Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Watership Down: a sinister scenario

There is an episode in Richard Adams’s Watership Down that made me feel very uncomfortable when I first read the book and still affects me negatively some decades later. I now see this book is much more than an entertaining story about the adventures of some fictional rabbits: it has many relevancies to real life.

The nomads meet a settlement of eerie, unnatural rabbits
A band of wandering rabbits is seeking a new home because of a predicted disaster. They find a promising looking field then discover that it is already inhabited by other rabbits. The existing occupants are large, sleek and healthy and seem very prosperous. They are not hostile: they are unexpectedly welcoming and invite the newcomers to join them, saying that there is plenty of spare room in the warren.

Fiver, a member of the travelling band who is psychically gifted, advises his companions to have nothing to do with the place and its inhabitants. He says they should all leave at once. The rabbits are under the unofficial leadership of Fiver’s brother Hazel, who despite the warning decides to accept the strangers’ hospitality and leads his band down into the warren. The others start to mingle and settle in, but Fiver sits alone and apart, apparently ill or very much depressed. The new rabbits avoid him instinctively.

Hazel soon notices that there is something strange about their new 
hosts. For example, they are evasive: they do not like questions that begin with ‘Where?’ and desperately interrupt and change the subject. They do not ask the newcomers anything about their lives and journey. They seem very sad below the surface, and to always have something on their minds. The number of rabbits in the colony seems surprisingly low: the warren is under-populated and has many empty burrows.

The life seems good at first: there is ample food including carrots, which are a luxury, and no predators. Fiver however is unhappier then ever: he thinks that there is something sinister behind the fact that food is being left out in the field for the rabbits by a farmer and refuses to eat any of it. He says that there is something unnatural and evil twisted all around the place. He is close to understanding what it is, but he is not quite there yet. He believes that sitting alone outside the warren might help him to reach the answer.

Fiver has also been staying above ground at night, despite the rain, cold and danger, because of his horror of the place and its inhabitants. There is one rabbit in particular who affects him very badly: he is a poet called Silverweed, who appears wild and desperate. Fiver feels so bad that he decides to leave the area, by himself if no one will believe him. Hazel decides to accompany him so they can talk. At this, the rabbit Bigwig loses his temper and turns furiously on Fiver.

Bigwig calls Fiver a wretched little black beetle who is spoiling everything for everyone. From his limited viewpoint, he is quite right: they have found a fine warren and got into it without having to fight, and now the life of one of the best rabbits is being risked because of Fiver. In fairness, Bigwig and his companions have not yet heard that Fiver’s prediction of some disaster back home has come true.

Bigwig rushes off to tell the others what is happening, and gets caught in a wire snare. This brings everything to a head, and shows how right Fiver was. The warren rabbits don’t want to know about the disaster: they refuse to come and help free Bigwig. Once his companions have released him, some of them decide to return to the warren and drive out or kill the cowards who left Bigwig to die, so Hazel and his band can have the warren all to themselves.

Fiver, who has finally understood what is going on, calls them fools and tells them that the snare explains everything.

The explanation for the warren rabbits’ bizarre behaviour
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Fiver is quite right when he says that the place is full of evil.

e tells the others that the local farmer is feeding and protecting the warren rabbits from predators so that he can cull them regularly himself, surreptitiously by snaring rather than openly by shooting which might drive them away. The warren rabbits know what is happening: this is why there is a strict rule that no one must ever ask where someone is. Anyone who openly mentions the wires must be killed. Each rabbit lives at the expense of another: Hazel and his band were welcomed because each new rabbit increases the chance that a warren rabbit will live longer. Fiver gives reasons for other things that the warren rabbits have said and done. Everything fits.

They decide to leave the doomed warren behind and move on. One of the warren rabbits begs them to let him go with them: his doe has just been snared.

A conspiracy theorist interpretation of this scenario
The warren rabbits are being farmed for their meat and fur. Someone who believes that the human race is property, that people are being farmed for negative emotions such as fear and pain, may see the story as a metaphor for their theories about the human condition. We are to the energy farmers what the warren rabbits are to the man who culls them. 

The warren rabbits are magnificent, elegant, almost aristocratic; they are excellent physical specimens of rabbithood. They could be likened to today’s glamorous ‘celebrities’, glittering stars who can afford the best clothes, products and lifestyles and to hire people to perform all kinds of services for them but who are a mess inside and are said by some people to be abused, mind-controlled slaves and hostages.

A cult-related interpretation of this scenario
This story helps to explain why some cult members encourage others to join despite knowing how awful the life inside is. It helps to spread the load of suffering. The more people there are, the less likely a particular individual is to be singled out.

Additionally, getting others to join a cult helps to corrupt, disarm and destroy people whose freedom, personal qualities and different viewpoints demonstrate that there are other and better ways to live, thus making them a threat to the cult’s status quo. Assimilate and indoctrinate if possible; ignore, belittle, shun or drive away if not; if absolutely necessary attack and attempt to destroy.

The warren rabbit who defects resembles the rare cult member who will escape if and when a suitable opportunity presents itself.

The way the warren rabbits deal with awkward question is very true to life. Someone who defected from a cult-like political organisation said that it was standard practice to interrupt anyone who asked difficult questions or raised unwelcome points by immediately changing the subject and talking very quickly about something else. I experienced this myself when I wanted to discuss some negative things I had learned about this organisation.

A socio-political interpretation of this scenario
The story could be interpreted as a criticism or condemnation of the welfare state. There is a price for getting handouts, things you haven’t earned and didn’t work for. The farmed rabbits are at the mercy of the farmer who is providing for them. They are soft: they have no initiative, no survival skills and they have little ability to fight and defend themselves. The free rabbits demonstrate the positive effects of independence. The passive warren rabbits say that they just need dignity and the will to accept their fate.

A psychological interpretation of this scenario
The warren rabbits in some ways resemble members of a dysfunctional family, one with a lot of abuse going on below the surface. They live in denial, under a poison cloud and in great sadness; the sword of Damocles hangs always over them. They carry on with their lives ‘as if’, in the face of a huge elephant in the room. The unwritten rules about what must not be mentioned and the vicious attacks on people who raise forbidden topics are their way of defending the first domino.

Fiver and Bigwig
Fiver is small and not the best in his group when it comes to activities such as digging, fighting, organisation and leadership, but he has useful talents that the others do not. He is a seer who has visions and the ability to pick up and understand unseen influences. He is spot on with his insights and predictions.

I believe that some people provide an early warning system, rather like the canaries that were taken down coal mines to detect the presence of toxic gas: men knew they should evacuate the pit as soon as the birds showed signs of distress.

Unfortunately, humans who detect impending danger and suffer in the presence of evil may be rejected, punished or persecuted for their gifts. Fiver is actually blamed for endangering the good start with the warren rabbits by his avoidant behaviour and refusal to participate in their life. However, he earns the trust of his companions by making true predictions, and they support and protect him.

Fiver’s experiences remind me of episodes in my own life. I have often reacted very strongly and negatively to some people and situations, only to be criticised, accused of various prejudices or ignored. I have been treated as crazy, stupid, a criminal and a traitor for sensing things that others do not and speaking some home truths.

I have been freaked out by some people, much as Fiver was by the poet Silverweed: I just had to get away from them.  I know what it feels like to be miserable and depressed because of sensing that something is horribly wrong, but not knowing what it is. I know that when the problem seems just out of reach, lurking on the threshold of consciousness, you can indeed get closer to it by spending time alone and constantly thinking about it.

Bigwig is big, strong and brave. He is not at all a bad sort: he is a good fighter with a down to earth personality. He prefers action to ideas. He is very loyal to Hazel and his companions benefit enormously from his presence in the group. He is just not aware of undercurrents and evil vibes: he is not sensitive to atmospheres and does not understand the metaphysical aspects of life.

Bigwig can be overbearing, a bit of a bully. He is not very tolerant of Fiver’s ‘funny feelings’. He is impatient with and speaks roughly to Fiver. It is very unwise to attack some people and make them feel pushed into a corner.

It may be just a coincidence that of all the rabbits in the band it is Bigwig who gets caught in the wire, and this just shortly after getting very angry with and threatening Fiver.