The Book of the Dun Cow Critical Essays

Walter Wangerin Jr.


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Like the heroic epics of long ago, such as Beowulf and The Song of Roland, this beast epic deals with the nature of good and evil and the inevitable but shocking war between them. In this story, however, the heroic action yields not the giddiness of glory but the grief of pain, sacrifice, and loss. Although the tale reflects a medieval cosmography, political structure, and literary tradition, it strikes the contemporary reader as eerily modern, with unsettling reverberations of twentieth century tyrants, killing fields, and holocausts. As such, it delivers a significant moral message to both young and older readers, reminding them that peace is tenuous as long as evil has not been contained; that vigilance is vital lest evil destroy the good; that the qualities of goodness, compassion, courage, and love must be given the chance to flourish, for they have the power to prevail against the power of darkness.

Within this tale of conflict and combat are some marvelously funny episodes, entertaining characters, and a tender love story. The genuine affection that grows between Chauntecleer and Pertelote ennobles the intemperate leader and enables Pertelote to experience healing of her own psychic wounds and share the burdens of her mate. This relationship casts a warm glow in the midst of a world threatened by hate and cruelty.

This book, the author’s first, has all the qualities of a classic: an archetypal, universal theme; a plot with vigor and verve, with movement and direction, with tension and resolution; a memorable, vivid set of characters who are brilliantly particularized; and a colorful style that has wit, variety, and passion. Hailed as the best children’s book of the year, it enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success. In 1980 it received the National Religious Book Award, and in 1981 it won both the American Book Award and an American Library Association Notable Book citation. Encouraged, the author turned to writing full-time. In addition to volumes of stories and nonfiction, he has since written other fantasies for younger children, including Thistle (1983) and Elizabeth and the Water-Troll (1991). He has also written a sequel to The Book of the Dun Cow, titled The Book of Sorrows (1985). His novel The Crying for a Vision was published in 1994.