The Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares, Continued

Peter Rabbit Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit illustration by Beatrix Potter

Moving from myth and folklore to literature, rabbits and hares have appeared in several classic works of children’s fiction—most notably in The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) by the British author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. Potter had been raised virtually imprisoned in a drearily proper London household by strict Victorian parents. She found solace and escape during summer vacations spent in England’s Lake District. The country life she loved there is beautifully evoked in her animal stories. Despite little formal art training(she was allowed to take only twelve painting lessons at the age of seventeen), Potter taught herself to draw and paint by painstakingly observing and copying nature. Her charming stories of rabbit and mice, with their delicate, distinctive watercolor illustrations, were originally created as letters sent to children of her acquaintance. These little stories proved so popular that she attempted to find a commercial outlet for them, but settled on publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself after six companies turned her down. The print run sold out instantly, and caught the attention of editor Norman Warne at Frederick Warne & Company. Not onlydid he take on the publication of Potter’s books, but he fell in love with the author too — and Peter Rabbit went on to become one of the best loved animal stories of all time.

Marjorie Hack, Country Bunny

Country Bunny illustrated by Marjorie Hack

Other creatures in the Literary Rabbit Hall of Fame include Lewis Carroll’s natty, time-obsessed White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, as well as his wild-eyed March Hare, spouting nonsense at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Adrienne Sйgur, best known in America for her exquisite illustrations for The Golden Fairy Tale Book, started her illustration career in France in the 1930s with the publication of three rabbit tales: Aventures de Cotonnet; Cotonnet, aviateur; and Cotonnet en Amйrique.The Country Bunny and the Golden Shoes, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Hack, is a remarkable 1939 feminist treatment of the Easter Bunny. The little country bunny stands up to the bigger jack rabbits to become a special Easter Rabbit. The affable Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne is another character much loved by children, as is the stuffed toy bunny who comes magically to lifein Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit and, more recently, the devilish vampire rabbit in Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe. Lynn Reid Banks’ The Magic Hare isa sparkling collection contains ten folktales about magical hares, expertly retold by Banks and illustrated by American book artist Barry Moser.

Arthur Rackham, Mad Tea Party

Alice in Wonderland illustrated Arthur Rackham

In magical fiction for adult readers, Watership Down by Richard Adams is, of course, the great rabbit saga of our age, and comes complete with the mythological underpinnings of an elaborate rabbit mythology. Less well known, but also delightful, is Garry Kilworth’s Frost Dancers, a beguiling novel set among the hares inhabiting the Scottish highlands. A rabbit girl from the Sonoran desert of Arizona appears, rather shyly,in my own contemporary fantasy novel The Wood Wife; and one of her cousins subsequently turned up in the Arizona portion of Charles de Lint’s fine novel Forests of the Heart. Medicine Road, also by Charles de Lint, features a woman who was once a jackalope among its cast of characters, deperately trying to hang on to her human skin, human life, and human lover.Graham Joyce’s Limits of Enchantment is a gorgeous tale of midwifery, magic and the enchanted world of English hedgerows. It’s heroine is Fern Cullen, a crackling, smart girl, tricksterish like the hares who call her. Midori Snyder’s enchanting novel Hannah’s Garden contains one of the most compelling rabbit trickster figures in recent years, woven into a contemporary story about art, nature, Irish fiddle music, and the complexity of family bonds.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit by Ub Iwerks

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
by Ub Iwerks

In films and cartoons, Bugs Bunny is the best known rabbit trickster of our age — equal parts rascal and culture hero, he’s an absolutely classic trickster type. Before Bugs, however, came Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the first successful cartoon character created by the Walt Disney Studios. Pre–dating Micky Mouse, Oswald’s popularity peaked and plummeted in the 1930s. Thumper, the rabbit from the Disney film Bambi (1942), was another enormously popular figure — and became, oddly, an image used for World War II posters and insignia; one picture shows Thumper gleefully riding bronco–style on the back of a bomb.

In Harvey, the classic film of the 1950s, Jimmy Stewart played a man whose boon companion was a six–foot–three inch invisible rabbit; it’s a wonderful story that makes clever use of traditional Irish phooka legends. More recently, rabbits have appeared in the exuberantly animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in the bizarre horror flick The Night of the Lepus, and as a chilling presence in the stylish and surreal cult film Donnie Darko.

Thumper, Brian Froud

Thumper by Brian Froud,
an illustration from The Wood Wife

Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world – forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition. The precise meaning, then, of the ancient Three Hares symbol carved into my village church is bound to be just as elusive and mutable as the myths behind it. It is a goddess symbol, a trickster symbol, a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of death, redemption and rebirth…all these and so much more.

Now, as I walk through Devon lanes in the long twilight of a summer’s evening, rabbits dart out of the hedgerows, stare at me with unblinking eyes, and disappear again over the crest of the shadowed hills. I’m reminded of a 19th century children’s poem by Walter de la Mare:

In the black furror of a field
I saw an old witch-hare this night;
And she cocked a lissome ear,
And she eyed the moon so bright,
And she nibbled of the green;
And I whispered "Whsst! witch-hare,"
Away like a ghostie o’er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.

Rabbit Girl by Terri Windling

Bunny Girl by Terri WIndling

Further Reading

Rabbits Everywhere by Alicia Ezpeleta (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996)
Symbolic and Mythological Animals by J.C. Cooper (HarperCollins, 1992)
American Indian Trickster Tales edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (Viking, 1998)
African Folktales by Roger Abrahams (Pantheon, 1983)
Cajun Folk Tales by J.J. Reneaux (August House, 1992)
The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris (Houghton Mifflin edition, 2002)
The Magic Hare by Lynne Reid Banks (Harper Trophy, 1994)

Watership Down by Richard Adams (Rex Collins/Macmillan, 1972)
Frost Dancers by Garry Kilworth (HarperCollins, 1992)
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling (Tor, 1996)
Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint (Tor, 2000)
Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder (Viking, 2002)
Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce (Atria, 2005)
Medicine Road by Charles de Lint (Subterranean Press, 2004)

On the Web
The Three Hares Project