"FANTASY," E. M. Forster tells us in Aspects of the Novel, "asks us to pay something extra." Surely then by that very act of paying something extra we, as readers, are more generously rewarded. While the first of the books reviewed here gives us a greater return on our investment they are both, in book reviewers' jargon, "good reads."
To say that, as the flap copy tells us, The Book of Sorrows is the conclusion of the story begun in The Book of the Dun Cow (about Chauntecleer the rooster, the other animals in the Coop, and their part in the war between good and evil) and that the one is therefore dependent on the other is not a disparagement. I view it, rather, as an excuse: to read or reread the earlier book, and eventually to put the two of them side by side in the bookcase to be lent as a unit -- and then only to friends with a good track record for returning books.
The Book of the Dun Cow ends when Mundo Cani Dog sacrifices himself to stop Wyrm, the loathsome serpent who writhes and slithers and fills all the spaces under the earth. As the new book begins, summer and fall have passed. The war is over, the world is still a shambles, and the animals have drawn even closer together as they try to reestablish their place in it. When Russell the Fox is dying they rally around, but it is Chauntecleer who insists on doing the most: who bathes him, cleans him, feeds him. It is Chauntecleer who must make reparation for not being able to save Mundo Cani.
Chauntecleer is tortured by his own failures, his horrifying dreams, and the fact that Mundo Cani is trapped under the earth's surface. But most of all he is beset by the knowledge that Wyrm's evil is still pervasive, theatening to consume them. And that it is up to him to vanquish it.
Once again Wangerin has given us a story where the telling is as significant as the conclusion to which we are inexorably led. Characters are true to themselves both as animals and as representatives of humankind. They succeed because they are made real for us: Pertelote, Chauntecleer's wife, who is wise, forbearing and clever; Chalce who wants above all to mother someone; and John Wesley Weasel (John Double U), loyal and exuberant and wonderfully articulate, to name a few. The threads of the plot are interwoven in a way that looks deceptively easy: Ferric Coyote is afraid, and his bravery is stunning; John Double U sends hordes of animals to the camp, and Chauntecleer feeds them all; Brown Bird has no tongue, yet she is eloquent; and Pertelote handles the ill-mannered goats.
The Book of Sorrows is a beautifully written fantasy anchored starkly in reality. It is a book in which there is adventure and humor, betrayal and despair. But most of all there is hope.
I MUST CONFESS that I did not come easily to The Last Rainbow, a large paperback original, set in Britain in the years 429-432, with "A novel of Saint Patrick" as a subtitle.
But as I read, I suddenly came to care very much about Britain in 429. I cared about the Prydn or Faerie people, and in particular about Dorelei and the tribe of nomads under her command. Previously, Dorelei had been a member of her mother's band or "fhain," but when the grazing proved sparse she was told to take her sister Neniane, her cousin Guenloie, and their husbands and go off on their own. They set as their goal the discovery of Tir-Nan-Og, ("the land of the young, because no one grew old there and the grass was always green. A part of the earth to be sure, but beyond what they knew").
Not far from their camp they find a young priest named Patricius who, because his teachings have met with disfavor from the Venicones, has had his legs broken and been left to die. Dorelei and her group take him in and he becomes one of them. Padrec (as Dorelei calls him) teaches them about his God; they, in turn, teach him about Earth Mother and Lugh Sun.
The Last Rainbow is a well-paced tale filled with the lore of an earlier time. It is a moving love story about two people from diverse backgrounds who grow into the choices they come to make.