‘Watership Down’ and its Accidental Allegory

Richard Adams didn’t intend for it, but it happened anyway – Watership Down, a 1978 film adapted from a 1972 book, may have predicted (and be predicting) #Brexit.

Watership Down is the award-winning story of a herd of British rabbits that follow one bunnie’s premonition of doom. After a rabbit has a vision of blood overtaking their fields, a subgroup of rabbits no longer feel comfortable in their current home (or warren), so they elect to leave in search of a new utopia. Sound familiar? 

Despite its watercolor, kid-friendly style of animation, it’s an adult film with adult themes and conflicts: man vs. nature, tyranny vs. freedom, and risk vs. safety – to name just a few. But what I found most striking upon a recent viewing are the surely accidental, but nonetheless numerous references to the events of Brexit and the current state of instability in Europe.

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While Great Britain’s decision to leave the EU may have seemed like a somewhat impulsive decision, the possibility has been brewing for several decades. The UK joined the European Economic Community (later known as the EU) in 1973 – a mere two months after the first version of Watership Down found a UK publisher. Since then, the UK flirted with leaving the EEC – a vote in 1975 upheld EU membership, and in 1983 the Labour Party ran its campaign on the promise to withdraw from the EU. They, however, were defeated handedly.

In 1978, the Watership book was adapted into the animated film, and explored the mission of its own labour party of rabbits – a combo of Hazel (the leader), Bigwig (the cop and protector), Fiver (the visionary), and a bunch of other rural followers. A group largely balancing naivety with idealism, they go through plenty of growing pains. It’s through these tests that Hazel, an average rabbit at their previous warren, rises to become the group’s leader. Can Theresa May emerge as Britain’s new Hazel?

Unlike Watership, the story of Brexit is still being written. The Brits have only just decided to take their first steps away from their warren, so to speak, and while we are unaware of how this journey is going to take shape, there are many events throughout Watership that might shed a light on what could actually happen…

(Writer’s note: I’m not an economist or fortune teller. The following are merely opinions and theories that I likened and seek to explain through some of the events in Watership Down).

In the beginning

Many people have many opinions about ‘Brexit,’ and the decision was made by its voters, juggling many different factors. Among them – and a big one – is sovereignty. The UK now has the potential freedom to make its own rules and decisions that were previously done as a union: immigration policies with border control, freedom to renegotiate its trade policies, and the potential to increase its inward investment opportunities (more here). Is leaving the EU the answer? Is this a decision that could lead to a UK utopia? Here’s what happens to the rabbits…

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It starts with Fiver’s vision – an image of bloodshed spilling over their fields (a scary reality occurring throughout the world, notably Europe and America). Fiver shares this vision with a few other rabbits in the herd. He also goes to the chief, who disregards Fiver’s vision (note: the now resigned PM David Cameron too didn’t believe Brexit would actually happen). But this doesn’t stop Fiver from convincing other like-minded rabbits in the warren (including Hazel and Bigwig), and together, they leave in search of a new utopia.

First, they reach a burrow with all the food they can dream of. But, yes, it is too good to be true. Bigwig is snared by a man-made trap, and the group comes to realize that this burrow is under the watchful eye of a farmer. In the CNBC article, “Turbulence and Uncertainty For The Market After ‘Brexit’”, John Van Reenen, director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, had an interesting choice of words to describe the immediate impact the Leave vote had on the British Pound and global market:

“You get a rabbit-in-the-headlights phenomenon where businesses don’t want to make new decisions, or new investments, because they are uncertain about the future… There will be an immediate slowdown of growth.”

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Bigwig is, by far, the herd’s biggest and strongest rabbit. And after he gets snared, nearly dying, the group begins to panic; they begin to seriously question their decision about leaving in the first place. But what happens next? Bigwig makes a full recovery, and they continue on their path toward utopia. In an opinion piece from MarketWatch published two weeks before the Brexit vote, Matthew Lynn predicted a dip and then recovery should the UK leave the EU:

“Sure the FTSE will take a hit, and sterling will dive. But both will bounce back very quickly. Why? Because the EU does not make that much difference to the British economy. The U.K. will lose a bit of trade with Europe if it leaves, and some investment. But it will get back some money it sends to Brussels, and will get rid of a few meddlesome regulations. Net-net? It will be back where it started.”

The international market was snared, but Lynn assures the world not to panic.

OK, so what next?

The herd continues their journey, and they reach their destination: Watership Down. 

Upon their arrival, the herd gets word that Fiver’s vision has come true and their warren was destroyed. But at least they’ve arrived to their new utopia: lush green hills, fewer predators, peace and happiness… right?

But wait – where are all the does (females)?

The film cuts to a community underneath those Watership Down hills called Efrafa. A scared doe – representing a group of does that are being kept separate from the male rabbits – approaches the chief asking for permission to start her own community.

Watership Down doe

“A new warren?!” the chief yells. “Out of the question!”

“But you don’t understand. The system is breaking down,” she replies sheepishly. “Some of us cannot produce litters – we’re overcrowded.”

“I will have no more discussion about it!” yells the chief.

When we hear “Brexit,” we think “Britain,” which many falsely associate with England only. But there are other countries in Great Britain, and they too are deeply affected by this decision: Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Northern Ireland were the most adamant about the UK remaining in the EU. This decision could have the other does, so to speak, asking for their freedom amidst a breaking system. And they likely won’t be asking sheepishly.

In the Vox article, “Brexit: What Happens When Britain Leaves the EU,” Timothy B. Lee writes,

“So Britain’s exit from the EU could strengthen the hand of Scottish separatists. A key Scottish leader has already signaled that she wants to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. If that vote succeeded, Scotland would likely petition for admission to the EU in its own right.

 

A similar, but possibly more troubling, situation could emerge in Ireland, which has long been divided between a protestant North that’s part of the UK and an independent Irish republic in the South. Tensions across the border have been minimized by EU rules guaranteeing the right to move across the border. But if the UK withdraws from the EU, the border could become more important and tensions over territory could flare up.”

By the end of the film, the does get their freedom, but their requiem is never fully addressed.

So how does this all end?

Unfortunately, rather turbulently. Who was that evil chief denying the does their freedom? That would be General Woundword, and he’s a tyrant with a metal grip over his dystopian warren, Efrafa. Hazel and the herd come to learn about the police state that Woundword rules, and they devise a plan to free many of the Efrafa rabbits, rescue the does, and start their own utopian society on another part of Watership.

Shocking, I know – A group of British explorers invades a community, disrupts its way of living in the name of freedom and democracy, and executes a plan to implement their own ideals in this new place. So is it ironic that a primary reason for Britain’s vote to leave the EU is due to concerns over immigration? Definitely. But nonetheless, it’s a serious one…

In the opinion piece, “Brexit is terrifying – and no, not because of the economics,” Zack Beauchamp writes,

“This global order depends crucially on a set of supranational institutions, like the EU. These institutions can only function if member states can keep nationalism in check and submit to a shared framework for governing the world. The global order has served us astonishingly well, making the post–Cold War era the richest and least violent time in human history.

 

But that optimism is now threatened. British voters, motivated largely by xenophobic nationalism, have opted out of one of the pillars of the postwar order, the European Union. For the first time since World War II, Western nationalism has beaten globalism in a major way.”

So long as Britain is a part of the EU, the law doesn’t prevent anyone with EU citizenship to cross into their borders. By electing to leave the EU – as they have – they now have much more control over border rules and regulations. And how does this relate to our story about the rabbits?

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The bloody, climactic finale is a fight over territory. Hazel and his herd penetrate the Efrafa borders. This doesn’t make Woundwort happy at all. He is very territorial, and wants his warren to remain the way it is. So after Hazel and his herd recruit some of Efrafa’s does & rabbits to establish a burrow of their own, Woundwort seeks revenge – penetrating Hazel’s community and attacking his herd. Hazel and the gang are somewhat ready though, and use nearby animals – a cat, a dog, and a gull – to help them defeat Woundwort. In doing so, however, many rabbits die. Was it all worth it? That’s for the viewer to determine.

Similarly, there are so many lingering questions and opinions about Brexit that we, as ‘viewers,’ can determine for ourselves. Watership Down is known for its plethora of reader-generated allegories, and writer Adams insists that his story has no deeper meanings. Nevertheless, many people have insisted that Adams is writing about their particular group, archetype, or event, and that’s precisely what makes Watership timeless, universal, and worth a(nother) view. What Adams did say, however, was, “Perhaps I made it too dark.”

Whatever the answers to all of the outstanding questions and more, I pray that Brexit’s journey – which is only just beginning – finds a much more peaceful route to whatever utopia is being sought out.

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