Introduction by Guy Vanderhaeghe (2005)
In Penguin’s Modern Classic edition, published 2005, Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe wrote the “Introduction” for The Wars. 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. 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."
The bald third-person summaries of casualties, contrasted with Robert's idealized view of war, also heighten the book's impact on readers.
Animals appear throughout the story. 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. 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.
- Horses have several important appearances. Horses bring Robert to Eugene Taffler: 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 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, and the last available beings that he can protect. Horses also represent the best of Robert's life before the war, as in the old photograph of Rowena on a pony.
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, pain, and death. It is shown as gunfire, artillery fire, and flamethrowers. Harris's body is cremated instead of being buried. 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.