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The Wars by Timothy Findley

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The Wars by Timothy Findley

Many novels have been written about the great wars, but few are as absorbing, captivating and still capable of showing all the horrors of the battle as Timothy Findley’s “The Wars”1. After reading the novel, critics and readers have been quick to point out the vast examples of symbolism shown throughout the novel. Even the author himself commented at the vast examples of symbolism throughout the novel, "Everything in that book has a life of its own. It's a carrier too -- all the objects are carriers of someone else's spirit"2. Although the novel is very symbolic, the most bare-faced and self explicit symbols are the natural elements that are inscribed on Robert’s gravestone, “Earth and Air and Fire and Water”3. The symbolism of the natural elements begins a whole framework of ideas as their meanings continuously change throughout the novel. They begin as life supporting and domestic symbols which completely change on the battlefields of Europe. For Findley, this is what war does: it perverts and changes the natural elements from supporting life to the bringers of doom and destruction.

Throughout the novel, one of the most apparent transformations is the one that the natural earth goes through. As Robert enters the war, we are introduced to a horrifying side of the earth; mud. "The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. The ground is the colour of steel. Over most of the plain there isn't a trace of topsoil: only sand and clay"4. The obsessive description of the mud clearly shows how the nurturing earth has been changed on the battlefields. What was once natural, taken for granted and exposed to the corruption of mankind has now become an exquisite terror. Soon after, Robert is pulled in and begins drowning in the mud, “Suddenly his right foot went down. All the way down to the knee through the earth. Dear Jesus -- he was going to drown"5. Mud here is shown as the drowning agent, which is usually water; however ironically, Robert is saved when he wrenches himself out of the mud and lands in a puddle of water. This inversion of natural properties shows Findley’s perspective of how war changes and perverts the natural elements. Later on, Earth is once again shown as an agent of destruction when the dugout collapses on the men. Readers learn that Poole (Robert’s bugler) has slept in a ledge carved into the earth for warmth. This is a wonderful example of the earth in its natural form, a life nurturing agent; however the nature of the earth quickly takes a turn when the reality of war hits. The dugout collapses due to the heavy mortar bombings and yet another horrific picture of mother earth gets painted “it is a hellish compound. It stank of sulphur and chlorine”6. The earth which was providing warmth and comfort for Poole has changed into a life exterminating agent due to the circumstances put forward by the war.

Further perversions of the natural elements are shown as readers come across air and water. Both a necessity of life, they are changed in the great war to murdering equipment used by the two sides. As Robert prepares to leave for the war, he is reminded of his childhood and his domestic past in the mist around him, “... the mist was filled with rabbits and Rowena and his father and his mother and the whole of his past life -- birth and death and childhood. He could breathe them in and breathe them out"7. In this same scene, while Robert is remembering his childhood while standing on the train platform, water plays a part as well, showing Robert his available choices. As he looks down in to the puddle of water beneath his feet, he ponders about his options, either "down into the puddle and up to the town or back along the platform"7. Water and air are portrayed in this scene in their natural form. Readers are aware that Robert’s childhood was filled with happiness, and the fact that both water and air are reminding Robert of his past days and compelling him to step away from the choice of going to the war shows both of these elements as life supporting and benevolent. However, since Robert chooses to join the army, the same natural elements are shown as something different. The inversion of properties of the natural elements are shown again as Captain Harris, in his feverish stupor, recalls swimming into a patch of kelp and untangling himself underwater, but almost dying “in the air with this thing around my neck. In the air…”8. The odd phenomenon of drowning in the air and the attempt to kill Captain Harris shows Findley’s view on how war is simply a perversion of the natural elements, a change from life supporting and benevolent to agents of death.

However, the greatest transformation is shown of the natural element, Fire. At the earlier stages of Robert’s entrance to the war, Fire is beneficial because

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