“Way out people know the way out”. – Michael Frost
I love Richard Adams’s book, Watership Down. I especially love one of the central characters, a young rabbit named Fiver. Fiver is strange right from the start. His brother Hazel, when telling another rabbit where Fiver’s name came from explains, “Five in a litter, you know: he was the last – and the smallest. You’d wonder nothing had got him by now. I always say a man couldn’t see him and a fox wouldn’t want him.” Being last and small, however, is only the beginning of Fiver’s oddities. Fiver has insights. Although not clearly being able to express them, he gets feelings and seems especially adept at sensing danger. The other rabbits think he is crazy and dismiss him as peculiar yet harmless, only Hazel listens, although he is rarely quick to act.
The book begins at the warren with Fiver desperately trying to convince Hazel that something horrible will happen and they must leave the warren at once. Hazel finally believes him and they set out to tell the Threarah (chief rabbit). The Threarah does not believe Fiver and dismisses them, punishing the rabbit who permitted them to enter his hole.
Eventually Fiver and Hazel convince a small band of ‘outskirters’ (fringe of society) and a few ‘Owsla’ (Threarah’s guards) to depart with them. This motley crew quickly head out of the warren and find themselves facing all kinds of danger. They are forced to travel through woods, swim rivers, dodge predators, and all with no clear sense of direction or leadership. They are fearful, cold, tired and drenched when they happen upon another warren. There they meet big, beautiful, well fed rabbits who seem strangely friendly and invite Hazel and the others to join them in their warren.
The rabbits quickly overcome any anxious feelings about the new rabbits and settle down to join their warren, only Fiver is ill at ease and refuses to have anything to do with them. Hazel is frustrated with Fiver’s insolent behavior. After some time in this new warren a rabbit is caught in a snare, to Hazel’s dismay the warren rabbits refuse to help free the trapped rabbit. Instead they abuse Fiver when he calls for help. Once the trapped rabbit is freed they decided to head back to the warren, but Fiver shouts out and calls for them to leave immediately. Still the rabbits believe in the safety of the warren. Finally Fiver explains to them the meaning of everything that had happened to them since the day they arrived.
Fiver explains that the warren and meadows are snared, traps set everywhere by the farmer. That is why the farmer throws out food for the rabbits, to fatten them for good meat and silky fur, it is also why the farmer shoots the prey animals. Fiver goes on to tell that all the warren rabbits know this, but they choose to stay - putting to the back of their minds that every now and again a few rabbits will disappear, never to be seen again.
“They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-hrairah (godlike mythical rabbit), for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price? They found out other marvelous arts to take the place of tricks and old stories. They danced in ceremonious greeting. They sang songs like the birds and made Shapes on the walls; and though these could help them not at all, yet they passed the time and enabled them to tell themselves that they were splendid fellows, the very flower of Rabbitry, cleverer than magpies...But one strict rule they had; oh yes, the strictest. No one must ever ask where another rabbit was and anyone who asked, ‘Where?’ – except in a song or a poem – must be silenced. To say ‘Where?’ was bad enough, but to speak openly of the wires – that was intolerable. For that they would scratch and kill.”
The stories told in Watership Down, and especially in Fiver’s above discourse, strike at my heart. Like the rabbits, I headed out of the warren and into the wild. Taking up my cross to follow after the real El-hrairah, not a godlike hero, but the God-Man hero; seeking to live by His stories.
What troubles me the most is that like these rabbits, I escaped death, but quickly find myself right back in it, only this time death is sly and massively deceptive. This new snare beckons me in with the promise of a full stomach and a good night’s sleep, with friends and fresh ideas. It says, “You have come so far and struggled so much. Rest here with me. See how happy and content I am? I will keep you safe.”
Is this not the opposite of what Jesus said? As I remember He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mat 8:20). And then there is Paul, a man like Fiver, who writes in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” This is what we are called to, to be like Fiver, to be like Paul.
I dare say we are called to the warren rabbits, not to the warren, not for a night’s sleep and certainly not to stay. But called to the warren rabbits none the less; for it is impossible to journey through life without meeting souls who are living in the “enemy’s warren”. We are called to speak and live truth, bidding others to join the journey into the wild, into freedom. Even in Richard Adam’s story we find a warren rabbit, Strawberry, joins Hazel’s group. Strawberry has known all along about the wire snares, but only after his doe is killed, when he hits rock bottom, does he choose to the leave the warren.
In Jude 1:20-23 we read, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear--hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
This is not an easy command to live up to, nor will it make you popular. Fiver wisely understood this, “…one strict rule they had; oh yes, the strictest. No one must ever ask where another rabbit was and anyone who asked, ‘Where?’ – except in a song or a poem – must be silenced. To say ‘Where?’ was bad enough, but to speak openly of the wires – that was intolerable. For that they would scratch and kill.”
Most will not want to hear the message of truth, Strawberry was the only one to leave the warren and follow after Hazel’s group. In fact, not only is the truth unpopular, but deadly, “for that they would scratch and kill.”
In 1 John 3:13 we are warned, “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.” Jesus also asks us to “count the cost” before setting out to follow him. Yet despite the cost, the story inspires.
In some respects I want to be like Fiver - a way out soul who knows the way out, but also like Hazel, a compassionate leader who is able to welcome in a rabbit who was longing to escape the ‘enemy’s warren’. Mostly I want to be like Jesus, the wild God-Man who had no warren on earth and lived His life as a journey on the way to the heavenly dwelling “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life”(2Cor5:4).