Friday, January 8, 2016
Review -- The Book Of The Dun Cow
Set in a distant time before Man, when the sun still orbited the Earth and animals could still speak, the stakes in Wangerin's tale couldn't be any higher: there is a horrible evil rising in a distant land, that threatens the very pillars of creation. Its vile army of monsters and dark magic spreads at a rapid pace, and few in its wake are willing to acknowledge its coming before it is too late for them. So it falls to a noble rooster king, Chauntecleer, and the common-folk animals of his kingdom to rise to the occasion and save the world, perhaps at the cost of their own lives.
Like C.S. Lewis's Narnia (another big influence on Great & Small), The Book Of The Dun Cow is a Christian fable cloaked in an epic fantasy story, but is so well done that it transcends its own religious identity to become something with more universal appeal. When I first read it back in high school (aka, the Pleistocene Era), I couldn't help but see it as at least a thematic cousin to Tolkein's great trilogy as well as Lewis's series. It just feels like an epic medieval fantasy, despite the lack of swords, elves, and castles. Indeed, I distinctly remember pitching it to a friend as, "Animal Farm meets The Lord Of The Rings."
Also like LOTR, Dun Cow features monsters that would become staples of nearly every version of the D&D game and its imitators. Tolkein had dragons and orcs, of course. This novel has basilisks and their master, the Cockatrice, with their powers pretty much straight out of (or into?) the Monster Manual.
Winner of the National Book Award in 1980, Dun Cow was considered a surefire future classic, but seems to have fallen into obscurity among fantasy fans since then... a fate it does not deserve. In my opinion, it's not just the definitive animal fantasy novel, but a great fantasy novel, period. It has pride of place on my shelf alongside Tolkein, Lewis, Lackey, and Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song, as one of those fantasy books I keep coming back to and always seems fresh, revealing new depths every time it's read.
Contrasted with Watership Down -- which was essentially a sandbox hexcrawl with rabbits -- Dun Cow is more of a scripted campaign with a multi-racial adventuring party. It's a great model for how to integrate characters of multiple species who might otherwise be antagonists to one another into a cohesive unit bound by loyalty and mutual affection. In addition to Chauntecleer the rooster, the main heroes include a depressed dog, a family of mice, and a weasel. Even ants get in on the action.
I loved Watership Down, as both a kid and an adult. But it was The Book Of The Dun Cow that first made me want to play D&D with animal PCs. If you haven't already, I recommend you read it, and see if it has the same effect on you.