Hi, this is Daniel Helbert for HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club coming to you today from Canyon, Texas.
For this installment about Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, I want to think a little about one of the more distinguishing features of the novel: namely, that it is narrated by a horse.
In one sense this is a truly unique narrative strategy—it is certainly the only World War I novel of its kind I am aware of. However, using a horse as a narrator implicitly associates Morpurgo’s novel with some truly great works of Western fiction—including Black Beauty, Gulliver’s Travels, The Horse and his Boy, and Black Stallion. Thus, it is a choice that carries no small amount of literary risk for the author. This is a trail that has been blazed before, but by those with much different goals than Morpurgo has here.
It has often been said that this novel has an “anti-war message,” in fact that is an exact quote from the promotional blurb on the back cover of my paperback copy. Although I personally have a hard time imagining anyone writing about World War I with a positive outlook on armed conflict, one has to admit that Morpurgo has a moral message to impart here. Such messages, from the mouth of a horse, have the potential to lapse into moralistic sermons—similar to Anna Sewell’s touching discussions of animal suffering in Black Beauty. Or, at the other extreme, Morpurgo risks mimicking the biting satire of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where horses of superior intelligence rule over petty human “yahoos” who waste their lives pursuing base vices and digging in the mud for pretty rocks to wear around their bodies. Were Morpurgo to become over interested in the personification of his horse narrator, his book might resemble something closer to the high fantasy of C.S. Lewis’s A Horse and His Boy whose main character Hwin often discusses the differences between horses and people; such discussions would inevitably distract from Morpurgo’s more pointed and serious subject matter in this novel.
Ultimately Morpurgo is able to avoid these literary pitfalls by having Joey narrate in an observant but distant first-person. Joey does not speak English like Mr. Ed, and he doesn’t communicate in some weirdly perfect language like the Houynhnms of Gulliver’s Travels—those choices were obviously made for satire and humor. Joey expresses his thoughts about the humans that surround him—but those thoughts do not lapse into the silent judgmental commentary on the failings of humanity as it does in Black Beauty. Joey is, instead, a very horse-like observer of the war on all sides—he is demonstrably impacted by the human actions of World War I that he could not possibly control, but he is also slyly distanced from those actions—an alien personality who doesn’t quite understand the human motivations to engage in such self-destructive endeavors like World War I. In that sense, I’ll have to say, Joey is a pretty darn good stand-in for a modern reader.
For HPPR, I’m Daniel Helbert.