Book Review: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

I have to say that I went all Emperor’s New Clothes over this book, and it wasn’t because of the hype/show/movie etc.  I am quite sure the stage show is utterly spectacular and that the movie will be moving and schmaltzy in parts (and I bet the good guys are the Americans LOL) but as a book it really didn’t do anything—anything—for me and let me tell you, if there are tears to be had in a book, I’ll shed them.

I think it was purely because of the horse’s voice; it didn’t reach me and I didn’t feel any real compassion or in fact any interest for anything he did. He was altogether too sure of everything for a start—he kept assuring us how fond he was of Albert but there wasn’t anything in the horse’s actions to convince me of that. If he’d done something for Albert at any point I’d have been more sure of the bond between them. As it was I was convinced that Albert loved Joey to the point of following him into a deadly conflict just to find him, but Joey’s feelings the other way?  Not there for me. 

You may argue that perhaps horses don’t have such deep feelings and don’t show them, but then if so—don’t show us a horse with entirely human thought processes.

Now, I’ve owned ponies and horses since I was six years old. I’ve been riding since I was literally a year old so I do know what I’m on about. I believe that horses do have a strong bond with humans, and, like dogs, they can bond to one human over others. They might actively dislike some people and they’ll show it. Trouble is that we aren’t really shown anything of what Joey does in relation to people. We are told what he does with those people, works on the farm, trained as a troop horse, pulls wagons, blah blah but it’s all so remote.

My major problem though was the immense depth of anthropomorphism that Joey showed. Yes, it’s a kid’s/YA book—but surely even a child might ask “how on earth does a horse know what that’s called?” He doesn’t only know the names of everything in his world, seemingly without being told it, but he understands complicated concepts like cause and effect, that canons are big guns, and war itself.

I like anthropomorphic stories—we all grew up on them and they range from the intelligence of “the man approached me with something that smelled strange in his hands” to the likes of Mr Toad who dresses like a person and drives a car. Joey fits into the latter category and he’s so humanised that really he should be wearing a waistcoat and carrying a fob watch.

He knows everything, understands everything, can understand all languages, despite horses seemingly having no language or communication of their own,  just feelings and empathy toward each other. Compare this omniscient behaviour to the rabbits in Watership Down, though. They encounter something alien to them—for example a road. They don’t know what it is, just that it is a hard river that flows forever on either sie of them. Elil (can’t remember the word for car, something like hdrudu) run up and down it, and although they don’t seem to seek rabbits out they are as deadly as any other predator in the rabbits’ world. This incomprehension (whilst still having a good deal of anthropomorphism within it, such as the organising of the Efrafa) is perfectly balanced and doesn’t make the rabbits out to be superbeings, although they are probably the smartest bunnies since Bugs.

I read somewhere that the fact that Joey can understand all languages helped to emphasize the anti-war message, but I’m left scratching my head at that—as well as wondering where the hell the anti-war message was. Perhaps the author thought by representing all races as kind individuals, which of course the greater proportion of people are—and that they were all as confused as everyone else as to why the war was taking place—that would be enough for an anti-war message.  I didn’t weep at the sad bits which weren’t actually that sad. I weep at the very mention of what happened to Ginger in Black Beauty but couldn’t really care less about the dead horses Joey describes because they weren’t real “people” (and I mean that in an animal sense) to me.  Also –  leaving good food just lying around on the ground? No way. They would have been cut up and eaten before you could say “Kaiser Bill.”

So yeah. It sort of went over my head. It’s probably a very deep allegory, but I missed that.

© Copyright 2011 Erastes, All rights Reserved. Written For: Erastes
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