It’s one of the best-loved children’s books of today, read by millions, watched on stage and screen by millions more. Delving into the Seven Stories archives, Sarah Lawrance reveals details of how the story came its present form.
There is an almost folkloric quality to Michael Morpurgo’s accounts of how War Horse came to be written, forty years ago: paintings of first world war cavalry battles discovered in the attic; conversations with aged veterans in the village pub; the magical experience of witnessing a young boy, who had a severe stammer and was barely able to talk in company, deep in conversation with a horse. It was this last event which, Michael claims, emboldened him to cast Joey, a ‘splendid red bay’ with four white socks and a white cross on his forehead, as both protagonist and narrator of the story.
As in all oft repeated tales there are details that get lost in the retelling, and the story of the writing of War Horse is no exception, as a close inspection of the papers in Michael’s archive at Seven Stories shows.
An undated three-page typescript includes descriptions of the principal characters – German, French and English, in that order. Their names will be familiar to readers of the book but in other respects they are quite different, and it seems that Michael began with a more romantic/tragic story in mind. Karl, for example, who is little more than a name in the final book, has a whole back story; he falls in love with Emilie who instead of being barely thirteen and a ‘tiny, frail creature’, is sixteen and ‘wild, dishevelled, a creature of the woods and fields’. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that Joey appears at the very end, in a handwritten addition to the list, and he is not a red bay but ‘thoroughbred, Irish Draught, gelding. Grey. Strong, affectionate and charismatic. He is not simply the link in our story but becomes the symbol of survival, as well as the thread that binds the three stories together into one.’ So, while Michael knew from the beginning that he wanted to weave together German, French and English perspectives on the war, with a horse as the central figure that would bring the threads together, he was still ‘fumbling my way into a story, until it takes control and creates itself somehow.’
Unfortunately, the first four chapters of the earliest continuous draft of the story are missing, but judging by the rest of the manuscript, it took some time before the writing flowed smoothly: the pages are littered with alterations and in at least one place the narration slips between first and third person, suggesting that Michael felt some hesitation about telling the whole story from Joey’s point of view. Nevertheless, the main building blocks of the story are in place, until Chapter 16, where there are two different versions of the episode in which Joey, trapped in No-Man’s Land is rescued and brought back behind the lines to be treated for his injuries. In the first, considerably shorter, version the soldier who comes out to retrieve Joey turns out to be Albert; “I knew it was you, Joey” he says, and in the same moment the horse recognises his first owner. However, this is immediately followed by a re-write, much closer to the final version, in which a Welsh and a German soldier meet in No Man’s Land, to bargain for the horse. They have a friendly conversation before the matter is decided by the toss of a coin, highlighting the senselessness of the whole situation, and Joey follows the Welshman back behind the lines where the reunion with Albert eventually takes place.
Michael has said that he never read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty until after completing War Horse, but he had drawn encouragement from knowing that another writer before him had successfully managed to tell a story in the voice of a horse. In order for the narration to be convincing, he obviously had to find out as much as he could about the terrible experience of the horses who served in the First World War. Also important, however, was the fact that he was able to draw on his own lived experience of farming: for at the time he was writing War Horse, Michael’s day job, with his wife Clare, was the running of Farms for City Children, the charity which they had established near the village of Iddesleigh in North Devon, in 1976. This meant not only looking after the visiting children and their teachers, but hard physical work, day and night; in the lambing sheds and the milking parlour; buying and selling sheep and cattle at market; toiling outside in all weathers; harvesting corn and kale; constantly watching out for animal illnesses of all kinds.
Michael’s friend and neighbour Ted Hughes suggested that he keep a diary, documenting a year on the farm. If he managed to keep it up, Ted would write some poems to go with them. The result was All Around the Year, published by Faber & Faber in 1979, in which Michael’s diary entries are complemented by twelve Hughes poems – one for each month – and illustrated with black and white photographs by James Ravilious (another neighbour, son of painter Eric Ravilious) and line drawings by his wife Robin Ravilious.
Each diary entry in All Around the Year is a story in miniature; there is tragedy and joy on every page, but no gloss or sentimentality. Though farming is in many ways the opposite of war, I can’t help thinking that the relentless cycle of work, the harshness of the conditions and the closeness that exists between farmer and animals were as good a preparation for Michael’s writing of War Horse as all his historical research in museums and archives. Sadly this wonderful anthology has been out of print for many years, but it’s well worth tracking down second-hand.
Sarah Lawrance was formerly the Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories the National Centre for Children’s Books and is now a freelance curator.
Follow this link to find out more about Michael Morpurgo’s archive at Seven Stories: https://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection#filter=.author-1