Watership Down by Richard Adams
Scribner, 2005 (reprint edition)
Available: Hardcover, paperback, Kindle edition, Audible
I am reading Watership Down with my daughter. It’s one of my favorite books. She is a little younger than I was when I was first given my copy, but I read it by myself and we are reading it together (never let anyone tell you that kids outgrow reading aloud with loved ones). It’s a long book and it’s possible that many of you have never read it, although you might have been traumatized by the movie as a child (I’ve never seen the movie, myself). People who love a fast-moving plot might lose patience with Watership Down and its fearful, brave group of rabbits on their journey to a new home. But stick with it, and the personalities of the rabbits and their dilemmas start to catch you.
So far, in our reading, the rabbits have escaped arrest, fled into a forest, successfully avoided a skunk and a dog, crossed a river, crossed a road, and traveled for a long distance to finally find what looks like a safe place for a new home, only to be approached by a large, well-fed, and generous rabbit who offers to adopt them into a nearby warren where all the rabbits are large and well-fed, there are no threats and no need to search for food. My Goblin Girl looked at me and said, “These rabbits are going to sacrifice other rabbits, aren’t they, so they can stay well-fed and healthy?”
Have I mentioned that I just re-read “The Lottery”? This prediction gave me chills.
I’m going to spoil the story for you and say that’s kind of exactly what happens.The rabbits in the warren have an unspoken arrangement with the farmer nearby. He kills off all their enemies and leaves them vegetable heap scraps, and they pretend they don’t know what has happened to rabbits that go missing because he’s caught them in a trap.
“Either that, or they’re cannibals”.
Given her second guess, I don’t think she read ahead.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because the rabbits are too nice and too healthy and that’s always a trap. Like in The Silver Chair, the giants were kind to Eustace and Lucy but their cookbook had a recipe on “How to Cook Man”. So the rabbits either want to sacrifice Hazel or eat him”.
She’s currently leaning more toward the “cannibal” theory, rather gleefully. Never let it be said that children’s literature is sunny all the time. Those cute, fluffy, bunnies clearly are dangerous creatures. As is a well-read child.
Watership Down is sometimes read as an allegory dealing with different ways of organizing society. And this part of the novel tells us a lot about our current moment. The rabbits of the warren are willing to ignore any question that might force them to think about the brutality behind the bargain they have made, because as long as they don’t, they can enjoy a comfortable, and mostly secure life. They have normalized the disappearance of friends and family as just part of the price they pay to keep their lives easy.
The rabbits of the warren are actually scarier than the people in “The Lottery”. In “The Lottery”, everyone knows someone participating in the drawing is going to be next. The consequence is totally horrific, but at least people know what’s going on. The rabbits of the warren, though, don’t tell Hazel’s band about the arrangement they have with the farmer, that he sets traps to catch them in exchange for their easy life. Instead, they welcome the new rabbits, whose presence makes it less likely that the original rabbits will be the ones trapped, so Hazel’s bunch don’t know what to expect. The original rabbits don’t have to see what happens, so as long as they don’t talk about the missing, they can pretend nothing’s wrong. It’s not viscerally horrific like the events of “The Lottery”, but the “I didn’t see the consequences of my actions so it never happened” attitude is terrifying, because it is so real. It’s a good thing this is a story about rabbits.
I can see why my daughter prefers the cannibal rabbit theory. Nothing says “it can’t happen here” like a carnivorous bunny of evil.
Beyond the particulars, here, I want to say that the predictions she made, based on things she’s read in the past, show how essential it is to read, and hopefully, to read widely. If everyone could see the shape of a narrative, and think critically about the words set in front of them, the world, I think, would be a better place. I don’t care what format you are using for your reading, DO IT. And talk about it with as many people as you can. Seriously, I am a boring person to listen to if you don’t want to hear about books, but I will talk to you about them as much as I can.
The political implications of Watership Down are not something I noticed as a kid and they aren’t related to why I’m reading it with the Goblin Girl now. I just loved the story, and it’s worth reading just for the adventure of it. But I see them now, and just how very human Richard Adams’ rabbits are.
Watership Down is not horror, by a long shot, but it does show how the horrific can become an everyday, normalized experience. So, how’s your reading going?