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...
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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, and allusion. Fiver frequently falls into a troubled fit during which he dreams what will befall his rabbit band; these dreams presage encounters with enemies such as General Woundwort and farmers.
Bigwig, another Cowslip Warren rabbit who travels with Hazel to Watership Down. He is notable primarily for his physical strength, bravery, and willingness to defend his friends, Hazel in particular. Bigwig is instrumental in getting the rabbits of the Mark under General Woundwort’s control to cooperate in Hazel’s plan to liberate does for his warren at Watership Down. He also saves Hazel from the cat while they are at Nuthanger Farm trying to liberate the domesticated rabbits. It is Bigwig who deals the defeating blow to General Woundwort.
Kehaar, the seagull who,...
(The entire section is 701 words.)