I’m in the midst of reading The Green Ember by S. D. Smith to some of my kids. At the same time, I am reading Watership Down by Richard Adams to myself. I’ve not read Watership Down before, but you may have. The Green Ember is a very recent book.
Both of these books are novels about anthropomorphic rabbits, but they reflect two contrasting approaches. The Green Ember rabbits are like humans with rabbit bodies. The Watership Down rabbits, on the other hand, are like rabbits with rudimentary human intellect.
Both of these books are very good, and I’m enjoying them a great deal. I may write a quick review of The Green Ember in the future, but for now I just want to share something from Watership Down.
It’s a scene where the rabbits are being pursued and must cross a stream, but some are two weak to swim. One amongst them (Blackberry) sometimes demonstrates flashes of imagination, such as only humans have, and this scene is the first where his ability saves them:
Hazel had no idea what he meant. Blackberry’s flood of apparent nonsense only seemed to draw tighter the mesh of danger and bewilderment. As though Bigwig’s angry impatience, Pipkin’s terror and the approaching dog were not enough to contend with, the cleverest rabbit among them had evidently gone out of his mind. He felt close to despair.
I thought the feeling of despair that Hazel’s fear and bewilderment generated out of an idea that he had no capacity to comprehend is a very insightful observation on Adams’ part. It’s a fear of something that to Hazel is supernatural, pushing him beyond his ability to bear. A few paragraphs later Blackberry has gotten Pipkin and Fiver onto a piece of wood and wants to push him out to float him across, but he isn’t strong enough.
No one obeyed him. All squatted, puzzled and uncertain. Blackberry buried his nose in the gravel under the landward edge of the board and raised it, pushing. The board tipped. Pipkin squealed and Fiver lowered his head and splayed his claws. Then the board righted itself and drifted a few feet onto the pool with the two rabbits hunched upon it, rigid and motionless. It rotated slowly and they found themselves staring back at their comrades.
“Frith and Inle!” said Dandelion. “They’re sitting on the water! Why don’t they sink?”
“They’re sitting on the wood and the wood floats, can’t you see?” said Blackberry. “Now we swim over ourselves. Can we start, Hazel?”
Even seeing it, Blackberry’s comrades can’t understand what is happening. They can’t make the connection between floating wood and things on top of floating wood not sinking. The situation is further demonstrated by Hazel’s response:
During the last few minutes Hazel had been as near to losing his head as he was ever to come. He had been at his wits end …. He still could not understand what had happened ….
I was reminded of Jack London’s story, “White Fang”, where we are invited to a brilliant insight into the mind of a wolf-dog and the relentless, ruthless law that drives everything in his world: eat or be eaten.
I have often contemplated the possible connection between immortal, spiritual souls, imagination, and rational self-awareness and moral thought. I think more and more that they are inextricably linked. Self-awareness requires the ability to imagine oneself in some other experience. Imagination allows one to envision possible outcomes and other places that may not even exist or that one has never seen. Rational self-awareness allows one to reflect upon thoughts and actions and determine their moral significance. The ultimate destiny of immortal souls is determined by moral choices. The ability to comprehend the concept of life after death requires imagination and self-awareness.
As Watership Down progresses, the rabbits can’t help but question instinct and action. Just by granting them the ability to talk and interact in even a rudimentary human fashion, they can’t avoid consideration of the significance of their presence and influence on whatever they touch. No matter how feral they remain as characters in a story, the mere presence of rational self-awareness and imagination forces a progression to moral choice.
Apply the thought to your pets or to the squirrels in the yard, or any other animals and consider holistic necessity of their being: material souls and near-absence of rational thought, and then how they can just survive, with no tools, in any natural habitat that can provide for their needs. But mankind? Most of us would die within days in any wild place if dropped there naked and without provisions of any kind. I wonder at times that perhaps this Earth is not our natural habitat at all — that Eden, with its gateway to Heaven and atmosphere of Grace is the only place that man is truly fit to be. But that is another post. For now I’ll just say it seems fitting that our rational minds with their fertile imaginations enabling us to make and use tools is all that seems to enable us to survive here, and that we survive here because we have the capability of tools. There is a holistic necessity to our being to allow us to persevere day in and day out, just as the animals are equipped for their survival.
And all of this returns to stories like “White Fang” and The Green Ember and Watership Down. The species in books must possess all the qualities that are holistically necessary: all the parts that together comprise a creature able to be and survive within the world of the story. There is a challenge in getting that right, and whether the characters are humans in animal bodies or animals with human intellect, the pieces must fit as beautifully and miraculously as they do in the real world or the whole imaginary universe crumbles for the reader.