The Wars

The Wars

by

Timothy Findley

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The Four Elements Symbol Analysis

The Four Elements Symbol Icon

Throughout the novel, Robert Ross and his fellow soldiers continually encounter water, air, earth, and fire in various forms. As the men experience the violence of World War I, these four elements come to represent their ongoing struggle between life and death. Water signifies the life-altering changes that war brings about, as Robert either bathes or comes into contact with this element just before many of his major transitions as a soldier. For example, he soaks in the bathtub before he enlists in the army, crosses the ocean on his journey to Europe, and bathes at Asile Desolé before he is raped by fellow soldiers. Air represents the men’s lack of control and fleeting optimism amidst the ongoing fight for their lives, as chlorine and mustard gas attacks often disrupt otherwise peaceful moments, filling the air with suffocating fog and depriving them of oxygen. Earth reflects the dehumanization and gruesome death inherent to trench warfare, as thousands of soldiers die unceremoniously by drowning in the muddy trenches. Similar to earth, fire represents the all-consuming pain and destruction of war. Many soldiers die torturous deaths in infernos caused by flamethrowers and bombs. Fire is what finally destroys Robert’s life at the end of the novel, as the incident with the horses in the burning barn disfigures his body and brands him as a traitor.

While these harrowing events are taking place in Europe, Robert’s mother, Mrs. Ross forces herself out into the harsh Canadian elements (rain, snow, wind, and mud) and is captivated by the news of a fire that destroys the Ottawa Parliament Building. This fascination seemingly occurs because coming into contact with the four elements bridges the gap between what soldiers are experiencing on the battlefront and what she and other civilians are experiencing on the home front. These natural forces—water, air, earth, and fire—are powerful in their ability to disrupt lives and bring about change, serving as a parallel to the all-encompassing societal disruption that World War I brings about. The four elements ultimately symbolize the ongoing struggle for life and the destructive alterations of mind, body, and spirit that Robert and the other soldiers experience at war.

The Four Elements Quotes in The Wars

The The Wars quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Four Elements. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Trauma and War Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Australia edition of The Wars published in 1995.
Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. When it rains…the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you “waded to the front.” Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.

Related Characters: Robert Ross
Related Symbols: Horses, The Four Elements
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

Poole said: “You needn’t worry about the Germans here, sir. They’re a long ways off yet. At least as much as two miles or more.”

Levitt said: “Oh.” He seemed somehow demoralized by this news. Perhaps he thought you weren’t in the war unless the enemy could shoot you. In this he was much like everyone else who’d just arrived. You weren’t a real soldier unless you were in jeopardy.

Related Characters: Levitt (speaker), Willie Poole (speaker), Robert Ross
Related Symbols: The Four Elements
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

From the gap, when Robert’s eyes had cleared, he cast a single look back to where the man had been. He saw that the whole field was filled with floating shapes. The only sounds were the sounds of feeding and of wings. And of rafts.

Related Characters: Robert Ross, Willie Poole
Related Symbols: The Four Elements, Eyes
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour—but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.

Related Characters: Robert Ross
Related Symbols: The Four Elements
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5, Chapter 3 Quotes

Robert thought of a Saturday crowd at a football game where everyone would link hands on the cold, fall afternoons and the long chains of singers would weave back and forth in the stands till the whole arena would be swaying from side to side.

Related Characters: Robert Ross
Related Symbols: The Four Elements
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5, Chapter 5 Quotes

Robert sat on the mutilated mattress and opened his kit bag. Everything was there—including the picture of Rowena. Robert burned it in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger—but an act of charity.

Related Characters: Robert Ross, Rowena Ross
Related Symbols: The Four Elements
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Four Elements Symbol Timeline in The Wars

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Four Elements appears in The Wars. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Prologue
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...dog at its feet. Robert’s nose is broken, his face and hands are streaked with mud, and his uniform is torn and burned. In the background, a medical supply warehouse has... (full context)
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
Robert comes across an abandoned train with cattle cars full of horses. In anticipation of the encroaching fire from the warehouse,... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 1
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...asked specifically about the horses. It is revealed that Robert Ross somehow died in a fire. Many other soldiers also succumbed to violent fates that tend to command people’s attention. (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 3
Trauma and War Theme Icon
In the public archives, the photographs from 1915 appear muddied, and everyone in them looks lost and serious. Despite people’s somber attitudes toward Word War... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
...young and handsome Robert was, and alludes to the horrible circumstances of his death by fire and “the story of the horses.” She warns the interviewer to be careful in searching... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Robert continues to stand immobilized on the train platform, catching the attention of the Station Master. He asks Robert if he has come... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...and Robert races to the stable to stop him. He dashes outside, sliding in the mud as he runs, and attacks Teddy. They wrestle until Tom and Clinton separate them. Mr.... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 12
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...a valley with a small lake, where the coyote has stopped for a drink of water. (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
Throughout the autumn of 1915, it rains heavily in North America and Europe. Tom and Mrs. Ross shower Robert with gifts of... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 22
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...of the family to church. Mrs. Ross refuses anyone’s help as she treks through the snow. She is annoyed that there is a military regiment on church parade that day, and... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...only think of how she was married in this same church. She smiles at the snow melting beneath everyone’s feet. (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 23
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Though Robert has always loved the sea, the conditions on the S.S. Massanabie are grim. The ship rocks violently as it moves... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 28
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...emerge from the hold as the S.S. Massanabie approaches the harbor, crashing through the stormy water and narrowly missing the surrounding rocks. Robert falls on the steps, badly bruising his legs,... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 1
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...in France for two months and is heading toward Belgium on a road obscured by fog and smoke. The conditions are terrible, as the soldiers are surrounded by the mud-filled flats... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 3
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...a bugler named Willie Poole, who chose active duty over joining the military band. The air becomes contaminated with a thick, foul-smelling green fog that disorients the men and causes them... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...of the ditches around Robert and Poole, adding to the disorienting, ominous atmosphere of the fog. Robert tells an orderly to go back and look for the other men, and Poole... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 4
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...the convoy, he accidentally puts his foot down in a sinkhole and falls in the mud up to his waist. Terrified of drowning, he desperately thrashes and claws his way out.... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...back and realizes that the entire field is full of dead bodies floating in the mud, and that the sounds he and Poole had heard earlier were crows feeding on the... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 5
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...swim across. When they reach the other side, Robert falls off his horse into the water, but his men pull him up the bank. The soldiers warm themselves and sing songs... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 6
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...create a “zone of death.” They fly planes overhead (which mesmerizes Robert) and make a gas attack at the Ypres Salient, but it is far enough away that Robert’s men only... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 10
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
...man is Captain Villiers, whose vocal cords were destroyed when he was trapped in a fire. She comments that she does not know how Barbara “dares to come here.” (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 12
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Harris, who had a poetic soul, loved to tell stories about men lost at sea and whales singing to each other in the ocean. Juliet says that, after Harris succumbed... (full context)
Part 3
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
Robert struggles to survey the devastated trenches amidst the fire and smoke from burst shells. He climbs through the debris-ridden, waterlogged trenches toward the Battalion... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...positioning the guns, which Robert silently believes is crazy because they will sink in the mud. He then introduces Robert to Corporal Bates, who is in charge of the Mortar Squads.... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...Poole fix the brazier so they can make tea later. Rodwell, who is caked with mud, hopes that the rainclouds will pass so that the ground will freeze. Like Robert, all... (full context)
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...to enter the crater until he finds a foothold. Robert falls down the crater’s slippery, muddy sides and injures his knees before struggling his way into a standing position. Bates and... (full context)
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...up the guns according to Captain Leather’s orders. Robert notices one of the gunners throwing mud into the pools below like a child playing in a park. He begins to make... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
Suddenly, a pale blue fog appears overhead. Robert orders the men to put on their gas masks, but Bates tells... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
The gas gradually dissipates, but the men wait with their faces buried in their hands for three... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...a German soldier lying at the edge of the crater, looking at him through a pair of binoculars. He can see the German’s eyes when he puts the binoculars down, noticing... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...seem to bleed together as the Germans continue to attack. Countless troops are lost as fire storms burn and explode men and their horses along the front. It is rumored that... (full context)
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
One day, it begins to rain, and the fighting seems to be over as the fire on the ground is extinguished.... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...to a company who had been in the trenches and driven to madness during the fire storms. These men forced Rodwell to watch them torturing small animals by burning them alive,... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
...January 1916, from the perspective of Robert’s mother. Mrs. Ross begins to seek comfort in rain and snow, forcing Miss Davenport to walk outside with her during storms. She closes her... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...pores over the news. She tells Miss Davenport that her country is being destroyed by fire. In March, Mrs. Ross braves the harsh wind to walk in a muddy ravine, with... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
On March 8, 1916, Robert is sent from St. Eloi to England. On the train ride there, he flips through Rodwell’s sketchbook and is shocked to see a several drawings... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 3
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Robert wakes up to find that it has rained. An old woman brings him a jug of warm water and some tea. He shaves... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 7
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
One night, Robert rides as part of an ammunition train. It is raining, and the mud forces him walk alongside his horse. Suddenly, the horse... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 8
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...to rubble, and that all of the animals are either dead or dying in the fire. Robert appears to be the only survivor. (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 10
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...raze the area. The British army has sent their entire reserve of troops, and the shellfire causes mass panic. Drums of gasoline spill out and cause the fire to spread through... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 13
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...that Robert has gone mad, decides to “dispense not only with mercy—but with reason.” Robert fires again and calls out that “we shall not be taken.” Mickle tells his men to... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 15
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Blame, Revenge, and Justice Theme Icon
Honor, Duty, and Heroism Theme Icon
...family to come see him buried. Juliet inscribes his tombstone with the following: “Earth and air and fire and water. Robert R. Ross. 1896-1922.” (full context)
Part 5, Epilogue
Trauma and War Theme Icon
...spring of 1915, Robert is pictured in his army uniform, sitting on a keg of water with a campground behind him. He is holding a small animal skull in his hand,... (full context)
Trauma and War Theme Icon
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
...archivist closes her book and rises, momentarily distracted by the sound of birds outside the window. She begins to turn out the lights and tells you that it is time to... (full context)