Book of the Dun Cow

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and Imagining Contemporary Evil

Matt Stannard
Jan. 21, 2018

This afternoon, after several months of periodic readings, my kids and I finished Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow. I had, with only minimal resistance, proposed to read it out loud to my teen, tween, and ten year-old, in partial recognition of having read the Great Brain series, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and a few others to them when they were much younger. Those were sweet days.

I’d rediscovered, or spontaneously remembered, Wangerin’s epic novel, that some have called a “Lord of the Rings with Farm Animals” (although Wangerin’s prose is far more pleasing to read out loud than Tolkien’s, in my opinion), decades after first finding it when I was about 13, reviewed in an issue of Dragon magazine. I enjoyed the book then and learned a lot about the form of the Christian allegory in literature from it. Some might try to call it a “Christian Animal Farm,” and that would be clever but not really accurate. Orwell’s novel was really, really cynical compared to Wangerin’s story of a basically innocent, decent, somewhat emotionally immature rooster being charged by God, through the whispering voice of the Dun Cow, to fend off an attack from the manifest evil coming from a coop and farm far away, and created by a giant devil-worm that lives deep in the earth.

And it is unapologetically Christian, although it’s a Christianity that admits to and celebrates doubt, doesn’t promise happiness to believers, and invests even the simplest characters with a lot of personal autonomy–at least in terms of letting each farm animal set their own route to fighting the great evil that threatens the farm. There are no humans in the book, but there is a chicken coop and hints of other artifacts, presumably implying some now-distant human intelligence. But it’s the animals who are entrusted with defeating the evil animal-gods and demigods put before them.

It’s the nature of that evil, though, that inspired me to read the book with the kiddos this time around. Some of it is chaotic evil, to put it in RPG terms: the evil rooster demigod, the mirror-image of the hero rooster except much more physically powerful and able to create millions of tiny poisonous snakes with its vomit or something, reminds me of both wannabe and real Nazi trolls today, with their performative brutality, their deliberate use of low-grade irony, and simple self-declared mission to destroy all who aren’t them. Some of the book’s evil is lawful evil, a giant wyrm in the earth who believes its very presence and size entitles it to rule and who tries to seduce the hero with promises of power before opting to try and destroy anything that opposes it (that’s what the billionaires do–first they try to buy you and then if they can’t they must silence you at whatever cost).

I’m aware that these are Christian images too, and I don’t know anything about Walter Wangerin’s politics, but if he is an orthodox Christian, his politics are probably pretty different from mine. But I also have to say that my concerns with the alt-right and the billionaire class are more than just “political” in a conventional sense. The important thing is that Wangerin knows that the violent exercise of asymmetrical power and dishonest manipulation of good people are bad things, and his animation of them produces beautifully hideous and revolting villains that, like the heroes in the book, are essentially cartoon characters, but not shallow caricatures. That takes some skill and aesthetic vision.

So as I read the book to the kids a couple of hours at a time over a period of months (I can’t quite remember when we started), I wanted to speak the voices of good, imperfect beings fighting back against others who either wanted to eradicate them for existing (the gratuitous racist violence that’s irreducible to just wealth acquisition), and those who would seek to manipulate or destroy others for the sake of economic gain. These are the twin evils, I think, represented by a large part of the current political order and culture. But my hope is they’d get something more than just politics out of hearing a story about how good, imperfect, mistake-making beings hold their own against those who want to exploit or destroy them.

There are two more books in Wangerin’s Dun Cow series. If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear what you think. I told the kids (who enjoyed the book and admitted on their own they miss sitting around hearing me read to them, I swear) that if any of them wanted to read the other books I’d buy them. I think I’m good with just this one, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful in every way–the incredible wordsmithing, the very deep and emotional development of the characters–and, where it was a tiny bit traditional-gender-roles, easily bracketed and deconstructed (at least I felt so, but obviously could be wrong. Christianity is what it is, unless Wangerin were UCC, which as an M.Div from the Lutheran Christ Seminary-Seminex, I will guess he’s not).

But I want to thank him for doing a very good job representing bravery amid moral frailty, destructive and manipulative evil, depression and self-loathing, vulnerability and forgiveness, even the ineffable tragedy of losing family members, all in a fantasy novel about rooster warriors and farm animal armies.

The drawing above is by Abby, and was inspired by the book. 

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