War Horse

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.  Scholastic, 2011 (originally published 1982), 192 pages.  Age/interest level: 8 and up.

Michael Morpurgo was already established in the UK as a poet, playwright, and children’s writer when he and his wife began a hands-on charity called Farms for City Children.  This was a program that took poor children from urban centers to one of three farms to work for a week.  Years later, Morpurgo recalled a boy from Birmingham who spent a week at the Devon farm.  “Billy” had a bad stammer and never talked, beyond monosyllables.

It was a dark November evening and I came into the yard behind this big Victorian house where [the children] all live, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking. Talking, talking, talking, to the horse. And the horse, Hebe, had her head out of, just over the top of the stable, and she was listening, that’s what I noticed, that the ears were going, and she knew – I knew she knew – that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen, and I knew this was a two way thing, and I wasn’t being sentimental, and I stood there and I listened . . . All the fear had gone, and there was something about the intimacy of this relationship, the trust was building up between boy and horse, that I found enormously moving . . .

That was the germ of inspiration for War Horse, a story of World War I told through the eyes of an animal who experienced it.  Originally published in the UK, the novel enjoyed a period of reasonable success before sinking into the backlist.  Then playwright Nick Stafford wanted to turn it into a theater production.  Morpurgo’s original thought was, “They must be mad.”  It was inspired madness, because War Horse went from London’s West End to Broadway trailing every possible stage award and packing houses every night.  Part of its success was due to the breathtaking puppet animation of the horses, which you can see here:

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From stage to Spielberg–War Horse the movie opens on Christmas Day, and looks like the kind of lush cinematic treatment that sucks up Oscar nominations and chokes up viewers.  (I am a sucker for this kind of thing, even when I know my strings are being pulled.)  I’ve posted the trailer below.  From the looks of it, a lot of material has been added to the original story—which is necessarily simple because it’s told from the horse’s point of view.  No angst, inspirational interludes or romance—just basic emotions of fear and more fear, calm and more calm.  Though I haven’t seen any of the visual adaptations, the book strikes me as a greater achievement.  I could find a lot of things wrong when I was reading it—a vocabulary unnecessarily elevated, a writing style that seemed awkward at times, especially the repetition of the pronoun “me,” the necessary limiting of point of view.  But the feat it pulls off is much harder than it looks.

A half-Thoroughbred bay colt, with a white star on his forehead and four perfectly matched white socks, is sold at a country auction to a Devon farmer who drinks too much and strikes out too often.  Fortunately, the farmer’s son Alfred bonds with the colt, whom he names Joey and trains alongside the plow mare.  Joey grows into a fine specimen of equinehood who catches the eye of a cavalry recruiter, Captain Nichols.  The Captain buys Joey from Alfred’s father without Alfred’s knowledge.  Then to France, where the British Army quickly learns that cavalry charges are hopeless against massed machine gun fire and barbed wire.  But Joey is in France for the duration, changing sides, changing jobs, experiencing flashes of terror and long spells of misery and oases of peace in the midst of exploding shells.

A reader will learn very little history of the war, as there are no battles or places named and no dates (what do horses know about time?), much less any preference for one side over the other.  There are only seasons and experiences–and relationships, for Joey has the sensitivity that Morporso observed in Hebe, the mare of Devon Farm.  Joey listens, making no judgments, and people pour out their souls to him.

It turns out to be an effective way of showing the horror of this particular war; the most spectacular example of human folly in history.  Unlike the next world war, it had little or no moral imperative; it was a bloodbath between European powers who didn’t realize, until too late, that the old rules were as obsolete as cavalry.  And then they were stuck.  Helplessness is more poignant when seen through the eyes of an innocent victim, and according to one character, “. . . a horse’s life is maybe even more important than a man’s, ‘cause a horse hasn’t got no evil in him except any that’s been put there by man.”  But everybody is innocent to some degree, and Joey becomes both the bearer of their pain and the justifier of it.  When his life is threatened, both sides go to extraordinary lengths to save him, as though salvaging some shred of beauty and rationality from the madness is the only way to redeem it.

Where is God in all this?  Far away.  “God only knows why we [fight], and I think He has maybe forgotten why.”  It’s up to humans to muddle through as best we can, and when all else fails, there’s prayer: “. . . ‘I’ve just asked God,’ Albert confides to Joey as they face their last crisis: “’’cause when all’s said and done, it’s all up to Him  . . .I remember old Miss Whirtle telling me once in Sunday school back home: “God helps those that helps themselves.”  Mean old devil she was but she knew her scriptures well enough.’”  Well no, she didn’t.  What Albert is expressing is a common misconception of the gospel in the last century: Use when all else fails.  Proactive use of the gospel could have made a big difference in world history.

The novel is usually characterized as “anti-war,” which is so obvious it barely needs stating.  It’s also an oversimplification.  Almost nobody is “pro-war,” but many are pro-power, and war is the default means of getting power.  Sentiments expressed by “crazy Freidrich,” a German teamster, apply well enough to 1918: “How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language?  You [horses] are the only rational creatures I’ve met in this stupid war.”  In another scene, another German asserts that “any problem can be solved between people if only they trust each other.”  But that’s just the problem—we have a hard time trusting God, much less each other.  The book is written for children, so there’s no call for sophisticated reasoning on the theory of just wars, but the German’s statement is worth talking about.  And the book is well worth reading.

Here’s the movie trailer:

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For thoughts and reviews about another war, see Learning the Holocaust and Anne Frank and I.  For other wartime situations, see Living Like a Refugee.


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. emily on December 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Janie. I particularly appreciated your point that folks aren’t usually pro-war but pro-power. I enjoyed the trailer, and it reminded me of my feeling for the horse in True Grit.

  2. Janie Cheaney on December 21, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Oh yes, that was wrenching. Another great horse movie is Hidalgo. And going way back into the 70’s there was one called Bite the Bullet, with Gene Hackman and James Coburn. It’s about a marathon cross-country race (like Hidalgo); surprisingly slow-paced, but with some interesting reflections and character development.

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