The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

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.

Characters Discussed

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Hazel

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

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

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

Kehaar, the seagull who, after being helped by Hazel’s rabbit band shortly after their arrival at Watership Down, acts as their scout, looking for evidence of trouble, predators, and other rabbits. He periodically departs to go to the ocean but always returns to lend assistance to his friends. His odd accent adds comic relief to the story.

General Woundwort

General Woundwort, the dictator rabbit of Efrafa Warren. This rabbit runs his warren like a military garrison. All that occurs there is unnatural behavior for rabbits. The rabbits are not allowed to interact with one another, to feed when they normally would, or to breed and frolic. Woundwort maintains rigid control through a hierarchical system of officers and spies. Hazel and his rabbits fight Woundwort to liberate females for their warren. Woundwort is the personification of all that is unnatural in animal behavior. After Bigwig deals Woundwort a defeat, the rabbit disappears into the underbrush; he remains as a figure in the rabbits’ mythology.

Prince El-ahrairah

Prince El-ahrairah, the mythical founder and protector of the race of rabbits. His actions are recounted in tales that are interwoven throughout the story of Hazel and his band. Prince El-ahrairah is the emblem of all that is quintessentially rabbit: wiliness, cunning, playfulness, and a happy-go-lucky approach to life. The stories told about him by the rabbits mirror the predicaments and perils that Hazel’s group faces as it struggles to make its way to Watership Down and establish a new warren there. These rabbit stories are the myths and legends that provide explanations for who they are, how rabbits came to be, and what their relationship is to other races (species) in their universe. Although El-ahrairah gradually takes on the character of the Supreme Being of the rabbit world, the stories that the rabbits tell about him reflect the current status of Hazel’s group: If they are in danger, the story is serious; if they are secure, the tale is amusing and lighthearted.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé

The Black Rabbit of Inlé, a rabbit spirit who counsels El-ahrairah about the white blindness plague when he is in need of help.

Strawberry

Strawberry, a young rabbit who travels with Hazel’s group and who eventually becomes an adviser in the Watership Down warren.

Laurel

Laurel, one of the domesticated black angora rabbits at Nuthanger Farm.

Boxwood

Boxwood, a domesticated black-and-white Himalayan rabbit at Nuthanger Farm and the mate of the female Haystack, also a Himalayan. Hazel and his rabbits rescue these rabbits from their domestic captivity.

Clover

Clover, a domesticated black angora rabbit liberated from Nuthanger Farm by Hazel’s band.

Themes and Characters

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The concern for the environment and the focus on leadership combine to form the central theme of the novel, which is the formation of community. In the leporine world of Watership Down, community is achieved when a group of individuals share a common purpose in life, realize that cooperation is essential to survival, and trust the complementary talents of others.

The wandering escapees of Sandleford encounter two other societies. Cowslip warren at first seems delightful; its rabbits are well-fed and uncrowded. Its bounty is deceiving, however; the warren survives only as a farmer's colony, well-fed in order to provide an occasional, inevitable stew to the man's table. The Cowslip rabbits understand their plight, but lack the will or the wisdom to combat it.

To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous. The first reaction is to startle, the second to bolt.
If Cowslip warren is pampered and imprisoned, Efrafa warren is fiercely independent. To preserve itself, however, Efrafa has developed a militaristic, fascist state under the rule of a ruthless, ever-vigilant leader. Efrafa lets no native rabbit leave and enslaves outsiders who wander into its territory.

When the Sandleford refugees establish their own warren at Nuthanger Farm on Watership Down, they preserve the freedom that Cowslip surrendered in exchange for ease, and they create the solidarity that Efrafa could impose only by force. Adams remarked once that he strives to portray an "animality" which corresponds to "humanity"; i.e. those ground rules which harmonize the competing interests of the individual and the group. Watership Down argues that cooperation, self-control, and self-sacrifice are as crucial to animality as to humanity.

Because the effort by Hazel's band is a communal one, none of the rabbits emerges as a dominant personality. Together they act as the novel's protagonist. Each represents a skill, talent, or disposition that makes the community flourish. Hazel is a planner, the one who realizes what tasks must be done and has the courage to face up to danger. Bigwig is physically strong and courageous; he provides brawn and is the group's fighter. Fiver is the prophet and seer, sensitive to the omens and premonitions that precede conscious decisions. Holly is the loyal subordinate, ready to lend brain or brawn as circumstances demand.

The rabbits are aided by a seagull, Kehaar, whom Hazel had fed and sheltered when it was injured. In return Kehaar aids in the attack on Efrafa. It is a remarkable instance, to the animal characters, of cooperation between species. Kehaar provides comic relief as well as tactical assistance; he speaks English with an Eastern European accent that must be read aloud to be appreciated.

The one malevolent character is General Woundwort, the tyrant of Efrafa. Having escaped death several times as a young rabbit, Woundwort believes in rule with an iron paw: only constant vigilance, severe discipline, and willingness to inflict pain ensure survival. Woundwort is a terrible antagonist, coming within a hare's breadth of capturing Hazel's band. The hare whose breadth Woundwort cannot overcome is Bigwig, who courageously stymies the General's attack in a dark tunnel.

A final important character appears in the interpolated narratives. Six times the main action pauses while a rabbit tells a tale of El-ahrairah, a legendary rabbit hero. These tales of rabbit heroics against traditional enemies, even against the "gods," embody in one character the diverse qualities of Hazel's band. The stories of El-ahrairah form an incremental commentary on the nature of animality: the cunning and courage to face enemies, the wisdom and foresight to flee when cunning is not possible, and the willingness to risk one's self for others when flight is impossible.

Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

Because the effort by Hazel's band is a communal one, none of the rabbits emerges as a dominant personality. Together they act as the novel's protagonist. Each individual represents a skill, talent, or disposition which makes the community flourish. Hazel is a planner, the one who realizes what tasks must be done and has the courage to face up to the necessity for dangerous ones. Bigwig is physically strong and courageous: He provides brawn and fights first. Fiver is the prophet and seer, sensitive to the omens and premonitions that precede conscious decisions. Holly is the loyal subordinate, ready to lend brain or brawn as circumstances demand.

Hazel's band is aided by a sea gull, Kehaar. Hazel feeds and shelters Kehaar when the gull is injured, and in return Kehaar aids in the attack on Efrafa. It is a remarkable instance, to the animal characters, of cooperation between species. Kehaar provides comic relief as well as tactical assistance; he speaks English with an Eastern European accent that must be read aloud to be appreciated.

The one malevolent character is General Woundwort, the tyrant of Efrafa. Barely having escaped death several times as a young rabbit, Woundwort believes in rule with an iron paw: only constant vigilance, severe discipline, and willingness to inflict pain insure survival. Woundwort is a terrible antagonist, coming within a hare's breadth of capturing Hazel's band. The hare whose breadth Woundwort cannot overcome is Bigwig who courageously stymies the General's attack in a dark tunnel below ground.

A final and important character appears in the interpolated narratives. Six times the main action pauses while some rabbit tells a tale of Elahrairah, a legendary rabbit hero. These tales of rabbit derring-do against traditional enemies, even against the "gods," embody in one character the diverse qualities of Hazel's band. The stories of Elahrairah form an incremental commentary on the nature of animality: the cunning and courage to face enemies, the wisdom and foresight to flee when cunning is not possible, and the willingness to risk one's self for others when flight is impossible.

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