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Timothy Findley: The Wars

There have been many excellent novels set in World War I and many of these, as well as other novels written in the decade following World War I, deal with the theme of the loss of innocence that World War I led to. There have also been quite a few novels featuring horses, including those where the horse serves a symbolic purpose, from Black Beauty to Equus. Findley’s novel combines both. From the very beginning, where we see Robert Ross, the hero of this novel, coming up to a railway yard and seeing a horse and then, at her behest, releasing a hundred or so other horses from the railway cars, the two themes are clearly set.

Ross is a young Canadian. His father is a successful businessman. Mrs. Ross goes slowly mad during the novel, the madness hastened no doubt by the loss of her daughter and then her son’s participation in World War I. The daughter is Rowena, a hydrocephalic. Robert is devoted to her and cares for her all the time. One day, when Stuart, Robert’s younger brother, is meant to be looking after her, she slips out of her wheelchair. She is injured but never recovers and dies soon after. Shortly after her death, Robert joins up to fight in World War I. His training out on the plains is relatively uneventful, except for a race he has across the plains with a coyote. He keeps himself to himself though does make a few friends. As trainee officers, he and the other recruits ride horses.

However, his first important contact with horses occurs when their ship crosses the Atlantic, with lots of recruits but also lots of horses. Robert is put in charge of looking after the horses, an assignment he does not welcome. When he has to shoot an injured horse, he himself is injured and badly bruised. Much of World War I literature is of the war is hell variety and this novel is no exception. Findley paints a grim picture of life in and around the trenches. We rarely see the Germans. Indeed on the one occasion that we do see one, he lets Robert and his men go, when he could have shot them, only for Robert to kill him, thinking he was about to shoot when he was only raising his binoculars. His trench dugout crashes in on him, shells explode all around him and, indeed, overhead. He sees numerous dead bodies, including those of friends, and manages to lose most of his command. But, all the time, he observes animals and other horses. He shares a trench dugout with a man who keeps a hedgehog, toad and other animals (he is a professional illustrator). The toad survives. The man doesn’t. He observes other animals, looking for birds, noticing ducks. But, above all, it is horses that attract him. They are, of course, both for riding and pulling equipment but Robert sympathizes with them whenever he sees them.

During the book we have learned that there has been what is called a moment of madness, resulting in his court-martial and the criticism of some, though the support of others. We do not learn what it is till the end of the novel but it clearly involves horses, as the opening makes clear. The story is told through transcripts of various participants, so we do get multiple points of view, particularly from Juliet d’Orsey. She was twelve when she knew Robert (but still fell in love with him) and now, aged seventy and surviving on gin and cigarettes, and having remained unmarried (shades of Briony in Atonement), is the sole survivor of her family. Her older sister, Barbara, had an affair with Robert and she, Juliet, observed this affair and observed Robert and also looked after him after the moment of madness when he returned from France.

Robert is a complex character. His relationship with his sister, his father, a couple of his fellow-soldiers and with the d’Orsey sisters show various sides of him. However, deep down he is a loner and has an affinity with nature and with horses, which clearly represent some liberating force for him. When he has his moment of madness – an act that can be seen as a disgust with war, a revulsion at his fellow men and their actions or merely a self-liberating act – not only does his true self come out, but the utter futility of war is driven home, the way it is driven home in many other fine World War I novels. Findley’s novel is one of the many fine novels set in that war.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Viking