Wednesday, January 12, 2005

On the death of a character and the Dun Cow

When we mourn the death of a fictional character, when the death comes with a jolt like the news of the unexpected death of a friend, is that the power of the writer? Or the reader? Or both?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that it happens. Those of us who are inveterate readers know the experience well. It doesn’t happen with every novel or every character. Some deaths we see coming, the writer is clumsy and has telegraphed his intent. Or the character is sketchy and incomplete and we mark his death as casually, and with as little interest, as we consider a crumpled tissue plucked from a coat pocket and tossed into the waste bin.

But some characters immediately set up lodging in our hearts. The author has done his work and we identify with such characters. Perhaps we see ourselves in them or someone we know. Perhaps we simply recognize someone we’d like to spend time with.

This morning, I mourn of the deaths of Beryl and the three “pins.” I am past the midway mark of Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and evil has come to The Coop.

It has been years since I first read this book. I had almost forgotten how much I liked and admired it. First, there is Wangerin’s style, his authorial voice. I find his style readable, inviting. All of Wangerin’s books have this simple, but elusive characteristic—they are fun to read.

Second and third is the success of this book of multiple levels. An allegorical work must succeed at its most basic level. The story must work as a story. And The Book of the Dun Cow succeeds marvelously as simple tale of fantasy. It can be enjoyed merely, and only, as a story of talking animals struggling against the encroach of evil in their world. The book also succeeds as a Christian allegory. There is much to ponder here on successive readings.

Finally, there are the characters: proud Chauntecleer the rooster, the Beautiful Pertelote, John Wesley Weasel, the evil Cockatrice and my favorite, Mundo Cani Dog. They are vivid, memorable, endearing; as is this book.

Three favorite lines from early in this work . . .

Chauntecleer can fly, Wangerin tells us, but seldom chooses to do so. “It was his custom to strut. Strutting permitted pride and a certain show of authority, whereas flying looked foolish in a Rooster . . . Wings on a Rooster, so Chauntecleer thought, were not for flying. They were for doing absolutely nothing with; for it is a mark of superiority when part of the body does nothing at all.” (p. 7)

“For ‘Done,’ when it is well done, is a very good word.” (p 13)

“Lordship is always easier in the ordering than in the listening.” (p. 16)

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