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The Book of the Dun Cow ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

By 1978, Wangerin had written five slim, and in his estimation "unremarkable," books for children. That year, however, Harper published The Book of the Dun Cow, set in the same kind of meta-time as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Critical notice began immediately. The New York Times voted it the best children's book of the year. In 1980 the National Book Awards committee gave it the prize for best children's fiction. Unfortunately, the name of the prize was changed that year to the American Book Award in an attempt to attract the same kind of attention that the Academy Awards receive. When news of the prize arrived only a week before the ceremony to be held in New York, Wangerin, unaware of the award's prestige, decided not to cancel his scheduled confirmation class. Only when his award check arrived, accompanied by a congratulatory letter from William Buckley, the master of ceremonies that year, did he realize he'd missed his moment in the literary spotlight.
    -PROFILE: Walter Wangerin and the cosmic equation: myth and children's literature (Virginia Stem Owens, Dec 14, 1994, Christian Century)

"I think works like The Book of the Dun Cow are 'Old World' insofar as I imagine an oral tradition," Mr. Wangerin said. "I always hear the language I use when I write. I always assume that it could be delivered out loud. So I thought of Chanticleer and that whole presentation as something that a storyteller would literally tell out loud to someone.

"On the other hand, since I chose in The Book of the Dun Cow to use mythological figures as the enemy and barnyard figures as the children of God, it behooved me to research that time and that place. [At the time,] I had just done all the course work for a PhD in Medieval Literature, so I was very much aware of the signs and colors and all those things at work."
    -INTERVIEW: with Walter Wangerin (Paul Holler, On Writing)

This would seem to be a good time for Walter Wangerin, Jr. and his best novel to be rediscovered. A best-seller when it was published in 1978 and a winner of the National Book Award, his terrific fantasy, The Book of the Dun Cow, may not have achieved the continuing popularity of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but richly deserves comparison to them. Like all great allegories, the key to this one is that it would be enjoyable even if we had no idea that it was referencing another story, yet it achieves tremendous spiritual resonance precisely because, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it: "We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God." That light shines through this barnyard fable.

The tale involves two animal kingdoms. One is ruled by Chauntecleer the Rooster, a vain but decent sort of bird. He loves the hen, Pertelote, is served loyally by the dog, Mundo Cani, and is friendly with John Wesley Weasel and a host of others. Their land is relatively peaceful, though not without its own tragedies. A very different sort of rooster, Cockatrice, who is half serpent, rules the other land and rules it into ruin. Unbeknownst to Chauntecleer and company, they have been set guard over Wyrm, who dwells deep in the ground, an imprisoned evil, anxious to liberate himself and spread disorder:
Could he but spread that soft, vulnerable area across a continent and to the sea, then he could himself blast through the the crust, break free, and gallop through the spheres of the universe. He would bloody the sun. And he would roar almighty challenges to the Lord God Himself. He would spew chaos among the stars; and he would whirl his tail with such power that when it hit the earth, that planet would be cracked from its fixed position at the center of things to spin like nonsense going nowhere.
And when Cockatrice leads an attack on Chauntecleer's coop it enables Wyrm to get on with working his way free. A fierce battle, tragic loss, and noble sacrifice all await, but not before even Chauntecleer despairs:
"And by my will I demand to know now--it is most certainly time now to know: O God, where are you? Why have you hidden your face from us? Why now, of all times, when things are on the rim of disaster, have you turned away?
But he and his comrades will find an odd strength and comfort in the mysterious Dun Cow who shows up to help them by silently sharing their grief as if it were her own, so that this army of the meek can find it within themselves to: "save themselves against the damnable evil which feeds on them."

As compelling as the plot and the characters are, the truly remarkable thing about the book is Mr. Wangerin's storytelling style. Whether he's borrowed from the Medieval Literature he read or crafted a form all his own, his prose begs to be read aloud, as if it were a minstrel's song or an especially poetic kind of sermon. It is a wondrous achievement.


Grade: (A+)


Walter Wangerin, Jr. Links:

    -Walter Wangerin, Jr., Faculty: Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Valparaiso University)
    -AUTHOR SITE: Walter Wangerin, Jr.
    -AUTHOR SITE: Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan Books)
    -EXCERPT: The Defeat That Won The War: from Reliving the Passion by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
    -EXCERPT: And Grace My Fears Relieved: A picture of God���s terrible, wonderful love: from Little Lamb, Who Made Thee? by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
    -ESSAY: Small Beneath the Firmament: For my father-in-law, his place in the order of Creation was no diminishment, but the beginning of wisdom. (Walter Wangerin Jr., 3/2/01, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Maundy Thursday: Part one of "The Great Reversal," a CT Classic article (Walter Wangerin, Jr., 4/20/00, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Making Disciples by Sacred Story: Biblical storytelling conveys the realities of our faith better than almost any other form of communication. (Walter Wangerin Jr., 01/27/2004, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Ordination from Above: Becoming a Reverend took one night; experiencing God's power took much longer. (Walter Wangerin, October 1, 1983, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: "In Whom Will Jesus Rise Around You" (Walter Wangerin, Jr., Easter Sunday, April 16, 1995, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club)
    -ESSAY: "Honoring the Elderly" (Walter Wangerin, Jr., March 2, 1997, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club)
    -ESSAY: "Into The World, Not to Condemn the World" (Walter Wangerin, Jr., March 1, 1987, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club)
    -ESSAY: A Matter of Being, and a Matter of Being Right (Walter Wangerin, Jr., July 1-8, 1987, Christian Century)
    -ESSAY: Power in powerlessness: spiritual mentors (Walter Wangerin, Jr., March 17, 1993, Christian Century)
    -ESSAY: Water, come down (Walter Wangerin, Jr., November 1999, The Lutheran)
    -REVIEW: of DOES GOD HAVE A BIG TOE? Stories About Stories in the Bible by Marc Gellman (Walter Wangerin, Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: MARGARET OF THE IMPERFECTIONS By Lynda Sexson (Walter Wangerin, Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "wangerin" (Christianity Today)
    -ARCHIVES: Walter Wangerin (Find Articles)
    -AWARD: SCIENCE FICTION (PAPERBACK): The Book of the Dun Cow - Walter Wangerin, Jr. (National Book Award Winners, 1980)
    -BOOK LIST: Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow (The Image Top 100 Books of the Century)
    -PROFILE: Walter Wangerin and the cosmic equation: myth and children's literature (Virginia Stem Owens, Dec 14, 1994, Christian Century)
    -INTERVIEW: The Dick Staub Interview: Walter Wangerin Finds God Everywhere: The author of The Book of God discusses his newest novel, an ancient story, yet relevant today (Dick Staub, 01/27/2004, Christianity Today)
    -INTERVIEW: Clearing the Air: Walter and Thanne Wangerin saw turn their despair into a lifetime of fresh starts (Annette LaPlaca, Fall 1996, Christianity Today)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Walter Wangerin Jr. (Zondervan Church Source)
    -INTERVIEW: with Walter Wangerin (Paul Holler, On Writing)
    -=INTERVIEW: INTERPRETING THE WORD: This is a week when Jews and Christians alike turn to scripture to explore the mysteries of their faith, but which version of the scriptures, which translation will be read? More than 40 versions are now available, the largest number in history. Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to four Biblical translators about their differing translations of the holy book. (Online Newshour, APRIL 4, 1996)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Greenman Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of the Dun Cow (Eric Weeks)
    -REVIEW: of Book of the Dun Cow (Mary, Focus on Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of the Dun Cow (Steven Wu)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of Sorrows By Walter Wangerin Jr. (Michael Malone, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Jesus: a Novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Victoria James, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Jesus: a Novel (Charleston Post & Courier)
    -REVIEW: of Jesus (Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of God: The Bible As a Novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (John Wilson, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of God (The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of God (Christian Resources)
    -REVIEW: of The Book of God (Isabel Anders, A Closer Look)
    -REVIEW: of Mourning into Dancing by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Edna H. Hong , Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Julian by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Robert Siegel, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Julian (Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Julian (Ed Block Jr., America)
    -REVIEW: of Paul: a Novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Linda-Marie Delloff, The Lutheran)

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