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The Book Of the Dun Cow
This book has been at the edge of my consciousness for a long time, but I've never read it until now. And, having finished it, I wish I had read this book years ago.
This book deserves to be put at the top of the Animal Fantasy genre, up there with "Watership Down" and "Redwall". In fact, given Redwall's shmaltzyness and "Watership Down"'s alienating complexity, perhaps it could be argued that this book deserves to be put higher than either of them.
The story concerns Chauntecleer, a rooster who rules over a coop of hens as well as the forestland that surrounds it. He is a bit of a grouch, but as the plot goes on it reveals his softer side, demonstrating how much he cares for those who he rules over.
The story opens with both Chauntecleer and his hens being awoken by the howlings of the mournful dog Mundo Cani, who views himself as the most wretched creature in the world. To get him to shut up, Chauntecleer allows him to stay, and thereafter uses him as a perch for when he crows.
Walter Wangerin Jr., the author, waits his sweet time to allow the plot to arrive, allowing himself to introduce the reader to the characters and to the stark contrast between good and evil, through the search for an egg thief who has been taking and crushing the hens' eggs. This short pre-story demonstrates the character of various individuals, for instance Chauntecleer's devotion to protecting those he views as his charges.
But finally the plot arrives, through a story of another coop run by another rooster named Senex, who has grown old without an heir. This has driven Senex to desperation, and in his foolishness he makes a deal with a mysterious voice that speaks to him in dreams. This leads to the creation of the evil Cockatrice, whose actions in turn weaken the prison of Wyrm, a creature of pure evil who has been trapped beneath the Earth by the inherent goodness of the animals who walk it. As the evils of Cockatrice spread, the prison of Wyrm continue to weaken, and soon Chauntecleer must muster the meek animals of the Earth to defend the world from destruction by the ultimate evil.
This book is sweet and beautiful, in its portrayal of the persistence of hope by the good in the face of seemingly invincible evil. Wangerin's use of semi-archaic language helps this mood along, while never impeding the comprehension or interest of the reader. Something about Wangerin's style made me want to always keep reading, as I wanted to continue to experience the joy of his writing.
As mentioned, I loved the complexity of Chauntecleer. Comparatively rare in fantasy are crotchedy middle-aged heroes, but Chauntecleer is one of the best ones: while on the outside he may seem like a rooster equivalent of the kind of person who yells at teenagers for standing on his lawn, his status as a true hero is constantly being proven by the care he takes to protect those who he views as needing help. By the end of the novel, he has grown into one of the most heroic figures I've encountered, while still being a flawed character who regrets the mistakes he makes along the way.
If anything, the character of Mundo Cani is even more fascinating, at least to me. His constant self-depreciation might wear on others, but to me it made him even more likable, as his considering of himself as less than others is proven again and again to be completely untrue. He also becomes even more heroic than Chauntecleer, showing himself to be an utterly selfless individual. For him I would read this book a hundred times, to say nothing of everthing else I loved about it.
That said, there were a few small flaws. For one thing, the title is odd, as the Dun Cow is an incredibly minor character (a mysterious messenger between God and the animals, who is almost completely enigmatic to the other characters). "The Book of the Rooster" or "The Book of the Dog" would be more fitting titles, in my opinion. In addition, while this book might appear to be a children's book, at times it can get dark and grim, to say nothing of the occasional random swearing. I'm not sure if this book really fits the youth audience.
But these are mere minor quibbles. All in all, this is a fantastic book, and you should check it out if you run into it. If you can, try to get the 25 year anniversary edition, which features a short essay by the author on his inspirations while writing the book. It's actually quite interesting. Now go out there and find this book!