17 May 2006

The Book of the Dun Cow

Here's the book on Amazon

Earlier this week I had the amazing experience of reading The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This unique book, written in 1978, is neither for children (too grisly, gritty, earthy, and painful—although I never knew a child who didn’t understand the sorrow of the world) nor for adults unless they have a streak of whimsy, but are also willing to face up to ugly evil, square in the eye, literally.

I have never read anything like this book before. It is a creation of great courage. First, Wangerin has the chutzpah to be entirely unoriginal—and thus has made a book all its own. He has taken stark good and evil and played them out in an almost predictable manner, unafraid of arrangements that could be called clichéd, trite, childish, overused. The Rooster is king of the coop and surrounding lands. The Hens, Dog, Cow, are domestic Good Guys. Snakes, lizards, dragons, and nasty hybrids are the Bad Guys. Mythology is freely used, and the story seems to ignore the post-modern cries for breaking narrative, acknowledging the weaknesses of language, undermining absolute reference points. The Book of the Dun Cow is, it might at first seem, hopelessly dated. Let me say rather, it is hopefully dated, it is searingly modern, it is genuinely classic and therefore timeless. It is a strange book, a great book, and bewildering book. It is a Medieval morality play, characters sharply drawn, clean-cut bestial caricatures—but they are more fully human than, oh, I don’t know, Dickens’s characters. It is in the diction of the Old Testament, full of imprecations, arguments with God, metaphysical questions shouted to the heavens, prophecies and denunciations and benedictions. It shares features with Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Animal Farm, Watership Down, Beatrix Potter’s stories, Paradise Lost, Inferno, yet is entirely unlike them. Full of talking animals, a small-scale realm unto itself, an epic of good-and-evil with Homeric battles, virtues and vices embodied in fur, noses, claws, wings, beaks…, great geo-political problems ensconced in a farmyard or forest. Unlike Narnia, there are no humans set against the animals, so the “talking animal” story is saved from any insipidity; it never feels condescending, rarely feels like a nursery tale. The creatures are real, three-dimensional, lovable and complex. The battles are heart-breaking, as bloody and horrific as those before the walls of Troy, yet the combatants are ants, sheep, rabbits, a dog, a weasel, against basilisks.

The story goes thusly: a Rooster, aptly named Chauntecleer, rules his land rather fiercely in a domestic, pompous, household manner. He is arrogant and lovable, bustling about in small importance. A Dog name Mundo Cani comes to him, mourning and weeping over his own ugliness and insignificance. Chauntecleer solves the difficulties of the coop with decision and fairness, such as fighting with Ebenezer Rat in the dark of the night over devoured eggs. Then we are given a cosmography, in one of the delightful, Medieval chapter titles, “in which Wyrm is described, and one or two things about him.” Wyrm is predictable: a foul, rotting dragon creature imprisoned inside the earth, longing to get out—and rule in hell or on earth rather than serve in Heaven, one gathers.

Meanwhile, in another part of Earth, the rule of another, older rooster, Senex, is declining. Wyrm speaks to him from inside the earth and finds his soul willing. So willing, in fact, that some kind of possession occurs, in which Senex gives his mind and body to Wyrm, and lays an egg. As one might expect, if one knows one’s mythology, this egg hatches a Cockatrice. Here Wangerin begins clarifying the mythology. Dictionary definitions often confuse cockatrice with a basilisk, Medieval practice made cockatrices out of bits and pieces of this and that animal. Here they are quite well defined. Cockatrice is a rooster with scales and a tail like a serpent, the sole son of the cock and therefore somehow of Wyrm, but then Cockatrice fathers thousands upon thousands of children on his hens, and these are serpents—Basilisks (here is one similarity to Milton: think of the end of book II, at the gates of Hell: Satan birthing Sin, then fathering Death on Sin, Death and Sin engendering thousands of monstrous bastards). A brave mouse stands up to Cockatrice’s evil, and is murdered for his courage. His wife flees with their seven babies. One hen dares to do the unthinkable: she smashes all of Cockatrice’s eggs while they are still in her body, aborting her children rather than give birth to these horrors.

Eventually, this mouse and this hen and then their troubles find their way to Chauntecleer, and his rule must mature into something able to face true sorrow. This suffering and valiant hen, the Beautiful Pertelote, becomes Chauntecleer’s adored wife. They have three chicks, and all seems well. Until the chicks are murdered, the river (full of Basilisks) rises, and war comes to the borders of Chauntecleer’s land. Then great risks must be taken, great sacrifices made, great and greater pain endured, and many revelations made. Chauntecleer’s crowing is unveiled in its full power: Crows Potens, which cow and turn back the enemy. Language, Wangerin blankly asserts in the face of contemporary criticism, has power, has essence. Beryl, one hen, “had an abiding respect for words. As far as she was concerned, the word for a thing somehow was that thing. Therefore she never spoke frivolously what she did not mean to say; and she surely never put into words anything which she did not wish to happen. For the words themselves could trigger it, and then it would happen. To say something was to send the thing itself out into the world and out of her control. It was to curse.” (p. 111) And it is, ultimately, Wangerin’s language that raises this story above the level of fairy-tale, bedtime-fable, children’s-story. The diction has the weight of the Prophets, the phrases the tone of another world. Humour, suffering, courage, and profound meaning are couched in the very words of this brilliantly written book. It is a novel unlike any other, and you must read it, read every word, to understand and know what words can do.

Where, in all this, is the Dun Cow? She is there, rarely, a presence, someone whom God sent as His envoy or vicar, a soothing and ennobling being whose very glance forces Chauntecleer to accuse, confess, reveal, and begin again. Only he seems to see her. Perhaps Mundo Cani does. Perhaps she does not exist at all, but is a dream or vision. Perhaps she and Mundo Cani are the same. I have not given you the ending, I will not give it away, but the Dun Cow is there and not there, has the final say and has none. But through her subtle influence, Chauntecleer and Pertelote talk the world back into sense and peace from nonsense and chaos. She is the vehicle of reasonable and healing language. She almost fills the position of Logos, or of the Voice Crying in the Wilderness (or the chicken-yard), prepare ye the way of the Word.


Iambic Admonit said...

And I forgot to say that I have rarely read a book that ends at such a beginning. The ending, which I will not give away, leaves you knowing that the adventure has just begun in a more specific way than most such endings. The real battle is yet to come. The cosmic encounter with evil has not occured yet. And more is still going on than we ever imagined. More Homeric and Virgilian mythic/epic journeys to be maade, more single combats with the devil, more weak-vs.-strong, more heaven-vs.-hell.

But there's a

Iambic Admonit said...

And I also forgot to say that the Dun Cow never speaks. She is a silent word. But others have words, phrases, even a poem, put into their heads in her presence, probably by her, or born(e) by/in her silence.

Rosie Perera said...

I'm so glad that you followed my recommendation to read this book. I loved it!

I too thought that in a certain way Mundo Cani and the Dun Cow were the same person, or rather two persons of the same Trinity. Perhaps Mundo Cani the Son (he's definitely a Christ figure) and the Dun Cow the Holy Spirit. I don't seem to recall that there's a Father equivalent, though, and I don't have the book here with me to look up my marginal notes.

I had a couple of criticisms of the book, though, which surprised me coming from a Christian author. There's an undercurrent of dualism (evil seems to be as strong as good), and grace seems to come after works.

I read the sequel, The Book of Sorrows, too. I found it artful, but very depressing. Evil prevails through most of the book, lots of animals die and/or hurt each other. I wrote of it, "Dreary, little or no hope at the end." Maybe I was missing something. I'll be interested to hear whether you read it, Sorina, and what you think of it.

Iambic Admonit said...

"Dun" has several very interesting meanings. First, it's the color: dark, drab, dull, gloomy, murky, obscure. But then as a verb it means to bill or charge (financially), to demand, hassle, importune, needle, tease, worry.... However, as I learned in reading an annotated version of Romeo and Juliet last night, "dun" also means silent or unseen. All very interesting. Anybody with access to the OED could add some more info!

Rosie Perera said...

Other meanings of "dun" from the OED are mostly irrelevant:
n. An ancient hill-fortress or fortified eminence (in the Highlands of Scotland, or in Ireland).
v. (obs.) To sound, ring with sound, resound.

I think you hit the nail on the head with "silent or unseen" (it wasn't even in the OED, so good find!).

Also I think another OED definition, which they had separate from the color def'n, is relevant: "adj. Dark, dusky (from absence of light); murky, gloomy. (Chiefly poetic.)"

I love the American Heritage Dictionary definition of dun: "A color ranging from almost neutral brownish gray to dull grayish brown." That doesn't seem to give a lot of latitude for a "range" of color!)

Iambic Admonit said...

Yeah, the "silent and unseen" was in the footnotes of the Riverside Shakespeare edition of R & J. Mercutio calls Romeo a dun in the mire, which has other unpleasant connotations, but also calls him a dun mouse, when he and Benvolio cannot find R after the ball.

Iambic Admonit said...

N. B. I just found out, thanks to the inimitable OED, that "Senex," the name of Chauntecleer's weak counterpart in another kingdom, is the Latin word for an old man, and has come to mean the stock character of a weak old man in drama.