The Book of Sorrows is the riveting sequel to The Book of the Dun Cow (1978), which was chosen a best children’s book of the year by The New York Times and a best book for children by School Library Journal. There the Animals of the Coop first wage war against the Serpent Wyrm and subdue him, though not without great cost to their own. The Book of Sorrows affirms that Wyrm is on the move again, this time more subtly. The spirit of death, of hopelessness, is everywhere; it is the soul’s winter. This is no childish beast tale, no simple allegory. The perimeters of evil have fallen; the Enemy is not only out there but inside. How do you fight yourself?
Walter Wangerin, Jr., is a former teacher of English, a medievalist, and an ordained Lutheran minister. The Book of the Dun Cow derives its title from a volume of the same name, issued about 1100, which recounts portions of an old Irish saga composed in the seventh and eighth centuries. It is the fight for the possession of the great brown bull of Cooley, pitting Ulster against Connaught. The names Chauntecleer and Pertelote come from the medieval beast fables of Reynard the Fox, stories that circulated in Germany, France, and other countries from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Geoffrey Chaucer adapted some of the French material for his “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” as it appears in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387). Chaucer’s tale is a lighthearted fable in which the cock Chauntecleer outwits the pridefully stupid fox and avoids being eaten. Chaucer’s Chauntecleer is a noble cock with the finest crows in the land. Wangerin’s Chauntecleer is Lord of the Keep, hedging in the hours with canonical crows, peerless. Pertelote in both stories is beautiful, sensitive, a loving companion to a sometimes prideful and private rooster. The first hint of evil in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” comes in the form of a dream, the vision of a strange, doglike animal with gleaming eyes, intending to feast on Chauntecleer.
This material is reworked and raised to cosmic proportions in Wangerin’s story, which is set in a long-ago time when Animals could speak and understand, when the Earth was still the center of creation. It was God who chose the Animals to be the Keepers of the great evil that must not escape lest disorder and sorrow rule the day. Chauntecleer, proud cock, first encounters the Enemy in a dream in The Book of the Dun Cow. There the strange river speaks to him evil words, that he has been forsaken by the Animals, forgotten, and left to die on a tiny island. Proud Chauntecleer must humiliate himself and call for help from Mundo Cani Dog, a headache of a canine with his monstrous nose and constant whining: He resents being marooned in such an ugly body. The dream is more than a hint that the Lord of the Keep is not truly in charge of the lives under his jurisdiction. “I can choose against evil,” the cock tells Pertelote after the dream. But what if evil chooses him?
The Book of Sorrows opens with a guilty and tormented Chauntecleer. The Animals lost their innocence in their war against Wyrm, as recounted in The Book of the Dun Cow. The Serpent claimed many lives and sought to split the earth and rise to the surface in his hatred of God, who had imprisoned him. Were it not for the self-sacrifice of Mundo Cani Dog, Wyrm would have triumphed. It was not the Rooster but the Dog, Mundo Cani, now beloved by Chauntecleer, who punctured the eye and brain of that great Serpent. It is Mundo Cani who now lies trapped in the Netherworld in Wyrm’s domain.
The dead have been put to rest, and winter has come. The Animals have become wanderers, their Coop destroyed in the War. The Rooster is transfixed with hatred for...
(The entire section is 1553 words.)