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Watership Down, Richard Adams’ highly praised fantasy, begins in a rabbit warren, Cowslip, on the South English downs. A young rabbit, Fiver, has premonitions of danger and warns his brother Hazel. Together with several other of the younger rabbits, they begin to consider leaving Cowslip. Fiver’s psychic power is established, but his warning is difficult for the others to heed: as rabbits, they are so much bound by tradition that an irrevocable break is not easy to contemplate. Fortunately for them, their final decision to leave the old warren is thrust upon them, just before Cowslip is gassed by humans who want to build a housing development in the area. The rabbits’ adventures in this first part of the story teach them to rely on their rabbit traditions and on one another; the value of these traditions is highlighted when they encounter a warren that has abandoned its inherited wisdom.

After some adventures along the way, the band eventually finds a dry and secure place to dig a new warren: Watership Down. This second part of the story emphasizes adjustment and change. The rabbits learn that their habits and traditions sometimes need to be changed: without losing their heritage, they must adapt it to novel situations. The migration of the bucks is now over, but since the band is exclusively male, they must find does in order for their warren to continue. They depart from tradition on two occasions, both of which will eventually be crucial to their success. They save a field mouse and nurse a wounded gull to health. Through the reconnaissance of the gull, they find a nearby warren and thereby locate a potential source of does. During this period, Hazel grows into the role of leader.

In the neighboring warren, Hazel encounters a Chief Rabbit who gives quite a different model of leadership: General Woundwort, a rabbit Napoleon. Not only does Woundwort reject the request of the Watership Down rabbits for the release of any does who care to leave, but also he conceives a plan to conquer Hazel’s band and force it to submit to his rule. Through a stratagem, the rabbits gain entry to Woundwort’s warren and make their escape with a large number of does, who are only too willing to join them.

The bucks and does make their way back to Watership Down, as Woundwort, bent on revenge, trails them with a powerful force. Woundwort then lays siege to Watership Down, and the climax of the story tells of the ensuing conflict. At this point, the distinctive abilities developed by Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig come into play: each contributes to the band’s final success. Woundwort disappears after his defeat, becoming thenceforward a part of the rabbit folklore, and Hazel and the others settle into a peaceful, pastoral life.

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