Monday, May 12, 2014

Lessons in Prudence from Watership Down

Watership Down is, as everyone knows, a classic novel by Richard Adams from the 1970s about rabbits.  It is a fantasy much like another great British work, Wind in the Willows.  I give copies to the grandkids to read when they reach the point of being able to grasp most of it -- I think 12 or 13, usually is good -- depending on the individual.  I recently gave a copy to Number 2 granddaughter.  When I bought it, the cashier at B&N, a young lady in her 20s, remarked that it was still her "favorite book ever".  Adams developed the novel from stories he told his daughters as they were driving, and he based it somewhat on his experience as a British soldier in World War II, especially the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands, in which he was a participant.  

The rabbits are presented as inhabiting our world with some realism.  The animals are anthropomorphized to the extent that they possess human-like consciousness along with human reasoning and problem-solving abilities.  They have religion and myths, and they tell stories.  They are small, fast, furry humans without thumbs.  Suspension of belief is quite easy, though, as the book is an immersive, engaging read.

A person can pick up a few concepts for prudent living from Adams' rabbits.  I'll briefly list a few to give you an idea of what I mean.

1) There is a higher power.  Right from the first, one of the heroes of the story, a small rabbit called Fiver, is shown to be a visionary.  His warning about an impending disaster puts the story in motion, and his prophetic insights continue to aid the band throughout their adventures. What human would call Providence is present throughout.

2) Sometimes you have to do things you've not done.  Adams weaves numerous bits of lapine natural history into his tale.  Buck rabbits normally do not do any extensive digging.  Warrens and dens are dug out by does.  Yet there is nothing to keep the bucks from digging effectively and efficiently.  The rabbits that fled under Fiver's warning were all bucks and did decide that they would do something different and dig their own holes.

3) Network with those who might share some common needs and do not present serious threats.  The rabbits made alliances with both a mouse and an injured seagull.  While seagulls might eat a rabbit kitten, they are not a significant enemy of adult rabbits.  Both alliances paid dividends toward the warren’s successful establishment and continuance. 

4) Sort of a corollary to the previous point, community networks easily expand a group’s skill sets.  Since the rabbits lacked tools and technology, the only way to expand their natural abilities was through connections and friendships with other creatures.

5) An alliance must be mutually beneficial, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have the parties on good terms.  An enemy that thwarts one’s enemies doesn’t automatically become one’s friend.  The Watership Down warren benefited from opportune interventions by a fox, a dog, and a thunderstorm.  None of these instruments were friendly to the Watership Down rabbits, but they were opportunities. 

6) Security and safety come with a price – often one too high to be endured.  Our heroes see two instances of this at work.  In the first case, the cost is the sacrifice of the innocent.  In another, the price is excessive discipline and regimentation.  Life and death and struggle are realities.  We are not guaranteed an easy, ideal, stress-free life.  We would all be better off if we could accept loss and failure as part of the tapestry of living.   

7) Speaking of regimentation, if a bit of something is good, a lot of it is not always better.  Wisdom calls us to be disciplined, but the goal of legitimate external discipline such as by parents or military organizations is to develop internalized calmness, self-control and good judgment.  Control by authorities that goes overboard tends to be control simply for the sake of control. 

8) Do not plan to improvise, but do always look for new ways to make use of that which you have at hand. 

9) Related to 8 above, you don’t have to understand all there is to know about something or be able to see exactly how it will end in order to use something to your advantage.  There is a certain amount of risk in any venture.  Remember Donald Rumsfeld talking about the “known unknowns” and all that?  Right from the start there are going to be things that we know we do not know.  We’re going to find out as the dominoes start to fall, but if you insist on knowing beforehand, you may never start.

10) I could probably go on, but ten seems like a good place to wrap it up for now:  It is always important to know your purpose and keep your ultimate goal in mind.  We’ll go directly back to the rabbits here for the example.  Recall that only bucks escaped to establish the new warren on Watership Down.  These were not gay rabbits.  They were living an idyllic existence for some time, but they quickly realized that if the warren was to thrive, they needed does.  A rabbit’s purpose is not to merely survive, but to reproduce and to create an environment where the offspring can prosper.  This overarching goal then drives the rest of the novel’s plot, which is part of what makes the whole believable and entertaining. 

Those of us who believe in the importance of being prepared and able to deal effectively with future events can’t be satisfied with mere survival.  We have to understand that there is a greater goal, the continuance of our families, the preservation of our beliefs and principles, and maintaining liberty.  If we lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing, our efforts will most likely prove futile if not outright detrimental in the end.  

Some of the myths of the rabbits concerning their "folk hero", El-ahrairah, "Prince-With-A-Thousand-Enemies", preserve their lapine wisdom and embody the virtues of rabbits.  It reminds us of the power of myth and folk wisdom and how much we can convey through stories and oral histories.  


  1. "We have to understand that there is a greater goal, the continuance of our families, the preservation of our beliefs and principles, and maintaining liberty."

    Well said.