The elements of Christianity, which both Faulks and Owen challenge within their texts that centre upon the atrocities of World War One, serve to augment the involvement of religious faith in a place where human slaughter and annihilation of morals were commonplace. However, the ways in which both writers portray the challenges of religious faith underpin the dissimilarity between Owen and Faulks due to the contrasting nature of the texts.
For Owen, the loss of religious faith is shown to be one of the greatest influences the war had on the men and their futures. Owen was a war poet who manipulated his poems to include elements of realism that evoked the ‘pity of war’ . This forces the reader to understand that the ordinary solder witnessed such horrific sights that any previous sense of faith or belief is undoubtedly going to be challenged. In ‘Le Christianisme’, Owen’s sense of ambiguity towards the involvement of religious faith on a battlefield is conveyed through his shift in tone throughout the poem. From the ‘saints long serried’ whom portray this war imagery with the resemblance of soldiers that are lined up in ranks, to the violent and borderline blasphemous tone of ‘a piece of hell may batter her [the Virgin Mary]’. The evident transition shown in the tone of the poem reinforces that religious faith cannot take paramount importance in a place where the prominence of God is overtaken by the awareness of the fragility of human life, as a more secular world view was beginning to be introduced . This small poem that has two quatrains in a non-conventional metre, suggests that the message Owen wants to convey about the ‘pity of war’, is more important than conforming to the previous traditional restraints of religion. He transfers this to his structure of his poem that deviates from the rhythm.
Likewise, the historical novel ‘Birdsong’ by Faulks also highlights the loss of religious faith through the story of Stephen Wraysford as a Captain in the First World War. The focus on ordinary soldiers, who are given a voice in the narrative, reiterates the message that for them ‘nothing is divine anymore’ due to the horror and conditions these men were experiencing. The ‘piling up of the dead’ shows how the passive nature of death is part of the soldiers’ lives, regardless of it being against the Christianity based religious faith of soldiers. The manner of narration by Faulks reflects this as the impersonal nature the narrative has upon each death; the narration involves little focus on characters that are killed compounded with lack of compassion and shock from other men.
Both Owen and Faulks highlight the Christian themes of suffering, sacrifice and redemption throughout their texts. In ‘Birdsong’, the elements of the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ are suggested on several occasions, such as when the men are taking communion before the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Yet, Faulks suggests that they will be forgiven by God despite the unholy acts of war they will commit. This Christian inspired theme of forgiveness highlights that Faulks may believe that the ‘spiritual’ side of Christianity and faith in redemptive love that the Bible suggests, is far more important for the soldier’s mentality as ‘…men are such timid creatures really. You have to be gentle…’ This highlights what is crucial to the men, not what the organised institutional side of Christianity is vocalising about military pride and manliness.
Similarly, Owen’s poem ‘Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ uses the Old Testament story of Isaac and Abraham as an extended metaphor. In this parable, Abraham intends to sacrifice his eldest son to show his devout dedication to God, but God is testing his faith and halts at the last minute. This highlights that Owen believes the war is a human sacrifice of the younger generation by the old, which contrasts from the original parable as no sacrifice takes places of the young man. The difference with Owen’s interpretation is that he portrays God as completing the whole sacrifice. The perversion of religious events, much like that in ‘Birdsong’ by Faulks, utilises the semantic field of war in order to create an uneasy image for the reader about this previously Old Testament parable that has a purpose to teach oneself a message. The semantic field of war imagery that uses ‘parapets’, ‘trenches’, ‘belts’, and ‘straps’ is incorporated among the archaic and religious lexis of ‘spake’ and ‘lo’ which intensifies the pace of the poem and gives a controversial tone for the reader. This is compounded by the phrase ‘builded parapets and trenches’; by focusing on the active verb ‘builded’ the deliberate sacrifice that Owen wants the reader to focus upon in the poem highlights that the morals that the soldiers once learned from religion are no more required due to the inhumanity caused by the war. The emphasis upon personal gain and the advancement of war suggested by ‘builded’ is an influential theme throughout this poem like the Christian theme of suffering and sacrifice, this directly links to General Haig’s policy of attrition when fighting.
Religious faith was integrated into all parts of the soldiers’ life on the front line, from appointed chaplains to serve the spiritual needs of the soldiers to Christian padres offering communion and comfort to the men before they went to fight . It must be noted that Owen was one of the few arguably atheist intellectuals during the First World War who tried to dispel the belief that God favoured the English and French over the German soldiers . This is unequivocally shown through his poem ‘Le Christianisme’ and the way it exploits the idea that faith does not help the men survive or give them courage. The action of how the Virgin Mary is ‘halo’d with an old tin hat’ makes a mockery of Christianity’s main symbol of hope and strength. Owen uses the ‘tin hat’ to juxtapose the Virgin Mary with the ordinary soldiers and to show that she is at just as much risk. This hat is used by both her and the soldiers for protection, yet despite this she is still just as vulnerable to death and does not gain any more courage to survive regardless of her ‘perfection’ in terms of religion. This mockery of the Virgin Mary is reinforced by the jaunty tempo of the alternate matching rhythms in the verse form.
‘She’s halo’d with an old tin hat,
But a piece of hell will batter her.’
The way in which Owen creates this mocking rhythm with the broken iambic tetrameter throughout the poem illuminates that Owen wants the reader to realise that Christianity is a victim of war and it has not helped the men survive or have courage.
In ‘Birdsong’ it can be argued that, like Owen in his poetry, there is a running theme of religious faith that men have not helping them survive or give them courage. The grotesque and uncomfortable imagery of both soldiers who are ‘believers and non-believers’ being shot and massacred on a mass scale, highlights that the nature of death in war is something that cannot be stopped by faith. The imagery of ‘bodies [that] were starting to pile and clog up the progress’ gives an impersonal view upon all the individuals that were slaughtered as they have merely just become ‘bodies’ not individuals anymore. However, Faulks may be suggesting on a political level, that the ‘bodies’ that were beginning to ‘clog up the progress’ reveals that the men who fought in this war are not professional soldiers; they were regular men who signed up without true insight into war, therefore they ‘clog up the progress’ as they are not trained well enough to be fighting at their best ability .
The use of Christianity’s most renowned image of Jesus Christ on the cross is utilised by both authors in directly opposing manners. The polysemic symbol of the cross is used by Faulks on one level to show the destruction of a soldier’s faith in Christianity. The way in which Jack Firebrace, a soldier under the command of Wraysford, has ‘his back supported by a wooden cross, his feet against the clay, facing towards the enemy’ highlights that the nature of this character is of a more pious one. On a literal level, the ‘cross’ is there to support his back for practical means, however on a symbolic level this traditional Christian image is a manifestation of his devout faith and belief before they were utterly annihilated by the war. This association of Firebrace with the central Christian symbol of ‘his back supported by a wooden cross’ could therefore foreshadow his martyrdom for the war which separates him from the other characters and conveys him in a spiritual light.
The way in which Owen uses Christian symbols contrasts to the ways in which Faulks promotes devout faith with the symbol of the cross. Within the selected poems there is no specific mention of a ‘cross’ however, the use of religious symbolism that is directly related to Christianity is integral. In ‘Soldier’s Dream’ written in 1917 , the use of ‘Jesus’ as a symbol is ironic. The way in which the soldier ‘dreamed kind Jesus’ immediately presents the reader, at the beginning of the poem, with an unrealistic situation as he would never come to the men whether it be through ‘Dream’ or religious prayer. The whole poem in this way is arguably based upon a hypothetical figment of imagination. The ironic use of Jesus, in a Christian sense is associated with the forgiveness of sins and redemption of the world, gives a running sense of irony throughout the poem. This makes the symbol of ‘Jesus’ that is coherent with the motif of visions and ‘Dream[s]’ raise the questions to the reader as to whether there is any point in organised institutional religion enforced on the battlefield?
The changes in the religious faith on the front line was complex as many individuals’ pre-war beliefs differing. In the trenches superstition was rife with lucky charms and routines before battle that offered men some sort of comfort when their death may be imminent. Faulks quoted in ‘Engleby’, a novel of his which deals with the life of a working class boy and his relations with the disappearance of a girl, that ‘just occasionally chance might deal you a good card’ . Through this, it can be understood that Faulks believes in chance and consequently the motives behind superstition enough to make it a prominent theme in ‘Birdsong’. The central protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, uses the ‘fortune telling’ techniques which are not confined by any Christian faith or traditions, make this character the ascendancy of all alternate types of faith in the trenches. The cards give both him, and Weir who is a keen believer in the alternative fortune rituals, a sense of hope when everything around them is ephemeral and gradually being destroyed. In realistic terms, chance and fate dealt by the cards Stephen has will not give any of the men additional luck as ‘no magic or superstition could get him out now’. This highlights that the reason behind this superstition is to purely give the men a sense of comfort and calm before they may risk their life, yet it may also underpin that the institutionalised church on the battlefield was taken place by alternate means of religious faith not Christianity. In this way the Faulks reinforces that the religious faith in the trenches was dwindling into a minimal and secular state , this is supported by the common belief of the men that if they are ‘fighting on behalf of anyone it is those who have died’ not for ‘God’ anymore.
In comparison to this, Owen does not focus on the loss of religious faith and promotion of superstition in the trenches, but highlights instead that men do not believe in anything other than impending death and the complete loss of all faith. In the ‘Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ Owen utilises this by belittling the soldier into essentially a subordinate and worthless human. The phrase ‘killing half the seed of Europe’ highlights this due to all the young men being sacrificed by the old in order to sustain their pride. The metaphor of the ‘Ram of Pride’ which highlights how the young are being sacrificed by the older generals and worlds leaders for their own pride and self-worth undoubtedly will minimise the religious faith in the soldiers as they will most likely die or be the ‘burnt-offering’ as Owen states.
Overall, the religious faith that is challenged in both ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks and Wilfred Owen’s poetry highlights that due to the mass carnage that men experience and the horrors they looked upon, the loss or religious faith was unavoidable. However, it may be argued that the most successful writer in relation to this is Wilfred Owen as his gruesome and grotesque imagery that is compounded with the theme of religion makes the messages of his poems all the more intense and stressed for the reader.
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