Origin Stories: Watership Down

Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass. – Watership Down, Richard Adams

Oh, god, you guys. Watership Down is actually my favorite book of all time, which is making it way more difficult to verbalize its impact on me as a child and throughout my development than I originally thought. It’s like talking about how the state of Oklahoma has influenced me: I haven’t ever lived anywhere else, so trying to analyze it is difficult and leads to lots of circular rambly paragraphs that I should really delete and rewrite.

An example: I like to start these Origin Stories with a quote from the book that sort of encapsulates what I’m going to talk about. So I went digging through the older of the two copies of Down I own (I bought a new one a year ago so I could loan it out without fear), and looked up three hours later. Whoops.

I can’t remember when I first read Down. It must have been after I read The Hobbit for the first time at five or so, because I do remember them being the only two books that have ever stayed in my “top five favorite books” list for more than a year – they’ve been numbers one and two my entire life.

It’s an epic journey with lots of mythology and danger and adventure and friendship, tricks and battles and stories, terror and ecological messages and beauty. And it’s about rabbits. That’s about where I lose most people: it’s about rabbits, unapologetically, and it never pretends to be about anything else.

But here’s the thing: it’s not about, like, fluffy bunnies. These are wild rabbits, and their culture and history and language and myths. They’re real, and hilarious, and lovable, and frightening. If you read the book (which you should), they are no less believable or real than the elves in Lord of the Rings. They have a language, and rituals, and myths. They have their gods (Frith, the god of the sun) and their trickster patriarch (El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies), and an embodiment of death and disease and doom (the Black Rabbit of Inle). They have songs and riddles and poems, and they have battle tactics and complex hierarchies and organizations like the Owsla (the group of rabbits in each warren that help the leader run things; they differ wildly in tenor and intent and membership from warren to warren, but every warren has one). They’re not silly at all, they’re not a joke. They are characters, fuller and rounder and better than many human characters I’ve read.

Anyway, plot summary: Hazel and his brother, Fiver (who sees the future sometimes) decide to leave their home warren because Fiver is having terrifying visions of something awful happening, and some other rabbits (including Bigwig, who is my very favorite) go with them. And they travel through all of these terrifying and dangerous situations, and fight a lot of battles with other rabbits and predators (collectively called elil) and humans, and they grow into this tight-knit group.

And then they get to the place Fiver saw in a vision, a sheltered little meadow (the titular Down) on top of a high hill, where they are safe and hidden and have lots of room to grow. But there’s the tiny issue of not having brought any female rabbits with them, and that starts the second half of the book and introduces us to Efrafa, a warren nearby that is ruled by the frankly scary rabbit known as General Woundwort. And there is more adventure, more danger, more tricks (more Bigwig!), and more awesomeness.

It’s an epic, like the Odyssey. By five or ten pages in, it doesn’t matter anymore that they’re rabbits: it matters that they’re real, and that Adams has built a world no less complete than any other fictional world, and that he’s built a culture that makes sense and works and rings true. It has been with me through thick and thin, through having no friends for most of my life and through the terror that was my junior high experience, through starting to find myself in high school, through the awful adjustment to college, through my marriage and beyond. It’s been with me in every place I’ve ever lived, and it’s always been a comfort and a friend when I needed one.

Down is, in the end, about finding a place to be and exist the way you want. It’s about creating and being a part of a ruled society (that is, a society with a ruler) that doesn’t oppress or terrorize its members. It’s about death and life and the ways we have to get through the worst moments of both because there is more on the other side, and we cannot get bogged down or stuck because it will improve someday.

It’s about making friends and getting through tough times together, and how at the end of those times (here I am thinking about a specific sequence, in which Hazel leads the rabbits, who have begun to doubt and argue and refuse to believe that there is such a place as the Down, through a foggy, seemingly-endless marsh; they are on the edge of collapse and he finds himself mindlessly repeating, over and over, that it’s not far now, just a little bit further) you are united, stronger than ever before.

It’s about honor and loyalty, and about courage. It’s about cunning and cleverness, too, and how you need to trust your strengths and the strengths of those around you. It’s about how you cannot do it alone, but the endeavor will fail without you. It’s about interconnectedness and the incredibly selfish way the human species thinks of the earth (you have no idea how close I came to quoting Pocahontas there). And in the end, it’s about finding the strength to leave behind all you’ve ever known and travel through unknowable danger to reach the place you’re supposed to be.

That last bit, that theme, is probably what’s carried me through the worst parts of my life. Hazel and Fiver leave behind the only life they’ve ever had, and Hazel suddenly starts to realize that there are different ways to live. He doesn’t have to run a warren the way the Threarah (the leader of their old warren) does. He doesn’t have to tyrannize or bully the way General Woundwort does. He doesn’t have to do that – he and Fiver and the others can build a warren and a world the way they want to, the way that works best for them.

I hesitate to say, “And if Hazel can do it, so can I,” but it’s true. We can, if we work together tirelessly, if we slog through all the worst parts, if we combine our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses, if we refuse to leave each other behind, if we keep our wits about us and keep going, just a little further, we can reach the place we’re supposed to be. We can remake the world, we can change it.

And sure, that’s simplistic, and there are all kinds of mitigating and aggravating circumstances, and we can’t unite every person to work together. But we can try. We can work together online or in person or via organizations. We can do our part and encourage those who work with us. We can do what we’re good at to improve things around us, instead of using what we’re good at as a weapon. We can actively work for a better world.

The title of my blog is a quote from Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, the conclusion to her classic Dark is Rising series. You should read that series (maybe skip #1, which isn’t nearly as good as the others), but especially the closing speech of Silver on the Tree, which talks about how the human species is on its own, really, to make the world a better place. This all ties together in my head, and compels me to do even the tiny amount of which I am capable to change even the tiniest thing about the world around me, to drive through the worst parts to reach the place I’m supposed to be. The world is ours, and it is up to us.

Origin Stories is an ongoing series over at Sara P’s blog, The World is Yours, where she is accepting submissions for further entries in this series. 

By Sara

23, Oklahoma, happily married white cisgender woman. BS in Language Arts Education, working on my MLIS with a focus on teen services. I want to be Donna Noble and/or Minerva McGonagall when I grow up.

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