I just read (for the first time) the classic children’s novel “Watership Down” by Richard Adams. I absolutely loved this book, and I plan on reading it to my son when he is a little older. The book’s entertainment value is priceless. I laughed. I cried. I cried while I laughed. I even caught myself biting my fingernails in one suspenseful moment. But entertainment was not what prompted me to read this classic book. Stanley Hauerwas’ comments about Watership Down and Community, in his book “A Community of Character,” is what led me to this strange children’s book about the life of rabbits and how narrative shapes life.
I found this article during my journey through the book, that I thought might interest some of you. It’s by Scott Cowdell who at the time of writing was the Rector at All Saints Church in Brisbane. The article was titled “The Post-Modern Church” and was published in 1997.
Watership Down shows how a story can form a community.
Richard Adams’ rabbit epic Watership Down is about a community on a long and difficult journey. They seek a place of their own where they can be fully themselves, fully alive as rabbits. It begins with a piece of unlikely prescience. A rabbit given to strange feelings is overcome with dread, and with the few others who trust him he leaves the warren. Soon it is revealed that the old warren was in the way of a pending land development – the rabbits not gassed in their burrows were shot and the land torn up. So the journey unfolds, in which rabbits find themselves in all sorts of alien situations, involving extended travel in the open, crossing rivers, finding shelter in unfamiliar country. Along the way other rabbits join them, some of whom seem most unprepossessing, like the young dreamer who started them on the quest.
In the midst of their frequent perplexity, fear and indecision, however, there is one rallying point, and that is the telling of sacred rabbit stories, stories of El-ahrairah, a mythical prince of rabbits, whose courage, cunning tricks and quick wittedness delivered his warren again and again from its enemies. The telling of these stories kept the rabbits inventive, and protected them from any false sense of security. It also fostered mutual dependence that is essential for rabbits, so that by journey’s end even the most unlikely of rabbits has made a crucial contribution to the eventual happy outcome.
Along the way two other warrens are discovered. These are highly allegorical episodes. Encountering the first warren, our travellers are surprised at how sleek and well fed the rabbits are, how fine their coats. They have a communal space underground, rather than simply individual burrows, though it is little used. And here Stanley Hauerwas [from his book, A Community of Character] discerns a link to modern liberal societies in decline, with the communal dimension no longer working. [how about a link to modern church communities too?].
The rabbits in this newly discovered warren do not tell the stories of El-ahrairah any more. They cannot make much sense out of them. Instead they tell tragic stories, and the does compose grim existentialist-sounding poetry. There is not much closeness and interdependence in the warren. The good condition of the rabbits is explained by the fact that the local farmer leaves out vegetables for them everyday – normally a great and rare treat for rabbits. All this surprises the travellers as most un-rabbitlike. Unease develops, and with good reason. The bitter truth is that the farmer feeds the rabbits in order to save himself the trouble of keeping his own. And when he wants a rabbit to eat, he simply snares one. This is the dark secret of this modern, liberal-minded warren.
A pact has been made which ensures comfort and prosperity without any of the old skills and dreams and stories being necessary. But there is a terrible cost. These rabbits have capitulated to the prevailing culture and forgotten who they are. They may be sleek and fat, but there are casualties, and the group as a whole has lost its way…
The next warren the travellers encounter is militaristic and totalitarian. All is sacrificed for security and certainty, which is the abiding personal need of its fearsome chief rabbit, General Woundwort. Life is totally regimented, and the unhappy rabbits are driven to unnatural practices like fixed supervised feeding times come rain or shine, and long confinements underground. Dissent is harshly suppressed. The biggest rabbits are sent out on patrols to capture rabbit travellers who might attract predators. It is a thing of pride that these rabbits stand and fight with cats and stoats, rather than running away, like the cunning sons of El-ahrairah. It is a bleak warren, and the does are frequently infertile. Needless to say the old stories are not valued there either…