Good and evil, long at war; the feeble things of this world chosen to confound the great and the foolish to confound the wise; God in his heaven and the great enemy coming against his creatures; the horrid lure of sin and the beautiful agony of faithfulness; the sorrow of loneliness and the sweet ache of love; the agonizing distance of God in trouble and his provision of bewildering aid – these all writ large in the lives of simple animals. This is The Book of the Dun Cow.
I had never heard of Walter Wangerin Jr. until Kevin DeYoung recommended this book at the end of last year. I now intend to read every book in Wangerin’s oeuvre. This book was that good.
In those days, when the animals could both speek and understand speech, the world was round as it is today. It encountered the four seasons, endured night, rejoiced in the day, offered waking and sleeping, hurt, anger, love, and peace to all of the creatures who dwelt upon it—as it does today. Birth happened, lives were lived out upon the face of it, and then death followed. These things were no different from the way they are today. But yet some things were very different.
For in those days 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, helpless, and ignorant—among the blind stars.
Wangerin is a good writer. His prose may surprise you, though; it is old-fashioned. Not in the sense of difficult-to-follow, but rather in the way it rejects the journalistic prose so fashionable in most modern fiction. He is not wordy or pedantic; it is just that he is enchanted with words, and seems determined in the best way to enchant the reader with them, too. The narrative voice is perhaps the most surprising: Wangerin happily employs an omniscient third person narrator, and does it well.
The plot is simple and the characters equally so, at least at first blush. As the pages unfold, though, both plot and characters unveil considerable resonance and depth. The characters remain simple, but they are neither flat nor static. Likewise, the plot is never complex, but it takes shape as something more akin to mythology than mere adventure.
Though Wangerin is writing in a genre near that of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, with his talking animals and fantastical world, the kinship with Tolkien is equally apparent. There is an intentional sense of mythic proportion to the events as they unfold. The omniscient narrator, the soaring language, the clearly explained antiquity of the setting: all evoke that same sense of ancient grandeur and mythological scale that Tolkien carried off so well.
Behind them all – Tolkien, Lewis, and Wangerin – stands the great tradition of English poets and storytellers. (Wangerin explicitly points to Chaucer in his afterword.)
Many modern novelists seem to have forgotten that their predecessors who truly excelled were nearly always lovers of the literature of the past. If people today cannot muster the profundity or power of language that Chesterton did, it is at least partly because they are not reading the books he did. How many of us read any Chaucer at all in school? And how many of us learned to love him, or John Donne, or Milton, or even Shakespeare? Truly great writing is born of truly great reading.
This is one half of the slow death of truly wonderful – that is, wonder-inducing – writing. Journalistic sensibilities have pushed novelists toward the urgent, the now, and left behind the past, even as they have murdered passionate prose in the name of brevity. Wangerin deftly dodges this other half, too: he values the power and glory of words as well as their utility.
Too many novelists treat words as nothing more than their meanings, shorn of any hint of power – a notion that the book’s plot rejects just as firmly as Wangerin’s prose does, and rightly so. When Hemingway and others decried wordiness, it was not because they were opposed to length itself length itself, or space given over for pure beauty. It was precisely because they recognized the power of a word well chosen. Equally, if every page is overflowing with words, they lose their impact. But every really great writer is willing to stop at times and simply let the beauty and power of language carry the book to heights greater than the mere transfer of information. The difference between a great writer and a merely good one, is this: the great one knows both that words have beauty to revel in, and that too many words drown the reader.
A final thought: The Book of the Dun Cow stirred my soul. It reminded me that we fight evil outside us, but that we must fight temptation and despair within just as fiercly. It reminded me that God’s ways are not mine. It reminded me that words have power and that choices in the dark have consequences in the light. It did all this without ever, ever preaching.
In his afterword, Wangerin spells out an aversion to allegory that sounds much like a similar explanation penned by Tolkien a quarter century earlier. Neither of them approved of stories that could be reduced to meaning – as Wangerin puts it, “This means that.” Many Christian authors would be well served by Wangerin’s pointed reminder:
Should I, the author, ever state in uncertain terms what my book means, it would cease to be a living thing; it would cease to be the novel it might have been, and would rather become an illustration of some defining, delimiting concept. Sermons do that well and right properly. Novels in which the themes demand intellectual attention can only be novels in spite of these didactic interruptions.
He is absolutely right, of course. Sermonizing is appropriate in a pulpit, but never in a novel. The Book of the Dun Cow was like a breath of fresh air after a week in Los Angeles – desperately beautiful. Would that there were more such books. I commend it to you.