The Book of Heroic Rabbits

October 4, 2010 § 2 Comments


Watership Down (Adams, Richard)

Portrait of the Young Bunny as a Hero (courtesy: http://www.poster555.com)

It is said that Richard Adams had plenty of trouble finding a publisher for Watership Down. The manuscript was rejected repeatedly – either 7 or 13 times, depending on source – before Rex Collings finally picked it up in 1972. It then proceeded to become a runaway hit around the world, was hailed as an all-time classic and has never gone out of print ever since. One possible reason for the multiple rejections is that Watership Down is not a conventional children’s book. Any sensible publishing firm would look for predictable profitability and so be tempted to stick to well-beaten paths, and the plot and characters of this book simply don’t fit into the standard formulae of the Children’s Literature genre. Actually, this may be the reason for its resounding success, as well.

On the other hand, what other genre can Watership Down belong to? It features the adventures of a bunch of rabbits. Who talk. As do other assorted characters, including a sea gull, a cat and the odd mouse or two. But the rabbits exhibit other human characteristics as well, beyond language: courage, fear, cruelty, shame, anger, embarrassment, jealousy, greed, loyalty, friendship, sympathy, kindness and magnanimity, and this allows us to read other meanings into the story.

It can be read, for instance, as political allegory (a la Animal Farm), contrasting the democratic traditions of the Watership Down rabbits with the totalitarianism of the rival warren in Efrafa. I am also sure there must be corporate motivational programs somewhere that use this book as a handbook of leadership styles and techniques – I’ve seen worse. I’m looking directly at you, Who Moved My Cheese,  but I am also thinking about scores of movies and books invoked by management development programs to hammer home their points. Or, horror of horrors, it could be read as mystical self-development stuff, of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull ilk. But mainly, I think, Adams meant to write a plain old Saga, in the classical sense of the term: a semi-mythological narrative about the adventures of a hero.

A speaker at a sales convention I once attended several years ago, said something that has remained with me for a long time, long after I have forgotten the context in which he said it, or indeed, what the point of the whole convention was. What he said was this: legends of heroism, like children’s books published by conservative publishers, follow certain set, conventional paths. Whether it is the Odyssey, the Ramayana, The Song of Roland, the Lord of the Rings, or for that matter, several thousand mainstream Hollywood movies from the Guns of Navarone to Slumdog Millionaire to Finding Nemo, they have in common a Four Step Process:

  1. Exile, or the Launch of a Quest. The Hero is On his Own, Laughed At, Cast Out, Jilted, Disbelieved, and Set an Impossible Goal
  2. The Hero is Miserable, and when He plumbs Rock Bottom and life can’t get worse, he is joined by a few Friends, a collection of companions who have different, complementary strengths; some are Strong, some are Wise, some are Funny, and all are Loyal to The Hero, and Believe in Him. Hope is born.
  3. Using said Friends and their steadfast Support, and liberal dollops of the aforementioned Hope, The Hero then comes up with an Audacious Plan and has a few Small Successes along the way, until He runs up against The Final Obstacle, which leads to The Climactic Crisis of the story
  4. The Hero resolves Crisis by a unique combination of Plan, Friends, Hope and sheer Bloodyminded Personality, thereby achieving Impossible Goal, and returning Home in Triumph. The End.

Why do all legends of heroism have this in common? Is it is because our brains are, in some way, hardwired to find them inspiring, like sequences of musical notes that we are programmed to find melodious? Is it because most of the people we call heroes in real life, and would like to emulate, have lives that roughly fit that pattern? Or is it just that it makes for sound common sense from a survival point of view: if you are, for some reason, set impossible goals and cast out into the cold, you could do a lot worse than to look around for trusted friends who can help you, and start working on some kind of a crazy plan. I am sure evolutionary psychology has much to say on the subject.

Whatever the reason, Watership Down is a tale cut from the very same cloth, and apart from its rather incongruous setting in a world of talking rabbits, it is only recognizable as a children’s book by the fact that real tragedy always threatens but never really strikes, in the story. The friends stay together through thick and thin, many get hurt but nobody dies till the very end, and no matter how great the danger and how insuperable the odds, the good guys prevail, every time. Now that, unmistakably, is fairy tale territory.

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