NBAW, number 39: 1980’s The Book of the Dun-Cow.

12 Aug

1.

In 1980, Walter Wangerin won the National Book Award for his allegorical farmyard fantasy, The Book of the Dun-Cow.

The National Book Award people were attempting to broaden the scope of the award, as well as presumably bring in more readers and more popular attention. So they bestowed awards on science fiction and fantasy novels and a western. But they limited their scope to the single year, so in each category a strange, inferior novel won the top genre award. Wangerin beat out Norman Spinrad (an intriguing, if also minor, science fiction writer, although Science Fiction in the Real World, his overview of science fiction, is well worth a read) and Samuel Delaney (the James Joyce of science fiction, and I’m not kidding), which is just nuts.

Fantasy is, in some ways, the most conventional of genres, and drowning in an immense sea of dross. Fantasy has little self-criticism, little irony, little self-awareness and very little adaptability. Unlike science fiction—which adapts at a rate close to the speed of light—fantasy is restricted by expectations rooted in a bygone age. Worse, the great novels of fantasy seem stuck, as if the genre reached its apotheosis sometime in the 1950s.

There’s Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which looms large on the genre, utilizing the quest motif, the varied races (dwarves, ogres, elves, etcetera), a growing source of ultimate evil, intimations of pagan superstitions, giant battles, cavernous settings. And C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, with a thousand years of history in his parallel universe of knights and kings and witches and magic ships.

Also, talking animals and trees.

Fantasy has always carried a cheesy element. Blame Tolkein. Or C.S. Lewis? Dig around in most of the established great works of fantasy and you find some silly notion portrayed with absolute seriousness.

The seriousness has its roots in the genre’s progenitors, the Viking Sagas from Iceland as well as the epic poems from the medieval ages. The values of the two instill in the genre some absurd values to today’s readers: a ridiculous exhortation to bravery and cruelty in battle; anti-intellectual thinking, preferring gut decision over intelligent deliberation; notions of racial and religious purity; and a preference for bucolic over urban settings.

The genre has a few other components that drive non-fans nuts.

  1. Good triumphs over evil in a most literal fashion. It has turned the genre predictable.
  2. There’s a tradition of weird, stupid names.
  3. Much of fantasy is either allegorical, or has intimations of allegory. Allegories are simplistic by design, a lesser art form. And yet, fans of the genre will often trumpet a novel’s allegorical aspects as if these are a substitute for good writing, interesting characters, and great dialogue. (Here’s an example: The Lord of the Rings is often regarded as an allegory for World War II—which it isn’t, it’s rooted in the values and instability of the middle ages–and this is given as a reason why people should read it.)
  4. Fantasy borrows from existing mythologies with immense freedom. It heavily cannibalizes itself.

 

So beyond the classic fantasy tales, most fantasy novels are frustrating and, if read in tandem with the great novelists of the 20th century, abysmal.

There are three exceptions.

The first is Philip Pullman’s astonishing reversal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the trilogy now called His Dark Materials. Pullman creates a series of worlds with their own rules and their own creatures, and he writes with economical elegance and a swiftness of story that is a delight. But he also does some philosophical heavy lifting.

The second is the great overlooked source of literature for much of the second half of the twentieth century: comic books. Most comic books hum on the edge of the fantasy spectrum, and constitutes a spectacular body of work. (Underrated by most, overrated by a few. Just like the larger world of fantasy.) The Hellboy mythos, an ever-growing body of work built around the son of the devil, is astonishing, and the Marvel and DC universes are so complex there are multi-volume compendiums explaining who everyone is.

The third—and this gets me in trouble at parties—is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. She’s cobbled together a marvelous, often witty and funny, world that begins like a literary cartoon and grows into something rich and strange. A.S. Byatt had a famous take-down of Rowling a while back, arguing that Rowling has failed in the mythological and fantastical, that she had reduced the necessary awe in fantasy. She isn’t wrong, if you begin with some of her similar assumptions about books (that seriousness is a virtue; that good fiction has certain responsibilities; and that fantasy serves a purpose beyond entertainment). I mention Byatt’s takedown because she focuses on Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner as examples of great fantasy. (She didn’t mention Angela Carter, but she should have.) There’s something true to her words. Harry Potter is, well, silly. But Byatt—a very fine writer, if prone to lengthy novels with too much exposition—overlooks Rowling’s talents as a writer. And, this is my real point: Byatt is attempting to enforce the old standards of fantasy, as opposed to letting the genre breathe a bit.

Meaning: the fans are a big part of the problem.

Fans of the genre will despise my line of thought. Clever fans of the genre will argue that all fiction is fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is fantasy. Street of Crocodiles is fantasy. The Third Policeman is fantasy. Through the Looking Glass is fantasy.

Okay, but it isn’t fantasy in the same way. These other books don’t adhere to the often overlooked rules of the genre. I would argue that fantasy sets itself up for critical failure by being so mired in the past.

And I would argue that absurdism—filtering through dada, the Irish negating weirdoes like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett and, yes, the Austrian ghost, Franz Kafka—is its own genre with its own forms.

 

2.

So, to Dun-Cow. Wangerin pulls from medieval epics, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Christian de Troye[1], among others, but he’s writing in a very specific sub-genre called the Beast Epic, where animals have personalities and desires, engaged in an epic plot. The original story, I read somewhere, was an old Irish fable.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

The plot is pretty insipid. A rooster, in primeval times, runs a fiefdom of farm animals. Beneath the earth is a giant snake, the epitome of evil. And the farm animals exist, in part, to keep the evil buried.

Some critics compare Dun-Cow to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Watership Down is a closer comparison.

Watership Down is a good example, where the author Adams pulls off a neat trick. Readers identify with the rabbits so closely that when the humans appear their behavior is cruel and capricious. Adams uses the internal logic of fantasy to drive home his point: humans are the cruelest species.

Wangerin is up to something similar, I think. He uses the beast epic module to show the venal weakness of humans in times of crisis, as well as the sources of human strength.

Dun-Cow is written in a fable-like tone, with short paragraphs, direct characterizations, unsubtle dialogue. Here’s a taste, when Chauntecleer, the novel’s hero, is directly confronted by the evil of the world:

“It began with a laugh.

“High in the invisible sky above him, Chauntecleer suddenly heard a malevolent, screaming laughter—so cold, so evil, so powerful a bellowed laugh that he gasped and forgot his crow. His feathers stood on end. All the darkness around him swelled with the hateful sound, and the Rooster stood perfectly still.

“ ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ screamed the sky laughter.”

No worse than other fantasy writing, but not really notable either.

And I take issue with Wangerin’s value system. The female characters are servile and weak. The male characters are the heroes who fight the evil. Males have been tasked with leading, and only certain males, like the old ruling dynasties. Some creatures are meant to be servants. It’s that old divine right of kings nonsense again, a motif that I absolutely despise.

I could go on, but I won’t. There are too many great novels left to be experienced, or re-experienced, to spend another minute on this one.

 

3.

What’s left to say? I didn’t like it. It isn’t for me. But, I’ll end with some very fine fantasy novels.

Elric of Melinbone, by Michael Moorcock, is excellent, lean and strange and otherworldly. Moorcock is an intriguing writer, in the process right now of being rediscovered and re-evaluated. Don’t get lost in the Eternal champion or multiverse nonsense. Just read these on their own.

The Worm Ourorboros—I’ve never read it, but lots of people with good taste love it.

The Sandman, okay it’s a long series of graphic novels, but it’s fantastic.

Empire of the East—well, I read it as a teenager and loved it, half-fantasy, half-science fiction, written by the half-hack, half-genius Fred Saberhagen.

Please, send me your own and I’ll add them.

[1] I took a number of classes on medieval literature in college, if you couldn’t already tell.

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