Since I studied theology in Europe I had little exposure to English-language theologians, who are looked down upon on the Continent, where they prefer a more systematic/rationalist approach to the give-and-take dialogue style of the “Anglo-Saxons”.
This weekend I decided to start rectifying the situation and picked up a collection of essays by Stanley Hauerwas, and was delighted to find a talk on the theme of storytelling in Richard Adam’s Watership Down.
Hauerwas argues that when a culture loses contact with its foundational mythology also loses its capacity to act appropriately. “The crux of the viability of any society in Watership Down is whether it is organized to provide an authentic retelling of the stories of the founder and prince of rabbit history, El-ahrairah.” The stories of El-ahrairah define what a rabbit is supposed to be, how he is supposed to use his gifts to survive in a hostile world. When rabbits lose contact with these stories, they form societies which are ultimately self-destructive.
For the little band of rabbits striking out to start a new home, the stories of El-ahrairah are vital: they really believe the stories, and the stories reinforce their survival techniques. This is not the case of the other warrens they come across: Sandleford, their home warren, has grown complacent. Having security, even at the expense of freedom, they no longer want to take the risks associated with striking out and fleeing danger. They have forgotten that a rabbit is fragile, always on the verge of death, and his hope is in being alert to danger and running, not staying put.
The second warren the rabbits encounter is something of a welfare state: the farmer feeds the rabbits of the warren and culls them with snares. As a result the inhabitants have despaired of being proper rabbits according to the stories of El-ahrairah. They tell the wanderers that they no longer need the tricks and cunning of El-ahrairah, the need the “dignity to accept their fate”. They have accepted the farmer’s snare.
Finally, they encounter the fascist state of Efrafa where the old tales have been forgotten completely. Here, the governing ideology is not that a rabbit needs to rely on his wits and speed to avoid his danger, but learn to go on the offensive, always ready to attack. The result is a paranoid and oppressive police state, where rabbits can’t dig, eat, or mate the way rabbits should.
The stories develop over time: they are oriented towards the future since they have to be handed down to the next generation. While the story-believing heroes are quite obsessed with finding mates in order to perpetuate their culture, the other communities they encounter, those which have lost their stories, avoid having litters. Not having a tradition means not having a future.
It is no secret that the transition to modernity means replacing cultural narratives with government structures. Maybe it is necessary to question this process.
I first saw the film version of Watership Down when I was about four years old, and I remember being totally absorbed in it: the beauty of the music and the animation, the seriousness of the characters, the unsentimental violence and horror they face. It made such an impression that I was delighted to discover it seven or eight years later in a video rental store: I convinced my friends to rent it, and even though some of the animation proved a little dated, again, we were all enthralled. Shortly after I discovered the book, a whole new source of delight. Even as a teenager, I found it hard not to get teary-eyed over some stories of El-ahrairah, or the loyalty and devotion of the heroic “Band of Bunnies”.
So I am always surprised by people who dislike Watership Down. Feminists claim to be offended by the lack of developed female characters. Some parents don’t like it because of they feel cute little bunnies should not be getting eaten by foxes or run over by cars in art the way they do in real life.
To the “feminists” I can only say that they should not try reading The Illiad, or most anything written before the mid-twentieth century either, in order avoid hurting their precious little feelings. As for the parents, well, it is for you to judge what is best for your kids. The film version of Watership Down was never intended for children and certainly is violent. But sometimes too we underestimate kids’ capacity to appreciate art.