Life and Society on Watership Down

Rich Policz

July 1, 2006

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together… There was no more quarreling… They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended… — Richard Adams, Watership Down

The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his own natural liberty, and put on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. — John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

It is likely that John Locke did not have rabbits in mind when writing his great political works. However, a closer examination of Richard Adams’ great literary work, Watership Down, shows that perhaps Adams was discussing more than a rabbit tale. The story, on its surface is about anthropomorphized (in thought and language anyway) rabbits, but at its heart, I believe it to be much more.

Watership Down tells the story of a group of rabbits who are forced from their warren. They set out together, facing obstacles, hostile regimes, and other trials in the effort to establish a new home and society. Throughout their adventures, many of life’s important questions are examined. Perhaps this explains the difficulty Adams had in finding a publisher. No less than 13 literary agents, 4 major publishers, and several minor ones rejected his book. The main criticism was that older children would not care for a story about rabbits, while younger children would not understand the difficult themes. Never mind, that Adams wasn’t even writing a children’s book.

There is, in our society, an artificial separation that is constructed between things that we consider childlike (or childish), and those things intended for adults. Talking rabbits? Kid stuff. What is the best regime? Grown up talk. I do my best to not make these distinctions; especially when I teach my philosophy class or my one-year-old son. This probably explains the odd looks from the in-laws when I talk to my son about Plato’s Republic.

Richard Adams didn’t make these distinctions either. While Adams has stated that Watership Down is really just about “life,” it’s clear that we cannot escape thinking about things like truth, faith, justice, mercy, courage, statesmanship, and the best regime. These after all, are what make up life. Watership Down encourages us to consider these things, and better still it encourages us to consider these things with our children. These are precious pearls of opportunity that are fleeting and all too soon will be gone.

As I’ve mentioned, I teach a philosophy class to 7th and 8th graders. When the parents of my students ask me what we’ll be reading, I tell them Aristotle, Locke, Augustine, Shakespeare, Churchill, Lincoln, etc. Their response is usually: “Aren’t these too hard for my son/daughter?” Well, maybe the reading is hard at that level (which is a whole other essay), but surely they can talk about friendship. They know what it means to be courageous. They know how to behave honorably, and also dishonorably, as it turns out. We can talk about truth and justice (and yes, I do a section on Superman). More importantly, I encourage them to filter and consider, not only everything that they read, but also what they watch, because TV and movies are so very prevalent in their lives. If we entreat our young to keep their minds engaged in all they do, I believe it will make a vital difference in their future.

Here again, Adams encourages this type of engagement in the story that he tells. It is important to note that the genesis of Watership Down was an oral story that he told his daughters long before he entertained thoughts of publishing. He told them of Hazel’s keen statesmanship, and his just leadership of his faithful band through perils and into a new society. He told of Hazel’s brother, Fiver, who like the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, saw the future, only to be ignored by many. Yet the faith and action of the small group of rabbits who believed him spurred them into creating their community. He told them of Bigwig’s courage, and sense of duty to his fellow man, err rabbit. Through Blackberry’s ingenuity, Pipken’s loyalty, Kehaar’s friendship, and Holly’s espirit de corps he illustrated in vivid strokes characteristics that he would want his young daughters, to emulate. He also illuminates baser behavior and character, but I don’t want to spoil a good adventure.

Adams injects one more important character into his story. His name is Dandelion. He is the storyteller and swift runner of the fellowship. You see, in rabbit culture, just as in ours, its myths and stories are important. Whether the group is besieged or whether they are celebrating it is their nature to tell their stories, and Dandelion does this best. These rabbit stories and myths concern the adventures of El-ahrairah (which translated means Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and of course contains the ubiquitous “El”), and in particular his relationship with Frith (the sun and God of the rabbits). Through these stories the rabbits pass on their beliefs to their young, provide a moral framework for their society, and buttress themselves against those “without stories” who would attack their way of life.

Frith tells El-ahrairah “All the world will be your enemy… 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.” Perhaps all the world is not the enemy, but make no mistake: there are those who want to control what our children and our culture thinks. Maybe we don’t face death everyday, but there are those who are willing to kill us for what we believe. We are locked in a war of ideas. We cannot hide our young away to protect them from this conflict, because that, as Adams would agree, is not life. However, through the stories that we tell our young, we can arm them with imagination, wisdom, and truth, and with those tools they can create a stronger community and a better life.

Rich Policz is a 1997 graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. He is a freelance writer and teaches philosophy at Ashland Christian School.