The abundant animal imagery in Timothy Findley's book The Wars is used to develop characterization and theme. The protagonist, Robert Ross, has a deep connection with animals that reflects his personality and the situations that he faces. This link between Robert and the animals shows the reader that human nature is not much different than animal nature.
The animals in this story are closely related to the characters, especially the character of Robert. Rodwell acknowledges Robert's close union with animals when he draws Robert in his sketchbook as "the only human form" among sketches of animals (155). When Robert sees the drawing, he notices that "the shading [is] not quite human"; it is a combination of animal and human qualities, like Robert's own personality (155). "Modified and mutated, he [is] one with the others" (155). Rodwell's sketchbook reveals the melding of Robert with the animal world.
Robert's encounter with the coyote is a significant step in his understanding of animals and, in turn, this leads to a greater understanding of himself. For Robert to be a soldier, it is important for him to see the point of view of a hunter. He learns from the coyote that a hunter must be generous and kill only in order to survive ("Animals and Their Significance" 1). Robert follows the coyote and watches as it passes two gophers and does not even "pause to scuffle the burrows or even sniff at them. It just [goes] right on trotting--forward towards its goal" (26). The coyote seems to sense Robert's connection with animals and realizes that he is not a threat. This is why the coyote continues to let Robert follow behind when it knows he is there. They drink together at the river, enjoying a "special communion" (Pirie 73). Then the animal tries to communicate with Robert by barking at him, "telling Robert the valley [is] vacant: safe" and then barks another three times to announce its departure (28). When Robert returns to the base, he pays the price for his time with the coyote and is confined to the barracks, but the experience has a profound impact on him. In his confinement, he feels as if the coyote has become a part of him, and he wishes "that someone would howl" (28).
Robert also has a special relationship with horses. When he is on the ship, it is the horses that are "his true companions" (Pirie 73). "He [becomes] intrigued with this world of horses, rats and bilge that [are] consigned to his care" and he spends time with them even when he is off duty. One of the horses breaks its leg and Robert is ordered to kill it. He shoots it once, but the horse is still alive and its mane is described as "a tangle of rattlesnakes" (68). The snakes symbolize the feelings of immorality that are welling up inside of Robert. He knows that killing an animal is against his moral values, but his role in the army is more important to him. He feels that he has "to show his nerve and ability as an officer" (66). Robert finally shoots the horse behind its ear and kills it. This is the first time he intentionally kills a living creature in the story.
Robert's ethics return to him and take priority over military obedience when he tries to rescue horses from the cruelties of war. Robert disobeys Captain Leather's orders and tries to free the horses from the barn that is threatened by falling shells. Unfortunately, the horses die before he can save them all and Robert is filled with anger, shooting Captain Leather between the eyes for causing their death. From this moment on, he rebels against anyone who does not respect his love for animals. This rebellion continues when he barricades himself in a barn with the horses and shouts, "[w]e shall not be taken" (212). It is Robert's strong connection with the horses that leads to his downfall, because the "we" implies to Major Mickle that Robert has an accomplice, and for that reason an attack is ordered. Robert burns in the barn with the horses, feeling the same fear and anguish as they do. The experiences that Robert shares with horses contribute to his sense of empathy and compassion for all animals.
Birds appear frequently throughout the story, especially in times of crisis. The birds often present themselves as omens for dangers that lie ahead. For instance, when Robert's team takes a wrong turn, "the fog is full of noises" of birds (80). Then the birds fly out of the ditch and disappear. Robert and Poole know that "[t]here must be something terribly wrong...but neither one knew how to put it into words. The birds, being gone, had taken some mysterious presence with them. There was an awful sense of void--as if the world had been emptied" (81). The birds return and when Robert nears the collapsing dike, "one of the birds [flies] up and cut[s] across Robert's path" as if it is trying to prevent him from going any further. Robert does not heed the warning and almost dies in the sinking mud.
Another ominous bird appears when Robert and his crew are close to enemy lines. A bird sings and Robert looks up to see the deadly gas easing towards them. He is able to react quickly and save most of his crew. Soon after, the same bird sings again, "one long note descending; three that [waver]" (142). Then Robert sees the German soldier whom he ends up killing when he thinks that the man is reaching for a gun. Robert realizes that the German was only reaching for his binoculars, even though there is a sniper rifle sitting right beside him. He wonders why the man did not kill them all, and then he hears the bird sing once again, its song wavering "on the brink of sadness. That was why" (146). The bird sings sorrowfully for the horror and tragedy of war, and like the soldier, all it wants is for the fighting to stop. The sound of that bird haunts Robert to the day he dies (146). Robert associates birds with the perilous times at war that he can never forget.
Findley uses rabbits to represent Rowena and Rodwell, both characters of pureness and compassion. Rowena is very much like her rabbits in that she is defenseless, innocent and dependent on others. When Rowena dies, her rabbits are killed for the simple reason that "they were hers" (17) and Robert is expected to kill them "because he loved her" (19). These justifications seem rather weak to Robert, who wants his sister to still be alive in some form. If the rabbits were killed, it "would imply that Rowena would truly be dead" and Robert cannot accept this ("Animals and Their Significance" 1). He promised Rowena that he would stay with her forever and that the rabbits would stay forever, too. He wants at least one of these promises to be kept. Unfortunately, a soldier is hired to kill the rabbits, and Robert fights him, yelling, "what are soldiers for?" (20). It is ironic that he later becomes a soldier himself and he learns to kill as well. So Rowena's rabbits are killed, "[b]ecause a girl died, and her rabbits survived her" (20).
Instead of the arbitrary killing that takes place with Rowena's rabbits, Rodwell's animals are being constantly protected from the dangers of battle. For example, when the dugout is shaken by mines, Robert sees the rabbit turn "with its eyes shut tight and huddles in the corner of its cage facing Robert. The hedgehog lay on his side in ball" (122). Rodwell tries his best to keep the animals safe from the many perils of war, but when the Germans attack with their flame throwers, the innocent creatures are asphyxiated by the gas. Rodwell was only able to save the toad by placing it in a water pail. Soon after this event, Rodwell commits suicide when he is "forced to watch the killing of a cat" (150). Rodwell and Rowena's situations are closely related. While Rowena's rabbits are killed because she dies, Rodwell kills himself because his animals die.
The nature of humans and animals reflect each other, proving that the strong bond Robert has with animals is true for us all. During the voyage on the SS Massanabie, the soldiers must live like trapped animals, enduring "airless jamming of their quarters" and "trough-like urinals" with no privacy (57-58). The horses must also suffer horrible conditions on the ship in a hold where "there [is] hardly any light and the scuppers [are] awash with sea bilge and urine" (62).
The animals are used as symbols of hope amidst devastation, portraying the will to survive that is strong in all of us. While Robert steps over the bodies of dead men, he sees a rat struggling in the wet earth and he sets it free, "thinking: here is something that is still alive. And the word alive [is] amazing" (127). The rat is a wondrous sign of life that emerges from death. Another creature that stands out from the surrounding chaos is the cat cleaning its paws during a raid. Marian Turner remembers this cat and says, "life goes on--and a cat will clean its paws no matter what". It is an "image of serenity amidst holocaust" (Klovan, 63). The pure white cat, symbolizing innocence and peace, contrasts the dreary corruption of war.
The connection between humans and animals is expressed by Harris when he speaks of the sea. According to Harris, the sea is the element that bonds humans and animals together. He explains:
Robert does not agree with Harris' idea that humans evolved from animals, "he believe[s] that everything [is] as it [is]" and that "we were always men" (116). It is somewhat of a paradox that he takes this point of view considering that his link with animals is unusually strong. The notion that all living creatures are connected by the sea explains the close relationship between humans and animals in this novel.
Findley uses animal imagery in The Wars as a powerful method of revealing important aspects of personality in the protagonist and other characters. He weaves the characteristics of Robert and those of the animals he encounters in the story. This animal imagery and the character development of Robert is used to express the story's theme of humanity's similarity to animals.
"The Animals and Their Significance," Timothy
Findley: Word for Word, 1997.
Findley, Timothy. The Wars. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1996.
Klovan, Peter. "Bright and Good: Findley's The Wars". Canadian Literature 91:58-69.
Pirie, Bruce. "The Dragon in the Fog: Displaced Mythology in The Wars". Canadian Literature 91:60-79.