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Thoughts: Watership Down

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will count the hours, the days, the years with anxious anticipation until my children can read this book.

I loved reading a story in which qualities I instill in my children actually work for the best – even in the face of certain defeat, utilitarian society’s, docile and self-indulgent groups, and hopelessness. I gleamed at the prospect of my little ones harnessing their inner Hazel, or Bigwig or Blackberry or even Fiver.

Richard Adams interlaces themes of courage, dignity, integrity, humility and brotherhood through a magically metaphorical story of a bridegroom named Nature and a bride named Spirituality – of the sovereignty governing life with its violent horrors and constant companionship.

As the social similarities mounted between the rabbits and humans, their most distinct difference erupted glaringly evident: natural social navigation has faded from human society. In a world of exalted individualism, Man has lost his sense of social responsibility and his awareness of the dependent nature of his survival. Would we think to help a mouse before knowing that he might relay vital information? Would we save a bird before calculating its use to us? Would we trust a creature’s natural inclination to return a favor?

Like Tolkien, Adams impressively constructs a rabbit culture complete with language and a spiritual heritage. Hailing back to The Thousand and One Nights, stories of El-ahrairah and Frith proudly distinguish the rabbit identity from other creatures. However, El-ahrairah aspires to be the Ultimate Trickster, a label hardly commendable among western readers. Yet his integral prioritization of his people’s welfare redeems him for the reader. Hazel follows after such an aspiration, a selfless leader bent on his group’s quality of life, by exercising “tricks” that rabbits with limited experiences and understanding in a broader world do not see as simple resourcefulness. But what are we to make of General Woundwort? Is he not also bent on his group’s quality of life? their survival and protection?

Adams brilliantly presents a dual-faceted conception of Nature. First, he introduces us to a sovereign and conscientious Nature designed by Frith which governs all creatures and order of circumstance. Secondly, he presents an instinctual Nature embedded in those same creatures.

In Cowslip’s warren, the rabbits unnaturally abandon their natural inclinations and indulge in luxury. In Efrafa, General Woundwort enforces an unnaturally regimented state in exchange for ultimate security. But Hazel takes cues from both warren’s in the construction of his own. And Nature embraces all. If Nature allows Hazel the freedom to choose how to build and protect his warren, these other leaders exercise the same natural freedom to different effects. Everything the reader would readily condemn as contrary to instinct, and therefore against Frith and the example of El-ahrairah, stems from a natural privilege to reason and choose.

‘Everything that’s happened is unnatural – the fighting, the breeding – and all on account of Woundwort. If he wasn’t unnatural, who was?’
‘Bigwig was right when he said he wasn’t like a rabbit at all,’ said Holly. ‘He was a fighting animal – fierce as a rat or a dog. He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running. He was brave, all right. But it wasn’t natural; and that’s why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do. I believe he’d have hunted like the elil if he could.’
‘He isn’t dead, you know,’ broke in Groundsel.
The others were silent.
‘He hasn’t stopped running,’ said Groundsel passionately. ‘Did you see his body? No. Did anyone? No. Nothing could kill him. He made rabbits bigger than they’ve ever been – braver, more skillful, more cunning. I know we paid for it. Some gave their lives. It was worth it, to feel we were Efrafans. For the first time ever, rabbits didn’t go scurrying away. The elil feared us. And that was on account of Woundwort – him and no one but him.’

Nature naturally balances good and evil and, under its constant sovereignty designed by Frith, they both can make us better people. The essence of Nature, and the brilliance of its design, necessitates both facets of the moral compass, both life and death, in order to function at its peek performance. Like Woundwort, evil naturally suffers a destructive fate but good, in its resiliency, might thrive all the stronger from its confrontation.

Consider the Black Rabbit. The popular Death perspective embalms us with dread. But Death, like all other “evil” circumstances, cycles through the same natural machine as life.

‘Some say that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is – or so they taught me – that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task – to bring about what must be. We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another. If that were so, we would all be destroyed in a day. We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle and only by his will. And though that will seems hard and bitter to us all, yet in his way he is our protector, for he know Frith’s promise to the rabbits and he will avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself.’

Many fear Death as evil but it serves Nature as well.

So what is Nature? If it is the whole compilation of goods and evils, how can we label some things as natural and others as synthetically unnatural? Hazel-rah might argue that at the base of all natural behavior lurks the urge to live in service of others. Unfortunately, creatures often stumble about blindly before realizing this if Frith withheld the blessing of living with it unconsciously. But that natural urge will win the day and, whether creatures agree or not, will lead to a better life. Not unlike a father, Nature can cause pain and fear but can also impose love and guidance. Whether we feel slighted or enriched by such a father, these qualities stem from that one parental source.

And this from a silly children’s book…

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Richard Adams

 

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