A writer’s chief problem in an animal fable is establishing a delicate balance: on the one hand, if the characters behave exactly as their real-world counterparts do, the story has nothing to say to or about human beings. On the other hand, if the “animals” behave exactly like human beings, if their motives, desires, and decisions are all human ones, then they have no reason to appear in what is merely an animal disguise. In Watership Down, however, the reader is never allowed to forget that the characters are rabbits who pursue lapin purposes with virtues and vices peculiar to their species. Yet Adams also succeeds in involving the reader deeply in the rabbits’ successes and failures and in individualizing them, endowing them with personalities that evoke understanding and sympathy.
One of the most interesting and well-developed characters is one who appears in a story-within-a-story: the rabbits’ chief means of transmitting traditional wisdom is the telling of folktales. These tales mainly concern Prince El-ahrairah, the primal rabbit in their creation myths. The stories of the prince are important to the main plot as well: time and again, the rabbits of Watership Down will tell a story of Prince El-ahrairah to hearten or to enlighten one another. The prince’s stature among the rabbits is compared to Robin Hood’s among the English or John Henry’s among American blacks. His adventures often remind one of those of Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit (to whom Adams alludes), or even of those of another more famous trickster, Odysseus. If the story of the Watership Down rabbits is set in a secondary world, that of Prince El-ahrairah takes place in a tertiary one. It is a measure of Adams’ brilliance that even this world twice removed from the reader’s seems vividly clear. Its central character, the prince, is not static: although he begins as a trickster, he ends as something like a savior. As the band on Watership Down finds itself more and more threatened, the stories its members tell of El-ahrairah become more and more solemn: the Prince shifts slowly from Brer Rabbit to the Father of his People and their intercessor with the Supreme Being. The stories told of El-ahrairah mirror the tensions of the main plot. At quiet times, the tales are comic and their hero is a clever trickster; when times are dangerous, the stories of El-ahrairah become serious and lofty ones of a leader who lays down his life for his people. For example, after the band has returned successfully to Watership Down with their does, their spirits rise, and they tell a lighthearted story of the prince hoodwinking a dog.
The characters in the main story are also strongly drawn: Hazel, the group’s quick-witted leader, grows into his role. Bigwig and Hazel’s brother Fiver are loyal followers, the first notable chiefly for his size and strength, and the second more of a prophet than anything else. Even Kehaar, the seagull, has a clearly delineated personality.
Hazel, one of the rabbits forced to leave Cowslip Warren when it is destroyed by encroaching civilization. He is a young buck rabbit who eventually matures into a wise leader of his warren at Watership Down. Hazel undertakes to guide the rabbits across country to safety; in the course of their travels, he outwits humans, other beasts, natural disasters, and the evil dictator of Efrafa Warren, General Woundwort. Hazel’s character is similar to those of such wily tricksters of myth and folktale as Brer Rabbit, Coyote, Odysseus, and Robin Hood. Eventually, Hazel establishes another warren on the Belt, made up of rabbits from Watership Down and Woundwort’s Efrafa Warren.
Fiver, the runt brother in Hazel’s litter. Although he is physically weaker than the others, Fiver can see the future, often clouded in myth, allegory,...
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