Rereading Watership Down In the Age of Terrorism and Trump

Someone once asked me, if I could force everyone on earth to read one book in order to make the world a better place, what book it would be. The answer was easy, and it’s only gotten easier with time: Watership Down, Richard Adams’ epic novel about bunny rabbits (seriously), the extravagantly tattered paperback I’ve read over and over since I was nine, following a group of rabbits as they travel to a new home and found a new society. It’s purportedly for children, though Adams makes no perceptible effort to simplify his prose for younger readers; and anyway, lately it seems like Americans could use a grade-school-level lesson in civic values. Suddenly so many of us seem willing to trade away long-standing principles of democracy in exchange for a false sense of security from terrorism, or from the imaginary Mexican rapists supposedly pouring over the border. Those principles are so interwoven in the fabric of our daily life that it’s easy to take them for granted; rereading Watership Down always reminds me what a struggle it is to shape a healthy society out of chaos.

Cassandra

The story begins in a genteelly aged society. The Sandleford warren, where the first chapter is set, resembles a sort of old-fashioned constitutional monarchy: a single rabbit rules at the top with a firm but just hand; rabbits born lucky—strong and fast, and male of course—grow into positions of power; rabbits born unlucky are tolerated, but not equal.

All of it, unknown to the rabbits, is about to be razed to the ground.

The first chapter ends with a sign legible only to humans: “This ideally situated estate, comprising six acres of excellent building land, is to be developed with high class modern residences by Sutch and Martin, Limited, of Newbury, Berks.” One of the Sandleford rabbits, Fiver,  is struck with a feeling of impending doom, but can’t explain it—in a cruel irony, the information is right before his eyes, but neither he nor any of the other rabbits can decipher it.

Cassandra-like, Fiver is disdained by almost everyone even as he urges them to flee and save their lives. Only his brother Hazel, the protagonist of the story, believes him. They recruit a band of rabbits who are discontented for other reasons (all male—Richard Adams wrote in the seventies, but felt blissfully free to assume that whatever feminism had penetrated human society most likely had not yet filtered down to rabbits!) and set off to find a new place to live, just before the Sandleford warren is torn to bits. Their companions include weaker rabbits who are bullied by the stronger; young strong rabbits who don’t want to wait before joining the “Owsla,” the governing body; and one powerful rabbit who was recently disgraced in the Owsla.

The dysfunctions of the original society are minor: the weak rabbits are harassed, and don’t get to eat the yummiest plants, and the Chief Rabbit is a little old and disconnected from the goings-on. So while it’s easy enough for Hazel to convince some rabbits they could get a better deal if they left their warren, it’s also easy to imagine that they all could have stayed forever, reasonably content. Still, Hazel plans to make their new warren, wherever it is, a kinder, fairer society: to prevent the younger rabbits from being bullied, to make sure Fiver is protected.

He has no intention of radical upheaval, of utterly rejecting the form of the society they lived in before. There would be no way for him even to know that such a thing is possible. But on his journey, he encounters rabbits who show him the vast extent of the variations that societies can take.

Aeneas

The influences of classical epic poetry on Watership Down have been enumerated countless times. We hear that the book involves the wanderings of a band of adventurers and immediately think of Odysseus, but in fact the structure of the narrative closely resembles The Aeneid. Aeneas escapes Troy with his men as it falls to the Greeks; spends some time traveling to Latium with several stops along the way, and then—once he has reached the land he was promised—must wage a war with a local civilization before founding his great nation. All of these storylines have parallels in Watership Down.

Like Aeneas, Hazel and his band come close to settling down with a foreign group of rabbits, and even have brushes with the underworld (one of their own is nearly killed by a man’s trap in a horror-tinged episode; another arrives to join them only after wandering through the night like the rabbits’ mythological figure of death, the Black Rabbit). Like Aeneas, they must wage a war to preserve their own existence once they have reached their promised land and built their warren.

This book shouldn’t be read as a journey home, like the Odyssey, but as a journey towards a destiny. The rabbits’ dreams are small at first: to escape danger, or perhaps bullying. But the seed of a new kind of warren, a new kind of nation, is sown as soon as Hazel thinks to himself that he won’t let the littler rabbits be bullied by the bigger in whatever place they end up next. That sense of equality, of protection for the minority, is the foundation of their new, democratic nation. The implicit question of the book is whether Hazel will succeed in founding a new society that is better than the one he left behind.

Humanity

The great threat to rabbits is the human.

Long after leaving the Sandleford warren, the rabbits discover the root of Fiver’s premonition. Human farmers came, blocked all the runs leading out of the warren, and gassed the rabbits underground. Then they plowed the field, bringing up and mangling the bodies of rabbits who already suffocated from the gas. (Filled with horror, the two rabbits who survive barely manage to escape to Watership Down, where Hazel’s band has settled, to tell the grisly tale.)

But that’s not all humans do. They drive cars that hypnotize rabbits at night and then run them over, shoot them casually if they find them on their farms, set traps so they can use them for food and pelts, and—perhaps most horrifying at all—they bring the “white blindness.”

Myxomatosis is a contagious disease that causes weeks of suffering (blindness, lesions, tumors, and pain) before killing a rabbit. Disfigured, their eyes blocked by mucus, the rabbits wander helplessly—“twitching and salivating,” as Radiohead wrote—passing the infection to companions, until their inevitable death, either by a predator or from hemorrhaging. It is one of the most terrible fates you can inflict on an animal, and human beings in the past—a bacteriologist in France, government agencies in Australia—have introduced it to rabbit populations as population control, in one of the many cruel decisions we have made in our quest for power over every square inch of the earth.

In Watership Down, rabbits tell tall tales of their hero El-ahrairah, who uses trickery and cunning to best all the natural predators of rabbits. But rabbits can’t trick humans, outrun their guns, or develop antibiotics against their biological weapons. As one rabbit says after escaping the gas and the tractor, “All other elil [enemies] do what they have to do and Frith [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.”

Humans are not part of the natural order of things; they are the exotic enemy, and their arrival often signifies some new, hitherto unimagined type of terror.

The Bargain

Hazel and his band come across two societies on their journey. One warren has learned to live in close proximity to a farmer, who is cultivating them for his own use. In exchange for the fancy food he gives them, they accept that one of their number will disappear every once in awhile, trapped by the farmer. Unwilling to speak directly of the dead, they instead develop sophisticated art: elliptical, mournful poems, and “Shapes”—pictures made by pressing stones into walls. As Fiver says, the other rabbits are “living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price.” The price is high indeed—the rabbits have prosperity and live a pleasant, predator-free life, in exchange for one or two lives every once in awhile.  

They find Efrafa, the next warren, when they send out a band of their own to seek out does. (Watership Down treats female rabbits as a mere resource for the male rabbits, a way to survive to future generations.) In Efrafa, the trade is different: freedom for safety. The rabbits’ great fear is being found by humans with their weapons and their cars, so Efrafa’s entire society revolves around security: a highly regimented organization of civilian rabbits so that they never attract attention, and a hyper-militarized government of warrior rabbits who are trained to take on any enemy or rabbit who threatens the order of society. The whole system is created by the fearsome, hare-sized rabbit at the head of the Efrafan government: Woundwort.

Instead of going by “Chief,” as in the more traditional warrens, he goes by General. He solidifies his rule by his own strength in combat, his cunning in war, and his cruelty to those who go against him. Each rabbit is literally branded with a “Mark,” a scar that tells them when they are allowed to go outside, when they are allowed to sleep. Those who try to escape are mercilessly punished, and any rabbits who wander into the vicinity of Efrafa are immediately—and involuntarily—assimilated into the structure.

The Efrafans have given up their powers of decision-making, their ability to be compassionate to their fellow citizens, in order to live underneath Woundwort’s harsh but supposedly safer rule. They, too, are paying the enemy’s price—not to humans, but to Woundwort himself. A society that fears the enemy too much becomes, itself, the enemy.

The Dictator

The rabbits of Efrafa had experienced myxomatosis in the past, and so they had concrete reason to fear everything Woundwort claimed to guard them against.  The rabbits of Sandleford, meanwhile, have never experienced a truly cataclysmic event at the hands of hunters. After they hear the gruesome story of their home warren’s destruction, after they learn the extent of what humans can do to them, why aren’t they, too, in danger of turning away from their free, democratic, dangerous life, and finding refuge in the brute strength of someone who promised to protect them from all such horrors?

Adams doesn’t pretend the fear is unfounded. Humans in Watership Down perpetrate evils more terrible than almost any book supposedly for children has ever portrayed. But that alone can’t justify the oppression of Efrafa.

In the US, we’ve known viscerally that terrorism could find us since 2001. When we venture forth in this new world that September 11 hath wrought, we know we share it with people who would like to livestream themselves severing our heads from our bodies. As Americans we have the luxury of knowing that the vast majority of such people live far away, and that of the hundreds of millions of people in this country, very few are likely ever to come under ISIS’s blade. But the blade is out there—and many of us, myself included, are inordinately afraid of it. And some of us are willing to pay a very high price for safety.

Like Woundwort (though perhaps without the cunning), Donald Trump has campaigned to rule the US based on two things: his own supposed strength, and fear. To protect us from enemies real and fictional—not just terrorists, but also the apocryphal figures of the complicit American Muslim and the Mexican immigrant rapist—he promises to use brute strength and greater control. It would start with a religious test for each person coming in; implicitly, it would almost certainly involve some form of program to make sure that every brown-skinned person, Arab or Hispanic, has an official document proving their right to exist in this country. In other words, all we have to do is give up those old, starry-eyed ideals of religious freedom and racial equality, just as we’d finally come close to actually achieving them. I fully believe that such a society would be not only different but structurally different from the one we’ve had since 1787; it would be all too easy to tip over into a form of totalitarianism. But if you want to feel safe from the enemy, if you want to take shelter from the vicissitudes of fate under the wing of a being more powerful than yourself, you have to pay Donald’s price.

A few of the Efrafans, admiring Woundwort’s physical strength and courage, genuinely look up to him (why do we admire the courage of the strong so much, when it’s surely more difficult to be courageous when you’re weak?). But their admiration, which if they didn’t give it freely would be extracted from them by force anyway, is somewhat pathetic and impotent in contrast to the compassion and equality that Hazel’s group display at every moment. Hazel’s group respects him despite the fact that he would be able to best very few of them in a fight. Even when Fiver, the “weakest” of the group—small, often ill, and suffering from the lapine equivalent of depression and anxiety—falls into a dead faint just as Woundwort’s army arrives at their doors, the rabbits are loath to leave him behind to save themselves. Instead of sacrificing the weak or unusual in the name of safety, they value each individual rabbit too much to submit to the kind of dictatorship with which Woundwort proposes to save them all. I hope that we’ll be able to wake up on Wednesday morning and say the same of our country: that we aren’t going to sell out the welfare of our religious minorities, our poor, our racial minorities, in exchange for whatever false sense of security a blustering Donald Trump can give us.

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4 Comments

    1. I’m so confused. Is this a slam on Putin’s taste in literature? Is he known for enjoying pretentious books? Seems like a weird thing to criticize someone for when that person is also known for murdering dissenters and invading neighboring countries without provocation, but … sure.

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  1. One of my all time favorite books. I actually stockpile copies of it I get at used bookstores to give to folks who have never read it. You’re right, it’s more relevant now than it was in 1972.

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