“I shall not call him my master, for only one man was ever my master.”
Two books have made me cry in front of my class while reading aloud. One was Little Britches, the other was War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. It’s not that I only cry about horses. It is the suffering of innocent creatures that gets me. In the case of War Horse, it is also the senselessness of war, WWI in particular. The clash of the technology of two different centuries makes for particularly gruesome situations.
My intent is not to make sure you never read this book. It is to try to explain some of its power. I’ve heard different comments about the intensity of the story. I also hope to give you some details to help you discern whether this might be a good fit for you or your family.
Stories written from the point of view of an animal can seem contrived in much the same way as the diary or epistolary point of view. Too much information about things an animal wouldn’t notice or be privy to and it’s going to get awkward. Morpurgo does an excellent job of writing convincingly as a horse. The horse, Joey, tells the story. It’s a story about himself. He reports what he sees and experiences, or what he hears humans say in his presence. Through all that he experiences, he doesn’t complain much, but we can feel with him when he reports as the war wears on; “One by one, we began to lose weight and condition. At the same time, the battles seemed to become more furious and prolonged, and we worked longer and harder hours pulling in front of the gun; we were permanently sore and permanently cold. We ended every day covered in a layer of cold, dripping mud that seemed to seep through and chill us to the bones.”
Much of what makes this story so poignant is the theme of separation. Joey has to leave his mother. He has to leave his friends on the farm. He loses friends in the war. As a real horse would, Joey resists these changes and is disoriented for a time. The human reader probably feels the pain of separation more deeply than Joey does, however, because we do not forget as easily.
On the positive side are the stories within the story about friendship. Joey always does best when he has a friend beside him for comfort. Throughout the story, he has some very good friends, animal and human, and he is a good friend to others. He describes spending the night standing over a dead friend, though everyone else has fled a bombardment. “I knew that once I left him I would be alone in the world again, that I would no longer have his strength and support beside me. So I stayed with him and waited.” He doesn’t move until confronted with the first tank he has ever seen.
Most of the death is dealt with “off stage,” because the death of men doesn’t have the same impact on Joey as it does on us. When one of his owners is killed, he merely says, “and then quite suddenly I found that I had no rider, that I had no weight on my back anymore. . .”
There is a particularly disturbing battle scene in chapter 8 where, “All around me, men cried and fell to the ground, and horses reared and screamed in an agony of fear and pain. The ground erupted on either side of me, throwing horses and riders clear into the air . . . The firing came now from higher up in among the trees, and so the squadron, or what was left of it, regrouped and galloped up into the woods, only to be met by a line of hidden wire in among the trees. Some of the horses ran into the wire before they could be stopped, and stuck there, their riders trying feverishly to extract them. I saw one trooper dismount deliberately once he saw his horse was caught. He pulled out his rifle and shot his mount before falling dead himself on the wire.”
Do you need to know if Joey survives? I’ll tell you at the bottom.
Toward the end, as he begs for help treating a sick Joey, a young man in the veterinary corps does a good job of summing up what is at the heart of the way I feel about the suffering of animals. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I remember you telling us when we first came here that 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 put there by men.”
A word or two about the movie:
I was skeptical, as I would be about any book I loved being made into a movie, but I kept hearing people saying how moving it was. As moving as the book was for me, I imagined that seeing it actually happening would be even more so. I expected too much. I was underwhelmed. For me, the force was lost because the filmmakers weren’t able to resist making the story about people and their relationships rather than focusing on the horse. It is a touching war story, but just another touching war story. And, of course, the screenplay changes the story quite a bit for no discernible reason. Does Hollywood have so little respect for the intelligence of its viewers that it assumes that we are only able to respond to a few tried and tired motifs? As if they need to say, “Here, let us tell you how to feel about this.” Perhaps we are that jaded. Is there no way to represent the nobility of the horse without having him try to save his friend with a ridiculously unnatural “No, take me instead” gesture?
There are a couple of instances of mild swearing. One such is a British term that would probably fly right past most American children. At the very beginning, one man says to another, “B****r off you tight b*****d.”
Though there is plenty of death, there almost no blood. A couple of point blank shootings are done off camera. The only close up shots of dead bodies are of men wearing gas masks, so their faces aren’t visible, and neither are their wounds.
There is an Audible version.