(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Watership Down. And references to animal suffering. Proceed with caution…)
Easter is almost here. And while this is most obviously a Christian festival (more about that later), it’s also – in the modern, small-p pagan sense – a celebration of the arrival of Spring, in the northern hemisphere. Which means imagery of eggs, chicks, lambs, and of course…bunnies.
As with so many folk customs, nobody’s really sure where the Easter Bunny originated. It seems to have Germanic roots, but beyond that, we can’t say. One thing worth mentioning is that the original ‘bunny’ probably wasn’t a rabbit, but a hare; rabbits were introduced to England by the Romans, but the hare was around before that. Legend has it that our own local Celtic queen, Boudicca, released a hare and watched its movements to predict the course of battle, in the name of her goddess, Andraste.
You can see hares out on the fields on these Spring mornings, usually alone or in pairs. They are beautiful things, rather bigger than rabbits, with those massive powerful back legs. (The ‘boxing’ you may witness at this time of year is actually the female making a likely male prove his strength, before they both get down to making baby hares.)
But the Magpie lives in a part of East Anglia where rabbits – which unlike hares, come in large quantities – are also very much in evidence, thanks to the local medieval nobility having kept their own warrens. We even have areas where there’s a tendency to black rabbits. People think they’re escaped pets, but they’re a natural genetic quirk. They don’t last long in the wild thanks to their high visibility, but it’s pleasantly startling to suddenly see them, against the greens and browns of the countryside that provide better camouflage for their more traditionally pigmented relatives.
British folks of a certain age may remember being traumatised as kids by a film called Watership Down, adapted from the novel by Richard Adams, which tells the story of a band of rabbits forced to find a new home when their warren is destroyed. I was nine when I went to see it. At the scene where the big bruiser rabbit, Bigwig, was struggling in a snare in a torrent of foam and blood, I fled. While my older and less squeamish cousin calmly sat munching Maltesers down the front, I watched the rest of the film peering round the toilet door at the back of the cinema.
It was around that time that I decided that going into the veterinary business, an ambition of mine up till then, probably wasn’t for me.
A bad joke of the time comes to mind: Watership Down: you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film…now eat the cast. Jokes aside, I did later see the film under more comfortable circumstances, and read the book, and I’ve also been to the location, a real place in Hampshire. The movie is worth watching at any time of year, but especially now; the animation is stunning, the cast star-studded (I love Hazel, voiced by the late John Hurt), and it’s all set off with the music of the genius Angela Morley, who saved the day by composing all but a fragment of the score in three weeks. (Ms. Morley had a pretty amazing story of her own, which you can read more about here.
One of my favourite parts is the prologue telling the rabbits’ own origin myth. Their God is Lord Frith, the sun, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever seen a warren at morning or evening when the sun is low and they all come out to graze (silflay, as Adams’ Lapine language calls it). Frith creates the world and its creatures, including the father of all rabbits, El-ahrairah. And while Frith makes the world a dangerous place for the rabbit and his descendants, he also gives gifts to help them live in it, and a promise:
All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies; and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you – listener, digger, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
Rabbits do have a great many natural predators, and we humans are perhaps the worst. We’ve used them for food for millennia; we’ve destroyed their warrens when we wanted land, as happens in the book; and when they interfered with our agricultural aims, we took devastating action. Myxomatosis (don’t look at this link unless you have a strong stomach) exists in nature, but back in the 1950s – in Britain, Australia and other countries – we introduced it deliberately into rabbit populations to control them. It is a truly horrible disease, and if you look at what it does, you can’t help concluding that humans are a bit shit. We wiped out ninety per cent of the rabbits in the UK with this bacterium. The fox and the weasel couldn’t hope to do anything as lethal.
But then there’s Frith’s promise. Rabbits are as plentiful today here as they ever were. They developed resistance, and they breed…well, like rabbits. (And rabbits have another trick up their sleeves, in that they don’t breed totally indiscriminately; when conditions are hard, the does can re-absorb embryos, so they don’t bear kittens they may not be able to support. We should maybe work on developing that skill.)
Here’s an interesting piece of symbolism, then. We have a creature that’s scapegoated as a troublemaker, that’s subjected to horrible torture and death…but which always manages to resurrect itself. Remind you of anyone? It’s perhaps surprising that rabbits haven’t cropped up in Christian imagery. (Their cousins, hares, have done so; some old churches include carvings of the triple hare, three hares joined by the ears, symbolising the Trinity.) But it’s maybe appropriate that they ended up as symbols of Easter anyway, whatever you see the festival as representing.
It’s been pointed out that there are elements of Watership Down that echo Old Testament narrative – notably, the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. And some have seen overtones, too, in the totalitarian nightmare of Efrafa, ruled by the iron paw of the tyrannical General Woundwort, of later Nazi persecution, although Adams denied that he ever had that allegory in mind. And Passover, that Jewish celebration of liberation, is also tied to this time of year.
For this Pagan, anyway, seeing rabbits out in the countryside always gives me a sense of hope. The very persistence of these small creatures – cute and fluffy, sure, but capable of clawing and biting, and as anyone who’s owned a pet rabbit and electrical equipment with cables will tell you, gnawing through practically anything – is a picture of life surviving in spite of the odds. Biologist Dougal Dixon, in his book After Man, even pictures rabbits surviving human extinction and evolving into deer-like animals; it is, he points out, the creatures we see as ‘vermin’ that are the truly successful ones.
At the end of Watership Down, the leader of the rabbits, Hazel, now old, is invited by El-ahrairah to join his Owsla, or warren council. The younger rabbits are by now being told stories of his exploits, and now he too becomes part of the mythology himself. We all become stories, eventually. But the book ends as it began, with primroses and the return of Spring. The cycle continues. Life goes on. And that, after all, is what matters.