Incarnational Analogies: The Soteriology of The Runaway Bunny

Margaret Wise Brown’s classic children’s story The Runaway Bunny1 (illustrated by Clement Hurd) has garnered scant scholarly attention since its publication in 1942, although academic interest in the book was briefly revived in the 1990s by the publication of Margaret Edson’s debut play Wit, in which the story is referred to as “a little allegory of the soul.”2 Unfortunately, Brown’s story has largely ceased to garner serious scholarly attention either from literary scholars or from theological commentators.

The book’s plot is deceptively simple: a young bunny imagines a series of bizarre escape attempts, but his mother persistently relates how she can subvert each attempt.   The little bunny is given no specific motive for wanting to depart from his home and his mother, and the initial ambiguity of conscious motive on the part of the protagonist is a jarring opening to the story.  Indeed, the reader is left to guess whether the bunny feels he has been subject to mistreatment, or whether he has simply fallen prey to an Augustinian restlessness of heart.  Immediately after the little bunny announces his decision to run away, the mother bunny states decisively, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”  Her abrupt insistence precipitates a series of imagined scenarios in which the little bunny exclaims that he will transform himself into a different entity, whether another kind of animal or an inanimate object.  Each time, the mother bunny indicates that she intends to transform herself into an entity or object associated with the little bunny’s preferred state, and thus the story is structured by the dialectical play of imagination and counter-imagination.

The theological implications of the plot are profound.  Martha Greene Eads favorably compares The Runaway Bunny to seventeenth century religious poetry, saying “the children’s book preaches the irresistible grace for which Donne’s poetry expresses a deep longing.”3  Indeed, a number of the mother bunny’s transformations evoke images from the Gospels, though past critics have not remarked on the specifically Christological nature of these images, nor have they explored the various ways in which the mother bunny’s transformations provide analogies to the Incarnation.

The first transformation is especially telling: the little bunny states that he will become a fish, and the mother replies, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”  The statement recalls Jesus’s words to the disciples: “I will make you fishers of men,” but it also parallels the descent of God into the world to seek fallen humanity, and while the mother bunny does not intend to become a fish as her child does, her entrance into the trout stream in pursuit of her little bunny suggests the entrance of God into the human body of Mary.  In a later episode, the little bunny says that he will become a bird, whereas the mother says that she will become “a tree that you come home to,” recalling both Jesus’s statement that “birds of the air have nests” and the death of Jesus on a cross, which is sometimes referred to as a tree.  At another point in the story, the little bunny decides that he will become a flower hidden in a garden, so the mother bunny decides that she will become a gardner.  There is a double significance of the garden, for it evokes both the garden of Eden and the garden in which Jesus is buried.  After the Resurrection, Jesus is mistaken for a gardner by one of the women who has come to tend his body, and the episode further solidifies the identification of the mother bunny with Christ.

Even in those episodes that do not directly parallel biblical images or events, the book’s illustrations depict the mother bunny always entering into the little bunny’s imagined world in a form that is recognizably leporidae in substance even though she takes on the shape and appearance of objects appropriate to the little bunny’s immediate surroundings.  Thus, the analogy to the Incarnation is only partially present throughout much of the book, since the mother bunny does not take on a form identical to the little bunny’s until the last transformation in which the little bunny states that he will become a little boy and the mother bunny counters by stating that she will become the boy’s mother.  Only in this final transformation does the mother take on a form that is substantially identical to that taken on by the little bunny, and it is at this point that the story reaches its emotional climax.  Immediately afterward, the little bunny forsakes his attempts to abscond.  Resolving the plot’s conflict at this point emphasizes that it is the fullest manifestation of the incarnational analogy that garners the little bunny’s spiritual acquiescence.

One potential objection to the identification of the mother bunny with Jesus is the obvious difference in gender.  However, the portrayal of a mother figure as Christ is not Brown’s own innovation; on the contrary, depictions of the motherly qualities of Christ are a significant if minor feature of the larger Christological tradition.  The best known example is the Showings of Julian of Norwich, in which Julian details the virtues of Christ that properly resemble a mother figure.  Such an identification of Christ with a female figure may seem strained, and yet Brown handles the analogy with subtle ingenuity, and the even tone of the dialogue softens the potentially controversial implications of the theological analogies. It is true that the book’s Christological imagery risks placing Brown’s story nearer to the margins of the Christian soteriology than to its center, and yet the book utilizes its quasi-orthodox imagery to portray a more broadly orthodox analogy to the Incarnation.

Notes:
1. Brown, Margaret Wise. The Runaway Bunny. New York: Scholastic, 1942.
2. Edson, Margaret. Wit. New York: Faber, 1999.
3. Eads, Martha Greene. “Unwitting Redemption in Margaret Edson’s Wit.” Christianity and Literature 51 (2002): 241-54.

Image Credit

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Steve Schuler holds a Ph.D. in English and is the father of three young children who show remarkable patience with his digressive critical remarks during story time.

2 Comments

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for these reflections, Steve, and I think you have accurately pinpointed the core theme of loving pursual for the purpose of being-with that appears in so much literature and is the heart of the incarnation.

    When reading your reflections, I also immediately thought of one way parents can embody Christ-likeness to their children, that is, by selflessly and enthusiastically entering into their imaginative worlds, affirming their creativity and coming alongside them in their playfulness. So, Runaway Bunny not only contains incarnational analogies, but motivates us to live incarnationally with children.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Steve, thanks for these wonderful reflections on Runaway Bunny. I’ve read the book many times to my children, and I am sure that your reflections will enrich my future readings.

    I was thinking that another interesting parallel with the incarnation might be found in the very traditional idea that the incarnation is not simply about becoming like humanity, but also about God accommodating himself to humanity’s needs and limitations. This is certainly an important idea both for Ireneaus and Athanasius. I wondered if it might speak to Brown’s choice to make the mother bunny turn into a fisherman and not simply a fish, a tree and not simply a bird, etc. God, like a mother, knows the needs of his children. Ireneaus, in fact, connects the incarnation to Paul’s suggestion that the immature in faith need spiritual milk, and there is that bizarre, yet strangely appropriate, medieval tradition of the lactating Christ.

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