Thursday, July 5, 2007

Watership Down: "It's about bunnies."

After much thought, and more thought, and some research, and some semi-absurd surprisingly long discussion, I am still confused about the extent of the relationship between Watership Down and our old trusty show. It's not that I don't think it has to do with LOST- I do think it relates. But just how is another matter...Lostpedia gives some basic points and the LOST Community is doing a book club which very recently put together an in-depth podcast on the bunnies. Check it out! The book first showed up in 1x08-Confidence Man, as Sawyer reads it on the beach. Boone had been reading it on the plane (aw, Boone), and Sawyer took it from his luggage. He's also seen reading it in 3x15: Left Behind. Geez, Sawyer, finish it already.
In the meantime, we've seen plenty of bunnies and bunny books and so forth: the White Rabbit episode, Ben's #8 Bunny, Of Mice+Men, and Alice In Wonderland. So, here goes.

Watership Down is the story of a group of male rabbits who leave their warren to join or form a new warren in a safer place. They're not sure when they set out. They decided to leave on the advice of Fiver, a runtish type with some unexplainable connection to the rest of the natural world. There are some inevitable and interesting hurdles: they spend some time in a spooky new-agey warren,which it turns out, is being provided for, and taken from, by a farmer who lets the warren grow but takes rabbits for food at his leisure by way of a fencing system (hello, electric fence thing). When they get out of that mess, they establish a happy warren on Watership Down, and start making friends with the surrounding wildlife, most notably helping a wounded gull named Kehaar, who in turn will help them. With what? Why with getting does and procreating of course!

The climatic conflict of the book is their infiltration of the Efrafa warren. Efrafa is run by General Woundwort, a rough sort who rules with an Iron Fist, organizing his warren in a military fashion with groups of rabbits who patrol so that no one can get in or out of the warren's lands. The warren is well-provided for and well-guarded, but sort of miserable-some does are unable to have babies (hello, baby theme!) because they are so unhappy, and the Watership Down guys are doing them a service by taking them. So they take some does, by seemingly supernatural means (at least to the Efrafran rabbits): they enlist Kehaar to attack and confuse the Efrafrans and they escape in a boat! Eventually, though, Woundwort follows them back to Watership to retrieve (and punish) his errant does. Our heroes fight him and his thugs off through sheer will and another trick--A dog released from a nearby farm. Then they settle down, a bit worse for the wear, but able to have babies and have a happy, more or less utopian (in a not creepy sense) existence.

So here's the party line, which I think is great in some ways. The Losties are Fiver's gang, they're trying to start a new, better life that is safe. There are differences of personality and of talent within the group as there are in the Downies. Fiver especially, with his intense connection to the natural world (which leads to his premonition about the doom of their previous warren) could be compared to Walt, Desmond, or my favorite candidate, Locke...(since he's most deeply connected to the island, not to the general psychic world). Other rabbits are good leaders (Hazel), good problem-solvers (Blackberry), good strong-armers (Bigwig), etc. They have to learn to work together, and they manage to succeed by making the Right Choices. I can pretty much get behind this.

The general consensus is that The Others are the Efrafans, and Ben is more or less of a Woundwort figure, ruling with an Iron Fist, somewhat militaristically, dispatching his minions at his will, telling them only as much as is necessary, punishing them harshly if they try to leave, and making some of them (like ol' Juliet) just plain miserable and eager to get the hell out. In the end, Woundwort's choice to flex his own military muscle outweighs what's really best for his people, and does him in. Will Ben's?

Ok, I think this works. Or I think it worked pretty darn well, before the events of the last few episodes of Season 3 went down. So I will propose two alternate theories. My first theory, dismissed by my blog colleague to some extent, is that the book was introduced early enough that the extent of the Other's evilness wasn't quite fleshed out. This book expertly hints at the problems of society-building that the Losties were going to encounter in a somewhat general sense (with great nods to breeding, psychic, and supernatural themes and their later importance) but maybe it doesn't predict the show arc, which may not end so simply. Which is fine with me.

My alternate theory is fairly crackpot, but I need to say it because other fans haven't, to my knowledge. I don't think that Ben is like Woundwort, and I don't think that the Others are Efrafa. For one, Ben is a Trickster, not a General..he's vicious, sure, but as of the end of Season 3, I think there's something to his pleas of being the "good guy". For another, it seems like the Others have some higher purpose, and I found Efrafa so depressing because they seemed so regimented and ordered and banal like the real world, which the Others lives don't. Furthermore, the Others more or less initiate contact, not the Losties, just as the Downies, not the Efrafans, are the infiltrators. Its really tough for me to parse out who is who.

And here's where my hypothesis gets screwy: I think if the Others can be tied to anybody, its the farm-fed warren with the inexplicable customs and self-delusion (which is what the Dharma Initiative turned out to be, in a way). The Watership Down warren ends up integrating some members of that warren, some rabbits from the nearby farm, and some of the Efrafans, who all bind together to defeat Woundwort. Just as I think the Losties are in the process of binding together with nominal Dharma-ites (Desmond), and Others like Juliet, Alex and Carl, and seeming foreigners to both groups like Danielle (who's been compared to Keehar)...against some Big Bad who is bigger, a lot bigger, as in the whole world bigger, than Ben. SO...I think its Widmore and Co. But I am pretty big on this Corporations are the Bad Guy thread of Lost. So ....There you have it. They're up against The Man.

So what about the storytelling? Glad you asked! What I loved most about Watership Down was not the society-building, but the importance of stories both as history and as religion. W.D. has interludes of El-ahrairah, legends of the trickster rabbit who all living rabbits looks up to. The book is careful to make note of the different ways these stories are told in different warrens as indicators of how they operate, and also to make clear their continued relevance to the values and actions of the Downs warren. The ending of the book is by far my favorite part. Our heroes hear their stories being told to baby rabbits, with a little exaggeration, as legends of the rabbit god...and in the very end, Hazel, the chief rabbit, old and content, hops off into the bunny afterlife without a great deal of fanfare.

Also, Richard Adams lays bare the importance of Watership Down as a social allegory and as influenced by other stories of society building, by way of quotes from philosophers, Shakespeare, Robin Hood, and so on.

At the risk of sounding way too entranced with Lost (who, me?) I think it has a similar reverence for the value of storytelling as a transmitter of values and of history, since LOST itself is very complicated storytelling with an important in-show mythology! Like Watership Down, too, it makes clear its debt to other stories and societal ideas by naming them or showing them--By featuring what Sawyer reads, it reminds us what it owes to other stories, and what maybe someday other stories will someday owe to it.

Next up: Rainbow Six (ugh) and A Wrinkle in Time (hm). Hooray!

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