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“Sorrow spoken lends a little courage to the speaker.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Part Aesop’s Fables meets Animal Farm, meets Lord of the Rings meets Narnia, The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows are my favorite novels of any genre. The books are equal parts fantasy and fable, but they transcend the genre. Though it may seem strange to include two fantasy novels on a list of favorite spiritual formation books, author Walter Wangerin, Jr., a former Pastor, has created two novels that are works of art that have such depth and beauty that the very act of reading them was a transformative experience.

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Book of the Dun Cow, winner of The 1980 National Book Award, is a tale of two kingdoms . One kingdom, “God’s Keepers”, are led by Chauntecleer. The other is led by Senex. Chauntecleer is indeed the “Cock of the roost”, proud and somewhat arrogant, but a good rooster, faithful, heroic, and respected. He leads the hens and other nearby farm animals that make up the community. Like any community, these animals are filled with personalities that can be difficult, and yet find a way to get along. But unbeknownst to these funny, very human animals lies a great evil. Buried deep beneath the earth, very very deep, is a primordial evil, imprisoned there ages ago by their creator. The evil Wyrm. Wyrm has found a way of escape from imprisonment through the aging, bitter, and envious rooster named Senex, who’s spiritual condition provides an opening for the evil Wyrm. Senex begins to listen to the lies that Wyrm begins whispering to him, and lays an egg. Yes, the rooster lays an egg, and just as unnatural is the disturbing monstrosity that hatches: Cockatrice, who has the head of a rooster, but the body of a dragon, and begins to breed with the other hens who spawn the basilisks. Cockatrice brings with him an evil darkness that threatens to destroy their world, but even more dangerous is the threat to their souls. Told with humor and beauty, the book also carries an emotional wallop as it wrestles with questions we all have about good and evil. We see Chauntecleer struggle in prayer as he tries to make sense of the pain and sorrows they experience, and we see God’s nurture and comfort portrayed in the character of “The Dun Cow”. Though the book isnt an allegory, we do see something of the nature of Christ in the Dun Cow, who offers comfort and nurture to the weary Chauntecleer. We also see the sacrificial nature of Christ in the Eeyor-like dog Mundo Cani who rises to heroic stature.

“How many battles make a war?” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun Cow is an epic story of the battle of good versus evil, that combines compelling storytelling and theological reflection with a skill that in my opinion rivals that of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series for sheer power and poetry. But it does so in a very real, and at times painful way. As Jayme Lynn Blaschke wrote in a review of the book:

“There are no corners cut here, no cheap plot devices invoked by the author to get his anthropomorphic characters out of tight spots. Every victory won is marked by tremendous pain. Every defeat lost is marked by untold suffering. There is no bravado in the face of evil here, only terror and self-doubt. Yet despite this, the animal heroes press on, paying terrible prices all for their courage.”

By the end of Dun Cow, Wangerin has asked us to consider the possibility that, “It is entirely possible to win against the enemy, it is possible, even, to kill the enemy… and still be defeated by the battle.” In its sequel, The Book of Sorrows, we are forced to meet this theme head on in a cautionary tale for all of us, leaders in particular.

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After their fierce conflict with the dreaded Wyrm, Chauntecleer, and the other animals are trying to rebuild their lives and their community when once again Wyrm finds a way to infiltrate their ranks, and with tragic consequences. In Sorrows we see a weary Chauntecleer, filled with guilt and doubt, and depressed with an increased awareness of his failings. As he wrestles with his own inner demons, we watch one of God’s creatures, in an attempt to do good and overcome evil, now face the danger of becoming that which he sought to overcome. The book is deeply insightful and also action filled, a story The New York Times called a “…powerful, troubling conclusion”. So troubling and powerful, in fact, the book is difficult to read in places because of its visceral impact. Be forewarned, where Dun Cow was at times very humorous, Sorrows, while remaining heroic (more so in many ways), and so beautiful in places it will literally bring you to tears, it is also grim. The threat of impending danger is real, and we grieve for the characters who have become so dear to us. It is a painful journey as we descend into the heart of darkness of a beloved character. Many people who read the book admit to shedding tears. It’s a painfully sobering, yet beautiful story, that cuts deeply. Yet, it inflicts a wound that ultimately heals. It heals because Wangerin shows us how even in our biggest failings and deepest sorrows, forgiveness is offered, and God’s love, even in darkness, never fails.

“Her ballad did nothing to make the serpants lovely.  Her ballad hid nothing of their dread.  But the music itself spoke of faith and certainty; the melody announced the presence of God.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Once again, these two books together make up my favorite of any genre (they’re also on Eugene Peterson’s list of essential spiritual formation books). They’re beautiful, but Wangerin pulls no punches.

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