Watership Down: A Fable For Our Time

“Oh, Br’er Fox. I don’t care what you do with me, so long as you just don’t throw me in that briar patch over there. Go on and barbecue me up, Br’er Fox, but please don’t throw me in that briar patch.”

—Br’er Rabbit

Watership Down is a real place, a low hill with sandy soil near the city of Hampshire in the United Kingdom. The term downs  is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word for dunes. It seems that, except for the amateur or professional naturalist, there is nothing remarkable about Watershed Down other than its shape, apparently resembling a ship. Yet, it is the setting for a classic adventure novel, a modern-day fable peopled by talking wild rabbits, owls, stoats, weasels, and other improbable creatures, including one irascible seagull named Kehaar.

It seems that European rabbits differ in lifestyle from the cottontails I grew up with in rural Ohio. The European variety, those in Richard Adams’s wild adventure tale, inhabit complex warrens with burgeoning populations and vast underground networks of tunnels. Our American rabbits seem to live more solitary lives, secreting themselves away in brush piles and fence rows.

The one thing they all have in common is a lack of any observable means of defense. Lacking the ability to fly and without formidable fangs or claws, they rely upon speed and their wits in order to survive in a dangerous world where predators all appear to have a taste for rabbit.

In the nomenclature of Watership Down, all of those predators are lumped under the heading “elil.” It is understood by the hapless rabbits that the elil do as they must, obeying those instincts that provide for their own survival.

However, there is one predator who goes above and beyond the deaths required by the means of survival. That creature is the one who goes about on two legs, rather than the four utilized by most others engaged in the perpetual struggle for survival. That creature is man.

The story of Watership Down begins with a bucolic evening when the future chief rabbit Hazel and his smaller brother Fiver come across a human-made sign while out grazing. Only the clairvoyant Fiver senses the oncoming evil that the sign portends: THIS IDEALLY SITUATED ESTATE, COMPRISING SIX ACRES OF EXCELLENT LAND, IS TO BE DEVELOPED WITH HIGH CLASS MODERN RESIDENCES BY SUTCH AND MARTIN, LIMITED, OF NEWBURY BERKS.

Hazel is readily convinced by his brother’s sense of foreboding and proceeds to lead a ragtag group of refugees off in search of a new homeland, a quest that calls to mind those of Moses, Ulysses and Aeneas. The warren is destroyed, razed to nothingness by ravenous real estate developers hell-bent upon constructing yet another housing development indistinguishable from all the others. The warren and its doomed inhabitants are just in the way of nefarious mankind. The furry inhabitants are ruthlessly slaughtered when gas is pumped into the numerous tunnel openings. The land is then transformed from a verdant pasture and woodland into yet another lifeless human wasteland. 

Captain Holly, the single survivor of the lapin holocaust, says it best, “There is terrible evil in the world. It comes from men. All other elil (creatures who prey upon rabbits) do what they have to do and Frith (the sun god) 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.”

There is, of course, no evidence that wild rabbits possess any sort of religion, but the characters in Adams’s book mirror many human dilemmas and emotions. And, they are susceptible to entrapments that find their equivalents among humans.

In one episode, the lapin migrants are welcomed into a mysterious warren captained by a languorous rabbit named Cowslip, who appears to have lost his wildness. The rabbits in Cowslip’s warren remind one of the lotus eaters of the Odyssey. An apparently kindly human has trapped and killed all the neighboring elil, so that rabbits can graze without fear of predators. In addition, this unidentified but benevolent man places free food—carrots, kale, lettuce—near the warren’s opening. The warren is warm, dry, and sparsely populated. And yet, such seemingly innocent questions as, “Where is so-and-so?” are never asked, one of numerous dire portents that set Fiver aquiver.

Finally, even as the group has rejected the desperate warnings of Fiver, the truth comes to them. Bigwig, one of their number, is caught in a vicious snare. The members of Cowslip’s warren have made an unspoken Pakt mit dem Teufel, silently acquiescing as their members are snared and butchered by the farmer, in return for a comfortable warren and free food.

What is the message here for us humans? That all that glitters is not gold? That if it seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true? That the Irish proverb “Touch the devil, and you can’t let go,” carries an ominous handwriting on the warren wall?

Other menaces confront the hapless rabbits on their journey, but they take heart as they thrill to the antics and victories of their mythological hero El-ahrairah, the infamous Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and his sidekick Rabscuttle. Like all wild rabbits, including those who appear in our own folklore—Peter Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, the Cherokee Great Rabbit—El-ahrairah relies upon speed and trickery to outwit his enemies. Some of El-ahrairah’s adventures are simply hilarious, as is the one in which he drives a befuddled farm dog named Rowsby Woof and his farmer master to distraction one dark night. El-ahrairah is the role model for all wild rabbits. El-araihrah can get away with anything

As menacing as the dark energy of Cowslip’s warren is, it finds its equivalent in Efrafa, a lapin totalitarian dictatorship ruled by the fearsome General Woundwort.

Bigwig, the largest and apparently most formidable of the trekkers, manages to infiltrate and gain the confidence of Woundwort, eventually being admitted to the “owsla,” the leadership of any rabbit warren. As he is leading a group of does on their escape from that dark world, he is confronted by Woundwort himself, and a battle the likes of which occurs in many a mythological sword fight near the climax of any human epic, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or The Scarlet Pimpernel, ensues.

Finding the ideal homeland for rabbits atop Watership Down, the travelers at first believe they have found peace and fulfillment. However, warned by a large friendly seagull named Kehaar that they have no chance of founding a lasting warren, that they have, “No mates! No eggs! No chicks!” Bigwig solves the problem by rescuing the Efrafan does.

As for Woundwort, he is killed in mortal combat with a raiding farm dog. Whether he continues to live his fierce life elsewhere remains a mystery. His remains are never found. Perhaps the dog made a meal of him, an ignominious fate for one once so powerful. When young rabbits misbehave, their mothers warn them that if they don’t get their act together the General will get them.

The danger existent in the story of Efrafa serves as a warning for any who would sacrifice freedom for an imagined safety, integrity for security, who forfeit their freedoms in favor of subservience to a power figure. Humans have shown themselves time and again to be dangerously susceptible to such lures. As the old cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

For their part, dogs will do what dogs do. I remember one morning just before dawn when my Siberian husky Lexi proudly entered my living room and presented me with a huge dead rabbit. Apparently, El-ahrairah had teased her one time too many.

Watership Down functions as a fable, a literary form utilized by teachers as diverse as Aesop and James Thurber. It could seem at first glance that Watership Down, a novel featuring talking rabbits, might be a charming book for small children, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it is a riveting tale of survival against monumental odds, a mythological odyssey with struggles as overwhelming as those confronting Ulysses, an environmental clarion call that serves as a warning to errant humanity.

As for Captain Holly’s dire warning that mankind will ultimately spoil the earth and slay all the animals, we can see the truth of it all around in vanishing species of wildlife, warming oceans and bleached coral, raging forest fires, wild fluctuations in the weather, and poisoned air and water.

While Watership Down seems to be Adams’s masterpiece, his other works are well worth the time spent on them, particularly Plague Dogs, the story of two canine friends who escape from a scientific laboratory, Traveller, in which General Robert E. Lee’s horse relates his life story to a barn cat named Tom, and The Girl in a Swing, perhaps the most dark and fearsome mystery I have read.

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Lorin Swinehart
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