The link below takes you to the BBC iPlayer to the first part of 3 part series called, ‘Our World War’. I’ve just complete the first episode and I am sure you’ll find it as useful and entertaining as I do! The writing of the series is based on the stories, letters and diaries of the those who fought in WWI. This gives the series a very realistic, cutting and gritty edge.
‘Birdsong’ is a WWI novel written by Sebastian Faulks. It follows Stephen’s life in the pre-war years, during the war and also his granddaughter’s life years afterwards. We watch Stephen fall in love, have his heart broken and then be further crushed by the catastrophic events of WWI.
At the beginning of the novel Faulks’ language and imagery very much echoes that of Keats, Wordsworth and Blake. This section of the novel is thick with Romanticism. The language used by Faulks is very suggestive and sensuous. He uses many words that have sexual connotations for example: ‘thrust’ and ‘plunge’. This reminds the reader of reproduction and new life. This is fairly ironic as the novel is about the Great War, a time of death and sadness. The love language really sets a pre-war scene, full of love, passion and fascination. This makes the wars arrival even more devastating.
The genre of Romanticism is furthered emphasised by the language of nature. At the very beginning of the novel there’s a large description of the gardens near Boulevard Du Cange, ‘On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows’. Faulks’ description is almost like he’s describing a Monet painting. He provides us with a truly luscious picture of France. Perhaps this sets the scene for the romantic, loving moments between Isabelle and Stephen. However, I feel that the abundance of language associated with nature, provides us with a paradox. War will have a catastrophic effect on this beautifully idyllic setting when it begins. These lovely gardens full of new life and beauty will turn into battle fields and grave yards.
When Part Two of the novel begins in France 1916, there’s no longer a romantic feel. This section of the novel is packed with gothic horror, ‘the remains of his brain were dripping on to his scorched uniform’. The gruesome, emphatic language which Faulks uses, not only describes the true atrocities of the war, it also informs the reader of the reality of war.
The almost scientific nature of the gruesome language has the effect of depersonalisation. As a reader, you sometimes forget that Faulks is describing actual human beings, ‘Stephen saw his head opening up bright red under machines gun bullets’. You begin to imagine the soldiers as cogs in a machine, just as weapons and ‘lumps of khaki’ being used to win the war.
It’s the war that has dehumanised these young soldiers. Faulks gives the soldiers’ names, family backgrounds, wives and girlfriends so when they do die, we feel sincere empathy. The letters home truly intensify the sadness of war. They remind the reader that it would have been our brothers, boyfriends and dads fighting for our country. They didn’t really know why they were there, or how they were going to survive.
In Part three of the book we are taken forward to 1978 in England. We’re introduced to the character of Elizabeth (Stephen’s granddaughter) and her very modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. When reading the previous chapters of the book, the sheer horror of the war makes the reader ask why the war was necessary and what it actually achieved. Elizabeth herself is an example of what WWI achieved and what the war was for: freedom.
Elizabeth goes on to find other soldiers who fought alongside Stephen. By doing this Faulks shows us the long term effects of war. She finds that Stephen, ‘spoke little’ and when she goes to visit Brennan in the home, he suffers from shellshock. He only remembers snippets of the war which aren’t coherent, ‘But he held him when he died. They was all mad’. It’s hard to imagine that Tom Brennan is a frail old man, when just a few pages before he was fighting in the trenches. By adding Brennan into the novel later on, Faulks emphasises how although some soldiers lived to tell the tale, the tale is still never told. People didn’t talk about the war, it was too horrible and too traumatic to be spoken off. Many men suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome and others just never got over what they’d witnessed.
Captain Weir is also an extremely important figure. He and Stephen are close friends and have an extremely unusual bond, it’s an example of true comradeship within the novel. Faulks uses Weir’s death to reveal how much soldiers began to depend on one and other, even if they are as detached as Stephen appeared to be. Stephen says that he feels ‘more lonely than ever’ when Weir dies. He states that, ‘Only Weir had been with him into the edges of reality where he had lived’.
Stephen Wraysford is a very unusual character. Many may argue that the war had an effect on Stephen and damaged him mentally. In my opinion, Stephen was already a vulnerable character before the war. We discover that he’s an orphan, and consequently he felt that he’d never been loved. Despite Stephen’s vulnerability and perhaps mental weaknesses, he’s still a captain in the armed forces. This may be Faulks highlighting the fallacy that the men fighting in the war were ‘big and strong’ and mentally and physically sound. However, Stephen is the opposite of this and he was scared alike to every other soldier fighting in WWI.
Throughout the novel there’s a theme of endurance. There’s a feeling that the soldiers don’t care what they’re fighting for. They’re just fighting for it to be over, ‘it can’t last forever’. The soldiers become robotic, just programmed to survive, ‘the different between death and life was not one of fact, but merely of time’. When Jack Firebrace’s son, John dies, he feels like he has nothing to fight for, but still keeps on going till the bitter end almost out of habit and because he feels he has nothing else to live for.
A technique which Faulks uses is mixing semantic fields. In one particular example Faulks uses words associated with a butcher, ‘small joint of meat’. In the same paragraph he the uses words associated the logistics of war, ‘shell blast’, ‘enemy artillery’. He then also uses words associated with sound, ‘wave breaking’, ‘noisy but brief’. This mixed semantic field sums up the whole of WWI: butchery, deafening sound and weapons.
Faulks deliberately echoes Wilfred Owen in many parts of the book. For me the most obvious is the use of onomatopoeia. Both Owen and Faulks create the sound of war to help the reader imagine what war was like for the soldiers. The sound is very important as it is often what lead to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Examples in Owen’s poetry can be seen in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’.
Another obvious nod to Owen can be seen at the end Part Four of the novel when Stephen is trapped underground and is rescued by the German soldier, Levi. When the two are faced with one and other it’s an extremely surreal experience. The war is over so they’re no longer natural enemies. The two men embrace each other and are, ‘weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human life’. This is very alike to Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Strange Meeting’: ‘it seemed that out of battle I escaped down some profound dull tunnel’.
Overall, Sebastian Faulks uses the characters, language techniques and the structure to show the sheer brutality of war and also the point of war. What makes Faulks’ interpretation of WWI unique is that we see life before, during and after the war. What’s refreshing and liberating is that in 1970’s, life for Elizabeth may not be perfect, but it’s better than pre-war life and life during the war. She has freedom and that is what her grandfather and many other men fought so desperately for.
Language of War
When Azaire is talking with his business associates he uses various words which could be associated with the language of war. For example he uses the word, ‘retrench’. He then talks about the workers in a military ranking fashion, ‘reclassified as untrained workers’. He doesn’t talk about them as real people with livelihoods and families to sustain. He instead talks about them as objects which are either earning or losing him money. This is very similar to the way in which the army generals, and Stephen, talk to the soldiers later on in the novel during the war.
Language of Love and Reproduction
Although the erotic scenes have not yet begun in the first chapter of the novel, the language used by Faulks is still very suggestive and sensuous. He uses many words that have sexual connotations for example: ‘thrust’ and ‘plunge’. This could be premeditating what is going to happen between Stephen and Isabelle. However, it also reminds us of reproduction and new life. This is fairly ironic as this novel is about the Great War, a time of death and sadness. Additionally, Stephen watches every move that Isabelle makes, ‘her white hands seemed to barely touch the cutlery when she ate’. Faulks’ long descriptions of Isabelle make the reader realise how infatuated Stephen is with Isabelle. The love language really sets a pre-war scene, full of love, passion and fascination. This makes the wars arrival even more devastating.
Language of Nature.
At the very beginning of the novel there’s a large description of the gardens near Boulevard Du Cange, ‘On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows’. Faulks’ description is almost like he’s describing a Monet painting. He provides us with a truly luscious picture of France. Perhaps this sets the scene for the romantic, loving moments between Isabelle and Stephen. However, I feel that the abundance of language associated with nature, provides us with a paradox. War will have a catastrophic effect on this beautiful idyllic setting when it begins. These lovely gardens full of new life and beauty will turn into battle fields and grave yards.
This link takes you to an article written by Carol Ann Duffy which contains various poems all of which being about war. I found each one very interesting to read (espically ‘Big Ask’ by Carol Ann Duffy)
In lesson we watched the film adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s, ‘Private Peaceful’. The director of this film is, Pat O’Connor. The novel is a didactic novel for children. It teaches children the pain, hardship and loss that war brings. The story follows two brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful growing up in a very agricultural, Victorian Britain. The year 1914 comes and so does the beginning of what was thought to be a short war. The Peaceful’s both enlist into the army and dive into trench warfare.
There are similarities between Morpurgo’s and Wilfred Owen’s work. The first theme I picked up on can be seen in both ‘Private Peaceful’ and ‘Disabled’. Both the writers work shows how many men were persuaded to join the army because they thought it would make them appear more attractive. This plays a part in young Tommo’s decision to join the army in, ‘Private Peaceful’. He listens to an officer trying get volunteers to sign up. The officer says, ‘all the ladies love a soldier’. As a naïve teenager, Tommo believes the officer, as many boys did.
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
This theme can be seen in Owen’s poem, ‘Disabled’. This poem follows a young man who enlists into the army because of how attractive it will make him look to the opposite sex. However, both Tommo and the character in Owen’s poem realise that being soldier doesn’t make you a babe magnet. Instead, soldiers come home missing limbs, deaf, blind and with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The promise of pride, patriotism and sex appeal are non-existent on the battlefield.
Both Owen and Morpurgo mock the patriotism that seemed to brainwash everyone in Great Britain at that time. It was patriotism and propaganda which made young boys feel as if it was there duty to fight, and that it would be cowardly not to volunteer. However, they brutally discover the truth of war whilst running through no-man’s-land, watching their own soldiers being blast to pieces in front of them. Owen shows the brutal truth of war in all of his poetry but particular mocks patriotism in, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. Owen describes the actions of war and proclaims here that it is a lie that it is sweet and fighting to die for one’s country.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This is part 1/4.
I would recommend watching all four parts. It’s a documentary on the life of the Wilfred Owen and is presented by Jeremy Paxman.