Rabbits Silly & Serious

Shel Silverstein died on this day in 1999. Silverstein said that he never studied poetry, and dropped out of any attempt to study art. His quirky style and worldview are evident in Runny Babbit, the “billy sook” which he worked away on for decades, and which was finally published in 2005. Runny and his family — “A sother and two bristers, / A dummy and a mad” — live in the same forest as Toe Jurtle, Polly Dorcupine, Pilly Belican, and Reverend Spooner. There young Runny suffers through picken chox and hopes to pe bresident, until he chops down a trerry chee:

Runny wanted to be a king,

So he crot himself a gown.

He then put on a rurple pobe

And strutted up and down.

He shouted to his friends, “Dow bown,

Dow bown and riss my king!”

But everybody laughed and said,

“Oh stop, you thilly sing.”

* * *

Richard Adams was born on this day in 1920. Adams has written ten novels, but most know him by his first, Watership Down. Compared to Silverstein, this presents an entirely different view of bunnydom, one which comes to Fiver in the first chapter as a vision of man-rabbit Armageddon: “I don’t know what it is…. There isn’t any danger here, at this moment. But it’s coming — it’s coming. Oh, Hazel, look! The field! It’s covered with blood!”

Adams rejects all efforts to read his novel as religious or political allegory, insisting that it is a children’s book pure and simple. Like a number of other classics for young readers — Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows and others — Watership Down originated as a story made up for young friends or family:

Well, one day we were going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Judi Dench in Twelfth Night. Before I said anything in particular my elder daughter, who was eight at the time, said “Now daddy we’re going on a long car journey, so we want you to while away the time by telling us a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!” …I just began off the top of my head: “Once upon a time there were two rabbits, called eh, let me see, Hazel and Fiver….”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.