Sometimes, when we speak of “Christian stories,” we are quick to clarify that by “Christian story,” we mean a story that happens to have Christian themes. We do this because, weirdly, Christian has become a genre of fiction, rather than the most natural and honest way to tell a good story.
At the same time, there are some stories where the patterns and logic of Christianity are prevalent and rich, and somehow integral to the story, like the chocolate part of a chocolate cake. It’s no insult to call these “Christian stories,” because not only are they honest in how they present the world, they also smell like Christ. An air that kills, from yon far country blows…
Take the Harry Potter stories. Wonderful stories, full of humor and excitement and mystery. There are truthful moments of friendship, darkness, self-sacrifice. They are quite simply, great yarns. But Harry Potter’s adventures occur without any undercurrent of Christian truth. Rowling is as honest as she can be, but in the end, what does she have to contribute? “Dumbledore is gay.” Thanks, Mrs. R. Moving on.
I don’t want to belittle the Harry Potter books. They are fantastic. But in comparison, take the Narnia stories. Yes, yes, I know. We’ve all heard it, Lewis’s stories are the best thing since paedocommunion. But just go back and read them. Pick one up at random, flip to any page, and start reading. Lewis is a man who was submerged in the Christian faith and it comes across in every paragraph. There are good stories, and there are good stories that are also marbled with Christian fat. Lewis’s stories are the latter.
On New Year’s Eve, I traveled back from Louisville, KY, via train, plane, and automobile. Once I had settled myself into 24A and plugged in my headphones to muffle the whine of the engines, I cracked open The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. I read during takeoff. I read as we flew. I read as the train rattled into the Philadelphia station. I turned on the dim yellow light above my Amtrak seat and read the whole way home.
I have read few books capture the bloodlife of Christianity as powerfully as this one. You know those books that you need to put aside every few chapters, just because the riches are too plentiful? Throughout The Dun Cow there were so many Biblical allusions, to write them down would be to replicate the story word for word.
The plot is this. In the old days, when the Earth was still at the center of the universe, it was the prison for a creature named Wyrm, evil incarnate. God had placed him in the center of the planet and locked him there. Then God set Keepers to watch over him. These Keepers are the animals, Lord Russell the Fox of Good Sense, John Wesley Weasel, Beryl the Hen, Nimbus the Stag, Ebenezer Rat, and their Lord, the King of the Coop, Chauntecleer the Rooster. For the most part, these animals have no idea of the importance of their duty. They spend their days eating, sleeping, fighting, squabbling, and for Chauntecleer, lording it over the rest of the animals.
In another part of the world, miles from the domain of Chauntecleer, Wyrm hatches an evil plan to release his representative, his Antichrist, into the world. The story of Senex, the enfeebled old rooster whose hunger for respect allows Wyrm’s general, a loathsome creature named Cockatrice, into the world, is one of the saddest parts of the story. It is Abraham putting his hope in Ishmael. It is Adam eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. It is Saul in the power of the evil spirit, hunting Israel’s future king to kill him. Cockatrice betrays this rooster, steals his hens, and begins a campaign of destruction that reaches all the way to Chauntecleer’s Coop. It is up to the animals to kill the serpents and put a stop to the destruction.
It’s a great story. Let me just highlight two things:
*Liturgy: *In two ways, the story reveals the strength of liturgy. First, the story itself fairly burns with Biblical allusions, in a way that reveals how thoroughly Scripture-soaked its author is. In various parts of the story, Chauntecleer is a picture of Moses, Joshua, David, Nehemiah, Job, Paul, and Jesus. The birth of Cockatrice is a twisted Incarnation. At one point, John Wesley the Weasel has his own aristeia during the battle. “On the left hand he killed a hundred as if they were paper. On the right he killed five hundred.” Without even knowing it, the animals are pictures of God’s people.
Second, the story shows how familiar traditions and liturgies are one of the strongest defenses against darkness. Chauntecleer’s duty as Lord of the Coop involves crowing to let the animals know what time it is. He tells them when to rise, when to feed, when to lie down, when to sleep. As the clouds descend and cover the sun, “a lid locked over the whole earth,” Chauntecleer’s crowing is the only thing that keeps the animals together.
Instead, from the place where he was, he began to crow compline, the seventh holy hour of the day. Cool, smooth, restrained, a silken lariat, the Rooster gave his animals, in the darkness, a point of recognition. He covered them with the familiar. He announced his presence. Then he drew them back from the edge. He blessed them right gently, crowing nothing of the battle for tomorrow–but naming every one of them their names. Names, one after the other, with a prayer for the peace of each one: That was compline on this particular night. (p. 185)
Chauntecleer’s voice becomes their greatest weapon. Though he doesn’t know it, Chauntecleer has been preparing his whole life for the battle against Cockatrice. He only needs to do his duty, but do it with more strength and greater faithfulness than ever before.
*Heroes (male and female): *Chauntecleer is the hero of the story, but he is not like the heroes that we usually read about. He is vain and pompous, fearful and at times deeply, deeply disappointing. But he protects his domain because is its Lord. He rises to the occasion because it’s his job, not because there’s something special about him. And the story has no illusions that Chauntecleer is “just one of the boys” either, like Bruce Willis trapped inside a skyscraper on Christmas Eve. Chauntecleer is the leader, he’s in charge, and that means he has to be the one to make the call. And he does. He leads the animals as best he can. Only we (and a few of the characters) get to see his fear and cowardice.
Perhaps more astonishing than the honesty and empathy of the Rooster is the portrayal of Pertelote, Chauntecleer’s beloved. This is going to sound very odd, but these two chickens have one of the most romantic scenes I have ever read in a fantasy novel. (Granted, that narrows the pool quite a lot.) But it’s incredible how the story captures Chauntecleer’s love for Pertelote, his frustrations at not being good enough for her, and her strength and support of him in his mission to protect the world. Not to give too much away, but ultimately, Chauntecleer’s failure in the story is as great as his victory. Were it not for Pertelote, the Rooster would have learned nothing. He would never have asked forgiveness of those he harmed because of his lack of faith. Thanks to the iron gentleness of his wife, however, it is his redemption that we are privileged to watch at the very end, “the last and the best battle of all.”
Every page of this book fairly crackles with meaning. More than that, the pages crackle with opinion. Or, to use the old-fashioned word, truth. There is no middle ground in the story, but there is mercy, pity, sorrow, laughter, repentance, forgiveness, evil. Loss is portrayed in stark, unapologetic terms. So many stories try to make their heroes relatable through doubt—but if he believes nothing in the first place, there is nothing to doubt. Chauntecleer’s doubt is real, and it is painful. But it makes the victory all the more sweet.
Plus, how many times do you get to read an epic fantasy novel about chickens?
(Disclaimer: If I’ve offended anyone with my dismissal of Harry Potter as Christian literature, I’d love to hear your arguments in its favor. I’m quite open to being convinced otherwise.)