"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself." ~ Michel de Montaigne
There is a continual rotation of books through my house. Some I've read so many times I practically have them memorized, others I never much cared for. If I had kept every book I've bought since I starting buying them at age 11, I'd probably have about a quarter-million by the time I come out on the far end of the Geezerfier.
Some books, though, never leave. Among the non-fiction ones there are Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's Leftism Revisited, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community. There's also Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek.
As for fiction, there is of course Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" and The Chronicles of Narnia. Another novel that is going no other place is Richard Adams' Watership Down.
I first read Watership Down in my teens. I enjoyed it, but otherwise forgot about it. Later, when I reread it, it was like experiencing it for the first time. It seemed a book I had never read before. Why didn't I catch all this great stuff in it the first time around? Too young, I suppose.
I found in many ways the novel is as accurate about human nature as the Bible. Indeed, in many ways it is a Biblical story. It would be entirely possible to be raised in a cave, read nothing but this novel, and have more understanding of humanity and politics than most people. But then, that's what literature is for--to take advantage of other people's experience.
The book, for those who haven't read it, is about rabbits. Talking rabbits. It is a tribute to the power of this novel that by the second page, I was able to suspend my disbelief to the extent I forgot they were rabbits. They seemed like people.
The book is about freedom and slavery, about tyrants, about community, about politics, about the importance--indeed the necessity--of religion, and about war. The rabbits are just stand-ins for people--there is a warrior rabbit, a smart leader rabbit, a comedian rabbit, and a psychic prophet rabbit. Although it sounds ridiculous, it's anything but.
The novel opens with something straight out of the Old Testament. Fiver, an undersized rabbit, turns out to be a prophet. He realizes the whole warren is going to be awash with blood--to be destroyed. Does the king rabbit listen? No, of course not. He doesn't believe in prophets.
While reading the first few pages, it struck me the warren wasn't a "democracy." It was a monarchy. However, the king foolishly didn't listen to his prophet. And in the Old Testament, when kings just as foolishly didn't listen to their prophets, destruction always followed.
I'm not giving anything away here, because it's obvious by the second page the warren is in fatal danger. Fortunately, Fiver is able to convince a few rabbits to listen to him. Hazel, the smart rabbit, is one, and Bigwig, the warrior rabbit, is another. So off they go, with a few others, to found a new warren.
The rest of the book is taken up with their various adventures, good and bad. Even though it's almost 500 paperback pages long, I couldn't put it down.
The rabbits found what could be considered in many ways a libertarian warren. Hazel becomes the leader--the Chief Rabbit--because of his intelligence and competence. He doesn't run his mouth incessantly and not say anything, like your typical politician. He's not elected; the other rabbits follow his advice because he has shown his worth. There are problems in the warren, but there is no politics.
Part of his competence lies in listening to Fiver. He realizes Fiver has a prophetic talent he lacks, and is humble enough to listen to Fiver's advice. The first king didn't, which lead to the destruction of the warren. Even the enormous soldier rabbit Bigwig realizes the competence and intelligence of Hazel, and the prophetic powers of Fiver, and listens to them. He could have easily beaten both of them put together, but instead realizes they have something he doesn't. What we're looking at, more than anything else, is a free-market division of labor in a voluntary community, where each finds his best niche. Each is an important individual in a voluntary group.
There is a problem, though. A very big problem. On one hand we have the voluntary community of Hazel's warren, and a few miles away we have another warren, not so libertarian. Indeed, it's a fascist warren.
That particular warren is ruled by the tyrant Woundwort, who appears to be the Richard the III of rabbits. He has become what he is because of what happened when he was young. I won't give it away, but let's just say he is horribly warped by what he suffered as a young rabbit.
Woundwort believes in complete security for his warren. Not at all surprisingly, there is no freedom whatsoever. There is no liberty at all, no privacy, no dignity, and everything is politicized. In his world, the personal has become the political. His is a purely fascist society, with all behavior prescribed in every way. The involuntary group is everything; the individual, nothing. Also not at all surprisingly, some of the rabbits try to escape, and others become emotionally disturbed.
Woundwort also always tries to destroy any warrens close to his and enslave all the rabbits in it. He sees any other warren as a threat, even if it's not. He makes perpetual war because he believes it will bring perpetual peace.
What we're dealing with is a novel about freedom versus slavery, and the fact that the only way anyone can have complete security is to completely give up his freedom. Such security, however, makes life not worth living, to the point some rabbits risk death to escape. This false security also brings eternal war with it.
The book is also about how one of the necessary ingredients to a happy life is for an individual to be part of a voluntary community. One of the things that necessarily binds a true community together is its religion, in the form of an oral tradition. In Woundwort's warren, there is no religion, and no mythic stories to tell. If anything, he's the god of his horrible warren, although in reality, completely unbeknownst to him, he's Satan.
Hazel does something no other rabbit has ever done. He makes friends with other animals. He makes them his allies. First he helps a mouse escape a predator, then he helps a gull with a hurt wing. Since they are now his friends, the mouse warns him Woundwort and his army are coming, and the gull--named Kehaar--helps them fight. Woundwort, on the other hand, feels he has no need of allies. In his hubris and his delusion, he thinks he can conquer the rabbits' world on his own.
Woundwort doesn't even believe he's a tyrant. But like most, if not all tyrants, he thinks he's a wise leader, indispensable to his warren. In reality, he's almost insane with his paranoia, his lust for power and his obsessive desire for security.
Woundwort's warren also shows how easy it is for just a few individuals to take over a community, because the majority didn't fight against it. The same thing has always happened in the human world, too. Many people don't pay enough attention, and end up with a suffocating "security" that costs them their freedom and takes away all the hope and happiness in life.
There's no need to give away any more of the novel. I will say that when it came out in 1972, ten days later it was on the best-seller list. I now understand why. We have in this book something very rare: It's both entertaining and educating. You can't ask for much more than that.