When I was in seminary in Gettysburg, PA, I was fortunate to hang out occasionally with the head of the Philosophy Department at Gettysburg College, Norm Richardson -- a man of enormous generosity, fabulous learning, down-to-earth sensibilities (and impeccable progressive credentials). He was fond of suggesting readings and of hosting viewings of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. (Don't get me started on his mistreatment of the Reformation!) One day, he enthusiastically urged me to read a relatively new novel out of Britain, which he said he read once or twice a year. I was a little taken aback by his suggestion, for it was an animal fable, and that seemed a little less than highfalutin' philosophy. But he insisted that it was both a really good "read" and a study in politics, ethics, psychology, and much more.
He was right.
The book is Watership Down, by Richard Adams, originally published in 1972 (I was able to buy a first American edition, so it was around '73 or '74 that I first read it). It deals with the trials and triumphs of a group of rabbits -- yes, rabbits -- who leave their home warren in search of more secure digs (literally!). And Prof. Richardson was right: It contains everything. The rabbits must learn community; they must identify each other's talents and learn to trust them; they must adapt to new circumstances; they must take steps to continue the community (since all the original characters are bucks, they must secure does if the community is to survive). Adams very persuasivly anthropomorphizes the rabbits, without giving up the sense that they really are rabbits, though, and really could think this way.
He establishes a short Lapine vocabulary (with a helpful glossary at the back). And he invents a fantastic (in two senses) mythology for the rabbits. There is Frith, the one who plants the sun and determines the future; their is El-ahrairah, the great exemplar, forbear of the race; there is the Black Rabbit, death and doom incarnate. And he invents narratives of the mythology that the rabbits listen to and integrate to guide their decision making.
The rabbits, though essentially gentle and peaceful, must fight off predators and make war. So there is high drama and a fine sense of adventure.
This book has it all.
I'm reading it right now for a book group -- at my suggestion -- and so I've re-read it for the tenth time or so. (With my memory, it's almost like reading anew every time.) But each time I read it I get a little more juiced by it. And my enthusiasm was enhanced when I ran across an old book by Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, the first chapter of which is a celebration of Watership Down as both a great adventure tale and a parable of the Christian life.
Hauerwas' point, which seems more than adequately supported by even a cursory reading of the novel, is that the story demonstrates or incarnates the truth that communities are structured around narrative -- around stories of their past -- that give them insight into who they are and where they came from. From those insights emerge wisdom for moving forward and deciding how to live and what to do now. Narratives create community of [people/rabbits?] (not simply the conglomeration of individuals (contrary to the Western liberal model -- and here I think that Hauerwas' hobby horse, antiliberalism/anti-Enlightenment, is both so accurate and so cautionary), who are able to speak the truth to one another and to hear the truth from each other, to support each other, to take risks for their mutual well-being (with hope that the final outcome is not in their hands), to receive strangers as gifts which may require adaptation to new situations.
I was able to glean some of that from my own reading, but reading Hauerwas' essay was just terribly helpful. (I am also reading a book by one of Hauerwas' PhD students, William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, and I am struck by how they two -- 20 years apart -- make some of the same points about how imagination guides our lives and how we must carefully determine which "imaginative" construct we want to be guided by.)
Watership Down is a great book. (I don't ascribe "greatness" lightly: I was once involved with the Great Books Foundation, in Chicago, so "great book" carries gravitas with me.) It is relatively easy to read; it is exciting -- even frightening at times; thought-provoking. And it is enhanced by Hauerwas' analysis.
I recommend them both to you.
I also invite you to join me in celebrating the life and career of this "ship who passed me in the night" -- Professor Richardson -- who was a very fine teacher, beloved of his students, and courteous and generous toward this at-the-time seminarian, exercising on him (me) a life-long influence.