Watership Down, yer missin’ the point
Since I am a Druid I naturally am a member of several Druid discussion groups (I like to keep in touch with what, generally, Druids are thinking about and reacting to plus the Druid news) and a significant number of my Facebook ‘friends’ identify as Druid. Many modern Druids perceive attachment to Nature and involvement in ecological thought as core in their religion, whether Druids 2,000+ years ago did or did not.
So Netflix’s re-issue of ‘Watership Down’ as an extended movie is naturally and unsurprisingly a topic of interest. ‘Watership Down’ is a book (published in 1972 but written and severally rejected before that) about a colony, called a warren, of rabbits in the English countryside. The seer rabbit, Fiver, has a terrible vision that the warren will be horribly destroyed and wants everyone to leave at once. Most of the other rabbits don’t believe him but a small band set off for Fiver’s envisioned ‘high, lonely place where men hardly ever go’ which is Watership Down. Not being British it took me a bit as a first-time reader to realize that a ‘down’ is what I would call a mesa but with grass and trees and this one is in the shape of a big boat. They have adventures on the way, they have adventures once there...... that is the story. It was a much-awarded bestselling book and was made into an animated movie in 1978. The book and the movie both have death and suffering (the movie has some particularly nightmare-producing visuals) and the debate then and now was that it is or is not classifiable as suitable for children. But the movie was a big hit nevertheless. Everyone agrees that the rabbits and their lives (even though they speak, have a religion, and tell intergenerational stories) are astonishingly real and true to life. So watching the movie or reading the book is almost like being an idealized but valid rabbit—- what Druid wouldn’t be interested?
I was surprised by the dedicated fan-ness of some Druids and also some people who I would have classed as non-religious ‘friends’ give to the book and the previous movie. Not that I’m not one of them; for every person grievingly posting ‘they wrote out Pipkin!!!’ I was in the thick of it posting ‘Pipkin? They wrote out THE BOAT!!!’.
But that’s just the hard-core fan response, not really necessary for a critical overview. As a review, I would give Netflix’s one languid clap. CG animation is not the best vehicle, imo; the rabbits are deep in the uncanny valley and the movements are stiff. Important pivot plot points in the book are inexplicably left out or changed; new story is written in that doesn’t advance the plot smoothly.... Although some of the visual add-ons are sharp— the changes made to the sheltering tree, the General’s warren sited in an abandoned factory, Bigwig’s survival of the snare being dependant on getting a foot caught in it. I was following the threads, mildly interested, posting a little ‘THE BOAT!(sob)’ ‘yes, **Art Garfunkel**’ (the song ‘Bright Eyes’ is pivotal in the movie and the sequence isn’t nearly as powerful without the song) when an exchange happened that riveted me: A Strong Feminist posted how offensive she found the statement “bucks don't dig, does dig” in the face of the strong female rabbit characters elsewhere. Bucks are males and does are females so what Soccer Hooligan Buck is saying is that foundational colony work is ‘women’s work’ and beneath him. Some Biological Purist countered that, like it or not, that was how rabbits (actually European Rabbits not New World Rabbits but Bio Purist was probably answering as per the rabbits he knew) behaved and so what was had to be what was accepted. ‘NOT AT ALL!’ Strong Fem responded. ‘It’s a story; they could write the rabbits doing whatever they wanted.....’
Well, I am a Biological Purist too, among other quirks. Although I have internet-ly given up the battle of their, there, they’re and who/whom I will still insist on the differentiation of Ravens and Crows and that ‘cows and bulls are cattle; the group name isn’t cows unless they’re all female’ right up until I fall, ranting, into my grave. Although I can see Strong Fem’s point of view and understand her argument she is wrong about European Rabbits, which I will just call ‘rabbits’ henceforward. That is what rabbits do. Suddenly, what I found inexplicably wrong and distasteful about Netflix’s Watership Down crystallized.
Richard Adams’ book and the old film are about Rabbits (he made no secret that much of his writing was based on the seminal and fairly boring book ‘The Private Life of Rabbits’ that is minutely and completely a Bio Purist’s rant, start to finish). They act like rabbits do. Netflix’s movie is about people wearing rabbit skins. Fuzzies? Maybe I mean Furries... acting well within the parameters of us, the jumped-up chimpanzees. And poorly defined, single-trait characters at that— Angry Rabbit is a soccer hooligan, accent and all. Unintentionally Celibate Rabbits never learn. Tortured-by-Doubt Leader is a propped-up figurehead. Mean Rabbits delight in meanness, Rabbit Upset by Meanness sees the error of his ways in the final moments. And, implicitly, Romantic Love Rabbits are monogamous the rest of their lives with the Does Who Know Best manipulating their ‘husbands’ through chiding; doing the emotional labour while juvenilizing them, gently pointing out their errors in judgement.
It’s just not rabbits. Strong Fem’s offence is perfectly justified because the writers could have written in anything they liked since they weren’t writing about rabbits. There is some very ham-handed written-in moralizing about how humans are and have been messing up the rabbits’ habitat and by extension the Earth and accusatory rabbit-finger-pointing at humans killing rabbits without being driven by hunger like the rest of the Thousand Enemies (their name for the group of all the predator animals who eat rabbits). The writers use Skinny Little Girl as the avatar who redeems all the human species by rescuing Fiver-Rabbit from the farm cat and then write on to make it a wholly unconvincing episode by having her release him, providentially, just at the foot of the Down the warren is on.
Biological Purists generally stop with what has been seen and documented about behaviour and don’t step into speculation about what behaviours might mean or what might be meant by episodes of interaction. But even the most hard-line biologist admits that, as a science, biology is.... slippery/gooey/not black and white. Even the fundamental statement ‘warm-blooded animals mate in male/female pairs’ has extenuations; ‘although same-sex pairs exist’, ‘in groups, non-breeders are usual’, ‘unless the female uses non-contact packet selection’..... Generally, somebody somewhere uses a technique you haven’t even imagined. And if you, like me, are a Bio Purist and an Animist speculation is open. Operating from what actually is in the real biological world we ask ‘what might that mean?’ ‘does this that I am observing reflect back into the Shining Shadow World behind this one with a message?’
So, it seems to me, the writers of the Netflix Watership Down use the most current human morals and thought-modes as being universally ‘right’ for all living beings and tell a story where the rabbits are quasi-equal and quasi-peaceful, aspiring to the high standards of right-thinking humans.
But that’s not what I, as a Druid and Animist, see as the message of the book and subsequent ‘Correct’ movie. We can’t ask (wait, CAN we ask? He’d be getting on some...) Sadly, we cannot ask the author what his intended meaning was. But, like all great works, the reader can extrapolate their own backstory about it. Here is mine:
The rabbits in the book-and-movie (really, they are essentially the same rabbits which I will just call ‘Rabbits’ henceforward) are, of course, novelized. They speak to each other in complete sentences in both English and Lapine (the language Adams made up for them) without a lot of body language or pheromones. They have a species-wide religion; they tell stories just like the lore so beloved of Druids. In the actual, real, out of doors world we cannot conjecture what real rabbits are saying nor what their culture is. But, according to my religious beliefs, there are Rabbit-Spirits who look out for and guide the little rabbits, those ones we see living around us. Rabbit-Spirits are the next-level Animist Gods of all of the largely-unthinking little rabbits. Rabbit-Spirits, not surprisingly, live in a warren and reference a next-level Deity (called ‘Frith’ by them) much as I perceive myself as a part of humanity, watched out for by the God-Spirits of Humans, and all of us acknowledging next-level Deities (called by me ‘Earth’ and the next layer out as ‘Maker of Stars’).
Although I do, neither Adams nor the Rabbits seem to perceive the Earth as a Being but that is just a difference of opinion. So Richard Adam’s book is, to me, an adventure story about Rabbit-Spirits. However, Rabbit-Spirits and all the little, this-world rabbits unmentioned in the book still act like rabbits because that is what they are. For me coming to the book as a young adult (and making my then-husband and friendship group read it too if I possibly could) made me understand how different species are themselves and unique. The Rabbits are not angry with the Thousand Enemies for trying to kill and eat them, that is their nature. (A point bludgeoned home in the Netflix when the Brave Captive Rabbit accuses the Gestapo Rabbit of “lacking animality”.) All animals act according to their nature, it is how they are made.
Some animals live largely unthinking lives governed by instinct. Chickens, for example. Butterflies; cold-blooded animals like snakes etc; insects in a huge way. Living by instinct (clearly the numerically popular choice) allows you to react very quickly to your prompts and to not need much care as an infant but it rules out learning by experience. Instinctual animals generally keep going by having lots of babies that are also a food source for someone else. Their Species Spirits watch over them and comb out the threads of generationally-driven shift.... dark-coloured moths in response to dirty air, food choice shifts in response to population failure, et al. Instinctive animals also make good signalment; the Butterfly Spirit can move around a butterfly to act as an ‘omen’ and ze will hardly notice; hir free will is barely ruffled. Whereas if Raven Spirit is asked to or wants to use a raven as an ‘omen’, negotiations have to be undertaken with the chosen raven and agreement obtained.
Mammals live lives more or less ordered by instinct (depending on species) and concurrent non-instinctive learning. They not only learn lots of things over the course of their lives but also pass on those lessons by having few offspring with extended childhoods in which gradual teaching by mother or family or group occurs. Rare but quite meaningful signalment can occur; on their side they agreed to carry an omen, on our side we must be well aware of what is normal behaviour for them so as to clearly receive.
We can communicate and meaningfully interact with learning animals in our here- and-now. For example, I have a friend who is a school custodian and keeps a special bag on his cart for lunch food the children have thrown out (they are very wasteful). The other custodians (with some quizzical looks) have joined in and will donate or alert him to non- slimey finds. He keeps it in his refrigerator and then goes on his day off to the enormous wild riverside park next to his building and puts it out in designated spots— the meat and cheese sandwich tree, the downed log across the stream for scavengers , the bread product open space for little birds, and (in the warm season) the grassy spot for Seagull Pizza Day. Over the Summer the seagulls come to recognize him but the crows, who live in their grove year-round, know him on sight. The crows yell out hello when he leaves his building and the seagulls will do fancy fly-byes after gorging on pizza bones. On their own initiative; Manannán mcLir, to Whom the observation is dedicated, thanks him with random marbles.
Animals that live in groups are, in my knowledge base, ranked and differentiate males and females (although there are always the odd outliers). To write about them as if they will decide to be socialists (although they understand sharing economy in a way humans can only marvel at) or practice non-gendered equality is anthropomorphic. Plenty of books have been written about jumped-up chimpanzees and their problems; how many books about other species exist? And to give Right Thought status to our cutting-edge ideas is anthropocentric in the worst way. Many times as a Vet Tech I had to explain to people that giving their dogs treats in status order would decrease fights and snatching. ‘Beta dog agrees that Alpha dog should get first treat. Alpha dog will not take Beta dog’s sequenced treat out of respect for you, Pack Leader, but is much more likely to take an out-of-order treat. They aren’t interested in equality.’
I often designate we humans as ‘jumped-up chimpanzees’ because of the innumerable shared behaviours our two species have. Humans, however, top the animal kingdom in one thing... manifest destiny? Don’t make me laugh. No, in having almost no instinctual actions— startle reflex, fear of falling, rooting to suckle. We have to learn almost everything; we are infantilized for years and years beyond any other animals. Because of this we can learn such odd concepts as communism, diverse gender identity, equality, intractable resource depletion.... almost anything. As well, I believe, we cannot hear our Spirits and Deities without learning how to which, I also believe, is unique among the animal species. When, in all of the Watership Downs, the Rabbits hear Frith speaking that is another thing (like the digging or not) that just is that way. We must learn to hear the Earth speaking to us and once we do we (alone among animal species) have to deal with other people’s disbelief.
But She does speak to us and we should listen.
is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).