‘Watership Down’ and the Crisis of Liberalism
Like the rabbits the late-modern liberal world is caught between a comfortable decadence and a totalitarian alternative
Adams’ novel offers a portrait of a political founding, the establishment of a new homeland by a band of rabbit adventurers
When a newspaper columnist wants to write about a novel, the rule is that you’re supposed to have a “hook,” an excuse, a timely reason to bring up the book in question. Maybe an anniversary-of-publication, maybe an authorial death, maybe a Nobel Prize. I have none of those for this column, but I think my hook is better: I’m writing about “Watership Down” because I’m reading Richard Adams’ 1972 novel to my daughters, and in that reading I’ve decided that the book has real relevance to the crisis of the liberal order in the Western world.
Comes the reply: You mean the book about the … rabbits?
Yes, I do, and that frequency of that reply is another reason for this column. Adams’ novel was a huge bestseller in its day, it’s been the basis for an animated movie and a recent Netflix miniseries, and it’s obviously well-regarded and much-loved. But I find that many educated people who pride themselves on being cultural completists (whether that means the whole of Shakespeare or the entirety of Harry Potter) haven’t read the book, and indeed have a mild allergy to the idea: Perhaps because they assume it’s just too childish, too Beatrix Potter or Brambly Hedge, or perhaps because they’ve seen a snatch of one of the adaptations and can’t quite take seriously rabbits arguing with one another in actorly English accents.
To these doubters I offer varying suggestions. The anthropologically inclined can approach the book as a portrait of a lost hominid subspecies, complete with its own mythology and linguistic tics, and gradually accustom themselves to the references to hind legs, ears and burrows. The religious can just approach it as an extended parable. The ecologically minded can come for the very English style of environmentalism, the lyrical depiction of the natural world, the evocation of nature’s harsh harmonies and the dissonant cruelty of humankind.
But really the reader should just come for an exercise in epic storytelling — Odyssean adventure and Aeneidan dramaturgy — that exceeds most modern imitations of the classics. One of the virtues of reading a narrative aloud, to children or indeed to anyone, is the way that vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion that you try to keep from your voice (because you don’t want your kids to think their dear dad is too emotional) but that bleeds through in spite of everything. And with a hundred pages to go I can already tell that when I get to the climax of “Watership Down,” I’m going to be a wreck.
So what about the political relevance, you ask? Well — and the spoilers begin here — essentially Adams’ novel offers a portrait of a political founding, the establishment of a new homeland by a band of rabbit adventurers who escape from a doomed warren when one of their number, a mystic named Fiver, has a vision of its destruction at the hands of developers. But that founding doesn’t happen in a vacuum; instead the band of rabbits engage with two very different warrens, two alternative models of political order, on their path to making a new order of their own.
The first warren, where they briefly try to settle, appears at first to be idyllic. The rabbits are sleek and well-fed, they have plenty of space (the burrows are oddly underpopulated), the lands around are completely clear of predators (“elil” in Adams’ rabbit tongue, Lapine), and best of all the local farmer just tosses leftover produce in the fields.
But soon it becomes clear that this warren has shed all the rabbit-y virtues, cunning and daring and courage and mischief, in favor of odd imitations of human culture — attempted sculptures, existentialist poetry. Its denizens are bored or irritated by tales of adventure and heroism; they cultivate a condescending skepticism about El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster-prince of legend; they seem comfortable and smug and yet subtly depressed. And then comes the revelation: Both the absence of predators and the presence of food is the work of the local farmer, who protects the rabbits from normal harms while trapping and killing a consistent percentage for their pelts and meat — a dark bargain the warren has learned to live with by building a sophisticated system of denial, a culture of pleasure and of death.
This warren is an appealing-seeming snare from which the book’s questing heroes ultimately slip free. The next alternative, Efrafa, is a totalitarian prison house: Instead of surrendering an essential rabbitness for the sake of ease and safety, Efrafa’s dictator, the terrifying and omnicompetent General Woundwort, deals with the enmity of men and predators by running a police state, one that keeps its rabbits underground and regimented, trains the strongest bucks to fight and rule and dominate, denies any agency to the warren’s females, and refuses diplomacy and cooperation with fellow rabbits as much as with any other creature. The rabbit heroes first approach Efrafa seeking to recruit does, to enable their fledgling warren to survive; by the end of the book, they’re engaged in a death struggle with Woundwort that requires all their own political virtues to survive.
Those virtues are distributed among different rabbits: Along with Fiver’s prophet, there is the statesman-leader Hazel; the soldier-fighter Bigwig; the thinker-inventor Blackberry; the storyteller Dandelion; and more. And what makes the regime the rabbits are founding good — and successful, but first and foremost good — is the integration of the different virtues, the cooperation of their different embodiments, their willing subordination to one another as circumstances require.
The military hero, Bigwig, could have been a Woundwort in a different dispensation; instead he willingly bends to the statesman, Hazel, who lacks his strength and fearlessness but exceeds him in foresight and guile. Hazel in turn defers to Fiver’s gift of prophecy, his religious genius, which is why the band escapes disaster in the first place (their original warren’s leader is a talented statesman, but fatally dismissive of the religious and mystical) and why it ultimately succeeds in founding and sustaining a new regime.
Meanwhile, the other virtues — invention, lore keeping, even comedy — play supporting roles as needed, and nobody claims the wrong sort of authority. (The keenest intellect, for instance, neither aspires to nor is vested with the greatest power; note well, meritocrats.) Out of this collaboration a regime emerges that is rebuke to both the grim alternatives, with a mixture of hierarchy and liberty that works with the grain of rabbitness instead of seeking a corrupt comfort or an impossible level of security.
The spoilers are over; now let’s return to the late-modern liberal world, and consider our own discontents in the light of the contrast that Adams draws between his newly founded warren and its rivals.
Somewhere near the root of those discontents is a fear that the kind of balanced and virtuous society — simultaneously mystical and practical, orderly and free — that the rabbits build in “Watership Down” has slipped somehow from our grasp, or else was always just a myth. In which case we are left to choose between its darker rivals, between a comfortable decadence in which virtue erodes and the reaper beckons, or else some variant on Efrafa’s totalitarian alternative.
Which option you choose depends on which destination you fear most. One anxiety in the Western world right now, palpable on both the right and the left, is that the plush, end-of-rabbit-history warren is liberalism’s dystopian destination: a sleek and fattened inhumanity, a terrible mix of comfort and cruelty, a loss of basic human goods under the pressure of capitalism or secularism or both.
The other anxiety, dominant in the embattled liberal center, is that the people who want more than what modernity is currently delivering — whether they’re socialists or populists or integralists or something else entirely — are in various ways really just interested in building up Efrafa: either a literal police state with strongmen and zealously guarded borders and tight control of reproduction, a Gilead or Fortress Europe, or else a police state of the imagination, with ideological commissars ever on patrol.
But there is a way out of both anxieties, toward the hope of something more human and humane than these two fearful destinations. No reader of “Watership Down,” and few readers of the literary and political traditions on which its narrative depends, would accept that totalitarianism and decadence exhaust the available political alternatives. Indeed the novel is compelling precisely because its new-founded warren, its good regime, is remarkable yet also homely, its founders heroic and also ordinary, with nothing utopian or superhuman or impossible about them.
The ultimate political teaching of Adams’ deeply political epic, then, is an unfashionable optimism about the ends of politics — in which the genuinely good society, the well-ordered regime, is not a utopia but a live possibility, a hard thing to find but one worth going out to seek. Which is a timeless message, but for our era a timely one, for those with ears — long or short — to hear.
Ross Douthat is a coilumnist with the New York Times