Given the new version of Watership Down that’s currently airing on BBC this is a post from a while ago about the original film….
One of the keys to introducing kids to big ideas is making them accessible. There really is no point in going to a classroom with Thomas Aquinas if they’re left scratching their heads like WTF?
But that doesn’t mean big ideas can’t come into the classroom – in fact they really should – but the bigger the ideas, the more accessible they have to be.
I think that Watership Down is a kids movie with ideas that would have left even St Thomas himself with something to think about.
Let me elabourate…
The film opens with a short mini-saga about the rabbit religion, focused around the sun-God Lord Frith and his relationship with El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits. Frith is a benevolent spirit who’s created perfection. But – as is the way with religious creation myths – ‘evil’ must be introduced to the world, and the opening explains how.
Like all religious myths the story tells as much about the civilisation that created it as anything else. In this case, it’s important to recognise that, despite the fact they live in constant fear of death, the rabbits don’t really see evil. In their world El-ahrairah – the founding rabbit (a kind of Adam figure) – committed the ‘sin’ of having too many kids and basically being too successful and maybe a little greedy. Most rabbits would see this as a natural enough mistake – they might even feel proud of him – and it’s reasonable for Frith to make a change.
At this point, the rabbits are ejected from Eden and other animals are given a thirst for their flesh. This is why rabbits are constantly hunted by hawks, foxes, weasels, etc… It’s a really classic religious story, fitting the mould of so many others.
But Frith is also forgiving and he finds El-ahrairah and gives him gifts which, if used correctly – with cunning and tricks – will allow him to escape from the killers. Again, this is classic creation story stuff that can be used to look at other religious stories from around the world as a foundation for understanding why religion exists: to help the people find inspiration.
Really, the fact that Richard Adams could create a religious story that echoes so many others is a very interesting window into religion – turning it into a story which has its own reasons for being created. There is a case for saying that some children may look at this as belittling for other religions, but this is both underestimating the reality of religious belief – which often accepts story as being apocryphal – and because the author was smarter than that, for reasons I’ll come to.
The heart of the story is about a group of rabbits who need to re-establish civilisation after having been kicked out of their own home by developers. The drive comes in the form of a prophetic vision from Fiver, a neurotic who’s blessed with the gift of foresight; this is the first of a few lovely lessons in learning to listen to even the strangest amongst us.
The obvious reference to developers starts a theme that runs through the story: a celebration of the wonderful countryside that exists all around us. By seeing the hedgerows and fields as being more than just areas to produce our food, and turning them into smaller ecosystems within which entire communities thrive we’re teaching kids to love and respect our world in a way that is still desperately missing at the moment.
But the real reason I think Watership Down needs to be canonised is that although the above exist, the real heart of the film is about civilisation. Because while the rabbits search for a new home, they discover no less than five different social orders; each of which displays a completely different way of life.
The original home of the rabbits is basically fine. They have a ‘normal,’ patriarchal hierarchy: an owsler, which is a kind of police force, who maintain order and eat the nice food, while a chief rabbit lords over them all. The chief isn’t really that interested though and he’s a little lazy – he gets Hazel’s name wrong twice in the opening exchange. Initially, in many ways, Sandleford is probably the warren that is closest to our own society: Basically fine, but the leaders are lazy and the police slightly oppressive.
For me, this is one of the most interesting warrens in the film – and it’s the one I said I’d return to and talk about religion.
Cowslip’s warren is on a local farm, and the rabbits here live in a kind of luxury. They are given all their food by the farmer, their warren is HUGE and they’re never under threat. Fiver doesn’t like it there, though the other rabbits all think it’s fine; Fiver says there’s an air of death, but then he looks at things on a different level.
You see Cowslip and co have struck up a different deal: they’ll accept food and safety from the farmer, but they know that they’ll be killed when he’s hungry. They’re almost like a society under a spell. They accept an illusion of safety in exchange for deferring to a new god: Man.
In a nutshell, they’re domesticated: looked after, cared for, but killed when the farmer decides.
At one point, Hazel asks to read some stories of El-ahrairah and his trickery – “Rabbits will always need tricks,” he says.
Cowslip brushes him aside. “No,” he replies. “El-ahrairah and his trickery don’t mean much to us. We need dignity, and above all, the will to accept our fate.”
He then reads a poem, about death, that reveals the truth: although they are free, they’re depressed as fuck! Their acceptance of their place, their acceptance of their position as being below man, and the fact that they’ve given up fighting or trying to survive have left them without a meaning to their lives. Without the desire to fight death, what reason is there to live? Without the fear of losing everything is there any reason to celebrate having anything?
What is lost when you’re handed everything in exchange for an agreement to die when requested?
In some ways, this is a society without religion. It’s a desperate place where life has no higher purpose. Life is lived and then given up, without challenge.
In a lot of ways, Cowslip’s society seems even more like our own than Sandleford. A kind of dark caricatured version of what some people live…
On their way to Watership Down, the rabbits come across a farm with a litter of hutch rabbits. Again, comparisons with human society abound: trapped but looked after, scared to leave – terrified of the outside world – but prepared to accept pacivity in exchange for their safety. But again… maybe it is this the society that is really most like our own?
Stalinist. That’s all you can say. Pure, dark, nasty, oppressive dictatorship. And General Woundwort – what a fantastic villain!
Efrafa is the first time a lot of kids will be introduced to the pain and villainy of a dictatorship, and whether through Blackabar and his torn ears, Captain Holly’s tales of fear, or Hyzenthlay’s whispered terror, the horror of the place is obvious.
It is essential that all students explore the terror of a dictatorship and, as a contrast to the other societies – as a recognisable way to live that might even be better than Nuthanger or Cowslip’s nameless warren – it’s a great way to introduce them to the idea.
But it is Watership Down that is the hero of civilisation: created by Frith, found by Fiver, fought for by Bigwig and won by Hazel. A symbol of teamwork and togetherness, safety and, most importantly, longevity.
In the way that Sandleford was patriarchal, Hazel’s warren on Watership Down contains much of the traditional feminine.
Because the hero of Watership Down, despite Bigwig’s strength or Fiver’s mysticism, is undoubtedly the pragmatic, reasonable Hazel. His diplomacy and pragmatism make him the only person who could lead that group. His focus is survival. He reminds me of a kind of serious version of El-ahrairah, who’s capable of plotting and scheming for the bigger picture.
In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Hazel looks to the sun and asks Frith – God, in effect – if he can exchange his life for theirs; offering his own ultimate sacrifice in exchange for the future of the warren. God looks down and says no. “There is not a day or night that a doe does not offer her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain. What is, is what must be.” And above all the other deaths in the film – some of which are horribly brutal – it is this moment that exposes the real, harsh truth of life: there are no deals with God.
Living creatures die, and civilisations fall if no-one fights for them.
And that’s the key, for me, to Watership Down. It isn’t just about different types of civilisation, it’s about someone who was prepared to fight for a civilisation that was fair. He founded a new civilisation because there wasn’t another one he could really support.
Hazel fought for a civilisation that was right, fair, open, honest and, at the end, when the Black Rabbit of Inlay comes to take him away it doesn’t present his death as tragic or painful; it presents death as a beautiful end to a life well lived.
I don’t believe that Watership Down should be taught in schools because I like it – though I clearly do – I believe it needs more attention because it both challenges deep and important ideas about our society and because, more than anything, it presents a hero who is prepared to sacrifice himself not just for “another” but for the preservation of an imagined future that he will never know. I believe that we should teach Watership Down because this is what our world needs at the moment.