I wish I were a knight. I would have been a miserable one, no doubt; lugging heavy armor around has to be tough on a weak abdomen and a guy who has had four hernia surgeries wouldn't have lasted long, but I still wish I were a knight. A few years ago I read John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, and I think though I have wanted to be a knight all my life, that's when I realized it. A man is meant to face his worst fears, fight for truth and justice, kneel before a king, devote himself heart and soul to a lady, wear shining armor, ride out on impossible quests, make oaths that will eventually cost him his life--all that stuff. This brings me to Richard Adams's Watership Down, a book that unabashedly says that one should live on the edge. By the way, it's about rabbits, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a warm fuzzy story.
In Watership Down, Hazel and his compatriots encounter a warren of rabbits who have forgotten what it means to be rabbits. They are rich--filled full with flayrah (garden vegetables) every morning--huge, healthy, sophisticated, modern, and strangely depressed. In my mind they personify a lot of what's wrong with modern man. The more this society looks like our modern world, the more uncomfortable the visitors get with it. It's as though someone from Medieval England stepped into 20th century America, or I suppose England. Fiver, Hazel's little brother who has prophetic insight, wants to have nothing to do with the unnatural society from the start and is only dragged in against his will.
The downfall of their spirit begins with having security and wealth handed to them. A man walks by every morning and leaves them food. He shoots any predators that come their way. He pretty much leaves them alone to live in perfect bliss. The catch is that every once in a while a rabbit mysteriously disappears.
A whole culture develops out of this unnatural situation. The rabbits make no raids on neighboring farms. They have no leader because they don't need one. As they sit around in their warren with nothing natural to do, they develop into a "high society." For instance they greet each other with a strange dance, they sing their young to sleep, they store food underground, and they laugh in ironic situations. When Hazel tells Cowslip that he is going outside in the rain to eat some grass, Cowslip laughs, presumably because it is so unnecessary to eat in such an uncomfortable situation. Hazel is utterly freaked out by the laughter, which is totally alien to simple rabbits, and runs away from him. Even though the rabbits of the warren are huge, there is a weakness of spirit to them, and Blackberry says they just don't seem like fighters.
The difference between the two groups reaches a head when they tell stories. Dandelion's story is about the wily, adventurous El-ahrairah, the mythical first king of the rabbits who wages bets with Frith, the sun god, and raids his enemies' gardens. The rabbits of the warren call the story old fashioned and say they prefer dignity to trickery. Their "story teller," Silverweed, on the other hand, recites a poem in which he accepts death with an eerie romantic dignity and asks Frith to take his breath away as though it were the natural course of things--something Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might have written. Fiver freaks out when he hears the poem and tries to push his way out of the warren. When his friends question him about his rude behavior, he says, "Something can be true and dangerous folly at the same time."
This is why I tend to vote conservative, save the orange skins for our compost pile, and want to be a knight. I don't want things done for me. I don't want to be safe. I don't want to accept the circle of life and the inevitability of death. I'm with Fiver. "Though wise men at the end know dark is right," I want to "rage, rage against the dying of the light." William Wordsworth warned us two hundred years ago that as society becomes more sophisticated, people live less. He shook his head at aristocrats who had servants pour their tea and put their boots on for them. Why would doing nothing make one superior and happy? He was all for milking one's own cow. For the rabbits, that means foraging in dangerous grounds, stealing does from other warrens, and raiding farms--living with danger, courage, and trickery.
It's a wonderful life to live, and Hazel embraces it with such zest that when I turned the page to the final section of the book and discovered "Hazel-rah" in bold letters, I was ready to ride out with him in battle (or hop out). And pitched battles there are! I have not even mentioned the evil General Woundwort and his regime that "keeps his warren safe" with monomaniacal repression. I cannot recommend Watership Down enough. In my opinion, it belongs on the shelf between The Once and Future King and Lord of the Rings.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.