Updated: Jan 27, 2021
"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)
If you have never heard of or read these fiction books by Walter Wangerin Jr then please do so. They are a delight, very deep in reflection and remind us of so much about life that we as post-moderns deny or gloss over.
It was a best-seller when it was published in 1978, a winner of the National Book Award, this wonderful fantasy, The Book of the Dun Cow, may not have achieved the long lasting popularity of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but it certainly deserves comparison to them. This is a great allegory, and the key is that it would be enjoyable even if you had no idea that it was referring to another story. The story has very deep spiritual resonance because, as J.R.R. Tolkien said: "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 of Christ shines through this barnyard fable.
The Book of the Dun Cow gets its title from a volume of the same name, published in about 1100, which has portions of an old Irish saga from the seventh and eighth centuries. The story recounts the fight for the possession of the great brown bull of Cooley, with Ulster against Connaught. We find the names Chanticleer and Pertelote in the medieval beast fables of Reynard the Fox, stories that were widely read in Germany, France, and other countries from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Chaucer’s tale then is a fable in which the cock Chanticleer outwits the prideful and stupid fox and avoids being eaten. Chaucer’s Chanticleer is a noble cock with the most excellent crows in the land. Wangerin’s Chanticleer is Lord of the Keep, tending the hours with canonical crows. Pertelote in both stories is beautiful, sensitive, a loving companion to an often prideful and private rooster.
This ancient material is reworked and elevated to cosmic proportions in Wangerin’s stories, which is set in a long-ago time when Animals could speak and understand. At that time, the Earth was still the center of creation. It was God who chose the Animals to be the Keepers of the Great Evil (Wrym) that must not escape lest disorder and sorrow rule the day. Chanticleer, proud cock, first encounters the Enemy in a dream in The Book of the Dun Cow.
The Book of Sorrows (1985) is the excellent sequel to The Book of the Dun Cow (1978).
The Book of Sorrows opens with a guilty and tormented Chanticleer. The Animals have lost their innocence in their war against Wyrm, as told in The Book of the Dun Cow. The Serpents reign of terror claimed many lives and sought to split the earth open and rise to the surface in his hatred of God, who had imprisoned him there. Was it not for the self-sacrifice of Mundo Cani Dog, Wyrm would have triumphed and evil would rule the world? It was not the Rooster but the Dog, Mundo Cani, now beloved by Chanticleer, who punctured the eye and brain of that great Serpent. It is Mundo Cani who now lies trapped in the Netherworld in Wyrm’s domain of darkness and death.
Here are links to purchase both books from Amazon.