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26/10/2014

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Below is a somewhat belated reflection on ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams – my ‘book of the summer’. Had I written my thoughts down at the time of reading or shortly after, as I typically do when I read a book that has a significant impact on my perspective, I can’t help feel the following words would have flowed much more easily. However, other commitments took hold and so instead I have found myself writing this post over the past week or so in a much more stuttering, hesitant fashion than usual – and this may well be reflected in the reading of the final product of my labour.

Over the summer – whilst on holiday in Budapest with my wife - I read the Richard Adams novel, ‘Watership Down’, the precursor to the animated film of the same title I remember vividly from my much younger years – and fondly so, despite its serious, somewhat menacing tone compared to the rest of my childhood viewing which usually consisted mainly of He-Man and the Looney Tunes cartoons.

It is quite obvious, re-encountering the story in my thirties, that ‘Watership Down’ is as much a commentary on human affairs as it is a fantastical story of anthropomorphic rabbits living in southern England. And it is an insightful one at that, looking at the varying forms of communities and forces at work within them.

The novel, which the author explains originated as short stories told to his daughters during long drives through the countryside, must at some point have taken an evolutionary leap into the tale of adventure covering a range of complex human conditions - now resting in England’s library as a modern classic.

There are a wide range of threads that can be pulled from ‘Watership Down’; the one I found myself constantly reflecting on was the concept of storytelling as a tool of empowerment within communities. This is most obvious with the frequent interspersing of stories of ‘rabbit legend’ into the on-going struggle of Hazel and his Lapine-speaking comrades to find a new home following the systematic destruction of their warren to make way for a housing estate.

Quite pointedly, very early on the prophetic Fiver – a close companion of Hazel – attempts to warn Sandleford warren of the impending disaster but is dismissed by the chief rabbit, partly due to their lowly status and partly due to the hierarchy’s vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

Having embarked on an exodus from Sandleford, Hazel, Fiver and their group journey across the Hampshire countryside in search of a new warren encountering danger at every turn. And just as with the Jews journeying out of Egypt, there are moments in which the migrants become despondent and need reassuring. It is at these points the group’s storyteller, Dandelion, regales them with tales that point to ideals about their origins, development as a species and future course. At the centre of such stories is the mythical rabbit known as El-Ahrairah, ‘The Prince with a Thousand Enemies’, who in many ways takes on a Moses-status for the rabbits. Within the stories there is also the ever present Lord Frith, God manifest in the Sun, who acts in the world primarily through messengers such as the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who in some ways (though not all ways) has a Christ-like deity status:

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun. The Black Rabbit brings sickness, too. Or again he will come in the night and call a rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him, even though he may be young and strong to save himself from any other danger. He goes with the Black Rabbit and leaves no trace behind. Some say that the black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is--or so they taught me--that he too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task--to bring about what must be. We come in to the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another. If that were so, we would all be destroyed in a day. We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inlé and only by his will. And though that will seems hard and bitter to us all, yet in his way he is our protector, for he knows Frith's promise to the rabbits and he will avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself. Anyone who has seen a gamekeeper's gibbet knows what the Black Rabbit can bring down on elil who think they will do what they will."

The parallels we might draw with our own Judeao-Christian mythology are self-evident. This is most evident in the proverbial sayings upheld by the rabbits:

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Which has obvious similarities with:

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:08 – 5:10)

~

As Hazel and his band of rabbits go further forward in their odyssey, the author also raises the question of the flipside of storytelling. Early on we see the wandering bunch come to a warren of plenty, seemingly perfect for their need. At first they are welcomed by Cowslip, who is viewed as the de-facto chief of the warren, and Hazel’s group have seemingly arrived at their new home. Yet all is not as it first appears with the host rabbits gradually revealed to be something akin to H. G Well’s Eloi – well fed, even tempered yet disconcertingly apathetic in spirit. They have in fact come to a state of having no central story, appearing stupefied by their material comfort. As the state of unease is increased, it is revealed the rabbits of this warren are in fact knowingly living as livestock for the local farmers, being fattened up and randomly trapped according to the will of their aloof sponsors. Adams writes:

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy's warren and paying his price?”

As I read this I couldn’t avoid mulling over Western European society in the early 21st century. I frequently feel, with the onset of consumerist capitalism, we have become trapped in a state of disempowerment and moral ambivalence. It seems at times we have lost any collective sense of narrative of where we are travelling, spiritually-speaking. By narrative, I do not just mean the collapse in Christianity but also, as Richard Koch and Chris Smith explain in ‘Suicide of The West’, the collapse of our story as inheritors of the Reformation and Enlightenment, a narrative that raises us up as individuals, as citizens of liberal democratic states, as students of reason and science, as equal children of God, each with the unique potential to act positively in the world; as participators, as co-creators, as shapers of a brighter future – as seekers of the Kingdom. Instead it feels we, like the rabbits of Cowslip’s Warren, have – with the rise in material comforts and their subsequent pursuit – become unaware of and unaffected by such grander schemes of things and the sense of common purpose this bestows.

~

With the rabbits returning to the road again, journeying far from Sandleford and the above mentioned ‘Warren of Snares’, they encounter a third warren. This warren, known as Efrafa, is ruled as a tyranny by General Wormwort (whose name, interesting enough, refers to a plant with healing qualities) who employs a highly-rational yet utterly loveless method. Efrafa is described in cold, menacing terms:

“As the warren grew, so Woundwort developed his system to keep it under control. Crowds of rabbits feeding at morning and evening were likely to attract attention. He devised the Marks, each controlled by its own officers and sentries, with feeding times changed regularly to give all a share of early morning and sunset-the favourite hours of silflay. All signs of rabbit life were concealed as closely as possible. The Owsla had privileges in regard to feeding, mating and freedom of movement. Any failure of duty on their part was liable to be punished by demotion and loss of privileges. For ordinary rabbits, the punishments were more severe."

It is worth keeping in mind the author, Richard Adams, was born in 1920 and therefore part of a generation that witnessed, as young men and women, the rise and fall of Fascism followed by the tide of Soviet Communism. Both were initiated as revolutionary movements seeking to sweep away what they saw as the fossilised, corrupted modes of society yet, with the taking of power, they morphed very quickly into inhumane systems designed simply to preserve the privilege of the new elites through exerting total control of the masses. The only stories expounded by such regimes were ones tapping into primeval fears of predators and plague. And whilst some churches may have slipped into the heresy of collaboration, the essence of Christianity remained at odds and was therefore the target of many attempts at eradication.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this entry, I was reading ‘Watership Down’ in Budapest. On reaching this stage in the adventure, I was becoming more and more aware of the city’s tragic history of tyranny. The fictional story of rabbits and the tragic history of this beautiful ‘Paris of Eastern Europe’, naturally came together causing me to reflect on how we, as human beings have a tendency to fall from, rather than rise to, our divine potential.

This, I feel, is where we see the utmost, pressing need for ‘metanarrative’ as found in the Gospel, and for that matter other religious scripture and traditions. It not only serves – at its best - to bind individual human beings together and provide them with direction, but can act as a check and counter to those darker human impulses and frailties – a side of humanity Adams acknowledges more directly on occasion during conversations between the rabbits:

“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.

And:

“There's terrible evil in the world."

It comes from men," said Holly. "All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they've spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”

I sit writing this with Syria and Iraq continuing to dominate the headlines, the Islamic State movement taking centre stage in another unfolding, deeply miserable chapter of human history. In ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ we see another General Wormwort coming to the fore – a figure with some mystique but a wolf in sheep’s clothing nonetheless. As Adams notes, and without wanting to spoil the end of the enrapturing story that is ‘Watership Down’, he has adopted a state of being that can only lead to destruction – most pointedly, including self-destruction.

“Bigwig was right when he said he wasn't like a rabbit at all,' said Holly. 'He was a fighting animal - fierce as a rat or a dog. He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running. He was brave, all right. But it wasn't natural; and that's why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do.”

So, let us rediscover and revive the stories that have shined on in the darkness for generations gone by, not slavishly so but with a sense of free inquiry and adventure - and in doing so, let us hope we each and all re-find our way.

~

A few snaps from Budapest:





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