Animals, as most children learn in their childhood, can be a man’s best friend. Robert Ross, however, experiences a much closer relationship to animals than most people through out The Wars by Timothy Findley. We get some very solid emotions emanating from Robert when he’s on the ship and has to kill the horse. Pure fear courses through out both Robert and the horse and jumps out at the reader while reading through the scene. Robert and the horse are both terrified: Robert is scared because he doesn’t have the slightest clue how to kill a horse and the horse is probably scared because there’s nothing it can do to get up (in addition, it must be in agonizing pain from its broken leg). Neither the horse nor Robert can command their bodies—Robert can’t shoot the horse and he tries multiple times before he gets it behind the ear and the horse can’t stand up and gain control of its footing. They are similar in their fear and their lack of control.
In each section, so far, there is always a grouping of animals, specifically a group, which stands out. In part one it was Rowena’s rabbits, the mustangs and the horses on the ship. In part two it was the line of horses they were taking through the fog and the animals in Rodwell’s animal hospital, always watching Robert through out the night. These groups help subconsciously guide Robert into becoming a man: the death of Rowena’s rabbits is a harsh break into manhood, the mustangs being the last of his innocence broken and forgotten, the death of the horse on the ship being the truth about the life of a soldier (only the able bodied can continue and everyone else is left behind), the horses through the fog being the uncertainty of life and realizing you must continue onward (otherwise you will die as Robert almost did in the mud), and finally the animal hospital when you realize you’re trapped and there’s nothing you can do to escape growing up.
Right from the beginning of the book, Robert is associated with horses and the first act that we get a glimpse of is him “riding along the tracks behind a hundred and thirty horses” (2). Later on in the book, Robert joins the army and decides that it’s time he acquires a pistol as someone in the army suggested (we don’t know exactly who) that “an automatic is imperative once you get into the trenches” (51). Robert unexpectedly meets his father before he leaves on the convoy from the St. John Harbour and this is where his father hands him his first pistol, a Colt six shooter, even though “Robert had wanted an automatic” (50). Oddly enough (and it’s not described in the book), a Colt six-shooter has an engraving of a stallion on the side, which perfectly corresponds to Robert’s attachments to horses. Coincidence? I think not.
The use of Mother Nature and the elements during events of the novel create vivid images. After Rowena’s death, the use of water to cleanse Robert and the rain that washes down their faces at her funeral set a dismal tone during the scene. In part two, after Harris dies, his ashes are thrown in the river so he may be at sea. Water is being used to give a sense of purifying the subjects (Robert mostly, but also Taffler and Lady Barbara d’Orsey) of sadness so that they may move on with their lives. These two major losses of Robert’s are quickly washed away, barely giving him time to look back.
The first time that glass is mentioned is when Taffler is throwing stones at the glass bottles. One can imagine clean glass bottles being shattered. Picturing the glass being shattered in slow motion is a kind of beautiful, appealing thought. The glass that is described when Robert arrives at the dugout is a part of the door. Levitt lies and says the piece of glass with St. Eloi on it is very much an attractive piece (94). Devlin continues on to say that “he’s devoted to fragility. Glass has a certain finesse and brittleness to it” (94). The glass that Taffler is shattering is as if the bottles are really scared, innocent boys that are thrust into reality. After surviving brutal events like when Robert had to kill the horse or pull himself out of the mud, the glass is reborn and transformed into an ugly mesh of pieces that now depict the struggles of a man that can’t lag behind or else he’ll be left behind; this man shatters other men without the slightest hint of emotion.
The pistol is a symbol of a soldier and all soldiers carry one around with them incase an occasion arises. Robert, seemingly unlike all the other soldiers, doesn’t know the first thing about firing a gun or even which one to get. I’m sure it was common for the newest recruits to ask for guidance in which gun they should purchase, but the fact that Robert couldn’t fire the gun and kill the horse shows that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. This uninformed Robert is a symbol of a child that has absolutely no knowledge concerning the world. On the opposing end, there’s Taffler, who either knows exactly what he’s doing or is so lost in a world of cold-hearted killing. Taffler practiced throwing stones in the field and “killing bottles” (31). He knows what it’s like to kill a man and he’s surpassed the gut wrenching disgust that accompanies your first murder; Taffler is the example of the man that Robert might one day become.
Before the war, Robert was happy and befriended all. Then his sister Rowena died and his circumstance changed. Unlike most other soldiers, Robert avoided contact and making friends. He’s scared of becoming attached incase his friends die before him. As Lady Juliet d’Orsey says in her interview about friends in the war, “’These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were… murdered. In the war you had to face it day after day—week after week—month after month—year after year’” (115).
Robert sets himself up so the pain of losing a friend isn’t so bad when the time comes around. His mother, Mrs. Ross, does the same sort of thing, but rather than keeping connections away, she breaks connections she’s already made. She barely talks to Mister Ross anymore and when she has the chance to see Robert off for probably the last time, she says she can’t because her legs have fallen asleep (73). One of them is afraid of making new connections and the other is afraid of what existent connections will do to her later on when the person, Robert, is gone.
Robert encounters wild mustangs in the prairie and sets out looking for two of them after he’s assigned the task of breaking them in. Mustangs are free roaming creatures with a great awareness and sense of the rest of the herd. The animals in hospital were also free roaming once upon a time, but were injured in some way and Rodwell took them under his arm to take care of them. These animals are trapped with dirty coats and cold cages surrounding them. The difference between these two bunches of creatures is drastic. Going from a herd that is so free to cowering animals trapped in cages in a gloomy ditch.
Mrs. Ross keeps everything that Robert sends to her while he’s away at war in a shrine-like box for safekeeping. This small act proves how much she really loves Robert, no matter what difficulties she may have seeing him off for the last time. Unlike his mother, Stuart, Robert’s brother, makes the letters he’s sent into planes and launches them off the roof. If the letters come from France, they’re of higher value for trading at school with his friends. While Mrs. Ross secretly praises Robert’s letters, Stuart publicly throws them away as if he’s mocking Robert for leaving him alone.
The scenery provided when Robert is running through prairie can be imagined as luscious colours and beautiful characteristics. Later, when Robert is traveling along the road, leading the horses and men through the fog, none of the aspects of the land can be distinguished: then land is made of deadly mud that, when trampled by the feet of an army, can suck a soldier into it’s cold, clammy grasp. The beauty of Robert chasing after the fox while running through the prairie is so unlike the scarce landscape on the battlefield. Robert goes from breathing fresh countryside air, before really entering war grounds, to inhaling the thick, dank fog on rolling hills of the combat zone.
Courtney from Study Moose
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