The Wars

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The Wars
First edition
Author Timothy Findley
Country Canada
Language English
Publisher Clarke, Irwin
Publication date
Pages 226
ISBN 0-7720-1188-5 (first edition)
OCLC 3689735
LC Class PZ4.F494 War PR9199.3.F52
Preceded by The Butterfly Plague
Followed by Famous Last Words

The Wars is a 1977 novel by Timothy Findley that tells the story of a young Canadian officer in World War I. Nineteen-year-old Robert Ross tries to escape both his grief over his sister's death and the social norms of oppressive Victorian[1] upper-class society by enlisting in the Great War. He is quickly drawn into the madness of war and commits "a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death."[2] Years later, a historian tries to piece together how he came to commit this act, using a mixture of styles and sources.

The novel was first published by Clarke Irwin. It won the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1977.


The Wars utilizes first-, second-, and third-person narrative, which is very rare in literature. The narrative moves between voices, each telling part of Robert's story.[3]

The novel is also an example of historiographic metafiction.

Plot summary[edit]


A man named Robert Ross is introduced as squatting in a tattered Canadian military uniform, with his hands between his legs while holding a pistol. A nearby building is on fire, and a train is stopped. There is evidence of war, and Ross is shown to be in the company of a black horse and a dog. Robert, the horse, and the dog seem to have been together for a while, as they understand each other. He decides to free a herd of horses from the train, and the prologue ends with the horses, rider, and dog all running as a herd.

Part One[edit]

Robert Ross has enlisted in the army after the recent death of his sister, about which he feels guilty. His sister, Rowena, died from falling out of her wheelchair in their barn while playing with her beloved rabbits. Robert feels guilty because he was unable to save her since he was making love to his pillows in his locked room even though he should have been watching over her. He then joins the army to distance himself from the pain. Robert's mother told Robert to kill the rabbits but he refused, and Mr. Ross called someone else. In an attempt to stop Teddy Budge from killing the rabbits, Robert was beaten up. Robert's mother came to talk to him as he soaked the resulting bruises in the bathtub. She was drunk and smoking a cigarette when she confronted him, and said there was nothing she could do to stop him from going to war.

Ross goes to army training. While looking for some lost horses, he meets Eugene Taffler, a war hero who is very big and strong. Taffler shows the men how to break bottles by throwing stones. Ross then goes with his soldiers-in-training to a brothel named Wet Goods and when the prostitute (Ella) finds that he has ejaculated in his pants, she shows him a way to see into the next room. This is where he sees his hero, Taffler, having sadomasochistic[1] sex with the large man from reception. Upon seeing this, Ross throws his boots at a mirror and a water jug, scaring Ella, in an imitation of the violence he has just witnessed.

While sailing to England on the S.S. Massanabie, Robert must kill a horse that broke its leg during a storm. While struggling to kill the horse, he fires and misses many times before landing his shots.

Part Two[edit]

Robert is now in France and in charge of a convoy. While scouting ahead in the fog, he falls into a muddy sinkhole and nearly drowns. After saving himself, he is met by Poole and Levitt, two of his men. Robert eventually reaches the dugout with Levitt. Devlin, Bonnycastle, and Rodwell are there.

Rodwell cares for injured animals he finds: birds, rabbits, toads, and hedgehogs. The rabbits remind Robert painfully of Rowena, because she loved to play with her own rabbits back at home. Robert builds a bond with Rodwell, the only other civil soldier who cares and respects animals, and begins to love him.

Robert had befriended Harris in the ship's infirmary, but he dies two days before Robert was scheduled to leave for France. Wanting a proper Army funeral for his friend, Robert discovers when he goes back that Harris is already cremated. Disappointed by the way his friend is buried, Robert says to Taffler, "This is not a military funeral. This is just a burial at sea. May we take off our caps?"[4]

On February 28, 1916, the Germans set of a string of land mines, strategically placed along the St. Eloi Salient. The whole countryside goes up in flames. This was the second half of the battle the Canadians thought was already over. "30,000 men would die and not an inch of land would be won."[1]

Part Three[edit]

Robert is now experiencing trench warfare at its worst. Following a shelling of the dugout, his fellow soldier Levitt loses his mind, and Robert finds himself close to the brink.

Ordered to place guns in a location sure to be a deathtrap, Robert and his men find themselves on the wrong end of a gas attack in the middle of a freezing cold winter. Robert is instructed to place the guns in a crater that is formed by the shelling attacks because these provide the best strategical advantage. As he approaches the crater Robert tells the rest of the men to stay back while he tests it to see if it is safe. He begins climbing across the slide of the crater when he slips down and smashes his knees on a machine gun out of the wall of the crater. The machine gun has at least stopped his fall but has injured Robert's knees pretty badly. As the rest of the men start climbing down and landing on the machine gun to set up the guns, there is a sudden gas attack. The bottom of the crater is full of freezing water and many begin jumping into it. Robert takes control with his pistol and instructs the men what to do about the gas. He saves the men by telling them to urinate on clothes and hold them over their faces. One man is scared to urinate and Robert must do it for him. After pretending to be dead for hours, Robert finds that they are being watched by an enemy German soldier. Rather than shooting the soldiers, the German allows all of Robert's men to leave the area. Just as Robert is leaving, however, the German makes a quick motion, and Robert turns around and shoots the German. Robert thinks that the German had been reaching for his rifle when he was actually reaching for a pair of binoculars to look at the bird flying overhead; Robert is even more horrified to see that the German has a sniper rifle right beside him, meaning he could have killed Robert and the rest of the soldiers if he had wanted to. Robert hears a bird chirping above him and, from then on, is haunted by the sound of the bird.

Part Four[edit]

Robert receives an invitation to Barbara d'Orsey's home. The majority of this section is told by Barbara's young sister, Juliet, through her diary entries.

Juliet knows, but Robert does not, that Taffler had both his arms cut off in the war and is just lying on a bed in a room. When Robert finally sees this he is devastated.

Juliet also writes in her diary about Taffler's attempted suicide. One day she decides to pick some flowers and bring them to Taffler. As she walks in she is faced with a man head first into the floor and bloody streaks all over the walls: Taffler had rubbed his raw arm stumps against the walls so he could bleed to death. However, people come in answer to Juliet's screams and end up saving Taffler.

Juliet has told Robert that the room he had been given had a ghost: "Lady Sorrel" came in every night to light the candles. One night Juliet sees Barbara sneak into Robert's room without even knocking, so she thinks it would be a neat prank to dress up as Lady Sorrel and walk into Robert's room to light the candles and leave. When Juliet opens the door a crack, she accidentally sees Barbara and Robert Ross make love, which she at first thinks is Robert hurting Barbara. By the end of the chapter, Juliet gives Robert a candle and a box of matches.

Part Five[edit]

Robert leaves Barbara d'Orsey's home and heads back to battle on a small train. He gets hopelessly lost on the way and loses his pack. After many weeks of travelling in circles he arrives at Désolé, a mental institution. Shortly after reaching the bath house, he is brutally raped by three of his fellow soldiers. When he returns to his room, he finally receives his lost pack, and burns his picture of Rowena as an act of charity, reasoning that it would be horrible for something so innocent to exist in such a messed-up world.

Robert then returns to the front. The Germans begin firing shells that set everything ablaze. Robert goes to speak to Captain Leather to request that the horses be let out of the barn, because if the barn is hit they will all die, but Captain Leather refuses. Robert returns to the barn and asks his friend Devlin to help him release the horses. Devlin contemplates whether he should let all the horses die or face the wrath of Captain Leather; Devlin decides to help Robert. As Devlin runs out to open the gate, Captain Leather comes out of hiding beneath a table and looks out the window to see Devlin disobeying his orders. Leather runs out screaming treason and traitor, and shoots Devlin dead. He then fires at Robert but misses because Robert hides between the horses as they are running out. At that moment three shells land and set everything ablaze: the barn, the building that the other soldiers are still in, and the field where all the horses had run to. Soon everything is burning around Robert; even the horses are slowly burning alive. Robert sees Captain Leather struggling to get him, walks over, and shoots in between the eyes.

Robert runs away, as he knows he will be court-martialed for disobeying orders. He finds a black horse with a black dog beside an abandoned train. Before riding the horse down the track, he realizes there are horses in the train. He frees 130 horses from the train and flees the area with them. As Robert is riding with all the horses, a soldier stops him and tries to force him to return the horses, so Robert pulls out his Webley revolver and shoots him.

He is a fugitive for some time before finally being caught in a barn with the horses. The soldiers surrounding Robert set the barn on fire in order to force him out. The barn roof lights up in seconds because it had not rained for days. Before Robert could open the barn doors the roof collapsed on him and the horses, setting them all on fire. Robert is saved but badly burned, and all the horses and possibly the dog are killed.

Robert turns down an offer of euthanasia from a nurse from Bois de Madeleine hospital before being sent to England and tried in absentia. Since he could not be kept in prison, he was given leave to stay in St Aubyn's for longterm treatment.

Juliet d'Orsey rarely left Robert's side until his death in 1922. Mr. Ross was the only member of his family to come see Robert buried.


Robert Ross[edit]

The character of protagonist Robert Ross was inspired by T. E. Lawrence and the author's uncle, Thomas Irving Findley, to whom the author dedicated the novel.[5] Findley named the character after Canadian literary figure Robbie Ross.[5]

Robert Ross enlisted when he was eighteen and served as a second lieutenant in the Canadian field artillery from 1916-1917.

He is a compassionate, handsome fellow. He is also an idealist, hindered by youth and inexperience.[1] Robert's personality is serious, practical, determined, and observant of things that other people cannot see. His observations also allow him to react quickly to the situations he encounters in this novel. Robert suffers great guilt[6] over the accidental death of his sister, Rowena, who died from a fall onto cement ground in the barn. After Rowena's death, Robert became distant from his mother and much closer to his father, who continued to support and encourage him throughout his experience in the war.

Rowena's death also leaves him with violent streaks and leads an internal war with himself while also trying to cope with the war going on in the world. Even though Robert is determined, he was not a natural killer; this weakness was seen in his inability to kill the injured horse or Rowena's rabbits. Robert strove to learn from Eugene Taffler, whom Robert hoped could help teach him to kill by example. After all the terrible things Robert witnesses, he gradually descends into madness, and goes AWOL. He kills two fellow officers in an attempt to save hundreds of horses from slaughter.

He dies of his war wounds several years after the war ends.

Rowena Ross[edit]

Rowena is Robert's older sister, with whom Robert felt a connection from a very early age. She was hydrocephalic, meaning she was born with water in the brain. This caused her to have an adult-sized head but a body of a ten-year-old, and made her unable to walk. Robert acted as her guardian for most of his life. She was 25 years old when she fell out of her wheelchair onto the concrete floor of their barn and shortly after passed away. Robert took it as his duty to protect her, but Robert was in his room masturbating when she fell out of her chair. Thus, he feels guilty throughout the novel for inadvertently causing her death. She remains in Robert's heart and mind throughout the novel and is constantly referenced.

Rowena had ten rabbits that she looked after and kept as pets while she was alive, but Mrs. Ross insisted that they be killed, against Robert's wishes, shortly after Rowena's death. Robert's desperate attempts to save animals throughout his war experiences reflects his love for the dead animal-loving sister.

The character of Rowena was inspired by Mary Macdonald, daughter of Sir John A. Macdonald, who was similarly afflicted with hydrocephalus.[5]

Thomas Ross[edit]

Commonly referred to as Mr. Ross in the novel, he is the wealthy father of protagonist Robert Ross. He was the more lenient parent in the family and loved every member enough to encourage Robert to go for what he wants while withstanding the accusations surrounding Rowena's death. His relationship with his wife became helpless after Rowena's death and Robert's enlisting in the army. He has a strong relationship with his son Robert,[6] and he is the only member of the family to attend Robert's funeral.

Marian Turner[edit]

Marian Turner is a young nurse during the war. She cares for Robert when he is injured late in the novel, but the reader is introduced to her earlier. Via transcripts of interviews, an 80-year old Marian gives accounts of what Robert was like as a young man, and of life during the war.

Lady Juliet d'Orsey[edit]

Juliet d'Orsey gives an account of Robert, whom she knew at the age of twelve and for whom she had romantic feelings. She is Barbara d'Orsey's younger sister, who saw too much and acted too maturely for her age. Interestingly, she seems to be the only character who understands the delicate homoerotic undertones in male friendships without being confused or disturbed by them.

Lady Barbara d'Orsey[edit]

This lady is Juliet's older sister, who became Robert's lover at a point in the novel. She was uncaring and moved easily from one man to another. She admired athletes and heroes. She constantly frustrated the delicate homoerotic relationships around her without understanding her own destructiveness.

Eugene Taffler[edit]

This man was a war hero who was often accompanied by a dog and a horse. From the very beginning when he is first introduced, he plays the game of hitting bottles off of posts with stones, displaying strength and perfect accuracy. This reflects Taffler's reputation in the war as a soldier who kills as though it were some kind of game.

He later loses his arms. When Taffler loses his arms he no longer wants to live because his arms were so much a part of him and his identity that without them he doesn't have the will to live. He attempts suicide, by rubbing his stubs against the wall, but is thwarted by Lady Juliet d'Orsey. Taffler's reputation and self-image are linked closely with his arms. First as he's introduced using them to hit bottles with stones, and even later when he helps Robert toss Harris's ashes into the river.

Taffler is a complex character because although when introduced, Robert makes Taffler his model of masculinity. Later, upon discovering him having sex with the Swede, Robert's homophobia causes him to cease regarding Taffler as a role model. Nevertheless, Taffler goes on to have a seemingly heterosexual relationship with Barbara d'Orsey. It is also noteworthy that Robert himself may have been struggling with his own homosexual tendencies.


Robert meets Harris in the ship's infirmary. Harris's condition grows progressively worse while in England and he eventually dies before being sent off to France. While under Robert's care at a hospital, Harris talks at great length of his love of the sea. Robert describes Harris as someone he loved deeply.


Introduction by Guy Vanderhaeghe (2005)[edit]

In Penguin’s Modern Classic edition, published 2005, Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe wrote the “Introduction” for The Wars.[7] Vanderhaeghe describes his first experience reading the novel on the “last leg of a long bus trip.” Vanderhaeghe states that he could not stop reading and, upon finishing the book, he was "strangely exalted and disturbed by an encounter with a novel harrowing and uplifting, a novel that was both a marvelous work of art and a passionate indictment of the first cruel idiocy of the twentieth century." Vanderhaeghe also sets The Wars in the context of other works of historical war fiction. His main distinction between The Wars and works like War and Peace, The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms is the compressed size of The Wars, usually being under two hundred pages (depending on the edition). Vanderhaeghe points towards Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front as being perhaps the only other work to "so efficiently compress and crystallize the horrors of combat in so few pages." Vanderhaeghe continues, however, that "But unlike Remarque, Findley achieves this impressive economy by piecing together a collage of arresting images and brief, telling scenes that not only cohere in a compelling narrative but whose form mimics the fractured lives of soldiers and civilians shattered by war."

Throughout his introduction, Vanderhaeghe also argues that "The Wars is the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian," ending with the personal confession that "The Wars has always been, and shall remain for me, the loveliest, the most moving of novels."



The plural "Wars" in the title implies that there are multiple conflicts within the novel. Robert's time in the army and his personal conflicts are among them, creating both external and internal struggles.[8] Guy Vanderhaeghe, in his introduction to The Wars in Penguin's Modern Classics 2005 edition, states that "Like the frieze of horse and dog, or the occasional glimpse of Harris's blue scarf, the wars [emphasis in original] hovers in the reader's consciousness, heard as the faintest of dire whispers. It is as impossible to boil simple meaning from these two words as it is to impute clear and unambiguous motives' for Ross's actions, or to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."[7]

The bald third-person summaries of casualties, contrasted with Robert's idealized view of war, also heighten the book's impact on readers.[1]


Animals appear throughout the story.[8] Among the most common or meaningful are:

  • The birds represent the danger that Robert was going to experience in the novel. They are a sort of warning; each time Robert notices they have stopped singing, an attack soon follows. In fact, birds are sometimes used to outwardly reflect what Robert is feeling.[9] Birds also represent life and the freedom which must be fought for on personal levels.
  • The coyote represents the relationship between man and beast. It can mean friendship, companionship, and loyalty towards Robert. The coyote willingly ran with Robert.
  • Rabbits come up in the novel on several occasions: they bring back memories to Robert about how he did not want to kill the rabbits, since they belonged to Rowena. The rabbits, along with Rowena, are a symbol of innocence and purity.[8]
  • Horses have several important appearances. Horses bring Robert to Eugene Taffler:[9] Robert was corralling mustangs when he came across Taffler, who had returned and reenlisted in the war. The horse was often used in the novel as a means of transportation[9] and companionship. When Robert finds a mare while attempting to free a group of doomed military horses, this horse is notably described as black; this refers to the Book of Revelation, in which St. John the Divine describes a vision of a black horse whose rider is holding balances. In Robert's mind, the horses from the abandoned train represent his men, whom he had also been unable to save,[8] and the last available beings that he can protect.[9] Horses also represent the best of Robert's life before the war, as in the old photograph of Rowena on a pony.[9]


The four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water are all featured in the novel. They each represent a trial that Robert Ross must overcome on his journey.

  • Earth appears as the mud that almost claims Robert's life in Ypres.
  • Air is a symbol representing life. In the chlorine gas attack against the Allies, Robert neutralizes it with urine. In addition, Harris' struggle with pneumonia eventually leads to his death.
  • Fire represents destruction,[8] pain,[10] and death. It is shown as gunfire, artillery fire,[10] and flamethrowers. Harris's body is cremated instead of being buried.[8] Finally, the flaming barn appears in the Prologue and in Part Five as it the claims the lives of Robert's horses and dog.
  • Water represents change: Robert takes a bath after Rowena's death, the skies are snowing at Rowena's funeral, Robert stands in the rain at the train station, the snow is sufficiently melted when Mrs Ross comes out of the church that she could not make a snowball, and the war trenches are filled with rain and resulting mud.


Robert's pistol is shown as a powerful symbol of authority and security.

It is also a tool with which Robert vents his violent feelings. For example, Juliet relates how she witnessed him destroying a tree with his gun.[3]

In other media[edit]

A feature film version of The Wars was released in 1983. The film was directed by Robin Phillips from a screenplay written by Findley,[11] and starred Brent Carver as Robert Ross. It received three Genie Awards from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1984, in the categories of Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Sharon Lackie, Bruce Nyznik, and Bernard Bordeleau), Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Martha Henry), and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Jackie Burroughs), and was nominated for four more in the categories of Best Picture, Best Achievement in Film Editing (Tony Lower), Best Achievement in Overall Sound (Hans Peter Strobl), and Best Screenplay (Findley).[11]

The novel has also been adapted for the stage by Dennis Garnhum.[12] It premiered at Theatre Calgary in September 2007.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e Tumanov, Vladimir (Autumn 1991). "De-automatization in Timothy Findley's The Wars" (PDF). Canadian Literature 130: 107–115. 
  2. ^ Findley, Timothy (1997). The Wars. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-305142-3. 
  3. ^ a b Hukkala, Liisa; Roblee, Heather; Stencill, Melissa-Lee (February 1997). "The Structure of The Wars". Acadia University. 
  4. ^ The Wars, pg. 107.
  5. ^ a b c Busby, Brian (2003). Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canlit. Toronto: Knopf. pp. 221–223. ISBN 0-676-97579-8. 
  6. ^ a b Berringer, Heather; Gartley, Ross; Leach, Trilby; Roberts, Ashley; Stokes, Elizabeth (February 1997). "Some Personal Relationships in Timothy Findley's The Wars". Acadia University. 
  7. ^ a b Vanderhaeghe, Guy (2005). "Introduction". The Wars. Toronto: Penguin, Modern Classics. pp. xi–xviii. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f "The Wars Play Guide" (PDF). Vancouver, Canada: Playhouse Theatre Company. Archived from the original (PDF) on an unknown date. Retrieved 21 July 2013.  Check date values in: |archivedate= (help)
  9. ^ a b c d e Brown, Karey; Nauss, Meghan; McLeod, Ann (February 1997). "Animals in The Wars". Acadia University. 
  10. ^ a b Barnes, Paul; Hayes, Derek; Hume, Lindsey; Lewis, Courtenay; Robicheau, Candace (February 1997). "Theme of Fire in The Wars". Acadia University. 
  11. ^ a b The Wars at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ a b "Nexen Presents The Theatre Calgary Wold Premiere". Theatre Calgary. Archived from the original on 26 August 2007. 
Preceded by
Governor General's Award for English language fiction recipient
Succeeded by
Who Do You Think You Are?