Saturday 3 June 2017

Thoughts in Progress

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 askingWhere 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.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 7th June at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting thoughts and review. Greetings!

  2. An emphatic YES from here.
    We need stories. To remember them, and to create new ones.

  3. I wish you all luck on your election outcome. A united country would be nice.

  4. Sure need tales to be told, preferably some new and not just remake 50 of old. Been a while since I watched Watership Down.

  5. Definitely! And I wish you nothing but the best for the election, dear friend.

  6. Human creatures are very much alike in many ways, but also are very much different in many ways. For instance, there are more than thirty-four thousand separate Christian groups in the world, most of which are independent, and about one thousand believe themselves to be the only true Christian denomination.

    People often strive for compromise when it comes to religion and political systems, but it seems to me in a world with divisions such as those that exist, somewhere there must be a distinct, third method which offers a system that goes beyond individualism vs. community.

    I never have read the book or seen the film you write about, CiL, but I have read a bit of Rudyard Kipling, and, as he once noted: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

    Maybe, maybe not ....

  7. Hi ACIL - what a pertinent post ... I've never seen the film - but obviously need to. And I'll be back to read again ... after last night we will need to be more compassionate and loving - and we need to tell these stories and remind ourselves of what could be, while we craft new ones ... and bring peace to our world ... Hilary

  8. Oh joy. You've give me a good reason to re-read the book!

  9. I have never read the book nor seen the film, perhaps I should remedy that. Oh, if only changing the world was as easy as reading a book.

  10. The tears start flowing just thinking about Watership Down!

  11. I love this post so much, as we seem to be living it world-wide these days. I note that apparent loss of societal norms and morals that we felt so strongly once, and which seems to have abandoned us in terms of leadership, though it is still strongly felt individually. An interesting discourse that I enjoyed reading. Thank you.

  12. I've been meaning to watch this movie or read the book for a very long time. My wife has recommended it to me and adores it but I've just never picked it up for some reason.

  13. Sounds very interesting. I should read again the book.
    Good luck for the election... and, unfortunately, again, condolences!

  14. "Watership Down," the book, is fabulous. But as a child I found the movie quite terrifying. That scene of the destruction of the warren will stay with me always!

    I think Richard Adams DID mean it as political allegory -- wasn't General Woundwort a sort of fascist leader?

    Anyway, I certainly agree with your conclusions. I wish I could vote this week, but alas, I'm not a British voter -- yet!

  15. I really need to read Watership Down again

  16. I remember reading "Watership Down" when it first came out and enjoying immensely. I never got around to seeing the film, so I think I'll give it a look. And you're so right--we need stories to build the future.

  17. I'm adding this to my list to read.

    BTW, Cuban...I'm in London and woke up to the terrible news on my first morning. So sorry and sad about this happening in your beautiful city.

  18. Por eso tendríamos que ver mas películas de sentimientos con valores humanos y menos de violencia ya que es lo que abunda en todos los estrenos y son las mas populares.
    Bonita reflexión.
    Feliz semana.

  19. It felt wonderful to re-visit Watership Down and have things explained. I find it difficult to believe that I read the novel in the early days of high school. I have, literally, no memory of it except of being sort of creeped out as I never got into dystopian literature. I'm thinking, though, that I should re-read the book and perhaps even watch the movie. Thank you, Cuban!

  20. I'm not familiar with that book or movie but I've certainly heard about it. You've peaked my interest to check it out on kindle.

  21. I'm not familiar with that book or movie but I've certainly heard about it. You've peaked my interest to check it out on kindle.

  22. Oh joy. You've give me a good reason to re-read the book!


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