|From The New York Times Book (Winter, 1978)||[Top]|
THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW
Reviewed in The New York Times Book by ROBERT KIELY (Winter, 1978)
Although it has been a long time since most American children grew up on a farm or even near one, the myth continues that all youngsters have a natural rapport with and interest in animals. Urban babies are still shown alphabet cards with cows and ducks on them, though many may not see a cow until they are 40, or ever, except as translated by Walt Disney or McDonald's. For, the child who grows up acquainted with cocker spaniels, alley cats, an occasional gerbil or cockroach and an annual visit to the zoo to observe pythons and panthers in filthy captivity, the beast fable must appear as bizarre as any intergalactic melodrama. In fact, it must seem more bizarre, since a Buick looks more like a space ship than a pony and it is probably less of a strain on the imagination of the modern child to see neighbors as calculators, stereo sets and telephones than to picture them as pigs and bunny rabbits. Especially if the child has never seen a pig or a rabbit.
The beast fable--a moral tale in which animals talk and act like human beings--was born of societies of hunters and farmers. The hierarchy of the animal kingdom--majestic lions, proud peacocks, sly foxes--was partly the consequence of a pre-Darwinian rage for fixed order and partly a result of the kind of close observation which only a day-to-day familiarity can nourish. The humor and moral clarity of such stories were made possible by a shared code that reflected a shared experience. The business of ants, bees and beavers, the greed of hogs, the stubbornness of donkies, the irritability of geese, the placidity of sheep were not clich?s but realities with features, smells, grunts, cackles and buzzes of their own. In comparison with the animals of "Aesops's Fables," the "Owl and the Nightingale," Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" or "Br'er Rabbit," the creatures of some modern fables seem peculiarly domesticated or else heavily overburdened with ideology. Winnie-the-Pooh, the most charming bear of them all, is, of course, a toy, not a real Beast; the Charlotte of "Charlotte's Web" Is "Democratic Vistas" and "The Power of Positive Thinking" digested and compacted into the shape of a benevolent spider.
In "The Book of the Dun Cow," Walter Wangerin Jr. has written a beast fable with its own kind of modern twist. The animals have not been tidied up or converted into sentimental theories. They are neither cute nor abstract. On the whole, they are, like real animals, a fairly scruffy, messy, scrappy lot. True, they do all have some redeeming quality, a touch of color, a sparkling eye, a melodious voice, a strong back, but they--and the reader--have to try very hard to keep these qualities from being overwhelmed by brutishness.
The leader of the pack is Chauntecleer, the rooster, who if not your everyday antihero is not an altogether likable and unblemished character either. If one could imagine Humphrey Bogart cast as Hector and shriveled to the size of a bird, the result would give a fair approximation of Chauntecleer's disposition. He is surly and domineering, a light sleeper with a foul(pun apparently intended) temper and an arrogant scorn for most of the other animals in and around the Coop, especially for Mundo Cani, a simpering and slobbering dog whom he calls Rug and who in fact makes a doormat of himself. Still, Chauntecleer has his good points. He seems to have more brains than the other animals, he has a noble bearing, and, most important of all, he keeps a sense of order in everyone's lives by crowing the canonical hours in a magnificent voice.
But even if one does not much care for Chauntecleer, it soon becomes clear that there are much much worse creatures in the world than he. For one thing, there is Ebenezer Rat, who lives under the Coop and sneaks up at night to suck the yokes out of the newly laid eggs. And in another part of the realm there is Cockatrice, an unnaturally begotten rooster with scales on his belly, a long sharp tail and bloody eyes, who has fathered thousands of tiny serpent-like birds or Basilisks who fly about stinging to death whatever they touch. As if this is not enough for one grumpy rooster with good posture and a nice voice and his friends to deal with, there is something even worse. The evil behind and beneath all other manifestations of evil is Wyrm, a great serpentine creature locked in the bowels of the earth but long enough, when stretched full length, to encircle the world.
It is the task of all animals, not only those in the Coop, to keep Wyrm from leaving his prison and destroying the world. And it is Chauntecleer's task to rally all creatures, wild and domestic, large and small, war-like and hopelessly peaceful, to join together in the effort. None of Chauntecleer's allies seems very promising. In addition to the whimpering dog there is John Wesley Weasel, the Black Ants, the Dun Cow and the Beautiful Pertelote, whom Chauntecleer has rescued from the clutches of Cockatrice and married. But to repeat the funny names and even to summarize the story does not convey the ominous and oppressive presence of the enemy. Both before and during the great battle between the good and evil forces, Mr. Wangerin manages to infuse his fable with the horror, waste and pointless depravity of nature at war with it-self. The battle scenes are no Tom and Jerry gags and the battlefield itself is the most terrible, least fantastic of settings, a realistic deathscape, a common place of our century:
"The ground was uneven, and the darkness around her feet total. She tripped. Her face slithered into the mud. She lifted up her head, sick with the smell of blood; her eyes saw a dim sight; and she was horrified. Two inches away from her own face was the open mouth of a Deer--neither speaking nor breathing. It was open as in a scream, but it screamed no sound at all. The Deer was dead." Despite the echoes of Aesop and "Paradise Lost," one feels that this fable could not have been written before Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam.
This "fantasy" is, in fact, a harrowing tale of reality. What glimpses of humor and beauty one gets are remarkable for their pallor and fragility. Though in the end Chauntecleer and his friends prevail over Wyrm and Cockatrice, they are so battered and shaken as to seem only the frailest of conquerors. Finally, though the story offers its share of moral wisdom about loyalty, hope and endurance, it is perhaps most striking to its relative lack of practical advice. Unlike its ancestors, this animal fable is not a treasury of sayings to live by. What with its various reminders--especially about the rooster who crows the Holy Office and who paraphrases Abraham, Moses, Peter and Paul--it is obvious that the barnyard battle is being framed in religious terms. Perhaps the very obviousness and mixing of the analogues make one reluctant to pin any one of them down too neatly.
Mundo Cani performs the most heroically Christ-like act when he hurls himself into the eye of Wyrm, thus sacrificing his own life for his friends. But the reader is not really tempted to think back over the fable to see whether this self-pitying dog has been the Hound of Heaven all along. The book does not work that way. Its power--and here is its originality--is not, finally, in the drawing of exact scriptural parallels any more than it is in the dispensing of practical morality. It is a meta-physical rather than a moral fable. The evil it presents is potent and mysterious, not the readily controllable consequence of a poor education or a negligent grandmother. The only thing more mysterious and fortunately more potent is the presence of God in surprising places. The most optimistic note in an otherwise painfully violent and bleak book is Mundo Cani's demonstration that one need not be a consistently recognizable Christ figure-- impeccably wise, gentle and courageous--to perform a redeeming Christian act.
|Reviewed by ROBERT KIELY|
|From Los Angeles Times (December 28, 1978)||[Top]|
"The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. (Harper) belongs on the shelf with "Animal Farm" "Watership Down" and "The Lord of the Rings" that is, in the rapidly increasing category of adult theozoology. It is, like them, an absorbing, fanciful parade of the war between good and evil, well handled with animal characters.
This tale, as one might expect from a Lutheran pastor, is more overtly theological than its immediate predecessors. The characterizations work well, once we accept the mythological world, and the accumulating drama of the conflict has impressive, even frightening, power. Do not mistake this for a children's book, though children may well find it enjoyable, if occasionally scary and puzzling.
The world of the novel is set in a time past before man, when "the earth was still fixed in the absolute center of the universe. It had not yet been cracked loose from that holy place; to be sent-whirling-wild and helpless, and ignorant?among the blind stars... and God still chose to walk among the clouds, striding, like a man who strides through his garden-in the sweet evening."
Animals with the gift of speech populate this world, unaware of their deep purpose; to serve as "the Keepers" of a cosmic evil, serpentine Wyrm, locked beneath the earth. "The watchers, the guards. They were the last protection against an almighty evil which, should it pass them, would burst bloody into the universe and smash into chaos and sorrow everything that had been made both orderly and good.
The innocence, unawareness and littleness of the animals have the same source as they do in Tolkien-a biblical view of man as the location for cosmic struggle?despite and because of his frailty. God gives the weapons to defeat evil but also the free will to refuse the labor and sacrifice the struggle's demands. The victory is always in doubt, and the outcome is of vast significance.
"The Book of the Dun Cow" carries this theological weight prominently, but lightly. Wyrm makes an impressive devil figure, and his agents Cockatrice and the Basilisks are ominous and fearsome. The animals whose Eden is threatened manage to combine their human functions and beastly forms convincingly. Chaunticleer, with his inevitable mate Pertelote, is cocky indeed as the heroic leader; Mundo Cani Dog is part Snoopy and part Christ; a regular barnyard of delights, including a wonderfully stupid gaggle of turkeys, play their parts in the struggle according to their capacities.
The Dun Cow herself, most mysterious of God's messengers in the book, offers hope, redemption and self-sacrifice. She hardly figures in the book, which fortunately belongs basically to Chauticleer and his desperate struggle for a cause he but dimly perceives.
Walter Wangerin's slim fable is a sleeper?one of those cult books that, five years from now will be everyone's favorite. Feminists will have legitimate complaint at the subservience given to females, religionists will quarrel over simplicities and heresies. One wonders why the "language of the powers" is classical latin.
But these and other quibbles are unimportant before a powerful and enjoyable work of the imagination, one that places the religious mystery of man's place among the powers at the center of the fictional universe.
|Reviewed by Edward M. White|
|From Warren Rubel (2002)||[Top]|
Winding Downward to a Disturbing Sense of Grace*
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana
*A Review Essay on The Book of the Dun Cow (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) and The Book of Sorrows, (New York: Harper & Row, 1985). by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
"Whatever happened to Wyrm?" asked a student who recently noticed Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s, The Book of Sorrows lying on my desk. Like many others, he had read the earlier The Book of the Dun Cow, which won an American Book Award and quickly became a national best seller. The question of Wyrm's end prompted an obvious equivocation, "He was destroyed, but..." For although the two stories may be read and enjoyed separately, their larger fictional and religious significance, it seems to me, depends on our seeing the narratives in tandem, the latter text a necessary sequel, a second panel in a kind of sacred diptych that, when joined to the earlier text, stands the work upright. In what follows I develop primarily an appreciation both for what Wangerin has accomplished in these related texts and for the way he has done it by gently urging the following thesis: These works, separated by some seven years, complement one another by placing before us in the forms of a bestiary, a series of deepening and moving paradoxes about what it means to be human. The Book of the Dun Cow takes us through near mythic contests between the powers of life and death, order and chaos, purpose and meaninglessness. The story ends in a triumphant but qualified victory for Chauntecleer and the Community of the Coop in its struggle against Wyrm. The battle has been won, but the battle is not done. Because powerful love is not the same thing as forgiving love and because the struggle against evil is both without and within us, The Book of Sorrows leads us to forgiving love, a love acutely felt in the song of bereaved Pertelote, a compline song that closes in the quiet but limited triumph of mere being. Chauntecleer has lost his life. He has not lost the battle. Common to both works is the voice of author as narrator. That voice sings the scales of rejoicing and speaks the ordinary and outrageous pain of the little and important people in the Community. It is a voice annealed to what Chauntecleer docs and undergoes as actor and patient in the two works. But before we deepen our regard for the stories, we need to summarize quickly, if inadequately, the primary conflicts in the works as a means of entry into their respective complexities, energies, and forms.
Although the major conflicts in The Book of the Dun Cow take place on several levels in the Community of the Coop, the terms of the conflicts are sharply defined and dramatically focused. The perpetually encroaching enemy is Wyrm. Ancient Wyrm, with his terrible stench and great "Nay-saying" power, is accompanied by his fecund cohorts Cockatrice and Toad. Both cooperate in a plot to hatch the dreaded Basilisks, licorice-length black and poisonous snakes. As they are hatched by the obedient hens, Cockatrice scoops them up and vomits them into the surging waters that threaten the Coop community. That community of the ordinary - Pertelote, Beryl, Chalcedony and the twenty-eight or twenty-nine hens plus one and many others - is held together by common care. So long as their lives are banded in peace, in "goodly love and in "righteousness, which was iron against his will," the community locks Wyrm beneath them in earth. The representative keeper is Chauntecleer, proud, powerful, sympathetic, and handsome cock of the Coop. His crowing the canonical hours, a gift he has received and disciplined out of the memory of his own history and the grace of God in it, sustains the community. And his central male consciousness, filtered through the author's selective grid, provides us with a way for participating in and understanding the terms and struggles of the Coop community against Wyrm. That Chauntecleer should love and be loved by Pertelote of the lovely flaming throat and obscure past and that he should embody the strengths and vulnerabilities of the community heightens our sense of Chauntecleer's tragic predicament. His interior cry is "How can the meek of the earth save themselves against the damnable evil which feeds on them?" His and the community's response is that desperate situations require desperate means. Thus Chauntecleer will eventually use calculated force and violence to defeat Cockatrice. The apparent small victories in the hopelessness of the struggle also deepen our sense of irony for Chauntecleer's situation. The self- sacrificing Chauntecleer, for the entire splendor in his tragic isolation and for all the humiliating pain and public ignominy he endures in that sacrificial battle, will not save the community from Wyrm. That redemptive and heroic act will be Mundo Cani's through the mysterious passive agency of the Dun Cow.
Mundo Cani is an absurd, lovable and loving dog, a harbinger of the wise and comic incongruities that Wangerin brings together in the characters and events of the story. Mundo Cani's desolate howl outside Chauntecleer's Coop opens the story. At the end of the narrative he runs along the edge of the chasm in which Wyrm of the lidless eye twists and turns in his fury. His only weapon the lost horn of the Dun Cow, Mundo Cani plunges into the black hole of the eye of Wyrm and plunges the horn into that eye. The cataclysmic earth closes up, leaving a thin scar where an "angry scam closed." What we hear before and after the silence, however, is Mundo Cani at the beginning of the tale in a crescendo "like a mudslide" howling "Marooned!" And we hear at the end of the story Chauntecleer speaking the same word in quiet despair to Pertelote.
Guilt and resentment haunt Chauntecleer at the end of this powerful story. Pertelote, in a coda to the telling, leads Chauntecleer to the liquid rim of penance and forgiveness and loving memory. Her doings are the last things done, the teller of the story reminds us. But her word is not the final word. Pertelote sleeps peacefully while John Wesley Weasel and Chauntecleer keep talking. Yet, we might say, there is more in the writing here than in the talking. The talking in words is the presentness in the story that brings it to closure. The writing in words will go on because there is another beginning in this ending.
In other words, Chauntecleer's story is unresolved in The Book of the Dun Cow. Chauntecleer is filled with guilt and resentment at the sacrificial death of Mundo Cani. As Dr. Samuel Johnson observed of the fold upon fold of human ego that covers the core of human pride, "resentment is a union of sorrow with malignity." Chauntecleer feels guilt because the dog he despised did what he wanted to but could not. His genuine sorrow mixes with malignity because he envies the dog he once scorned. Pertelote knows her husband, moreover, better than he knows himself. She had once screamed on the shore of the river where she met Chauntecleer because she saw Chauntecleer as the evil Cockatrice. Thus in The Book of Sorrows her silent suffering mirrors proud Chauntecleer's. She sees him become what she feared without knowing it as he becomes what he hates. In the spiritual perversion that entangles him in despair, Chauntecleer almost completely destroys himself. There is, consequently, a blackness to the darkness in the artistry of The Book of Sorrows. The form that evil takes in this sequel to The Book of the Dun Cow is especially threatening because it sweetly parodies the sacrificial love that keeps any human community a community. Chauntecleer's particular causa sui project-to find Mundo Cani's bones and to give him an honorable burial-becomes his obsession and at the same time masks his spiritual pride. It drives him to the end of the wasteland and to the depths of the earth, into Wyrm's vast and decaying corpse, to Mundo Cani's rotting nose and empty skull nesting within. That achievement does not relieve the gross imperfections of Chauntecleer's desires, however. Wyrm has died only to resurrect in the thin, green, threadlike worms that eventually dribble from Chauntecleer's beak and gradually form a writhing serpent within his entrails. Wyrm also remains as the appealing and destructive song of chaos for Chauntecleer. Chauntecleer becomes an agent of chaos then in an ice-bound world of brittle creatures increasingly incapable of love. Or, in Wangerin's image, the web is shredded. The constituting value becomes "Everyone cut; cuts back again-and double." Chauntecleer cannot escape being a victim in the victimage he generates with this ancient lex talionis or law of revenge. And so his almost last act is his own disembowelment before the outrage of gratuitous forgiving love from Ferric Coyote, whose mate Rachel and whose son Benoni have been killed in an act of Chauntecleer's irresponsible obsession. Is there no way out of the soul's sickness that docs not lead to damnation in pride in this vast wasteland that Wangerin renders for the contemporary reader? Well, we might say, Wangerin's bestiaries prepare us for a way out, but to assert what it is would be to subvert in words what the author in words seeks to gain from us and for us without force. In this strangely exhilarating sequel to The Book of the Dun Cow, Wangerin's gyres wind downward to a disturbing sense of grace.
What one neglects by attending to the sense of grace that hovers over and moves through the two stories, however, is the grace of sense that informs and shapes the stories. For by this time strong disclaimers arise: Haven't these books been written and marketed for younger readers? Aren't they marked by whimsy and comic delight and many giggles from sundry and tiny folk? Isn't there a family of remnant mice, a Montag, Dienstag, Wodenstag, and one special wit Freitag? Aren't they step-fathered or "uncled" by Lord Russel the Fox, an obsessive talker, entertainer, and trickster? Don't golden Chauntecleer and lovely Pertelote have three little off- spring named Ten Pin, Five Pin, and One Pin? And wasn't the marriage of Chauntecleer and Pertelote celebrated by snowglyph angels mirroring the beauty of the wintery night in a kind of joy beyond the singing of it? And isn't there a Hare whose ears fairly shout "like exclamation points Bang Bang" because he is so nervous before Lord Chauntecleer? Why this initial dwelling on the ancient pain in the skull? Does the author pluck primarily the old Augustinian, sick-souled, Kierkegaardian strains? The rejoinder is that one can recommend these books because Wangerin manages to do a number of things well here in this set of stories and in the subsets of stories within the stories that build to a cumulative effect for the reader. These books can and should be read with delight and even diligence by young readers. In The Book of the Dun Cow Wangerin drops a stone into a deep well. In The Book of Sorrows the stone plummets downward. We can follow the stone or we can delight and reflect on the play and patterns in the surface ripples. In short, the books may be read as one reads and rereads Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or George MacDonald's The Gift of the Child Christ or C.S. Lewis's Narnia Tales or even an E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, These stories delight ear and eye and the reins of common sense and they make the pain of human life bearable for the older reader because the stories lead us to the divine foolishness that goes beyond or perhaps undergirds our tears and laughter as young and old alike.
Yet there is an important distinction here. Wangerin's two works are related by the single but increasingly complex if ordinary metaphor of the journey from exterior to interior world. Like Dance's journey from the Inferno, where, from one perspective, we learn appropriate hatred for the evil outside of us, through the Purgatorio, where we gradually understand the hierarchies of evil in us, Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow moves from the overcoming without to the overcoming within in The Book of Sorrows. Regrettably, that difference will perhaps mean that Wangerin's Book of the Dun Cow will remain the more popular of the two works, just as Dante's Inferno remains more "fun to teach" on the undergraduate level or, as T.S. Eliot reminded us, it has made John Donne's devotional piety more interesting and attractive than Lancelot Andrewes because one can read Donne without really caring about the subject matter.
The redeeming qualities of Wangerin's perspective lie in his using the medieval bestiary to render for the contemporary reader once again the power of participating in a common tradition that continues to raise basic questions of what it means to be. Because the works are grounded in the bestiary, they share in a genre sharply distinct from the many directions and some of the formlessness of modern fiction. But the artist in the telling and the reader in his or her reflecting gain from the limited perspective. We get a specific angle of vision from the stylization the bestiary offers us. Like the pastoral vision in poetry, the contemporary bestiary distances us from our own dislocated humanity so that we can see our distorted values in productive tension with the norms in the non-human community. A different kind of necessity rules in the community of the Coop. There are no economic laws at work, none of the complex technologies of a post-industrial society, little of the daily anxieties that plague our media-formed consciousness. Rather, there is a reduction in scale and proportion, a kind of grand metonymic move that isolates and highlights another set of enduring problems. One quick example from what I take to be my own misreading of the text may help illustrate the point.
My first response to the plenitude and variety in the characters that inhabit the two works raised a problem. If we consider closely the major female "characters," they are simply too good as types and individuals, too passively wise in their capacities to endure and survive their male counterparts. Even their womanly faults seem mere peccadilloes compared to their male counterparts. Pertelote, for example, though she knows Chauntecleer's pride, never directly rebukes him. There is no bitter accusing or whining or even occasional nagging (I think). I remember Pertelote primarily for her providential and tender waiting for Chauntecleer to make his own mistakes, to come to some kind of revelatory self-knowledge. My initial reaction then was to consider her too ideal. The trouble is that she is a complex, sensitive, enterprising and caring "woman." I asked in my curiosity one friend who had read both works how she responded to what I took to be the more or less ascendant male viewpoint of the works. She responded quickly, "That's easy. One quickly recognizes that although the works are about Chauntecleer, the women folk are the genuine saints and heroes!" That may well be the case. But I think that a further word can be said for Wangerin's Pertelote. By shaping her character as he does he keeps us aware of his not writing a piece of realistic fiction. And I think he wishes us to see the deep contrast between her sacred and loving respect for Chauntecleer's person and for his freedom despite his decaying spiritual pride. She always loves with a kind of prevenient grace that we recognize more and more as a central theme in the two works. (Whether Pertelote is a figure of the Church one leaves to future scholars.) Fortunately, because the teller's pace skillfully moves us from one episode to another as he builds his stories and his characters, we can make valid assessments only retrospectively. The spokes of the Coop community converge around a central hub-Chauntecleer, Pertelote, Chalcedony and the hens and others in procession and in assembly and with their families as they sojourn from one place to another. Yet the hub moves on a great axis, giving us turning wheel and still point. That motion is momentarily arrested for our meditation, a meditation that eludes both confirmation and disconfirmation of earlier insights.
There is, furthermore, another word that can be said for Wangerin's effectiveness as storyteller. Giving added resonance to the two volumes is not only the author's pondering in dramatic form the basic values of love and justice and forgiveness and sacrifice. Because he draws on what Northrop Frye speaks of as our "Singing School," the literary voices of our tradition, Wangerin's allusions enhance and complicate the apparent simplifications and stylizations of the bestiary. That Wangerin deploys and amplifies Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale from the Canterbury Tales is simply one of the more obvious dependencies. Softening the comic sexual play in Chaucer's Chauntecleer, Wangerin intensifies and broadens the question of Providence in his treatment. He deepens the tragic and epic dimensions in Chauntecleer's and Pertelote's relation- ship by further humanizing their histories and internal quandaries. And Wangerin reawakens in us a love and regard for the spoken word, a love sounding through Chaucer's tale, a love of the intricacy of sound almost, one might say, inaccessible to the contemporary reader unfamiliar with the baroque elaborations of medieval rhetoric.
Wangerin's images of evil, furthermore are as multiform as the imagined shape of evil itself, from the malevolent will purposely opposing human life and goodness in Wyrm, through the fatal attraction of the Siren sounds of the same Wyrm that remind us that the powers of Thanatos are as appealing to our immolation of self as they are frightening to our loss of self, through the cruelty of dominating and oppressive force, to the banality of evil in the random death of the innocent: Ferric Coyote's mate Rachel and son Benoni just happened to be in the wrong place, wrong time. The victims of evil are as multiform as its agents, moreover. One of the more compelling and disturbing is the plain broad bird in the thornbush who, like T.S. Eliot's bird in The Wasteland and the "Jug Jug, to dirty ears," has a strange inverted intercourse with Wyrm, her hard peak penetrating his fleshy, soft stench in kisses that, prompted by her loneliness and need, answer Wyrm's predatory and destructive enveloping song. She pays for her secret knowledge by losing her tongue and speech. That "mythic" image of the victim has its counterpart in mouse Freitag's rejection by Chauntecleer when Freitag walks behind Chauntecleer, therapeutically mimicking Chauntecleer's gloomy preoccupation with himself. The author does not seek to solve the problem of the origin of evil in either of the two related stories. Rather he describes and addresses its destructive forms, placing before us both a story and an invitation to participate in that story's temporary and limited possibility that "love need not be a deception" in the human community.
These emphases come together in the image Wangerin depicts of Chauntecleer as artist. So far I have suggested that Chauntecleer is primarily the central character in the story, and, with certain qualifications, he is. But I conclude this appreciation and first response to these works by equating Wangerin as artist with Chauntecleer, not as victim of and for the community of the Coop, but in Chauntecleer's more or less original vocation when he founded the community of the Coop near the Terebrinth Oak and finally moved with that community to the Hemlock by the waterfall. Chauntecleer's Canonical Crows are the clock of the community. Really more than clock. In his true vocation as crower, Chauntecleer interpreted "their moments and their experiences to them." He recollected "the past to weave it into the present" and he called them to a "hopeful future." The narrator continues, "He used to, by praising them or fussing at them, assure them of importance; and because he did it with such variety and skill...he was the glory in their homely lives." The narrator goes on, however, after claiming that Chauntecleer supports and sustains the community, to suggest that Chauntecleer really cannot separate his vocation as artist from what he is as brooding agent and sufferer.
The point is that the artist as man in the community is really the ampler voice that brings together the bright and dark sides of experience for our human rehearsal. 'The deepening and revivifying of Christian belief is not always achieved by theologians or philosophers," concludes the late J.A.W. Bennett in a study of twelve centuries of English verse and fiction devoted to the person and passion of Jesus Christ. "It is sometimes entrusted to poets."1 Often these poets draw us beyond literary genres and beyond systematic theological formulation to something like Wangerin's Dun Cow, the sacred and loving presence in the two works.
1. J.A.W. Bennett, Poetry of the Passion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 183.
Warren G. Rubel
Professor Emeritus of Humanity
Copyright ? 2002 Warren G. Rubel All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
|Reviewed by Warren G. Rubel, Professor Emeritus of Humanity,|
|From Washington Post Review (November 11, 2004)||[Top]|
Good Battles Evil In the Tolkien Manner
Ever since English began to be a language, we have struggled to ward off the vision of "Ragnarok," one of the bleaker legacies left us by our Viking ancestors-the day when evil shall unalterably triumph and the gods fall.
To convince ourselves of our eventual salvation, we have invented elaborate mythologies: the Arthurian promise that the "once and future king" will return in time of need; the Miltonian Last Judgment, when Michael will destroy Lucifer forever; Tolkien's trilogy, in which the forces of Mordor are devastated by a brotherhood of the humble and the righteous; and C. S. Lewis's Narnian Chronicles, where the lion Aslan is victorious in the last battle.
Many of these myths are disguised as children's stories, for all faith begins in childhood. But in the past decade, adults have unabashedly reached for these myths again, re-writing the Arthurian stories and pushing Tolkien well beyond the cult status he previously enjoyed.
The newest entry into the field is "The Book of the Dun Cow," certain to attract the followers of Tolkien and Richard Adams-and old-line admirers of E. B. White.
"The Book of the Dun Cow" relates how the animal inhabitants of the earth-eons ago when the world "was still fixed in the absolute center of the universe"-discover and fulfill their destinies as the wardens of Wyrm, a giant monstrosity imprisoned by God beneath the surface of the earth itself.
There is no humor, only dread, in Wyrm, the linear descendant of Jormungand of the Norsemen and Ouroboros of the Greeks: "He was in the shape of a serpent, so damnably huge that he could pass once around the earth and then bite his own tail ahead of him. He lived in caverns underneath the earth's crust; but he could, when he wished, crawl through rock as if it had been loose dirt. He lived in darkness, in dampness, in the cold. He stank fearfully, because his outer skin was always rotting, a runny putrefaction which made him itch, and which he tore away from himself by scraping his back against the granite teeth of the deep. He was lonely. He was powerful, because evil is powerful. He was angry. And he hated, with an intense and abiding hatred, the God who had locked him within the earth."
When Wyrm rebels, his army is spearheaded by his son Cockatrice, the half-serpent half-rooster of ancient Greek origin, and manned by his vicious offspring the basilisks, "black licorice long, damp, each with two burning eyes" and poisonous venom.
Against such a force Chauntecleer, the ruler of the animals, must unite all his subjects-rodents, fowl, insects -- with the aid of the sorrowful Mundo Cani Dog, the virtuous Pertelote, Chauntecleer's mate, and John Wesley Weasel. Solemn as the situation is, there is great humor and affection in the descriptions of the wildly diverse animals in Chauntecleer's kingdom. The Wild Turkeys, for example, have "ridiculous heads on ridiculous, tubby bodies with ridiculous, good-natured chatter . . . smiling, nodding, and burping on everyone."
Like the entire book these descriptions demand to be read aloud, pacing along with the deliberate and militant rhythm of medieval oral literature until the final drumbeat of the book's climax echoes with a hollow finality.
The title is borrowed from the oldest known volumn in Gaelic (12th century), so named for its tan cowhide cover. Within the story, the Dun Cow is the messenger of God and her broken horn provides Mundo Cani the weapon with which he blinds the one-eyed Wyrm. The cow with the broken horn wanders through literature from Cuchulain to "The House that Jack Built"; the blinding harkens back to Ulysses and Cyclops.
Walter Wangerin, Jr., the man who has so fluidly woven all these legends together into one small gem, has done graduate study in medieval English literature and has a master's degree in divinity. This first novel, though published for "young adults," will undoubtedly attract a wide audience as well-and could be a natural for animation.
|Reviewed by Eve Zibart|
|From Robert Siegel (2002)||[Top]|
Reflections on the Nature of Evil in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows
A review essay by Robert Siegel
In his essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics," J.R. R. Tolkien draws a significant distinction between the mythologies of northern Europe and of southern Europe that is pertinent to an understanding of the nature of evil in Walter Wangerin's fable of Chauntecleer the Rooster. In the northern myths, according to Tolkien, the gods are not all-powerful, but fight with men against the monsters. Ultimately men and gods lose, and the world ends in fire and destruction. In sunnier Mediterranean lands, however capriciously the Olympians may behave, they are ultimately in control of both monsters and men. Whatever may happen to the individual mortal, light, order, and the immortals prevail.
Despite Christian elements in Beowulf, Tolkien points out, the northern view predominates in the poem. Similarly, despite the profound Biblical symbolism and elements of Christian theology in The Book of the Dun Cow and it sequel, The Book of Sorrows, the story of Chauntecleer shares this Norse or Teutonic pessimism when it comes to the future of the animal community and the created world it guards. I find the starkness appropriate to this heroic tale or fable, which is certainly the most beautifully written beast-fable in English since Animal Farm. The fable at once, more dark, more hopeful, and more profound than Orwell's, dealing, as it does, with issues transcending the social and political.
In The Book of the Dun Cow, evil is incarnate in the form of Wyrm, that huge serpent from Norse mythology which holds the world in its coils--head in tail, like the worm Ouroboros. Imprisoned in the earth by God, Wyrm is kept there by the animals:
They were the last protection against an almighty evil which, should it pass them, would burst bloody into the universe and smash into chaos and sorrow everything that had been made both orderly and good. The stars would be no help against him; and even the angels, the messengers of God--even the Dun Cow herself--would only grieve before him and then die; for messengers can speak, but they cannot do as the animals could. (BDC, 23) 1
In The Book of Sorrows the worms inside Chauntecleer sing, "Finally, Cock, at the bottom of things, this is the truth that controls the universe: that everyone hurt, hurts back; that everyone cut, cuts back and double. And it has a name. . . . Its name is Chaos." Although the worms are obviously not to be trusted to tell the whole truth, their truth does seem to prevail on earth.
Chauntecleer, Pertelote and the other animals in Wangerin's fable live in a small community ordered around the canonical hours. They are generally kindly and decent folk, though often as foolish as human beings. Whatever spite, envy, and wickedness they participate in pales beside the monstrous physical and metaphysical evil of Wyrm. Not only does this giant serpent itself threaten the community, but it sends a plague of smaller serpents upon them, and its offspring, the Basilisk, does mortal combat with their leader Chauntecleer. Through Chauntecleer's bravery and that of the other animals, especially the Christ-like self-sacrifice of the dog Mundo Cani, destruction is averted in the first volume. Throughout we see plenty of evidence of charity and faith, and even some of hope--though here this last virtue is certainly the evidence of things not seen. The first volume does end with the dog's heroic blinding of Wyrm, and the cessation of conflict. But the counterweighing realization is that many beautiful things--including Mundo Cani--are gone. Any note of hope is strongly muted.
At the end there is a hint of resurrection, however. Pertelote speaks of Mundo Cani to the stricken Rooster: "No, he is alive. Under the earth, but alive. Dreadfully close to Wyrm, but alive. There was much Mundo Cani told me while you lay in your darkness and would not listen to him. He had a nose for intuition. He is alive, and only the bravest will go to him" (BDC, 240). This resurrection hope is not fulfilled in the second volume, where Chauntecleer, distracted by grief, lugs the dog's bones up from the underworld to give them proper burial; ironically, his fierce devotion to the remains (the same heroic pagan piety found in Antigone) is the immediate cause of The Book of Sorrow's tragic ending. The continuing note is chiefly one of sorrow or, at best, the nearly-despairing Christian stoicism earlier shown by Chauntecleer when grieving for his three sons: "He wills that I work his work in this place. Indeed, I am left behind to labor. . . .And one day he may show his face beneath his damnable clouds to tell me what that work might be; what's worth so many tears; what's so important in his sight that it needs to be done this way" (BDC 125).
Even the marvelous dun cow, whom C. S. Lewis would surely call one of the "immemorial comforters"--and who does strongly suggest the Comforter, the Holy Spirit--can only suffer along with the animals in their afflictions. If Wyrm were to triumph, she would "only grieve. . .and then die"(BDC, 23). In her presence, Chauntecleer notes, "Nothing changed: The clouds would not be removed, nor his sons returned, nor his knowledge plenished. But there was this. His grief had become her grief" (BDC, 126)
The Book of Sorrows treats of the aftermath of the war with Wyrm and his legions. It is even more profound than the first book in its portrayal of suffering, kindness, and love and the continuing struggle of Chauntecleer with Wyrm. But finally it affords even less hope. As I remarked above, the savior-figure who goes under the earth in self-sacrifice is found to have died there. Chauntecleer in his descent in search of his friend discovers that Mundo Cani did indeed kill (or disembody) Wyrm before dying himself, but later learns to his horror that the spirit of Wyrm is very much alive and in now inside himself and the others. Wyrm has seized the opportunity of dying in order to escape his subterranean prison inside of Chauntecleer. By the end of the second volume, the external struggle of the animals against Wyrm has become an insidious internal struggle.
The Christian forgiveness offered to the guilt-tormented Rooster by the Dun Cow and Ferric the Coyote is received by him, too late. Chauntecleer takes his own life in order to rid himself of the evil inhabiting him in the form of wormlets received from contact with Wyrm. He dies like a noble pagan of old, his own judge, jury, and executioner. His heroic stature is not without concomitant heroic pride and colossal, self-scathing sensitivity. These qualities prove finally to be his Achilles' heel, for at the end he cannot enter into the humility of a Mundo Cani or Ferric. Chauntecleer believes he needs to earn Pertelote's love; he must "do something to earn love and justification.: "Oh, I would die to purge myself," he declares to her. "Dead, I could receive your love."
There are a number of instructive parallels to Beowulf in this fable. Like the Geats or Hrothgar's half-Danes, the community of animals is a fragile one in an harsh, unfriendly world and fights to survive under a strong leader. Hrothgar's comitatus, or mead-hall community, disturb Grendel because they represent light and order and sing songs of praise in the otherwise chaotic darkness of night. But the leader Hrothgar is no longer strong. The timely arrival of the legendary Beowulf preserves Hrothgar's tribe. We might notice that Mundo Cani, like Beowulf, leaps under the earth to do battle with the monster in his lair. Later, Beowulf saves his own community from a great dragon or wyrm, but only at the expense of his own life. Like The Book of Sorrows, Beowulf ends with praise for the hero but with little hope for the Geats, since their protective leader is dead. At the end both communities are left exposed to the wolves.
Though obviously composed or written down by a Christian monk, Beowulf does not present the evangelium of Christianity, the Good News of eternal life and resurrection. The narrator usually restricts himself to Christian asides on a world still largely pagan in outlook. In Chauntecleer's world, on the other hand, we have a Judaeo-Christian cosmography, with God above and the Enemy below, and in the community of the animals we have the Biblical virtues of faith, charity, humility, sympathy, kindness, self-sacrifice, conviction of sin, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy.
What, speaking theologically, are underplayed, if not absent, from this fable are redemption and resurrection. Chauntecleer appears to refuse the redemptive grace that is offered him--at least until after he has exacted a terrible price from himself. Full redemption and resurrection appear to be available only beyond the walls of the world, on the spiritual plane, if there. The inadequacy of any earthly help is caught graphically in the image of the death of Benoni, the coyote pup. His mother Rachel snatches him up in her jaws to carry him from the path of the stampeding animals, only to be struck down herself:
And this is what John Wesley saw:
Benoni Coyote, caught in his mother's jaws; but he could not free himself however he wriggled, because she was dead.
"Mama?" His mouth formed the word. "Mama?" (BOS, 237-238)
In that terrible moment the stag's hoof descends. The very jaws that would save Benoni ironically fix him to his doom.
His death leads to the death of the noble stag and to Chauntecleer's. The book ends with Pertelote singing of Chauntecleer, remembering him with praise, as Beowulf is remembered after his death. There is no talk of resurrection such as closed The Book of the Dun Cow. Rather there is a certain philosophical detachment and peace achieved by Chaunticleer, Pertelote, and the Weasel as they spend the last moments of the Rooster's life together: "The time of weeping was over. They knew better, now. They knew to say Is and Was in righteous separation, to sit in the Is, to remember the Was, and themselves merely to be."
There are currents in modern theology, beginning with Kierkegaard and moving through Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others, which emphasize the otherness of God, the aloneness and alienation of modern and postmodern man, and which compel us to take a steady look at the bleakness of the century's landscape. The stance is always unsentimental, often heroic, and can remind us of those lines from Luther's hymn where he confesses that, as far as the Enemy goes, "on earth is not his equal." The world is chaotic and there is--as the worms sing--no justice in chaos. Though canonical crows can impose order and sanity on things for a while, left to themselves things will slide back into the chaos we are all too well acquainted with.
In the both books the redemptive side of God, though present, seems restrained. The Dun Cow herself suggests the healing, maternal salvific side of God, but is only partly effective because Chauntecleer resists her proffered grace until it is too late--to save his life, at least, and (one infers) that of the community. At one point when the Dun Cow offers him forgiveness and immense consolation, the Rooster, in his pride, refuses it:
But she lowed, Look at me.
He broke. But he didn't look at her. He said softly, "I know you. You want to forgive me." And then he said, "But don't you know--that your forgiveness is my punishment? So then you are justified, but I am killed. Oh, please," he said, "tell me something I can do to deserve--"
She said, Look at me.
In despair he repeated, "I can't." (BOS, 62)
The poet Coleridge, who when young had shared the Romantics' confidence in the primal innocence of nature, toward the end of his life wondered if nature itself were not "peccant." Similarly, by the end of The Book of Sorrows we may well feel that nature itself is sinful--that it has been twisted and corrupted by Wyrm. There is likewise a parallel here to the mythology of Tolkien's Middle Earth. In The Silmarillion we learn that the evil figure Morgoth invaded primal matter at the beginning of creation and twisted part of it--so that in Middle Earth nature may be morally bad or good. But there is an important difference between The Silmarillion and the later Lord of the Rings. In the earlier work, the elves are doomed by history and their own greed to an unequal battle with evil that will end in their leaving Middle Earth in defeat. The tone throughout is one of melancholy and smacks of northern myth. In the later Lord of the Rings, the evangelium of a redemptive presence in nature is strongly suggested by the monk-like elves, by Tom Bombadil, and by the earthy and resilient hobbits themselves. Despite Sauron's depredations on, and corruptions of, nature, these characters might claim with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that, no matter how one has perverted nature, bleared, smeared it with his toil, "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."
Perhaps the question comes down to this: in the universe of Chauntecleer and Wyrm is the battle between good and evil on earth inevitably to be won by the dark forces? Is victory for the good only temporary on earth and permanent only in some spiritual realm? Is the world of matter doomed to return to chaos, as in the Nibelungenlied and other northern myths?
My impression is that all of these questions may be answered in the affirmative. For the heroic world of Chauntecleer the stark atmosphere seems desirable. For at the end the story is a (qualified) tragedy. Like Beowulf's sacrifice for the Geats, Chauntecleer's death is that of an heroic savior-figure. To stop the evil that he finds in himself, in the form of the spawn of Wyrm, from spreading, Chauntecleer takes his own life: "Before any Creature can stop him, Chauntecleer the Rooster puts the point of the Slasher to his own breast" (BOS, 334).
Earlier in the story Chauntecleer could not accept the forgiveness offered by the Dun Cow, because in his pride he could not bear to forgive himself for the deaths of Mundo Cani and others. The very qualities we admire him for are the springs of the final tragedy. Like Oedipus and other tragic figures, he is his own judge and executioner. Yet his sacrifice is also for the good of his people. His sacrifice belongs to an heroic world, and the largeness of Chauntecleer's spirit, despite the pride which brings about his end, fascinates us and evokes both our pity and admiration.
1. All references are to The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows in the Perennial Library edition issued by Harper & Row, San Francisco, l989.
Copyright ? 2002 Robert Siegel. Used by permission.
|Reviewed by Robert Siegel|