I was watching Watership Down, the animated film last week in mourning for my two bunnies – Moonbun, whom I had to give up after fostering for a semester, and Muffin, who passed away in Australia. It’s a beautiful, brave, witty, wise and sweet film – the kind of children’s film that is pretty rare these days, dealing squarely with themes of death, war, tyranny and loss. But for me this time around it’s about leadership and leading a good life.
The film begins with a witty rabbity creation myth, then it really starts with Fiver and Hazel. Fiver is a little runt rabbit being bullied by the strong in his warren – he’s a tiny, sniveling thing, but he is also a prophet and a seer, disturbed by true visions. Fortunately for Fiver, Hazel, his elder brother, looks out for him and protects him. Hazel is a nobody in the warren – just an average rabbit. But he takes Fiver seriously when Fiver says there is something terrible about to happen in the warren, and they must evacuate or die. Of course, the chief rabbit will have none of it, and Hazel, placing his faith in Fiver’s vision, orchestrates a breakout. Several other rabbits join them, tired of the oppression of the warren’s system, believing in Fiver themselves, or just looking for a bit of adventure. In particular they are joined by Bigwig, a soldier in the Owsla (the soldier caste in rabbit political systems), who is fed up with the warren too – if not for his bravery in confronting his own general, they would never have made it out of the warren. Like Aeneas, Hazel leads his men to found a new warren in an ideal place – Watership Down. But they don’t know where they will find this promised land, they only have Hazel’s visions, Blackberry’s brains, Bigwig’s protection and Hazel’s common sense and mediation to go on.
In Plato’s Republic, Plato speaks of the different parts of society working together as one whole, using the metaphor of the body. This was a tradition that Paul probably picked up when he spoke of the church as Christ’s body – all parts working together as a whole, each equally valuable. Of course, Plato thought that poetry was terrible and dangerous and should be excised from the body altogether, so I don’t entirely agree with him, but he has a point – the different parts of society (government, military, civil society, artists and visionaries) need to work together in order to do anything of use and respond to any kind of crisis, mundane or spectacular. What is the role of leadership in this context? At least from watching Watership Down, I think leadership is the successful mediation between these different parts of the body.
Hazel doesn’t have any one particular gift that is outstanding. He’s of average build, unlike Bigwig, who looks every inch a chief. He’s not as smart as Blackberry, who discovers that wood can float and suggests they make a raft to cross a stream. He doesn’t receive visions like Fiver. But he’s not weak either. He’s calm, and considerate, and wise, and a good listener. He is a rock – solid, constant, utterly dependable. He understands the different kinds of languages that his people communicate in – so he can understand the portents and doom of Fiver’s vocabulary; he can motivate BigWig with militant galvanizing; he can tap into Blackberry’s inventiveness. Because if any one of these other rabbits were the chief rabbit, the new warren would err into one or another kind of tyranny. BigWig is too eager to leave the weak behind when they get to the stream and a dog is after them. Blackberry is clever but he’s not as kind as Hazel decides to be. And as for Fiver –
I have this special soft spot for Fiver, because he is a poet and a dreamer. He understands the power of stories, and evaluates situations in an intuitively analytical way. When the exiles reach a mysterious burrow with many empty warrens where a human feeds them carrots daily, it is Fiver who hears their fatalistic poetry and their rejection of the original rabbit trickster mythology and says, “I’ve had enough!” and leaves, even if he must do it himself. It is only then that Hazel takes him seriously and leaves to find him.
It turns out the warren is surrounded by snares – humans give them carrots in exchange for their deaths. I’m not entirely like Fiver, of course, and I am not always right (!) like he is. But one thing I share with him is a tremulous weakness and the terrible burden of insight, as well as a profound loneliness when no one understands or appreciates it. Fiver’s apocalyptic visions are a blessing and a curse – he is surrounded by death and hurt when he sees them, because sadly, the world is fallen and he sees this. He sees the skull beneath the skin – he can almost touch it when he brings his paws to his own face. He senses danger, but does not have the political power or clout or ability to do anything about it. He is paralyzed by his visions, quite literally convulsing in horror before the final battle when he prophesies about a dog loose in the woods.
If the world had its way, runts like Fiver would have been left in the dust long ago. It is only because of Hazel’s protection that Fiver exists at all – without Hazel, Fiver is as good as dead. He would be starved by the strong in his society; he would be ignored and his spirit crushed by rejection. But Hazel also cannot do without Fiver. Without Fiver, Hazel’s wit and bravery and even his worldly wisdom almost lead him to his own premature death. Realizing they needed does in the new community, he connives to free some domesticated hutch rabbits in a farm without consulting Fiver. (He’s just tired of Fiver being relentless and single-minded and insistent on his own way of doing things). Well, Hazel gets shot in the leg by the farmer for his bravado. This incident reminds me a little of Abram’s lame attempts in Egypt when he pretends Sarai is his sister and pimps her out, or any of Peter’s heartfelt but impulsive/poorly-conceived schemes to protect Jesus. They backfire. But there is space for grace – it is Fiver again, who instinctively knows that Hazel is not dead, because Hazel’s job is not done, who goes out to seek Hazel. His love for his brother makes him brave, and he heads out alone, past hills and dales, to find Hazel’s body, nursing him back to health.
So how does this all come together? Well, it is in the last war that Hazel finally gets the hang of it, and all the rabbits work together with their unique gifts towards saving their warren. The final war is between General Woundwort (a kind of amalgamation of Stalin and Hitler) of the tyrannical Alfalfa Warren and Hazel’s Watership Down. BigWig is sent into Alfalfa as a secret agent, in order to rescue some brave does and other oppressed political prisoners who are being tortured by Woundwort’s henchmen. Because BigWig is big and strong, Woundwort accepts him into his Owsla.
They bring off the escape beautifully by utilizing Blackberry’s idea of escaping on a boat. But Woundwort hounds them to Watership Down, and they are surrounded and outnumbered. Woundwort assumes that BigWig is the chief, and when he comes to the warren in order to confront and destroy it, he ignores Hazel when he runs out of the burrow in order to find the dog Fiver sees in his paralyzing vision. “There’s a dog loose in the woods!” Fiver cries, convulsing. Fiver senses death, but not whose death – he senses danger, but he is so terrified and seized by his vision he can do nothing. It is Hazel who interprets and mediates this vision. Hazel goes to the farmyard where he had seen a dog tied up on a leash. At terrible risk to himself, he sneaks out of the burrow, leaving BigWig and his men to do battle and hold off Woundwort as long as possible. Hazel realizes that he must free the dog into the woods – he is the fulfillment of the prophecy. And yes, he unleashes danger, but he does it with a prayer to Frith, the god of this world – “My life for theirs, Lord,” he says as he runs towards the doghouse, bites through the rope and tears away, leading the dog straight to his own warren.
The dog, it turns out, is their salvation. Because Hazel tears into the secret burrow he had dug, and while General Woundwort is doing bloody one-on-one battle with BigWig, the dog worries Woundwort’s footsoldiers and scatters them. Woundwort is furious! He charges at BigWig, but BigWig stands his ground. “My chief told me to defend this warren to the death!” he says. Woundwort is startled. “Your chief?” – he is suddenly terrified. If this strong general, every inch a chief, is not this warren’s leader, then what kind of terrifying rabbit must he fight now? Woundwort leaps out of the burrow, only to meet head on with the ravenous dog. And like a true megalomaniac, he leaps and attacks the dog one on one –
And it is in this way that Hazel-Rah and his followers establish Watership Down. Hazel-Rah lives to see it prosper, to see it generate little bunnies, and he is satisfied. One fine day, he meets the black rabbit of death, and this time the black rabbit is familiar – he wears Hazel’s own face, and is dear to him. He offers him rest (for he is weary), and a place in his Owsla (for he is brave, an elder among rabbits). Lying down to sleep, Hazel dies a good death, a good and faithful servant.