On Watership Down: The meaning of the the Black Rabbit of Inle
I must confess that much of my love of writing or even my adventurous nature and the creative side of my personality derives from my mother being an English teacher. At an early age she instilled in my older brother and I as well as my younger sister a love of reading, learning and ultimately thinking for ourselves, a process which my father encouraged and did not seek to restrain in any way. For my part I tend to be drawn towards genres that fire the imagination such as fantasy and science fiction but equally I try to read and understand many other genres that spark my interest but for the most part it has always been the works of fantasy that have fascinated me from a young age. By the time I was in junior high I had read Tolkien’s collected works including trying to muddle my way through the Silmarillion. I had traveled to Xanth with Piers Anthony and found Shanarra with Brooks. I had marveled at the complex characters of Herbert’s Dune and rode the wings of dragons with Hickman and Weis. Somewhere in my journey among the realms of mythical creatures and fantastical worlds I found the simple story of a group of rabbits and their journey from death to a new life, Watership Down. A book I have read many many times just for the sheer enjoyment of it. So to say I am familiar with the work of Richard Adams would not be an exaggeration.
So as I have said my mother is an English teacher or she has been one off and on throughout my life often times taking many years off to raise children and spend time with grandchildren but returning to her passion for teaching when time would allow. This past year she has been under contract to teach English to juniors, seniors and some sophomores at my Alma mater Central High School. The final unit they covered as far as literature goes was Watership Down, a book I recommended and one she assigned as an independent read with no in class discussion or work on it. About this time the job which my mother held went from being a one year contract to a full time position and she had to reapply for her job, a daunting task for a woman of some fifty-nine years, yet still she had the inside track as she was already doing the job.
I feel I must pause here to explain something to my readers. I live in North Dakota and for those of you not familiar with North Dakota is sits along the northern border of the United States in pretty much the geographic center of the country. It is a hard land that breeds a certain kind of tough and hard working people. It is uncommonly flat and open in the east while the west is rolling hills and valleys as it near the Badlands, a name which tells the reader all they need to know about that area of the state. North Dakota’s only recent claim to fame besides two floods which threatened the two largest cities in the eastern half of the state in the last 20 years, nearly destroying the town I live in and threatening the other, is that the state government very foolishly tried to remove the word “North” from the state name feeling that the negative connotations of the word kept tourism low and drove young people from the state. Let’s be fair here the total lack of anything remotely like what many consider real life is what drives young people from the state not the word north. So what this means is that in order to keep young people in the state and keep the state growing they have to try to entice them with promises of jobs, can you see where I am going with this? My mother who is uniquely qualified to do the job she is doing and having lived in this town for the last 34 years with no thought of leaving the state was beat out of her job by a young women two years out of college and who had only taught middle school kids for a year and a half, no experience with high school students many of who would be barely five years younger than her. My mother was devastated and the thought of grading papers that her seniors had turned in on Watership Down did not seem to appeal to her. I volunteered to read them and offer my critique since I know and love the book which brings us in a nice roundabout way to the subject of this piece or at least my opinion on the meaning of the Black Rabbit of Inle
As I read these papers I was able to quickly separate those who had done the reading from those that had used Cliff Notes or Spark Notes or whatever the ”study aides” are called these days, still cheat sheets in my mind. Yet with every paper it was the second essay question that I was most baffled by. the question was who is the Black Rabbit and why do you think BigWig wanted to hear the story? Almost every student wrote something identical about the Black Rabbit being the rabbit equivalent of the Angel of Death and more than half of them hit upon the idea that the Black Rabbit was evil. I was a little bit upset by this whole line of thinking by these young people, of course nearly eighteen years separate me from my senior year in high school so maybe I am out of touch but could this really be the thinking of the youth today.
Now yes, the Black Rabbit does represent what we would think of as the literary embodiment of the Angel of Death. It does have that familiarity that many of the stories and myths surrounding our own version of the Angel of Death have but should that be viewed as evil personified? Is it the color black that gives these young readers the image of some kind of evil creature? The color black in this case represents the unknown, it ties in with the rabbits view of death since not only is the time of death unknown but also what causes it. The Black Rabbit therefore stands for this thing they can’t explain, the unseen death in the black of night. Is this an evil thing or just a fact of life?
Perhaps that is why I do not view the Black Rabbit as evil as my mother’s student do. I have a different outlook on death than they do. To me death cannot be evil or good it is just a transition from one state to the next. The events and circumstances around death can be viewed as those things but the death itself is just the absence of life. It is no more evil or good than flipping a light switch. You go from dark to light and the circumstances may change and those can color perception from it being good or evil but the act of turning on a light is not. In an attempt to understand death we as humans have constructed the angel of death just as the rabbits have the Black Rabbit of Inle. It somehow makes it seem more acceptable to know that some being or creature has measured out the length of our life and knows the hour of our death than it is to simply not know, to be totally mystified by something that in one minute is living and the next is not. So to me the Black Rabbit is an attempt to rationalize and understand that which we all have trouble with, our own mortality.
This is one of the points within the story of the Black Rabbit as it is told to Bigwig and the others. There is no bargaining with the Black Rabbit or in essences no arguing with death. You must go when called means that there is no fighting that which is inevitable your own death. These are Adams attempts to give us his own understanding of the fragility of life and the fate we all succumb too. There is so much depth to the themes of life and death and the struggle to understand it contained in this book perhaps it is expecting too much for sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds to understand those complex issues when their young lives have only just begun.
I think a lot of my own surprise stems from knowing the book and having my own thoughts and opinions on it. In the end I didn’t find fault with any of the essay papers that attempted to explain the question of who is the Black Rabbit but it did stir in me the desire to find these young people and talk to them, reason with them, to listen to their thoughts on the book. I suggested to my mother that next time she might want to just have a discussion day or two that is if she hasn’t lost that zeal to teach that she instilled in her children at a young age. Who know perhaps this is the first step for me on path to a new future, me teaching, yeah I don’t know about that but discussing Watership Down I will always be on board for that.