Book Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

“The Book of the Dun Cow” by Walter Wangerin

If you’re wondering what in the heck a “dun cow” is, you’re not alone. As it turns out, dun is a color (“gray-gold or tan”, in fact), which in this case describes a cow. Don’t you love learning new things?

Here’s something else you may not know: This is a TERRIFIC book!

The Book of the Dun Cow is a novel which in many ways defies classification. Though the New York Times endorsement quoted on the back cover refers to the book as an “allegorical fantasy”, that is not quite accurate (as the author himself points out in the afterward attached to the 25th Anniversary Edition). There are certainly elements from the beast fable genre — all of the characters are animals — but without the moralization of Aesop and others like him. The story is an epic battle between good and evil, but lacks the epic length of other similar novels such as The Lord of the Rings.

As with all great stories, the Story itself is of far greater value than any moral or allegorical lesson. The struggle of Lord Chauntecleer the Rooster and the animals of his domain against the evil Wyrm and his minion, Cockatrice, is one of the most engaging tales I have ever read. Wangerin is a masterful storyteller (see my review of his novel Paul) and quickly makes readers care deeply about hens, mice, and foxes. Their struggles become our own as we identify with them in their laughter, tragedy, and romance. The Dun Cow herself rarely appears (and even more rarely speaks) in the book, but the role she plays — which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself — points us to the greatest reality of all.

I frequently found myself reading portions of this book to my wife, just for the sheer fun of hearing the story out loud! I can’t wait until my children are old enough to enjoy hearing it read to them as well. Especially I enjoyed reading (or, rather, howling) lines from my favorite character, Mundo Cani Dog, which are in equal parts hilarious and thought-provoking.

You would do well to read this book. I’m so glad I did! Along with another “beast epic”, Watership Down (see my review), this book has firmly planted itself on my list of novels to read and re-read many times. Enjoy it!

Buy it here.

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