Watership Down: the significance of Cowslip

A yellowish book cover with the words "Watership Down" and the author's name "Richard Adams" on it, with a drawing of two rabbits among some bushes.In today’s Guardian, there is a piece by Giles Fraser about what might be the significance of the book Watership Down, whose author Richard Adams died earlier this week. Focusing on the part of the story where the migrant rabbits are briefly taken into Cowslip’s warren, where the rabbits had ready supply of vegetables (flayrah), are uninterested in the old stories of El-Ahrairah, the “prince of a thousand enemies”, that they knew and regularly were caught in snares, Fraser cites an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, who opined that story “contained an important message about the relationship between stories and moral values; that Adams’ rabbits – like human beings – are shaped into a community by the power of the stories they tell each other. And these stories are the bearers of our moral values”. This leads me to wonder how closely he or Fraser read the book.

Cowslip’s warren was essentially a supply of wild rabbit meat for a nearby farmer; farmers normally apply pesticides to keep rabbits from eating their crops (and it’s quite legal to shoot them also), but he wanted well-fed rabbits. As they no longer had to stray far from the warren to find food - far enough to attract foxes or badgers, or to take a risk crossing a road, the stories Adams had the wild rabbits telling each other no longer had any meaning, though they had a statue (or ‘shape’) of El-Ahrairah on the wall of the warren. However, the rabbits were aware of the danger but lived in denial, which is why anyone who asked where another rabbit was was quickly interrupted - the likely answer was that the rabbit in question was lunch. The Cowslip rabbits did in fact have poets, “beautiful and sick” like the others as Fiver, the runt rabbit who had persuaded the migrants to leave the original warren which was about to be destroyed for a housing development, called them, but they were not telling stories that were about survival. So, the lack of interest in storytelling was not the cause of their situation but a symptom; the refusal to help Bigwig when he was caught in a snare was another (though in fact this often happens when rabbits are under threat, as seen in this BBC video in which a rabbit is run down and killed by a stoat which is a fraction of its size).

Is there a political message in Watership Down? Adams always said there wasn’t, that it was a book intended to entertain his daughters. A lot of kids’ books are set in real places, but Watership Down is written in very adult language (complete with swear words) and most books aimed purely at children don’t come with a detailed map and aren’t based on serious research into the habits of the animals featured. The most important encounter the migrant rabbits had was not with the Cowslip warren but with Efrafa, the overcrowded police-state warren where most rabbits never saw daylight but were more likely to die of old age than of predation or disease. It was the 70s and comparisons with communism are inevitable, but the idea that a heavily controlled environment might make someone safer but might result in them having not much of a life is applicable to a lot of other situations - the lot of disabled or mentally-ill people in institutions, for example - whether or not Adams was thinking of you. It would also be easy to read a very conservative message into the book, that nature is as it is, “red in tooth and claw” and that the same applies to humans; whatever we do to improve life for everyone, if it means people can’t do what they want and when, is the start of a slippery slope to totalitarianism, the start of a “road to serfdom”.

I don’t think Watership Down is a political fable like Animal Farm. It’s more of a celebration of freedom in general, and of the “great outdoors”, of nature, of wildlife, and no doubt the stories would have brought the scenery to life on a long, slow journey to the West Country but it would also have encouraged people to get out there more and to take more notice of what they saw when they did. Like rabbits, people (and children especially) need to have the freedom to run around and play, to imagine, to live life, and being cooped up is no life.

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