It sure has been a while since TMTF reviewed a book, hasn’t it? I blame Les Misérables. That novel is roughly the size of Alaska.
Some time ago, I set aside Les Misérables in order to read some books on loan from friends and relatives. (I’ll finish and review Les Mis eventually.) One of these borrowed works is The Book of the Dun Cow. This fantasy novel chronicles an ancient war against Wyrm, a colossal beast imprisoned beneath the earth. All that stands in the way of this unspeakable evil is… a pack of farm animals.
Was it worth putting down the story of Jean Valjean for the tale of some barnyard animals, or should I have continued Lez Mizzy and let the creatures of The Book of the Dun Cow fend for themselves?
Despite a slow start, Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow is an engaging, original, and surprisingly thoughtful fantasy.
Ordinary, Extraordinary Heroes
When the world was new, God imprisoned Wyrm, a creature of absolute evil and unimaginable size, deep inside the earth. God’s creatures, oblivious to the peril beneath their feet, live their precious little lives in peace… until Wyrm begins to break free. As his land is threatened by horrors he can’t understand, Chaunticleer the Rooster prepares his fellow animals for battle. There is only one gleam of hope: the mysterious and angelic Dun Cow.
The Book of the Dun Cow is quite an original work, though some of its elements are familiar. I saw a lot of Aesop’s Fables and a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia in this tale of animals struggling against an ancient evil.
One of the most striking things about the book is its avoidance of the sword-and-sorcery clichés common in fantasy. There are no swords, wizards, princesses, prophecies, or any of the other tired trappings of fantasy fiction. Like Watership Down, which spins an epic around ordinary rabbits, The Book of the Dun Cow tells its story without depending on flashy fantasy tropes. It’s an extraordinary tale of ordinary creatures.
The novel does three things outstandingly well.
First, its characters are simple yet memorable. The author has a Dickensian gift for creating characters that are more like caricatures. Individually, they would quickly become tiresome. All together, alongside a few well-developed protagonists, they make for a colorful cast. The names chosen for characters are inspired—John Wesley Weasel, for example.
The second thing at which The Book of the Dun Cow excels is building up a sense of dread and unrelenting tension. This is not a story in which the heroes are guaranteed to win. Heck, its heroes are farm animals. Their struggle is desperate. Every battle brings tragedy and the risk of failure… and failure means unleashing an unstoppable evil upon the universe.
This brings us to the third thing: the novel has an unexpected theological bent. It doesn’t preach or moralize. It merely depicts the harsh reality of a world in which God seems absent, and the roundabout ways he works his will. (I would add this book to my list of novels that contemplate the silence of God.) This is a book echoing Job and Ecclesiastes, a novel that seems to cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Book of the Dun Cow isn’t just a fantasy. In its own understated, roundabout way, it’s a meditation upon the inscrutable workings of God.
Slow and Steady Wins Races, Not Novels
The style of The Book of the Dun Cow is excellent, wasting no words yet conveying vivid impressions. The dialogue is particularly enjoyable. Many of the animals have their unique habits and mannerisms. John Wesley Weasel, bless him, butchers proper grammar. Lord Russel Fox rambles with self-conscious verbosity, the Turkeys gobble with nonsensical extra syllables, and the Dog loses himself in such bitter self-reproach that it’s hard for other characters to get a few plain words out of him.
My chief complaint about the novel is that it takes a long time to get going. As much as I appreciate a slow, steady approach to telling a story, The Book of the Dun Cow hardly begins moving until nearly halfway through. The excitement of the second half is belied by chapters and chapters of meticulous and largely unnecessary buildup in the first. A few early chapters foreshadow the sinister events of later ones, but most of the novel’s first half is forgettable.
The Review of the Done Book
In the end, although it takes a long time to set the stage, The Book of the Dun Cow tells an exciting, original, and oddly contemplative story. After spending so much time in Les Misérables, I felt satisfied to finish a book for a change.
Now that I’ve finished The Book of the Dun Cow, I have just half a dozen or so more books to read before picking up Less Misery where I left off. This is going to take a while.
Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make this Christmas awesome for a person in need!
Nice review, Adam! This was one of my favourite literary discoveries of last year.Never thought I’d love a novel where the hero is a rooster.
Thanks! As much as I’ve enjoyed the unabridged (read: really freaking long) Les Mis, The Book of the Dun Cow was a refreshing change of pace.