Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel is a familiar first world war story: there is a brave teenager from the English countryside sent off to the trenches. There are terrifying battles in no-man’s-land; moments of touching humanity between enemy soldiers; and daring acts of bravery. There is just one major difference: the story is narrated by a horse, Joey. This unique perspective allows the reader to see the war in a whole new light. Through an animal’s eyes, politics fades into the background. Instead, Joey focuses on the hard labour and the violence involved, while making human connections wherever he goes. The novel was adapted into a play in 2007, and then a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011.
First world war
Joey gets to see the first world war from several different sides: first as a horse in the British cavalry, then as a plough horse on a farm owned by civilians in France, and then as an artillery horse for the German army. Joey is able to connect with humans on both sides of the trenches, and as such gives us a unique perspective on war.
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Morpurgo was inspired to write War Horse after seeing a young boy who rarely spoke talk freely to a horse on a farm. But the amazing thing, he said, was that the horse was listening. By using a horse as his narrator and showing the deep bond between Joey and Albert, Morpurgo reminds us that humans are not the only animals capable of thought and emotion.
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Throughout the destruction and chaos of war, Joey forges several important friendships with both humans and animals. The most enduring of these is with Albert, the first human who looked after him. Although the two are separated by war, they are able to recognise each other when their paths cross years later. Is friendship one of the most important goals in life?
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The one where the Friends are together again
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The battles of the first world war were a truly terrifying time. Joey’s rider Nicholls is killed in front of him; he is stranded between enemy trenches in no-man’s-land; he is frequently sold or taken away from the people he has come to love. But throughout it all, Joey is brave, and he survives. Is courage the best quality a living creature — human or animal — can have?
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Londoners mourn the death of a young hero
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Just like the soldiers who fight alongside him, Joey is compelled by a sense of duty to carry out the tasks he is given. For a horse, this means obeying the commands of whoever currently owns him. But for the soldiers at war, a sense of duty means they must try to kill the men in the opposite trenches who, in a different situation, could have been their friends.
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‘This struggle should matter to all of us’
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Now for St Gareth, Archbishop of Canterbury
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