Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Rooster Is My Hero

One summer, I got a letter from the Writing Academy. The Academy was an international writer's group that began in 1978. So in August of 1980, we were going to come together for our third annual meeting. That's when the letter came.

It was an announcement that the featured speaker for the conference was a young pastor from some place in Indiana. Some guy named Walter Wangerin, Jr.  

Or whatever.

Oh great, I thought. They couldn't get a REAL writer for a speaker, so they got some pastor from Podunkville to fill the time. Isn't that just peachy? 

But I did note that his book was a fantasy novel, and I was, after all, a rabid fantasy fan. And incidentally, it had won a little something called the National Book Award. My curiosity was piqued.

Something else interesting happened to me that same summer. I became a mom for the first time.

So I rocked and fed my baby boy while I read Wangerin's novel, The Book of the Dun Cow--loosely based on the beast fable of Chanticleer and the Fox, adapted from a story in The Canterbury Tales



The characters in Dun Cow are all animals--barnyard and woodland creatures. They live in a pre-human world, and they have a solemn task assigned to them by the Almighty. They are the keepers of Wyrm, an evil basilisk locked in the earth's core.

The leader of the barnyard is Chauntecleer, the proud rooster, supported by his wife, the beautiful Pertelote, and many friends--including the impetuous John Wesley Weasel, the mystical Dun Cow, and the mournful mutt, Mundo Cani. For all his bluster and bravado, Chauntecleer has a huge heart, and he takes his leadership role very seriously. It falls to him to protect his many "children" from the terror of Cockatrice, an evil half-rooster/half-serpent creature spawned by Wyrm. There is an epic war between the army of Cockatrice and the army of the valiant Chauntecleer.

Cockatrice. Say it out loud and you are hissing.

Walter Wangerin, Jr.
I found the characters to be well-rounded and true-to-life and the story engaging and gripping. There were so many nuances and layers of meaning. When I finished, my preconceptions had been shattered and my heart deeply touched.  I still have that paperback edition of Dun Cow, with its beautiful cover art and well-worn pages.

Not bad for a pastor from Podunkville. I knew I had to go and meet this guy.

And meet him I did. Not only was Rev. Wangerin an excellent writer--he was a dynamic and inspiring speaker, one of the most memorable I have ever heard.



A few years later, Wangerin released a second book about the brave rooster and his companions. Alas, I found The Book of Sorrows to be rather depressing, as Chauntecleer dealt with guilt about  the death of some of his dearest friends. (I believe this book has now been renamed The Second Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations.)



Book Two begins after the great war. Chauntecleer is leading the animals on a journey to find a new home, since the barnyard has been despoiled by their enemies. Throughout this story, Chauntecleer's sorrow is deepening, as he mourns the loss of his friends. This story ends in  a tragedy.

Last year, I decided to look Wangerin up online and see what he has been doing lately. To my delight, I discovered that he has written a conclusion to the Dun Cow trilogy: Peace at the Last. And I am happy to say that Book Three gives a triumphant and satisfying ending to the story of Chauntecleer, Pertelote, and their brave comrades-in-arms. But I won't say more, lest the Spoiler Police hunt me down through my IP address.
The spoiler police--nah, just kidding--
it's a basilisk.
So much for my pre-conceived notions. A pastor from Podunkville turned out to be one of the best writers I have ever read and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. My bookshelves house many titles by this writer--in the section where I keep the really good books, the ones worth reading again and again. The Dun Cow books are keepers.




Photo credits:
     barnyard -- public domain; rooster and chicken -- photo by Stijn Ghesquiere 2004;       
     Book of the Dun Cow -- cover art; Walter Wangerin, Jr. -- photo by Liddlelf;      
     Aubrac cow -- author: Jean-Luc Bailleul;
     rooster head -- photo by Roman K√∂hler, public domain; 
     basilisk -- painted by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822) -- public domain; 
     rooster -- a pastel by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), photo by Sara Atkins

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