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...
(The entire section is 502 words.)