundo Cani, out of his hair. But unbeknownst to Chauntecleer or anyone else, his land is all that stands between the ancient evil called Wyrm and the destruction of the universe. Wyrm is beginning to wake up, and Chauntecleer’s animals will spend two books struggling to keep his mind-bending malevolence underground.
I love The Book of the Dun Cow with an intense, burning passion that I don’t expect everyone to understand. It’s the only fantasy novel that I feel is worthy to be mentioned in the same paragraph as The Lord of the Rings. Why?
Well, for starters, the animals in these books are some of the most human characters I’ve ever encountered. Chauntecleer is the best example. He is equal parts heroic warrior-king and whiny attention-seeker. He’ll win a battle against impossible odds one day and complain to the heavens about a minor wound the next day. He truly, deeply cares for his subjects and always puts their welfare before his own–and sometimes he makes mistakes that threaten to destroy their lives. Kinda like, you know, the way people act in real life. Rarely does an author develop a hero’s virtues and flaws so thoroughly, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Another reason I love these books: I’m a Christian, and, frankly, it’s tough to find a “Christian” novel that doesn’t feel like an insult to my intelligence or my faith, or both. Most of what you find in Christian bookstores is made of brainless cliches and easy resolutions. Well, Walt Jr. makes no secret of the fact that he’s writing from a Christian perspective. All the good animals in his books worship God, Wyrm is very obviously Satan, and another character who appears halfway through Dun Cow is very obviously an angel. But he puts no sermons into the mouths of his characters, and he certainly doesn’t offer any tidy resolutions to their problems.
Innocent characters die in this universe, often in apparently senseless ways. Evil can’t be defeated without a terrible cost, even the best animals are deeply flawed, and (spoiler alert) God never shows up to directly fix everything. But grace, mercy and forgiveness do exist, God is not absent, and evil can be defeated–even by the most humble of characters. In fact, the beauty of this universe is that its existence depends on ordinary people doing ordinary things, like forgiving each other. Which is why Dun Cow doesn’t suffer from a comparison to LOTR as much as most fantasy does. It’s written in the same spirit.
I should also mention that these books–well, mostly the first one–can be quite funny. The nose of Mundo Cani Dog, the speech patterns of John Wesley Weasel, and every single darn thing about the Turkeys come to mind.
All that to say, The Book of the Dun Cow is well worth tracking down if you love good fantasy. Good luck with the search! And if you do read it and need help coping with the feels, I’m always here.