I hummed and hawed about this month’s book for my 2017 Reading Challenge. I couldn’t think of the right book. So many choices, after all. I chose and read one book, but it just wasn’t right, somehow. Then, eureka! I suddenly remembered a book I had downloaded on my Kindle sometime last year, a book I very much wanted to read again.
I discovered The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wanegrin, Jr. soon after it was published in 1978, in the midst of when I was happily reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Lord of the Rings, and was hungry for other books of the same quality. The story intrigued me and I saw it had received a National Book Award, so I figured the writing had to be pretty good.
And if you have followed my series last year, you will know that I am a sucker for books about animals, and seeing as this book featured Chauntecleer the Rooster and various other animals, it was a no-brainer for me to give it a try. And I was very glad I did, for this became one of my favourite books.
The setting for the book is Earth, but not exactly the Earth we know. The story takes place at a time when the animals can all speak and understand speech, and when the earth is fixed in place, with the sun revolving around it. The animals all live on the surface of the Earth, but unbeknownst to them, a monstrous evil is imprisoned at the heart of the Earth, the great serpent Wyrm, who writhes and roars in utter hatred of both the animals and God, who imprisoned him there (“Sum Wyrm! Sub terra!“).
The animals, however, live an ordered peaceful life in the Coop, deaf to Wrym’s rage. Chauntecleer, as roosters do, crows, but his are no ordinary crows. He has crows for times of celebration and grief, for joy and dance, for alarm and victory. But his best crows are the Crows Canonical. Seven times a day, at dawn, 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, 6 PM, dusk, and bedtime, Chauntecleer marks the passing of time with his crows, giving the animals safety and structure in the midst of their days.
When Chauntecleer crowed his canonical crows, the day wore the right kind of clothes; his hens lived and scratched in peace, happy with what was, and unafraid of what was to be; even wrong things were made right, and the grey things explained.
Along with Chauntecleer and the Hens, other animals live in the Coop and its nearby lands, among them Mundo Cani Dog, whose mournful cry “Marooned!” gives you a hint as to his Eeyore-type personality, John Wesley Weasel, whose weasel-y tendencies are softened under the influence of the Crows Canonical, and Wee Widow Mouse, who is loved by John Wesley.
But a disturbance comes to the Coop, a hint of the evil to follow. Ebenezer Rat sneaks into the Coop and steals (and eats) some eggs. And to the east of Chauntecleer’s Coop, across the river, an old rooster listens to the smooth voice in his dreams that promises him glory and births a terrible creature, Cockatrice, who is half Rooster and half snake, and who soon usurps and kills his father and rules in his place through blood and fear.
The cockatrice is a mythical creature, often used in heraldry. Image from Wikicommons.
The stage is set for the confrontation between
Chauntecleer and the great Wyrm, who sends Cockatrice and the unnatural rooster’s offspring (the deadly basilisks), to fight against the Keeper in the hopes of getting free.
This book is an animal fable, but it is not a children’s story. There is horror and grief here, and terrible consequences for choices made. Chauntecleer is not a perfect hero by any means, and in fact his jealousy and pride prove to make him unequal for the final task, when it comes. But the Dun Cow, the mysterious being who brings peace and hope to those in greatest need, has chosen another animal who can take up the challenge, if his courage does not wane…
This is a morality tale, like Aesop’s Fables, but not quite as simple as those. And although it has been compared to Animal Farm, the author, in the epilogue, cautions the reader against reading the story as strictly an allegory.
Interestingly, the name “Book of the Dun Cow”, comes from the oldest collection of Celtic mythology in Ireland, Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow), from the 12th century. It is so named because of a legend that it was made from the hide of a dun (dull, greyish brown) cow. Image from brewminate.com
I’m glad he gave us that warning. There’s more to this story than trying to make it fit some pre-conceived “meaning” or allegory. But there is deep and rich meaning to found in it, all the same. These animals, of course, are not just animals, they are you and I, whose pride and bitter anger can birth a terrible evil, and whose jealousy and bitter disappointment can make us turn away from those who love us most. And who sometimes are tasked with impossible jobs in the midst of unimaginable sorrow.
I loved The Book of the Dun Cow when I read it first, and I loved it again, all these years later. The book feels a bit unfinished, but that’s because there is a sequel, Lamentations, which I am eager, now, to revisit as well. And I discovered, to my delight, that Wanegrin finished his trilogy in 2003, with Peace at the Last.
More re-reading to come, and the discovery of a new book. This month was a definite winner for me.
My rating: Five stars.
Other posts in this series:
January: Book I Read Because of the Cover
February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet
March: An Unputdownable Book
April: A Book Set Somewhere I’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit