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The Wars: Animal Imagery

Sigmund Freud once argued that “our species has a volcanic potential to erupt in aggression . . . [and] that we harbour not only positive survival instincts but also a self-destructive ‘death instinct’, which we usually displace towards others in aggression” (Myers 666). Timothy Findley, born in 1930 in Toronto, Canada, explores our human predilection towards violence in his third novel, The Wars. It is human brutality that initiates the horrors of World War I, the war that takes place in this narrative.

Findley dedicated this novel to the memory of his uncle, Thomas Irving Findley, who ‘died at home of injuries inflicted in the First World War” (Cude 75) and may have propelled him to feel so strongly about “what people really do to one another” (Inside Memory 19). Findley feels a great fondness for animals, and this affection surfaces faithfully in many of his literary works. The Wars is a novel wrought with imagery, and the most often recurring pattern is that of animals. Throughout the novel, young Robert Ross’ strong connection with animals is continually depicted in his encounters with the creatures.

Findley uses Robert to reveal the many similarities between humans and animals. The only quality, which we humans do not appear to share with our animal counterparts, is our inexplicable predisposition to needless savagery. In his video documentary, The Anatomy of a Writer, Findley describes his affinity for animals when he says that he has “always been in awe of . . . animals. [He has] never understood where [humankind] picked up the idea that [animals] are less than [people] are-that man is everything”.

In The Wars, Findley stresses his belief that humans are “no better and no worse-no larger and no smaller than any other creature that walks or crawls or flies or swims. [They are] merely different” (Roberts 56). Parallels are drawn between the protagonist, Robert Ross, and many of the animals that appear throughout the novel. Robert appears to have a strong kinship with his animal counterparts. After enlisting in the army, Robert takes a run out on the prairie, where he encounters a coyote. He instinctively begins to follow the creature, and it leads him to a valley where it stops to drink at a small pond.

As it drinks, “the sound . . . [crosses] the distance between them and . . . [seems] to satisfy his own thirst” (The Wars 28). Before the coyote leaves, it turns and “[looks] directly at him . . . and [barks] . . . The coyote had known he was there the whole time: maybe the whole of the run across the prairie. Now it was telling Robert that the valley was vacant: safe-and Robert could proceed to the water’s edge and drink” (28). Later that night, as he sits alone, Robert finds himself “wishing that someone would howl” (28).

Robert also seems to have a special bond with birds, which often appear in the novel, frequently at times of crisis for Robert. After unwittingly leading his men through the fog onto a collapsing dike, the air is suddenly “filled with the shock waves of wings . . . [and] the sound of their motion [sends] a shiver down Robert’s back” (81). Subsequently, Robert steps into the sinking mud and is nearly sucked down to his death beneath the earth. Later in the novel, Robert again encounters a bird, and it is at the same moment that he sees “a German soldier with a pair of binoculars staring right at him” (142).

Then again, while on the way to the dugout, where Robert is later shelled, he notices that “the sky [is] breached by a wavering arm of wings. The crows [are] following” (89). Finally, only shortly preceding arguably the most cataclysmic event in the novel, Robert looks up to the sky and finds himself thinking that there “should have been birds” (197). By acting as omens of danger for Robert, the birds in this novel reinforce Robert’s connection with animals. Robert finds it easier to relate to animals than to humans.

Any of the human characters in the novel for which Robert feels significant affection are also people with strong kinship to animals. His beloved sister, Rowena, was closely attached to her pet rabbits. His friend Rodwell keeps injured animals under his bunk and nurses them back to health. Harris, another friend of Robert’s, says that “[everyone] who’s born has come from the sea. [The] womb is just a sea in small. And birds come from seas in eggs. Horses lie in the sea before they’re born. The placenta is the sea. And your blood is the sea continued in your veins” (117).

Robert also acknowledges our animal heritage when he notes that to sleep invariably puts you in danger, and it was the “animal memory in you that knew that” (101). In the end of the novel, Robert loses his life in an attempt to save those of innocent horses. Findley uses Robert’s connection with the animals to illustrate the similarity between humans and animals. Findley attests that there “are so many fascinating things the human race doesn’t want to know about itself” (Inside Memory 155). One is that, although humans esteem themselves above animals and consider the creatures to be wild and savage, it is truly the human race that is savage.

Although Findley strongly believes that humans and animals are equal, he also vehemently alleges that only humankind is capable of the destruction and horror of senseless violence. During Robert’s run with the coyote, Robert watches as the coyote spies two gophers and notes that the animal “didn’t even come down off it’s toes. And when it came to the place where the gophers had been sitting, neither did it pause to scuffle the burrows or even sniff them” (The Wars 26). This event is important because it emphasizes that as hunters, animals kill only for necessity and survival.

Human beings, on the other hand, are capable of murder without reason. Later in the novel, a young German soldier gives Robert an unexpected chance to escape certain death. Robert is cautious, but seizes the opportunity. However, when the German makes a sudden move, Robert panics and shoots him. Too late, Robert understands that he has made a mistake. The German “had only been reaching for his binoculars . . . It was even worse than that. Lying beside the German was a modified Mauser rifle of the kind used by snipers. He could have killed them all” (146).

It is at the awful moment of realization that Robert hears a bird sing, “[one] long note descending: three that [waver] on the brink of sadness” (146). By the end of the novel, Robert has become aware that human beings are responsible not only for their own misery and suffering, but also for that of innocent animals. In a desperate act to rescue the faultless animals from the horror humankind has caused, Robert releases a band of horses from a stable that is being shelled. Unfortunately, three shells burst in the area and Robert survives only to see that “all the horses . . . ere either dead or dying” (203). As Robert surveys the carnage around him, he thinks “If an animal had done this-we would call it mad and shoot it” (203). In that moment, his vision is cleared and he sees that the innocent and virtuous animals should not suffer the consequences of human violence. He releases yet more animals and leads them to a barn, where he locks himself in with them, refusing to come out. Enraged, his fellow humans attempt to smoke him out. He loses not only the lives of the horses, but also his own life, in a fire that ensues; a fire that was set by human beings.

Throughout the novel, the obvious connection between humans and animals is illuminated by Robert Ross’ attachment to all creatures. In many ways, Robert’s connection to the animals that he encounters alludes to the similarity between all humans and animals. The animals in the novel suffer at the hands of humankind and the hostile environment we create. Although a common assumption is that animals are vicious and wild, there is no evidence of this in the novel. Malice appears to be solely attributable to humankind. This is the truism that Findley depicts in his telling of the tragic story of Robert Ross.

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