How does the opening of The Wars by Timothy Findley shape interpretation of the text?

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The opening of Findley's novel The Wars helps readers determine the genre and some of the main themes of the novel, as well as to interpret the character of Robert as someone who has already seen and experienced suffering and has maybe even adapted to it. Thus, readers might interpret the text as a novel about war, violence, loss of innocence, and grief, but also a meaningful story about the importance of life.

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The Wars is a 1977 novel written by Canadian author and playwright Timothy Findley. It tells the story of Robert Ross—a shy and kind young man who blames himself for the death of his disabled sister, Rowena. In order to cope with his emotions of guilt and sadness, and to better understand his reality, Robert decides to enlist in the military and fight in World War I.

The book opens with a short prologue; in it, Findley describes several key moments and presents quite a few images which shape readers' interpretations of both the narrative and the protagonist's character. One important thing readers learn is that Robert is a soldier who has been wandering around for a week, battered and bloodied, and that he is basically surrounded by destruction; there's "a warehouse filled with medical supplies" on fire, and a train which has been abandoned by the crew. It is unclear if the crew left or if they were killed, and Robert is presented as the "sole survivor."

Twenty feet away, Robert sat on his haunches watching them. His pistol hung down from his fingers between his knees. He still wore his uniform with its torn lapels and burned sleeves. In the firelight, his eyes were very bright. His lips were slightly parted. He could not breathe through his nose. It was broken. His face and the backs of his hands were streaked with clay and sweat. His hair hung down across his forehead. He was absolutely still. He had wandered now for over a week.

... On one of the sidings was a train. Its engineer and crew had either abandoned it, or else they had been killed. It could not be told. Robert appeared to be the sole survivor.

The description of Robert's appearance and the images of the environment help readers understand that there's a war happening and that living beings are suffering, which might lead them to interpret the text as a classic war story. Judging by Robert's attitude and somewhat nonchalant behavior about his battered state, readers may interpret his character as someone who is already used to the horrors and destruction of war, someone who perhaps used to be more naive, innocent, and hopeful but has changed his views on humanity as he became aware of all the horrible things that humans are capable of.

Readers also learn that Robert is observing a black horse, which is apparently "in superb condition," and a black dog the size of a Labrador retriever. The dog and the horse seem to be familiar with each other, which suggests that they might've been together for some time. Robert approaches the horse and decides to mount it and ride toward the road to Magdalene Wood.

The horse was a fine black mare, standing about sixteen hands. She had been well cared for up till now and someone had obviously ridden her every day. She was in superb condition. The dog apparently was used to her company and she to his. They moved in tandem. The dog was also black. One of his ears fell forward in an odd way, giving the appearance of a jaunty cap. Robert did not know what sort of dog he was, but he was about the size of a Labrador retriever. Before mounting, Robert reached down and rubbed his hand across the dog’s back. Then he said: “let’s go” and swung up into the saddle.

The horse stops and whines when they pass the abandoned train, and Robert realizes that there are more horses in the cattle cars, which he decides to free. He then continues his journey with the horse and the dog and with 130 horses galloping in front of him.

Half an hour later, the twelve cars stood quite empty and Robert was riding along the tracks behind a hundred and thirty horses with the dog trotting beside him.

The horse and the dog and Robert's actions help shape readers' interpretations of Robert as a person who likes and cares about animals. This, in turn, might suggest that Robert is someone who is empathic and compassionate by nature, as he immediately connects with the animals and even understands them to a certain degree; he doesn't complain about his own state, but he makes sure that the horse and the dog are all right and that the horses are free and safe. Thus, readers may also interpret the text as a story about kindness, compassion, and hope—a story about life's true values.

Finally, it's notable to mention that readers will also recognize the story as historical fiction and that the themes of war, death, suffering, hope, and compassion are immediately noticeable, even in the prologue. Findley also incorporates symbolism and imagery, which may lead the audience to interpret the text as a story with a deep moral message and perhaps even as a story that has adventurous and romantic undertones. For instance, at the end of the prologue, he mentions the moon, which is red, and that the time is midnight.

They were on the road to Magdalene Wood by 1 a.m. This was when the moon rose—red.

The rising red (bloody) moon might be a symbol of anger or rage, but it can also symbolize passion and love.

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