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Literature: The Book of the Dun Cow
It won an award, and it's a children's book. You know what to expect...

The Book of the Dun Cow is a children's novel written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. It follows the story of Chauntecleer, a rooster from before the creation of man. He's the leader of a small coop and the land that surrounds it, as he tries to get accustomed to an unwelcomed guest, Mundo Cani, and stop somebody who's eating the eggs. But, after that's over with, he receives refugees fleeing from the land to the west, ruled by Cockatrice. Senex, the former ruler, wanted a son, even though he was impotent, and went about solving his problem the wrong way. Thus, his son, Cockatrice, was born of him and the giant evil Wyrm locked under the Earth by the natural goodness of the animals on the surface. Eventually, Cockatrice kills everything in his land with his basilisk offspring. God sends his messenger, the Dun Cow, to Chauntecleer, and then seals off Earth from the rest of the universe with rain clouds. Eventually, Cockatrice starts attacking Chauntecleer's land with basilisks, and Chauntecleer calls the animals of his land to defend it. Bloodshed ensues.

If the plot above seems a bit complicated for a kid's book, it's not just you. If anything is reminiscent of anything from the Good Book, then don't be surprised. If anything isn't reminiscent of the Good Book, you're obviously not trying hard enough. Got the New York Times's Best Children's Book of the Year, and the National Book Award. A lot of people die.

A sequel was written titled The Book of Sorrows, which is about as cheerful as you expect.

Now includes a character sheet.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Altum Videtur: Wyrm and the Dun Cow both speak in Latin, "the language of the powers".
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The basilisks.
  • Apologises a Lot: Senex's main problem. He can't stop apologizing, and his animals have no respect for him, which leads to his Deal with the Devil.
  • The Atoner: Chauntecleer, after he called Mundo Cani a traitor while delirious, right before the dog sacrificed himself to seal Wyrm back in the Earth.
    • Also his main motivation for staying in command of the Coop.
  • Badass Adorable: The Wee Widow Mouse's husband, who makes no secret of his opposition to Cockatrice. His last act is to attack Toad and ensure the death of them both.
  • Battle Cry:
  • The Berserker: John Wesley Weasel, as in the above example.
  • Big Bad: Wyrm, literally.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Carnivore Confusion: The Talking Animals do prey on each other, such as John Wesley Weasel and Ebenezer Rat, but predator animals and prey animals can trust one another, as Chauntecleer is willing to leave his children alone with Lord Russel the fox.
  • Chekhov's Cockspurs: Chauntecleer mentions his battle spurs Gaff and the Slasher when describing his Dark and Troubled Past to his animals, and later puts them on to battle Cockatrice.
  • Combat by Champion: Chauntecleer goes alone to fight Cockatrice after he is challenged to single combat.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Lord Russel the fox is a talkative but well-meaning friend of Chauntecleer.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Pertelote, who was raped by Cockatrice when she lived across the river, and Chauntecleer, who was a thief and rogue until an encounter with God compelled him to become leader of the Coop.
  • Dead Guy on Display: After killing Cockatrice, Chauntecleer severs his head and parades it in front of the animals, who go out to see the body.
  • Determinator:
    • When he has been impaled by Chauntecleer's battle spurs, Cockatrice lunges at Chauntecleer one last time and kills himself.
    • Also John Wesley Weasel, who keeps fighting even when he loses his ear in battle, and Chauntecleer himself while fighting Cockatrice.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Mundo Cani stops Wyrm from escaping by blinding him with the Dun Cow's horn.
  • Dirty Coward: Scrape the Otter, and Peck, to a lesser extent. However, the two see the error of their ways and do help fight, if unwillingly.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: Subverted. Taunting the Big Bad works.
  • Don't Say Such Stupid Things: Chauntecleer gives this sort of speech to Mundo Cani after an especially angsty moment.
  • The Dragon: Cockatrice is Wyrm's representative on Earth, and is the overt villain for most of the book.
  • Dream Sequence: Chauntecleer has a dream, implied to be sent by Wyrm, in which he wishes death on his animals, who he accuses of betraying him, and sees their dead bodies floating down the river. He is very relieved to find that it was All Just a Dream.
  • The Eeyore: Mundo Cani.
  • Enemy to All Living Things: The basilisks' poison kills everything alive in their way, even plants.
  • Evil Counterpart: Cockatrice, who almost exactly resembles Chauntecleer (except for the reptile parts).
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: When Senex births Cockatrice, Cockatrice grows unnaturally quickly, does not eat, and eventually, when Senex realizes something is wrong, murders the old rooster.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: The fight with the basilisks and, later, Cockatrice himself.
  • Fisher King: As this is before the creation of man, the animals are the rulers of the Earth. Their natural goodness is what keeps Wyrm trapped in the Earth, and his plan of escape naturally involves corrupting and killing them. The corruption of Senex is what allows Cockatrice to be born.
  • Gag Nose: Mundo Cani's #1 reason to angst.
  • Go for the Eye: Wyrm has one huge eye. Of course, that's the only weak point.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Chauntecleer is jealous of Mundo Cani because the Dun Cow takes a special interest in him. He finds out why too late.
  • Heel Face Door Slam:
    • Senex, and almost all of the animals under Cockatrice's rule. Some of them eventually take a stand against him, but his basilisks kill almost all of them.
    • Also Ebenezer Rat, who was an enemy of Chauntecleer but no friend to Wyrm. He in fact dies fighting a basilisk.
  • Heroic BSOD:
    • After the final battle, both John Wesley Weasel and Chauntecleer suffer from this. The last chapter is devoted to Pertelote breaking them out of it, Chauntecleer via Tear Jerker, John Wesley Weasel via Crowning Moment of Funny.
    • Chauntecleer also suffers a Heroic BSOD before the final battle with Wyrm, losing hope and accusing all of his closest allies, an angel of God, and his own wife of betraying him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Mundo Cani dives into the Earth, piercing Wyrm's eye and sealing both of them under the Netherworld Scar.
  • Hive Mind: Scarce, Chauntecleer's mosquito messenger. All mosquitoes are named Scarce and think of themselves as one being, and their (usually irritating) tendency to be almost everywhere comes in very, very useful for summoning the animals to prepare for war.
  • Hope Spot: After an entire winter of heavy rain, Chauntecleer gets married and has kids. Then, there's one relatively fresh day of spring. Then, basilisks kill Chauntecleer's children.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The death of Cockatrice.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted when all of Chauntecleer's children are killed by basilisks.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described
  • I Shall Taunt You: Mundo Cani gets Wyrm to look at him and expose his eye by insulting him, insinuating that Wyrm is too cowardly to face such a small opponent.
    Mundo Cani: Oh, Wyrm! Great Wyrm-afraid to look at a nothing, a nose, a flea! Such evil, to split the earth, but from a Dog-a Dog to hide!"
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Chauntecleer is bad tempered and officious and constantly abuses Mundo Cani, but his efforts to save the Wee Widow Mouse's children and the Beautiful Pertelote from drowning cement his status as the hero of the story.
  • Last Stand: What Chauntecleer sees the final confrontation with Wyrm as.
  • Mr. Seahorse: Where Cockatrice comes from. The less time spent thinking about this, the better.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Lord Russel after he finds Beryl and Chauntecleer's children dead.
  • Named Weapons: Gaff and the Slasher, Chauntecleer's battle spurs.
  • Odd Friendship: John Wesley Weasel and the Wee Widow Mouse. How attached to her he is becomes clear when she is killed by a basilisk and he charges into battle to avenge her death.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Wyrm, who is more than capable of doing it, too.
  • Our Angels Are Different: The Dun Cow, a messenger from God to Chauntecleer, takes the shape of a dun-colored cow.
  • Papa Wolf: An evil example in Cockatrice, who attacks John Wesley Weasel to stop him from wiping out the basilisks completely.
  • Parental Substitute: John Wesley Weasel to the Wee Widow Mouse's children.
  • Pet the Dog: John Wesley Weasel's adoption of the Widow's children, especially since it's implied that his own children are dead, goes a long way to prove that he's not a bad guy at heart.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The animals win the battle against Cockatrice and the basilisks, but they suffer heavy losses and Chauntecleer goes into a Heroic BSOD as a result of it.
  • The Quisling: A toad, simply known as Toad, willingly works for Cockatrice, but is eventually Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves when the basilisks kill him anyway.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Chauntecleer after the death of his sons.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Cockatrice breeds his enormous army of basilisks by systematically raping Senex's hens, draining the spirit out of most of them (except for Pertelote, who keeps her sanity by using a stone to break the basilisk eggs in her body) in the process.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Ebenezer Rat dies killing a basilisk, which causes Chauntecleer to absolve him.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Cockatrice, unlike a real rooster, has red eyes.
  • Reformed Criminal: John Wesley Weasel and his family are implied to be these.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Every villain, except Ebenezer, is a reptile or an amphibian.
  • Reverse Psychology: Pertelote gets John Wesley Weasel out of his Heroic BSOD by implying that he isn't brave enough to burrow into the Netherworld Scar.
  • Rousing Speech: Subverted the first time. Chauntecleer's speech only frightens the animals, and only Pertelote's singing calms them down. The second Rousing Speech is more successful.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Chauntecleer doesn't fight in the first battle, but uses his crowing to disorient the basilisks. Later, he fights and kills Cockatrice on his own. Senex, although old and impotent, tries to embody this trope, but it doesn't end well.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Wangerin's other genre is religion. With that, it doesn't take much to know that this entire book's an allegory.
  • Savage Wolves: Played with. A wolf tormented and eventually killed Chauntecleer's mother, but another is one of the animals who is part of the (failed) revolt against Cockatrice.
  • Say My Name: Chauntecleer rouses his warriors' outrage by naming their children and screaming the name of Cockatrice.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Scrape the Otter attempts to persuade the other animals to abandon Chauntecleer and save themselves. Chauntecleer teaches him a lesson.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Wyrm is trapped underneath the Earth, but is able to speak with the animals through the ground and through dreams.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The dim-witted Wild Turkeys, whose foolish behavior is initially Played for Laughs, are all killed en masse by the basilisks, even before the war begins.
  • Sliding Scale of Anthropomorphism: Somewhere between Partially Civilized Animal and Talking Animal.
  • Snow Means Love: Chauntecleer marries in the winter.
  • Talking Animal: All of the characters are talking animals, with the exception of Ebenezer Rat, although he presumably doesn't speak by choice.
  • Third-Person Person: John Wesley Weasel often refers to himself as "John Double-u of the Double-us", or some variation of this.
  • Too Dumb to Live: All of the Wild Turkeys. In fact, all of them do die before the first battle.
  • Took A Level In Bad Ass: Mundo Cani, who at first seems to be a self-hating whiner, is one of Chauntecleer's most faithful allies, saves John Wesley Weasel from Cockatrice, and last of all takes on Wyrm himself, with nothing but the horn of the Dun Cow. And wins.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The story switches from the exploits of Chauntecleer to the events concerning Senex and Cockatrice, then back again.
  • Unstoppable Rage: John Wesley Weasel during the the attack on the basilisks after the death of the Wee Widow Mouse.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Wyrm preys on Senex's despair and desire for respect to persuade him to cooperate in fathering Cockatrice. Needless to say, this doesn't go well for Senex, who realizes a little too late just what he created.
  • The Voiceless: Ebenezer Rat never speaks, and it's unclear whether or not he does this by choice. It's implied that his secretive and criminal nature contributes to this.
  • The War Has Just Begun: After the basilisks are driven away and Cockatrice is killed, Wyrm reminds the animals that he is still there, temporarily driving the already exhausted Chauntecleer into delirium and giving Wyrm an escape route in the process.
  • Wham Episode: Chapter 11, featuring Cockatrice's oppressive reign, marks a firm transition from a mostly comic Funny Animal story to a dark Epic Fantasy.
    • Later, after several months of constant rain and snow, the sky finally clears up and we're treated to a lighthearted chapter wherin Chauntecleer's three sons try to amuse themselves with games, as their overprotective nurse Beryl tries to keep them out of trouble. And then we cut to the fox Lord Russel discovering their and Beryl's dead bodies.
  • Wicked Weasel: Averted with John Wesley Weasel, who, although violent at times and is implied to be a Reformed Criminal, is also extremely brave and firmly on Chauntecleer's side. He has an extreme distaste for sneaky characters like Ebenezer Rat and the cowardly House of Otter.
  • You Dirty Rat: Ebenezer Rat, although he is far from the most evil character in the novel.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The deaths of Senex and Toad.

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alternative title(s): The Book Of The Dun Cow; The Book Of Sorrows
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