Watership Down

“Hell of a book. It’s about bunnies.” – James Ford, to Kate Austen in “Confidence Man”

Richard Adams’ Watership Down is certainly a hell of a book. But since Sawyer is far more succinct than I could ever be, I’ll delve a little deeper into it.* Boone originally brought the book to the island in his checked luggage, but we first see Sawyer reading the book in the background in the season one episode House of the Rising Sun. Two episodes later, in Confidence Man, Kate finds the book among Sawyer’s belongings. In this episode, Boone accuses Sawyer of hoarding Shannon’s spare inhalers when he sees him reading his copy of the book. The inhalers were in the same bag as the book so Boone reasons – incorrectly, we later find out – that Sawyer also has the inhalers.

* If you want a shorter review, skip all the way to the last paragraph.

Sawyer indeed must have thought Watership Down was a hell of a book. We later see him re-reading it in the season three episode Left Behind and it is one of the three books on Sawyer’s bookshelf in the season six episode Recon.

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Watership Down is the story of a small group of rabbits and their adventures in starting a new society. The book begins in a medium-sized rabbit warren* filled with generally happy rabbits but subject to a rigid power structure. A chief rabbit makes all the decisions of the warren and a select band of large rabbits called the Owsla enforces them. We first meet an undersized rabbit named Fiver and his bigger brother Hazel. Fiver has some psychic abilities and seems to be able to predict certain events in the future. He has been plagued with visions of the destruction of the warren and convinces Hazel to go with him to meet the Chief Rabbit to try to persuade him to move the warren to another location. Hazel reluctantly agrees to the meeting but the Chief quickly dismisses the suggestion. Despite this, Fiver is able to persuade Hazel and a handful of rabbits (including Bigwig and Silver, two Owsla members) to join them in leaving the warren.

* For those who don’t know much about rabbits, a warren is a series of underground connected burrows that a group of rabbits live in. And you thought there was just a few rabbit holes that they ran into. Learn something new everyday!

Hazel becomes the leader of the group and the merry band of rabbits keeps chugging along, looking for a new home. They come upon a rabbit named Cowslip who takes them back to his warren. The new warren appears to be a Utopian community. There is bountiful food, no predators, and plenty of space. Only Fiver seems to sense something is wrong and pleads with the rabbits to leave the warren. The other rabbits refuse and become members of the new warren. Yet they slowly figure out that something’s off with the warren: it seems oddly empty and certain rabbits occasionally disappear; the older rabbits quickly change the subject whenever one of the new rabbits asks any questions about the warren; and while other warrens tell stories about the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah, these rabbits recite bleak poems filled with dark images of death. When Bigwig narrowly escapes from a snare, the rabbits finally understand what the warren is: a human-created farm used to harvest rabbits. Immediately the rabbits make a break for it, and all fortunately make it out. They are joined by Strawberry, a member of the Utopian warren who just lost his wife to a snare.

Now convinced that Fiver’s visions of the future are accurate, the other rabbits fall in line behind his brother Hazel’s leadership. Eventually the rabbits come to an ideal location at Watership Down and begin constructing a warren. At the new location, they meet up with Captain Holly and Bluebell, two Owsla members from the old warren, who confirm to the rabbits that the warren was gassed by a group of men and very few survived. They also befriend Kehaar, a seagull who injured a wing over the warren and had to come in for a crash landing, and a mouse that Hazel saved from a circling kestrel.

The warren begins to take shape but Hazel remains unsatisfied. He realizes that all of the rabbits in the warren are males and the warren won’t last past a generation without any females. Kehaar volunteers to circle the areas around the warren looking for other groups of rabbits. He finds a small hutch in a nearby farm that houses a few rabbits and an overcrowded warren in the distance. Hazel sends Captain Holly, Silver, Strawberry, and Buckthorn (another strong rabbit from the old warren) to scout the overcrowded warren. Meanwhile, he and Pipkin, a small rabbit, take a trip to the hutch at the farm despite Fiver’s warnings that he shouldn’t go. Hazel and Pipkin succeed in getting two females from the hutches but – true to Fiver’s vision – Hazel is shot in the leg in the process. Although he survives, he is never quite the same.

After Hazel’s return, Holly and company limp back to the warren after a harrowing experience at the overcrowded warren. It turns out that the warren (called Efrafa) was overcrowded for a reason: it is a heavily guarded totalitarian regime run by the evil General Woundwort in which no one is allowed to leave. The four rabbits barely escaped with their own lives but did identify several females that would be willing to break away from Efrafa. The two female hutch rabbits turn out to be a disappointment – small and scared from years of domestication, they are unable to live in the wild, let alone conceive. Convinced that the warren needs females no matter how dire the danger, Hazel and Bigwig concoct a dangerous plan to get females from the warren.

As part of the plan, Bigwig pretends to join Efrafa in order to infiltrate the Owsla of Woundwort’s warren and recruit females to leave. Unfortunately, just as the plan was to come to fruition, the Efrafans realized that Bigwig was an imposter. Yet with Hazel and Kehaar’s help, he is able to escape with several females in tow. The rabbits make a slow, arduous journey around Efrafa to avoid Woundwort’s Owsla. They are unaware that a couple Efrafans are following their every move. Once the rabbits return to Watership Down, the Efrafans head back to report this information to Woundwort.

Woundwort is well aware that his power is slipping as the warren gets more and more overcrowded and there is less and less food to go around. Upset that Bigwig embarrassed him and threatened his own absolute power, he decides to personally lead the expedition to destroy Watership Down. By chance, the mouse that Hazel befriended earlier stumbles upon Woundwort’s army and alerts the Watership Down rabbits. The rabbits are able to prepare somewhat for the attack and wall off parts of the warren. Undeterred, the Efrafans begin a siege on the warren.

And well…I won’t ruin the ending. Partly because the ending is fairly perfect and I don’t want to ruin it if you want to read it (and you should). But mostly because the ending – especially the last ten pages – is a lot like the ending of Lost and I definitely don’t want to ruin that for you if you haven’t seen it yet. If you have seen the ending of Lost and don’t care about reading Watership Down, I recommend you read this recap for a very good summary of both endings.

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Some books featured in Lost just fit in perfectly. Watership Down is one of those books. Like Lost, Watership Down is basically a really well-told story. Sawyer might as well have said: “Lost is a hell of a show. It’s about people.” But like Lost, Watership Down is about so much more than that. Critics have analyzed, re-analyzed, and re-re-analyzed the themes, symbolism, and the allegorical details – so much so, that author Richard Adams once said that the book was “only a made-up story… in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.”

Literature scholars have undoubtedly spent more time thinking about Watership Down than Adams ever did. Sounds like a certain show I like and a certain project I’ve undertaken. But in the end, that’s part of the fun of the book (and show). A well-written story lends itself to in-depth analysis, whether the author intended it or not.

And the best part is that there are so many shared themes between the book and Lost that it shows up in three different seasons. In season 1, when Lost was exploring the creation of new societies, Watership Down appeared alongside references to Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies. Unlike the latter two books’ bleak portrayal of the nature of human beings, Watership Down paints a far more optimistic picture of a peaceful society. As The Lost Book Club helpfully points out, the society in Watership Down is Lockean in nature and provides a good counterpoint to the Hobbesian society in Lord of the Flies.

Succinctness is not really my strong suit and I was a political science major but I’ll keep this comparison short. Both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were social contract theorists. For both Hobbes and Locke, the state of nature was characterized by self-interested individuals who lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short.” To combat this, individuals give up some individual autonomy to a sovereign authority to protect them. A society is established under this sovereign because giving up personal autonomy is a small price to pay to escape the state of nature.

Hobbes and Locke differ after this premise. For Hobbes, the purpose of a society is protection. In order to protect individuals, a sovereign should have absolute power. Hobbes rejected separation of powers entirely. For Locke, such a society would be illegitimate and would eventually be overthrown. The only way a sovereign can rule legitimately is with the consent of the people. Although Locke never actually argued that a representative democracy was the only way to achieve this legitimacy, it’s a good way to think about it in this quick recap. Hobbes/Lord of the Flies/Efrafa advocates for an all-powerful absolute monarch and Locke/Watership Down advocates for a representative democracy.

This battle is the most important theme of the first half of season 1. Both Lost and Watership Down dealt with the creation of a new society from scratch – basically miniature versions of the state of nature. In his “live together, die alone” speech in White Rabbit, Jack put the castaways on the path to a peaceful Watership Down-like existence. Like Hazel, Jack emerged as the leader but did not wield his absolute power in an oppressive way.* Jack and Hazel were legitimate leaders because their followers consented to their rule.

* The mirror image of this didn’t happen until we met the tailies in season 2. The tailies dealt with a different set of challenges than the middle section castaways and took a different model of rule. While Jack ruled with the consent of the beach camp, Ana Lucia ruled by Hobbesian-like threats, dismissing most of the tailies suggestions by saying that she was the one keeping them alive.

Even though the Beach Camp was run primarily as a Lockean society, Hobbes still makes appearances in these early Lost episodes. It is fitting that the first time this book appears prominently is in Confidence Man. In this episode, Sayid and Jack torture Sawyer because they think he is hiding Shannon’s inhalers. This is probably the closest that the Beach Camp comes to turning into a Hobbesian-like society.

The book appears again in the season 3 episode Left Behind. In this episode, the Others left the Barracks, leaving Kate and Juliet handcuffed together after they gassed the houses. This is in allusion to the initial gassing that caused the rabbits to leave their first warren. Like Bigwig in Efrafa, Juliet was a spy sent to infiltrate the Beach Camp. This is also the episode that Hurley conned Sawyer into thinking the castaways were planning to vote him out of the camp. In the book, each rabbit learns how to pull its own weight in the new warren – a lesson that Sawyer didn’t learn until Hurley’s con that aptly began when he was reading the book.

The book appears for a fourth time on Sawyer’s bookshelf in the season 6 episode Recon. Again, I’ll leave the parallels to the article I linked to before in case you don’t want the ending spoiled. I’ll just say this: the flash-sideways answer was in front of our face the whole time!

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In these reviews I try to dig deep and find thematic and symbolic meanings in the books I’ve read. The superficial observations are just not all that exciting to me because I could google them without even reading the books. But I’d be remiss not to point out some of the many other parallels between the books. Lostpedia does a good job with most of these (and more) but I’ll point them out here quickly: rabbits (DHARMA); psychic abilities, especially of less powerful group members (Fiver, Walt); fertility issues (no female rabbits to give berth, the Others not being able to conceive after the Incident); and kidnapping (the Hutch rabbits, Ethan Rom’s capture of Charlie and Claire).

Finally, death and evil in rabbit lore are symbolized by the Dark Rabbit of Inle. The Dark Rabbit of Inle appears to the rabbits as a black cloud in the shape of a rabbit. Time doesn’t exist in the Dark Rabbit’s warren and anyone who goes in the warren contracts a sickness. Along with the black cloud in A Wrinkle in Time, there’s an awful lot of material about the nature of the Smoke Monster hidden in season 1. Amazing that it took us so long to figure out the nature of the Monster.

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The short review I promised: it was fantastic and probably the best book I’ve read for this project. And it was about bunnies.

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