I recently screened the 1978 movie version of Watership Down to my film club. Strange as it might sound, as I sat at the back of the room, I was the one being affected once again by the conflict in which Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig et al find themselves.
Watership Down is the sort of story that invites multiple readings. This is the tale of nervous rabbit Fiver’s vision of destruction and horror. He manages to convince his brother Hazel and others to leave their warren in order to find a safer home. Their journey is nothing but a peril-ridden adventure. Some of my young charges found a few scenes pretty upsetting.
To me, watching the movie now as an adult, Watership Down symbolises the loss of an identity, human rather than leporid. Roughly half an hour into the film the rabbits are offered shelter in a warren ruled by upper-class-sounding Cowslip. By way of thanking their hosts for their hospitality, Hazel prompts his friend Dandelion to tell a story. The latter chooses the tale of smart El-ahrairah and how he tricks the King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. In the film version the story is never told. Instead Cowslip’s response to Dandelion’s offer is blunt and rather rude, in stark contrast with his earlier politeness. El-ahrairah means nothing to him and his fellow rabbits. He goes on to recite a poem whose main message is that of passivity and being led.
It is clear that for Cowslip the old stories do not matter much. I see parallels between the rabbit’s attitude and the lives we live now. Our human existence has long been underpinned by a system of strong moral values, common to all, regardless of nationality, gender, race, creed or any other identity marker. When they work, these values serve as stable road signs, guiding us through the equivalent of a complicated and labyrinthine traffic grid. When we ignore or misread the signs, we collide with one another, causing damage to others and ourselves in the process.
We are shaped not only by our individual characteristics but also by the communities in which we live. When we lose the power to tell our common story we also lose part of what defines us as humans. No matter to what degree our communities evolve – and they have done a lot, throughout the centuries – at the centre of them there should still be a common shared story.
This is the tale that Dandelion wants to tell but he is not allowed to. Cowslip’s warren, like many others, has lost their common shared story. Their individuality has given way to individualism, a pernicious off-shoot of our complex personalities.
Of course, watching Watership Down also made me think of the current political scene in the UK. Not that Richard Adams would have wanted his creation to be seen as a political allegory. But, we do have a general election next week, Thursday 8th June. Much has been said about the current state of British politics and how it has bred apathy and disengagement. But there is a clear choice for the electorate in my view: on the one hand, that of our common shared story (a free NHS, fair funding for schools and opportunities for small and medium business) and on the other hand, unfettered individualism, the loss of community and the abandonment of our common human story. While Cowslip is asking “Where are you going, stream?” and wants to be taken by it “away in the starlight”, Hazel and co. are already in the process of making a better life for the whole warren. All the time, they are still telling the story of El-ahrairah and how he tricked King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. This is the strong and stable narrative I crave as a human being. Not the robotic, predictable, lifeless and dull individualism that presents itself as the future. Any future we build will still need stories to be told.
Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 7th June at 6pm (GMT)