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Heroism, Horses & Humanity

Hi, I’m Daniel Helbert from Canyon, Texas; I teach literature at West Texas A&M University and I research and write about the literature of the British Middle Ages.

For HPPR’s Radio Readers Book Club, I’m going to talk to you today about Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, War Horse. The book bills itself as a children’s story, but—as its recent adaptations into an award-winning stage-play and film attest—it certainly has the potential to appeal to a much wider audience. 

For a third grader with a helpful parent nearby, this is a great chapter book to be savored over two or three weeks. But, at 165 well-spaced pages of smooth, flowing narrative, this is also a worthwhile afternoon read for any interested adult.

The story is told through the eyes of a farm horse named Joey who is the faithful companion to Albert, a Cornish teenager otherwise short on friends and intimacy at home. The Great War disrupts Joey’s idyllic English farm life and his journeys along the Western Front of the war follow the paths of English cavalry officers, French peasants, and German foot soldiers—various perspectives which allow Morpurgo to explore the human and non-human tragedies and miracles of a conflict which put the romantic past to rest and ushered in a terrible modernity from which we have yet to recover.

Three of the major concerns of the novel are revealed in the three sources of “inspiration” that Morpurgo has described. The first source Morpurgo mentions is a quiet, withdrawn child who visited his farm in Cornwall with a class of other youngsters. The child, Morpurgo says, never spoke in class because of a terrible speech impediment; however, upon walking out to his stables, Morpurgo found the boy chattering, constantly and fluidly, to an old farm horse who stood patiently and attentively listening to the boy and—perhaps at some level—even understanding him.

Further inspiration came from Morpurgo’s visits to a pub in west Devonshire, a small, isolated, rural community with a thick regional identity. The regional identity of Cornwall, like most regions of the UK, was even more defined at the beginning of the twentieth century. World War I, for the veterans whom Morpurgo met in this pub, would have been a shocking transition from the pleasant monotony of farm life to a terrifying cacophony of cultures and machinery engaged in industrialized warfare.

Finally, Murpurgo describes a painting by FW Reed that hangs in that very same pub. The scene is simultaneously tragic, haunting, and inspirational; it depicts a line of glorious British cavalry horses with bedecked officers astride them and sabers drawn, riding full-force into a line of German barbwire and machine guns. The painting, like the book it eventually inspired, is touching in its evocation of the Great War’s drastic alterations of Western ideas of heroism, horses, and humanity.