How My Thinking Was Shaped by Watership Down (Book and Movie)
Movie Poster From "Watership Down"
A Grand Adventure
I grew up watching the movie "Watership Down", and my mother read the book aloud to my siblings and me when we were young. I have read it several times since, and have loved it every time.
Watership Down is a strange story, yes...but I never thought of it as tragic or ill-bred. To me, it is an adventure story about freedom, not a horror story about death. In making an effort once to describe it to a friend, I told of General Woundwort and his commanding chain of rabbits, and of Hazel-Ra's warren, who fought him and defended their territory against his regime. When I was finished, my friend said with raised brow, "So, Communist bunnies?" I merely smiled, thinking, Yes, pretty nearly.
I am not here to debate the merits or allegorical qualities of the story, the ways in which the movie has apparently traumatized the faint of heart, or any other contentious matter. I am here to tell you how this masterpiece has kept me on track throughout my life, and has time and again given me courage to pursue my dreams and aspirations, and learn to stand my ground.
I'd Appreciate Talking With This Person...
My young life was in many ways quite idyllic...but in others held something nameless from which I wanted to escape.
I grew up in Northeastern Colorado on the Great Plains, and saw my share of rabbits and other wildlife. In fact, we raised rabbits, and I named many of them after Watership Down characters. We lived on a farm, and I had acres in which to roam. I had, too, it seemed, a stable family. But there was still a nameless fear...a tension.
Without quite realizing it, I identified very strongly with both Fiver's far-sight, and with his propensity for causing friction among others by speaking the truth and "stubbornly" adhering to the integrity of his dreams and visions. Then too, he was a runt, and I often felt dwarfed by the accomplishments of my older siblings, and by the charm of my little sister. Fiver seemed to share many of the problems of a middle child.
Fiver, Odd and Intuitive
A Field of Blood
When, toward the beginning of the story, he has a vision in which the field near his warren is covered with blood, this did not frighten me. I was fascinated by his ability to see deeper than the physical, and sometimes felt that we were very much alike. I felt, too, as if a field of blood waited in my own life, unless I did as Fiver chose to do, and left the security of all I had ever known to strike off toward a new, possibly dangerous, life. A freer life. I had yet to grow enough to process the fact that this "field of blood" was the tension I felt every day from my father, who was often selfish and hateful beneath his veneer of condescending righteousness. All I knew was that I sensed something destructive, vicious in its intangible, but humanlike aspiration to conquer at all costs.
Shortly after his vision, Fiver persuaded his elder brother and a handful of other rabbits from his warren to leave, and I applauded him. Whether they were headed toward calm or trouble, at least they had evaded the field of blood. Later, of course, his intuition was proved right. The field of blood in Fiver's vision had represented the eradication of the warren prior to the start of a housing development.
Sunset of a Warren
Away, to the Hills
I have never personally seen the downs (chalk hills) to which Fiver's visions led him and his companions. But near my home, where my grandmother lived in Nebraska, were some bluffs and hills which looked very similar to me. That is, they were a similar color, and they appeared from the road to be velvety and very, very inviting. I wished we could stop so I could climb these hills, and look down over the lovely Nebraska grasslands. These grasslands reminded me in some intangible way of the heath which Fiver's group had crossed on their way to Watership Down. Of course, Nebraska has no heather or gorse or similar plants...but it has sagebrush and wide skies and gorgeous storms and sunrises. So while reading the story, I often pictured the places to which my experiences had led me, and was content.
I had an idea, each time we made a trip to my grandmother's for some holiday or other, that if I could just get to those hills and be part of their life enough, that I would be able to identify what was wrong with my life, and be able to start a good path with better knowledge and wisdom. And each time I felt discouraged by the inevitable disappointments or problems in life, I heard Fiver saying, when asked where he was going, "Away, to the hills."
I knew these hills weren't magic. Rather, they represented the ability to make my own decisions, and to fight for what I knew I needed.
The Downs to Which the Bunnies EscapedClick thumbnail to view full-size
Like Memories of My Own HillsClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Roof of Bones
On their travels, Fiver and his companions come upon a warren made up of eccentric rabbits. These rabbits carry back to their warren vegetables left by a "friendly" farmer, they not only tell stories but also write poetry, and they decorate their walls with stones intended to tell stories (murals or mosaics).
At first, Hazel-Ra, believes that this warren may be their final destination, and a great place to stay. He is surprised by many of the customs, but makes efforts to learn the ways about him, and encourages his followers to do the same. Fiver keeps telling Hazel and the others that there is something wrong with the place--that, in fact, the roof of the large meeting hall is made of bones. He is ridiculed for this, and spends an unhappy night in the pouring rain, under a yew tree.
But once again, he is proved right. The farmer who shares with his local rabbit population, also takes back. He has set snares, and is harvesting these rabbits. In a tragic and--to some--terrifying scene, one of the new rabbits discovers this when he runs through a hedge into a snare, and nearly dies before his clever friend digs out the peg holding the wire. Suddenly, many of the customs of the place make sense--particularly, why one must never ask questions about what one sees and hears, or ask where anyone else is. Everyone in this warren is concerned with accepting their fate, and remaining calm. Trickery, survival, and all the things most rabbits are known for fail to impress them.
Cowslip, a Philosophical Leader
Security Is a Snare
Fiver's vision of a roof of bones has come in handy for me on several occasions. I remember it whenever my gut tells me that something simply isn't right about a situation or person. No matter how good the food or how easy the living is, I'd better move on before I find out the hard way where the snares are set.
After a Warning
Trees in November
Fiver is known for his depressive episodes. I see this as being due to his nature as an empath. That is, he has a natural ability to feel other's emotions, and is often bogged down by them. So he describes his feelings one day as being "like trees in November".
A large part of my emotional life has been very much like trees in November. But Fiver didn't let this stop him, and there is no reason to let it stop me, either.
Tangles and Puzzles
It is therefore that I have kept striving to overcome all roadblocks, whether they are circumstantial or simply part of my natural temperament. I have sought to build relationships based on honor, love, sacrifice, integrity, fortitude, and all the other qualities I see in Fiver, Hazel, and the other main characters. They never gave up, not even when all seemed lost, and this lesson appealed to me.
Twisted, But Thriving
The General Is Coming!
Fiver and his fellows do reach the downs which he saw far out on their travels, and which suited his instinctual ideals of a safe place. But they turn out to be anything but safe.
As the rabbits had left their home warren in May, and many of the does had stayed behind to nest, they are forced to go out looking for mates. They locate another warren which at first seems like a good bet...but soon discover it is a prison in disguise.
General Woundwort, head of the Efrafa warren, is one of the most unforgettable villains of all time. He is not only huge, ruthless, and battle-scarred...but he fears nothing. Not man, not dogs, not birds of prey, not trains. And he has built an empire which is designed to stay safe from the world outside. The catch is, once a rabbit is part of his empire, he is trapped there.
Shall I tell you how Fiver and his set overcome their foe and win their females? I think not. It is an adventure better experienced firsthand.
My Life Now
But I can tell you how I have overcome my own Woundwort, in the form not only of my long-time father-wounds, but also in the shape of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and its accompanying depression and marriage difficulties.
Fiver helped instill in me a sense of purpose when I had none; a sense of bravery when I wanted to melt; and a sense of hope when my hills seemed, oh so far away, and the rain was sheeting down.
In a sense, I have reached my hills now. I know who my soul is, and I know that together, we are capable of overcoming the impossible. My marriage is okay now, and my relationships are mostly good to fair.
I thank God, and Fiver, that I am alive and well, and neither a corpse in a warren run, nor a prisoner of Efrafa.
Be Very Cunning
"Be very cunning, and your people will never be destroyed."— Richard Adams, Watership Down
"Bright Eyes" Song, with Scenes From Watership Down
Hit by a Hrududu; Real Bunny Murals
One evening, driving home with my brother, sister, and parents, we hit a rabbit. He dashed out of a corn field beside the road, and disappeared under our big Ford car. Immediately my mother cried, "Oh, the poor bunny got hit by a hrududu!" At the time, I thought this way of speaking about the incident was quite natural. It was only as an adult that I realized how funny this was, and that using this "lapine" (rabbit) word was anything but natural. In spite of the tragedy for the rabbit, the memory remains quite funny for me.
Recently (2019), my daughter was given an English Spot rabbit as a house pet. He is nicely behaved, and does not eat phone chargers or extension cords. He sometimes nibbles school papers, and loves to share in my daughter's adventures with artwork. In other words, he roguishly steals markers and crayons. He also loves stickers. Several times, my daughter has had to retrieve sheets of stickers out of his hutch, where he has taken them for safe-keeping. Mostly he does not eat these sticker sheets, so perhaps he wants posters? Doesn't like his bare walls?
His interest in art makes me think of the rabbits in Strawberry's warren, who pushed stones into the walls to create mosaics representing El-ahrairah and his many adventures. Perhaps Patches remembers this trickster bunny, too?
An Old Copy
Original Bright Eyes Lyrics
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© 2019 Joilene Rasmussen