The dog leapt forward and picked up the leveret hidden in the grass - and suddenly we joined the select band of hare-owners. As Mother Hare would have rejected a baby covered with dog-slobber, we saw no alternative to adopting the leveret, which we named Flossy, after a great-aunt. The poor thing spent all her time pining for the great outdoors, until one day when, startled by neighbours, she gave a great bound and broke her neck on the inside of her hutch. After that we stuck to rabbits, all of which we also named Flossy, even if male.

One Greek term for "rabbit" is "half-hare", and certainly a bunny is less than half the man, or creature, that a hare is. Hares are quite a different ball of fur: the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin found them a welcome contrast to bourgeois bunnies.

In Hare, Simon Carnell trawls through the art, legend, law and literature of this elusive quadruped that has had a more-than-fleeting presence in our culture. Br'er Rabbit derives from African tales of a trickster hare. Until a century and a half ago, more packs of dogs hunted hares than chased foxes. A statute from the time of Richard II insists that only landed gentry be allowed to hunt hares; peasants used the sport as cover for seditious gatherings. Coincidentally or otherwise, Karl Marx reported on the Rhine Provincial Assembly banning the peasants from hunting hares - and immediately wrote his first explicitly political essay.

Hares are so elusive, being able to hit 45mph and jump sideways to avoid leaving a scent trail, that bizarre legends grew up about them: they had tiny horns; they changed sex; they slept with their eyes open; they turned into witches; they kept one ear forward to catch the wind, like a spinnaker on a racing yacht; eating Lepus timidus made you timid.

They were supposed to suffer from depression. How could you tell? It would be tricky to get a hare to free-associate on a couch. However, they certainly attracted psychiatrically challenged poets such as John Clare, who wrote a sonnet about them, and William Cowper, who had several as pets. Edward Lear wrote a limerick in which "hare" is rhymed with "despair". I can't be precise about the sanity, or lack of it, of the 20th-century German artist Joseph Beuys, but one of his "performances", How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, involved his pouring honey and gold leaf over his head and walking around a gallery with a dead hare in his arms while lecturing to it about the exhibits.

This is such an intriguing survey that it seems cruel to split hairs, or hares, with the author. However, like his subject, he does tend to leap about all over the place. Given that the book is concerned with our misapprehensions about this animal, and the cultural baggage with which we have lumbered its slender frame, there should have been a concise factual section to establish a few basics. It doesn't help to bound, as Carnell does within the space of a single page, from a wild hare's probable survival time of a year, to an epigram by the 4th-century poet Ausonius, to the increasing loss of habitat, to Robinson Crusoe, and finally to the 1972 horror film Night of the Lepus.

Most distressing is the way in which the author loses himself in the thickets of cultural studies-speak. In the 12 pages he devotes to - or, rather, squanders on - the honey-headed Beuys, he says of that laughable lecture to the animal corpse: "The piece partakes of that secret narrative in Beuys's work which has to do with obliquely evoking and mourning Nazi atrocities." Lewis Carroll's March Hare and Mad Hatter together couldn't have put it better.

Fortunately Carnell is infinitely better at discussing the real artworks, which are strikingly reproduced on the glossy paper of this well-produced paperback. Dürer's Young Hare, probably the first picture based on a live animal and still celebrated five centuries later, is "curiously dignified". Hares became a striking feature in still-life - or still-death - paintings: "There are perhaps few things deader or 'stiller' than a dead hare." It is a reminder that if death can snare this lively creature, there is certainly no escape for us plodding human beings.

There is more hare-brained (in a good way) literature than you might think, from Piers Plowman to Ted Hughes. Carnell concludes with a poem of his own that sums up the material very satisfyingly. Missing from the literary chapter is anything theatrical. There is no hare-ish equivalent of the excellent War Horse. We await a dramatist brave enough to take on this theme. David Hare springs to mind.

Simon Carnell
Reaktion Books, 224pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope