Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow is a very difficult book to place among other books. It shares some of Watership Down's anthropomorphic characterization and some of Narnia's allegory and dense symbolism, all while remaining a deceptively simple and plain story. It has Lewis' and Tolkein's rare quality of being equally enjoyable (on different levels) to both children and adults.
Its main characters are Chauntecleer the Rooster, his mate Pertelote, his nemesis Cockatrice, and his staunch friend Mundo Cani Dog. It is the story of a proud rooster who rises to the challenge of leading his people against an enemy that approaches from another land to consume and destroy. Chauntecleer and Pertelote (whose names derive from two characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) marshall the animals over whom they rule as Lord and Lady and seek to rid their land of the encroaching evil.
It is the imagery and the means by which this evil is vanquished that makes this story great. We learn quickly that this is no ordinary barnyard story. There is indeed a collection of animals associated with the American midwest farm: roosters and hens, a dog, and a cow, and further off, weasels, ants, rats, turkeys, deer, and wolves. The hens dwell in a coop made of wood, but no mention is ever made of men, and though we expect it from the beginning, no farm is ever mentioned. We learn late that this story is not set in our history. The world in which Chauntecleer and Pertelote dwell is a unique one, and one in which the animals have been given the charge of containing a great evil that dwells below the earth.
The evil's name is Wyrm. Wangerin draws Wyrm's imagery from loosely from old Gnostic and ancient near eastern concepts of the Ouroboros, the enormous dragon that eats its own tail. Wyrm is not so much a monster in this story as a force. It is the embodiment of evil and corruption, the force opposed to God, who imprisoned Wyrm beneath the earth and entrusted the animals with its safekeeping.
The story takes place in a time when the nature of the animals' task has been forgotten and they have been lax in their vigilance. In a far off kingdom, Wyrm comes to another Rooster in a dream. The Rooster's great fear is death, and Wyrm tells him a secret by which he can cheat death and have his youth restored. By drawing on Wyrm's power, the Rooster lays a corrupt egg in whom he will be reborn. Drawing on medieval tradition, the creature that emerges from the egg is Cockatrice, part serpent and part Rooster. This creature, a corruption of its former self and a slave to Wyrm, slays its Rooster father and begins to rule over his domain with ruthless ferocity, slaying anyone who dares approach him. He then steals every egg laid by the hens under his rule and broods over them. Again, drawing on medieval tradition, Cockatrice is able to then corrupt the chicks inside, who emerge from the egg as Basilisks.
These three manifestations of evil become for Wangerin three stages of Wyrm's attempt to break free from his prison and destroy Creation. The animals face the invasion from this other domain, first fighting in unison against the threat of the endless hordes of Basilisks. Then it is Chauntecleer's task to confront Cockatrice alone. And finally, Wyrm himself must be confronted, but it is a task beyond mortal Chauntecleer's ability and has been fated to another.
These different representations of evil and the imagery with which Wangerin depicts their development and final defeat that is the great beauty of this book. Being a deep allegory of Christian theology, God is present throughout the book in all three Trinitarian persons, though it is difficult to know just how until the full story is known. The Incarnation in which God emptied Himself and took on the form of a man is uniquely and instructively illustrated.
This is a book in which the nature and ways of evil are glimpsed, questions regarding evil's power and reach are asked, and evil's defeat is explored. This book sheds light on our own responsibility for the defeat of evil in our world and also starkly demonstrates the boundary between what we can accomplish through our strength and what must be accomplished by the One who lies beyond us.