Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Book of the Dun Cow

Go To
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. It was later rewritten and reissued as The Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations and followed by a third book, Peace at Last, published 23 years after the second book.

The book is in fact named after an ancient Irish manuscript which contains both Christian records and ancient Celtic legends.

Now includes a character sheet.

This book and The Book of Sorrows provide examples of:

  • 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.
  • Ax-Crazy: Eurus the black wolf is the most unhinged and least stable member of his pack, especially when it comes to food.
  • 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.
  • The Berserker: John Wesley Weasel, as in the above example.
  • Big Bad: Wyrm, literally.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Wyrm is defeated and Cockatrice is dead, but the Coop is destroyed, the good guys suffered heavy casualties, and Mundo Cani sealed himself up with Wyrm.
  • 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 Gun: 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.
  • Cocky Rooster: Chauntecleer is a rooster who has a proud and arrogant personality to match, though he proves heroic despite his foibles.
  • 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.
  • Death of a Child: All of Chauntecleer's children are killed by basilisks.
  • 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 is perpetually sad and complaining.
  • 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.
  • Eye Scream: Chauntecleer blinds Eurus with his battle spurs.
  • 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.]]
  • Gratuitous Latin: Wyrm and the Dun Cow both speak in Latin, "the language of the powers."
  • 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 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.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: The chapter titles.
  • 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.
  • Light Is Not Good: Boreas, the white-furred wolf and the Fimbulwinter pack's leader.
  • Mister Seahorse: Where Cockatrice comes from. The less time spent thinking about this, the better.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Chauntecleer is associated with pride in how he thinks he deserves praise and love for his leadership of the others and acts cruel and bossy to those who get in his way, but he is ultimately a hero and resists Wyrm's attempt to tempt him with the idea of the ungratefulness of those he loves.
  • 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.
  • Sanity Slippage: Chauntecleer in The Book of Sorrows, thanks to the Fimbulwinter wolves and the worms from Wyrm's corpse.
  • 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. Several more (Boreas, Eurus, Chinook, Favonius, and Notos) cause a great deal of trouble in The Book of Sorrows, their machinations being partially responsible for Chauntecleer's descent into madness.
  • 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.
  • Stealth Pun: The Hens in Chauntecleer's Coop all seem to have been named after precious stones. Chauntecleer recites the names of 8 of them as being "Beryl. Chalcedony. Chrysolite. Sardonix. Topaz. Jasper. Jacinth." and "Emerald." In the Bible, Revelation 21:19-20 reveals that the twelve sacred gemstones forming the layers of the wall around the Heavenly City are Jasper, Sapphire, Chalcedony, Emerald, Sardonyx, Sardius, Chrysolite, Beryl, Topaz, Chrysoprasus, Jacinth, and Amethyst. This is no mere coincidence, as Wangerin, being a pastor as well as a writer of Christian books, would have been very much aware of this. And here's where the sneaky pun comes in: The Hens were named after these layers because they themselves are layers (of eggs)!
  • The Speechless: 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.
  • 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.
  • Vile Villain, Saccharine Show: The book becomes much darker whenever Cockatrice and his Basilisk Mooks show up. Cockatrice himself is a serious and threatening villain with no comedic qualities at all, and the Basilisks establish themselves by slaughtering almost everyone in the land next to Chauntecleer's on Cockatrice's orders.
  • 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.

Lamentations and Peace at the Last provide examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: Eurus was just one of the pack of wolves who threatened Chauntecleer in the original Book of Sorrows, and not even the most powerful one at that. He becomes Peace at the Last's main villain and the most evil of the wolves.
  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: Pertelote and all of the Coop's animals at the end of Peace at the Last.
  • Big Bad: Arguably, the worms that infect Chantecleer and spread to the other animals are the main villains in Lamentations, but Eurus takes this role in Peace at the Last.
  • The Atoner: Selkirk is very sorry for what he did to Ratatosk, and is implicitly forgiven, since he's seen in the afterlife at the end.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Posthumously, Wyrm is successful in dividing and corrupting many of the animals beyond repair.
  • Carnivore Confusion: Selkirk's eating Ratatosk the squirrel in Lamentations, which is treated as an extremely evil act in-universe, even by Selkirk himself, even though squirrels are part of a marten's natural diet. The wolves are exiled for killing an ewe, although wolves are obligate carnivores and must kill and eat other animals to survive. Jasper's exile partly comes from her request to eat Baby Blue's dead body, which is not out of a hen's natural diet, either. The issue may have come from the characters in question feeding on other Coop members.
  • Dark Is Evil: Eurus, the most evil of the wolves, has black fur.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Jasper is allowed into the afterlife, restored to her kinder self, and is forgiven by Pertelote.
  • Downer Ending: While the animals are reunited in the afterlife, almost all of the named characters are dead and the spreading Hate Plague has corrupted the world beyond any repair.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Rutt to Eurus. She has no loyalty to him whatsoever due to his vicious treatment of her, and as soon as he's dead, she commands a mob of corrupted animals to attack Pertelote's group. She is much more successful than he was.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: The Meek (the animals led by Pertelote) are killed, although their implied reunion with Chauntecleer and the other animals in the afterlife may soften the blow.
  • "Everyone Comes Back" Fantasy Party Ending: In the afterlife, Pertelote and the Meek are reunited with all of the good animals who died in the earlier books, including Chauntecleer and Mundo Cani.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Lamentations alters the books' continuity significantly, introducing new characters (Selkirk and Ratatosk), cutting others (Chinook the Gray She-Wolf), even gender-flipping two (the male beetle Black Lazarus was changed into the female Lazara the Black Beetle while Notos becomes the female wolf Nota) and changing entire plot points. Most significantly, in the revised version Boreas survives, Chalcedony is murdered by Nota, and Eurus is not blinded by Chauntecleer. The sequel follows the Lamentations version of events.
  • Given Name Reveal: The Bird With No Tongue gets her voice back in the afterlife and reveals that her real name is Least.
  • Hate Plague: The infection from Wyrm's maggots spreads into the world and begins turning the animals against one another, making carnivores more violent and causing several Face-Heel Turns.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Boreas falls in love with Wantanga and sides with Pertelote's group.
  • Heel Realization: Selkirk has one after he kills and eats Ratatosk the squirrel.
  • Love Redeems: Boreas is redeemed through his love for Watanga and ultimately sides with Pertelote's group.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Selkirk the Marten is horrified by his own behavior after he kills and eats Ratatosk, and leaves the Coop in disgust with himself.
  • Noble Wolf: Watanga, the Good Counterpart to Eurus. Boreas, too, after his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Predators Are Mean: All of the corrupted animals that attack Pertelote's group are predators or scavengers. It's implied that predation and scavenging are a result of the infection caused by Wyrm's maggots.
  • Remember the New Guy?: Some characters, like Selkirk and Ratatosk, are unique to the new continuity and did not appear in The Book of Sorrows.
  • Retcon: Several.
    • Boreas and his pack openly attempt to join Chauntecleer's Coop and are exiled for killing Sweet Baby Blue, an ewe. Boreas does not die at the end of the book as he did in the original version, and is more sympathetic overall, especially when Watanga is introduced.
    • In The Book of Sorrows, Jasper appears at the end with Chauntecleer's other animals to be with him, and her bad behavior is less intentionally malicious. In Lamentations she is forced to leave for her more severe crimes, including trying to murder Chalcedony, an event that did not occur in The Book of Sorrows.
    • Eurus and Jasper were also infected by Chauntecleer's maggots, which implicitly spread evil into the world. In The Book of Sorrows, only Chauntecleer was affected by them and he killed them all with his suicide.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Sweet Baby Blue, a literal example.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Jasper's bad behavior is worse in Lamentations, and unlike The Book of Sorrows she is exiled from the Coop after trying to scavenge off the meat of a killed ewe, attempting to kill Pertinax the squirrel, and tormenting Chalcedony out of spite. Eurus the wolf and his pack are even worse — while Jasper is ultimately forgiven, he is not.
  • You Are in Command Now: Pertelote takes over the Coop animals' leadership after Chauntecleer's death.

Alternative Title(s): The Book Of Sorrows