Like most people who were kids in the nineties I have a soft spot for stories with anthropomorphic animal protagonists. From the pure fun of Ducktales and The Ninja Turtles, to the subtle allegories and lessons in the chronicles of Narnia and Redwall, my formative years saw my aesthetic preferences and core moral beliefs immensely influenced by talking animals. There was always one story among these that stood out to me as a child as particularly daunting. Richard Adam’s 1972 novel Watership Down was ostensibly for children, but something about the tone and the mature way that the threat of death permeated every chapter of the book told me I would get more out of it as an adult. That, or the fact that the animal characters did not wear fun, colorful, and distinctive clothing.
In my most recent tilt with this novel my greatest take away was a general sense that freedom was more valuable than safety. As a child, it was the first work of fiction that forced me to meditate and face the reality of death’s inevitability. However, far from a depressing episode in my life, this experience made me courageous. It taught me the value of taking calculated risks. It is liberating to understand that there are moments when total safety is not an option; something important to keep in mind during times of a contagious virus and quarantine.
I am not sure I would recommend Watership Down to a child. Maybe to a precocious teenager, but I really think the book is apt for mature readers. The overall sense that the book and the 1978 animated adaptation gave me were that they were over my head. Try as I might I found it difficult to wade through the pages. The plot was not as simple or straightforward as that of similarly marketed novels. There were too many characters to keep track of, and too many simultaneous subplots. I could never keep straight which rabbit was which, or even where they were or what enemy or danger they were contending with. Most stories have good guys and bad guys and one very explicit goal with one very obvious hindrance. Watership Down has far more nuance and character development that sees people change their minds and change their intentions and affiliations. Growth and grey areas given to a seven-year-old pallet that was used to reading black-and-white stories where the good guys were impossible to confuse with the bad, and a good decision was very obviously different from a poor one.
As an adult I have never been able to find the so-called “bad guys” from my childhood stories in real life. Despite the prevalence of harmful actions, every person I have ever met in my life has had good intentions, and even when I disagree with their actions, I have always been able to empathize with their pain. In these confusing times of quarantine my friends and family are more divided than ever. Many are afraid of the virus, and feel that total isolation from other people is the only responsible move to be made. Others are more concerned by the economic ramifications of shutting down businesses for weeks and months on end. Both sides of this debate are motivated by their good intentions according to what they believe is most conducive to the greater good. I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, nor do I consider myself greatly informed. What I do feel strongly about is the maxim that freedom is more important than safety. I would like to show you how re-reading Watership Down as an adult has helped me to rediscover my valor, and my child-like daring to hope and expect the best.
Although there are not direct equivalents between the three systems of control that rabbits from the novel are subjected to and any particular existing political policy, the threats to the rabbits of Watership Down are not meant to be allegories of anything specific. Instead they serve to juxtapose freedom against comfort. Every alternative to living an independent, self-reliant lifestyle is shown to have a very heavy price.
When the heroic Hazel leads a company of rabbits in search of a new home, they are tempted early on to join a warren run by the overly friendly rabbit chieftain named Cowslip. In Cowslip’s warren nobody ever goes hungry, as human beings leave abundant food out for the rabbits to eat. A dispute erupts between two of Hazel’s closest allies and supporters, his brother Fiver, and the somewhat naive former officer Bigwig. Bigwig does not second guess the motivations of the farmers at setting out the food. For him it is enough that they “don’t need expeditions” ((Adams, at 45)) to find food, and that the vegetables left out by the man is “better food than anywhere else” ((Adams, at 45).Bigwig is happy to eat without questioning if there is an ulterior motive behind the man’s benevolence. Fiver turns out to be right, of course, as Bigwig narrowly survives getting caught in a farmer’s snare, and learns that there is no such thing a free lunch, or a benevolent government hand-out.
Next, Hazel’s party come across another farm, where they come across a different sort of captive rabbits. Instead of roaming in relative freedom before being hunted, the rabbits of Nuthanger Farm are kept in cages, and kept as pets rather than for their meat. Hazel frees the does from their cage and persuades them to join his Watership bound party. Despite their imprisonment, the does need to be convinced to come with him. At this point the freedom versus safety paradigm is most noticeably at play. The hutch rabbits are described as being “bewildered and fascinated” ((Adams, at 122)) at the prospect of their freedom, but at the same time they are apprehensive, and under the impression that “few wild rabbits survived for long” ((Adams, at 122)), the implication being that it is preferable to live a long, safe life in a cage rather than to be free and risk death. If you ask me, the monotony and subjugation of the cage is worth risking one’s life to escape.
Last but not least, the rabbits who eventually establish their home Watership Down become aware of a neighboring warren called Efrafa run as a totalitarian police state under the formidable General Woundwort, who serves as the story’s primary antagonist. Woundwort runs a tight ship, having each rabbit citizen marked with a scar on one of their four legs to represent the shift during which they are permitted to be above ground. I was reminded of Efrafa when a recent mayoral decree has divided men and women into separate camps, with men being permitted to leave their houses to buy groceries or other essential reasons only on even days of the month, and women, on odd days. Once I took advantage of the shorter bank lines on female days, and the teller would not help me because I was a man. When she warned me that I could be fined or even arrested I felt very much like a rabbit of Wateship down being asked by an officer from Efrafa to show his marks. I nearly blurted out “”‘Marks?’ I said. ‘What marks? I don’t understand.” ((Adams, 140)), but nobody would have understood the reference.
I live in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia in South America. If this sort of mandate sounds out of line for a country that is ostensibly a constitutional democracy, that is because it is. To have the state regulate our quotidian and daily activities is inhuman, and the psychological ramifications to losing your humanity are nothing to scoff at. We can learn a lot from Efrafa, chiefly, that we should be very weary of the lasting effect that trading autonomuy for safety could have on us. When the surviving Watership Down emissary Holly is able to escape from Efrafa he has the following conversation upon his return:
“But surely it alters them very much, living like that?” asked Dandelion.
“Very much indeed,” replied Holly. “Most of them can’t do anything but what they’re told. They’ve never been out of Efrafa and never smelled an enemy. ((Addams, 141))
It is vital to note here that the Efrafa rabbits have never smelled an enemy. They are kept safe from predators, just as proponents of government programs expect and desire to be kept safe, and to be provided for, failing to understand that the price paid for this sort of thing is always one’s very humanity at least, and in many cases it can cost you your very soul.
Our freedoms are being eroded and the fear and hysteria caused by Covid 19 is being used as a pretext to expand government authority. People are passing out while driving, sometimes to fatal ends because of these silly face masks when they drive. Alone with nobody else in the car with them, so as to not infect themselves, I suppose.
There comes a point when mindless obeisance out of fear stops being a precaution and turns into mania. Too many people are paralyzing themselves by imagining the worst like the sluggard from Proverbs who would not leave his house but instead proclaimed “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!”” ((Proverbs 22:13)). As Christians we must be free and brave and have faith in God, even during a quarantine. If you need something to do to keep your spirits and your courage up, my recommendation is to take the mask off, and read Watership Down.