I finished Watership Down a few days ago. It's Richard Adams's 1972 adventure novel about a group of bold rabbits who flee their endangered warren, trek several arduous miles across the British countryside, and set up a new, utopian home on a hill free from danger.
Along the way, they meet several different groups of rabbits living under diverse circumstances, and the book got me thinking about the relationship between authority and society.
When the book opens at the Saddleford Warren, we witness a fairly typical governing structure. There's no immediate, undeniable threat to the rabbits of Saddleford--aside from routine harassment by foxes and stoats, the occasional bout of white blindness and other illnesses, and a bad winter or two. The rabbits think of themselves as the race with a Thousand Enemies--dogs, cats, men, owls, etc.--so they are fully accustomed to these obstacles. The threarah--or king, of sorts--is nice but aloof, comfortable and distant in his position of power, safely assuming that everything will continue as always. His Owsla--or military, kind of--is prone to power-tripping, over confidence, and machismo, but they're not particularly corrupt. The every day rabbits, those who don't hold positions of authority, occasionally feel the dominating shadow of those above them in the hierarchy, but for the most part their lives are quotidian and uneventful.
Like the frog in the pot of water steadily increasing to a boil, the Saddleford rabbits are so accustomed to everything working out decently that new and unusual signs of danger are imperceptible to them. When Fiver, a small and generally ignored young rabbit with the rare rabbit gift of psychic insight, receives a premonition that nearby humans are bringing unbridled terror to their homeland, the majority of his rabbit compatriots are too comfortable to heed his warning. Only those with nothing to lose and those who trust in possibilities beyond what they can plainly see in front of them follow Fiver in his quest for safer territory, the threarah and many others staying behind with no worries.
What happens to Saddleford is nothing short of a rabbit holocaust, perpetrated by human building developers.
It's easy to relate to Saddleford's courtship with imminent demise. There are those who proudly buy gas guzzlers without caring to think what might happen when all the gas runs out. There are those who rifle through hundreds of pounds of disposable plastic a year or who willingly buy into the vast, mechanical meat industry without regard to biological mutations, chemical washes, exorbitant amounts of methane/greenhouse gas, e coli and mad cow outbreaks, and the American obesity epidemic which threaten all of our livelihoods. We happily light the next cigarette because none of the others have killed us yet. Or we allow corrupt powers to escalate to the point of blacklistings, witch hunts, or fascist rule.
But a dozen or so male rabbits, led by Fiver and his trusting, headstrong friend Hazel, escape in time, journeying across rivers and rough terrain, putting unused skills to the test, discovering about themselves and each other and how to survive, and learning to trust and appreciate what everyone has to offer.
Eventually they encounter the rabbits of Cowslip, a utopia named after a prized and tasty marigold flower. The rabbits there--who live in a huge, well-worn, extremely comfortable warren on fruitful land completely devoid of predators and ill weather conditions--are large, healthy, and well-fed with shiny coats and a strange, regal smell. They are also a bit strange, engaging in strange social habits and modern forms of art and poetry quite unlike their own traditional, heroic storytelling. Though the Saddleford refugees believe in the divine craftiness of the legendary El-ahrairah, cunning father to all rabbits, the Cowslip rabbits have learned not to believe in such things; they are hopeless, dreamless atheists, cynical and obedient, and their communication with each other is elusive and lacking in intimacy.
Of course, utopia steams from words meaning "nowhere," and Cowslip is hardly as great as it first appears. The Cowslip warren is on the outskirts of a farm, and the farmer feeds them well, protects them from predators, and allows them to live full, happy lives until--every so often, and not so often as to cause alarm--he kills one of them for supper.
And so the Cowslip rabbits, who have forgotten how to use their unnecessary natural skills--how to find food, how to outsmart a cat--have attempted to escape through suicidal poetry, teaching themselves not to expect too much from life and not to develop too close a bond to anything or anyone on earth. They live their spoonfed lives forever unchallenged and often unthinking, and then they die, and such is life.
How closely does the resemble a life of shutting off alarm clocks, going to the office, walking down the grocery aisles, using the credit card, eating fast food, watching the television, drinking a beer, and falling asleep? All while a million advertisements for a thousand time-saving, new, and spectacular devices compete for our attention. The Internet, streaming three-way video chat, and one thousand text messages a month in our pocket. Slaughtered chicken on a bun with lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes tasting and looking the exact same three hundred and sixty-five days a year, assembled by half a dozen minimum wage workers, for only ninety-nine cents. Liposuction without having to move a muscle, earlobe remodeling to fix those saggy ears, and a tiny, white pill to keep you from thinking about killing yourself--may cause amnesiac sleep-driving, excessive gambling, and suicide.
They escape from Cowslip and settle into what will become their own warren in the perfectly suitable terrain of Watership Down, but only then do they realize that they're a society of men with no hope of prolonged survival through the generations.
Their quest for does brings them to two other groups of rabbits.
On a nearby farm they encounter a hutch with four naive pet rabbits, much like the Cowslip rabbits in size and health but with no deceptive pretense of freedom. The hutch rabbits know they're not wild. They know they are the playthings of a nice, little human girl. They have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, no need for government, and very little to think about. They're neither happy nor sad, and they're quite stupid. Adams doesn't dwell too much on them.
And miles away is the nearest warren, Efrafa, a concealed, underground military dictatorship. The threarah, General Woundwort, once suffered at the hands of human interference, and since then he has lived his life in fear of the evils of men. With a thirst for power and an allegiance to the necessity of discipline in order to safeguard freedom and the future, Woundwort organizes a tightly run totalitarian state. Rabbits are evenly assigned to different groups at birth, and they remain in these groups for life. The smallness of the groups allows for closer, more orderly control. Rabbits cannot leave the warren except with their small groups at appointed times, and always under close inspection. Allowing no rabbits to wander freely and openly ensures that no humans or predators will ever be alerted to the presence of the warren, insuring the ongoing existence of the warren. For this reason, no rabbits can ever emigrate from the warren, drawing attention to it in the process. All wandering rabbits caught within range of the warren are taken prisoner and forced into the vast, underground, prison-like network, never to wander free again. Disruption from the status quo is met with harsh punishment, the only hope of reward is from being considered worthy enough to join the corrupt owsla and reap its meager rewards, and the only means of escaping is by dying while on a patrol.
Efrafa is a society where freedom has been exchanged for security, where fear of supremely evil and powerful enemies dictates all of culture, where a power hungry, slightly insane, and wholly misguided leader gradually takes more and more liberties within his position of power, and where the majority of rabbits generally succumb to the idea that they are powerless to change their desperate lots in life. Sounds a lot like the Bush Administration.
Watership Down is a great, fun read, always engaging, sometimes humorous, and at times emotionally resonant. I enjoyed it far more than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like Tolkien, Adams dabbles in "allolinguistics"--the creation of fictional languages. He has introduced Lapine, the rabbit tongue, and Hedgerow, the lingua franca of woodland creatures, to the world of languages. It makes me more certain that allolinguistics is something I want to play with in my own fiction one day.
Adams also got me thinking about the possibility of using non-human characters in novels. He also wrote The Plague Dogs, which I'm interested in reading.
What's compelling about the rabbits and their mythology is that, like humans, they think that they are the most important and divine species on earth. Humans point to the use of tools and language, the knowledge of their death, the existence of the soul, the (questionable) ability to reason, and other such attributes as proof of their predominance; rabbits point to their ability to speedily reproduce, to fill the earth quickly and joyfully, to their speed, their cleverness, and their martyr complex.
So what about cockroaches? Unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, outliving the dinosaurs, resistant to radiation, capable of surviving half an hour underwater, forty-five minutes without air, a month without food. They reproduce like crazy. They live clandestinely everywhere, much to the folly of the so-called human rulers of the earth. And sometimes it's nearly impossible to kill them.
How about a book where cockroaches are god's master race?