Watership Down: Its Biblical Parallels and Allusions

Whether it’s literature, music, cinema, or anything creative, I view the work and critique it through a theological lens. Richard Adams’ wonderful book, Watership Down receives the same treatment. I have written of the spiritual dimensions of the characters in earlier postings, e.g. Hazel, Bigwig, and Lord El-ahrairah. While reading through the book’s pages I noted many times the biblical parallels that Adams places in his first work. In this posting there will be a few examples of biblical references, or allusions. The mythology and primitive religion in this novel has no direct correspondence to Christianity — Adams does not write an allegory. In fact, Adams has stated in interviews that he intended no spiritual or religious theme to be in the book. But, again, parallels and allusions are found — and with some you would have to be a bit myopic not to see them.

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Watership Down contains a creation narrative in the book’s sixth chapter. In it the reader is introduced to Lord El-ahrairah, the first rabbit created by Frith (the deity of the book). El-ahrairah is archetypical, and is a multifaceted character. He is like the Scripture’s Adam, Abraham, and Moses. In this chapter, El-ahrairah resists Frith’s command to control his rabbits who were breeding beyond Frith’s desire for them: “Then Frith said to El-ahrairah, ‘Prince Rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them. So mark what I say.’ But El-ahrairah would not listen…” Because of his disobedience, El-ahrairah stands before Frith as Adam stood before God. And as with Adam, El-ahrairah receives judgment from Frith where now certain animals become carnivors — enemies to the rabbits — to control their numbers. In this passage, a swift informs El-ahrairah of Frith’s judgment:

I would not be you, El-ahrairah. For Frith has given the fox and the weasel cunning hearts and sharp teeth, and to the cat he has given silent feet and eyes that can see in the dark, and they are gone away from Frith’s place to kill and devour all that belongs to El-ahrairah.

Upon hearing the terrifying news, El-ahrairah attempts to hide himself from Frith. Genesis tells us Adam attempted to hide from God following his rebellion, but God seeks out Adam and calls to him: “So the Lord God called Adam and said to him, ‘Adam, where are you?’” (Genesis 3: 9) Watership Down has its parallel. Frith calls after the semi-hidden Rabbit: “‘Where is El-ahrairah? For all the others have taken their gifts and gone and I have come to look for him.’” In Genesis, God sought out the Man to both sentence and promise him ultimate redemption from the Serpent and mortality. In like manner, Frith seeks out El-ahrairah to bless him with gifts to counter the consequent deadly anatomies of the enemies.

images-13Frith felt himself in friendship with El-ahrairah…”Very well, I will bless your bottom as it sticks out of the hole. Bottom, be strength and warning and speed forever and save the life of your master. Be it so!” And as he spoke, El-ahrairah’s tail grew shining white and flashed like a star: and his back legs grew long and powerful and he thumped the hillside until the beetles fell of the grass stems. He came out of the hole and tore across the hill faster than any creature in the world. And Frith called after him, “El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. 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, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

Adams’ novel contains a few references from the Old Testament. I list two. In the chapter “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah,” El-ahrairah is in a conversation with Prince Rainbow who wants to keep the Rabbit in check, and has another rabbit, Hufsa, share El-ahrairah’s burrow and act as a spy. Prince Rainbow pays a visit, and while in conversation El-ahrairah quotes from the Psalms: “But I always say to my people, ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in any…’” The quote comes directly from Psalm 146:3 (LXX text 145:3). Elsewhere, in chapter 25, “The Raid”, we find a clear reference to the Genesis account of the Flood and Noah’s Ark:

They had persuaded Kehaar to come down out of the wind and wet, and one of Dandelion’s tales of El-ahrairah was followed by an extraordinary story that left everyone mystified but fascinated, about a time when Frith had to go away on a journey, leaving the whole world to be covered with rain. But a man built a great floating hutch that held all the animals and birds until Frith returned and let them out.

Perhaps the most powerful biblical parallel in this novel is found in the most tense and dramatic chapter 38, “The Thunder Breaks.” In this chapter we look to the very first verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth. Now, the earth was formless and void; and darkness was over the abyss, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the water” (Gen 1: 1 – 2). This is a description of chaos: there is only darkness and unfathomably deep water. This is not a good thing. However, to bring about creation’s redemption from this terror, The Spirit of God comes upon the scene to prepare it for its salvation. The Septuagint text uses the word epipherein to describe the Spirit’s work: moving, hovering, brooding, and making pronouncements. Then comes the first act of creation’s deliverance: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Light dispels darkness. From chaos comes an ordering, and that which is formless is given structure; then that which was void is filled, or furnished. Creation is made fit for the appearance of humanity to dwell on earth as God’s vice-regents. Out of chaos comes creation.

images-6In “The Thunder Breaks,” there is also chaos. After infiltrating Efrafa, all of Bigwig’s plans made with Kehaar seem to be falling apart. Additionally, a massive storm is brewing that further threatens the escape of Bigwig, the does, and Blackavar from this dark, sinister warren, and General Woundwort. But El-ahrairah was aiding and moving with Bigwig, and his lord’s voice comes to him, “‘Your storm, Thlayli-rah. Use it.’” Use it he did!

General Woundwort, however, was aware of their escape. He and his officers pursued them. So here is another use of abiblical theme. The Hebrews under the leadership of Moses flee their enslavement in Egypt. They have been released to leave to become a new and free nation. Pharaoh changes his mind, and pursues the Hebrews: “ So the Egyptians pursued them, all the cavalry and chariots of Pharaoh, his horsemen and his army, and overtook them…” (Exodus 14: 9). God delivers his people, “Then Moses said to the people, ‘Be of good courage. Stand still and see the Lord’s salvation which He will accomplish for you today…’” (Exodus 14: 13). The text continues as God speaks to Moses, “‘Now lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it; and let the children of Israel go on dry ground through the midst of the sea’” (Exodus 14: 16). Israel had its deliverance by crossing a body of water to liberty and then witness the defeat of Pharaoh. Adams’ nod to Exodus continues. Hazel, Blackberry, Fiver and others await the approach of Bigwig and his companions along the bank of the Test River. A small boat tied to the shore awaits the fleeing group. Hazel has bitten through the vast majority of the rope. Bigwig and those he rescued hop on the boat with Hazel and the others. General Woundwort is in hot pursuit, but Hazel bites once more and the boat floats away down the river.

In the same moment the rope parted and immediately the little punt began to move along the bank in the steady current. When it had gone a few yards, the stern swung slowly outward until it was broadside on to the stream. In this position it drifted to the middle of the river and into the southward bend.

All cross to the opposite bank and are free to make their way to Watership Down. As with the Hebrews, our rabbit heroes cross a body of water to freedom to their own “Promised Land” — Watership Down.
In brief, I see Adams’ novel as a spiritual work, not simply a discussion of mid to late twentieth century politics, or a treatise on leadership qualities as others have stated in essays, etc. Watership Down is an amazing novel describing personal and spiritual transformations that take place throughout this book as its heroes imitate their own lord and hero El-ahrairah. In their imitation, as the Christian imitates Christ, they become as he is, and thus become citizens worthy to inhabit their cunicular “city shining on a hill”, Watership Down.  I add as a link my podcast from regarding the spiritual dynamics found in Watership Down:  Watership Down Podcast: Emerging from Darkness into Light

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus



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