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Watership Down, winner of the 1973 Carnegie Medal and the 1973 Guardian Award, is a complicated work of fantasy. It is too realistic to fulfill J. R. R. Tolkien’s requirements for an animal fable yet too fantastic to be merely a nature study. Adams’ book is most often assigned to the inappropriate category of “children’s fiction” and has even inspired an animated film, produced in 1978, marketed for children. The grim tale of the flight of a band of rabbits from annihilation, their unnatural and fearful travels in the English countryside, and their colonization of the idyllic Watership Down does not depict life as a children’s book might. It portrays both the hard life that animals face and their usually brutal deaths, in this way more reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) than traditional animal fantasy.

Another understanding of Adams’ classic comes from the English epic genre, following in the footsteps of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Like The Hobbit, Watership Down is separated from most other epics by its use of animal heroes. Some scholars deny Watership Down’s epic qualities with the assertions that the primary character, Hazel, is not a hero on the scale of Aeneas or Aragorn and that the book lacks the qualities of heroic prose even within the unconventional genres of fantasy and science fiction. Hazel, named Hazel-rah (Prince Hazel) by his followers, might be seen as fulfilling the role of hero in the miniature scale of wildlife. A rabbit, no matter how brave, will never achieve the fame of a human being. Hazel’s bravery in leading his followers from a threatened warren, in ignoring his instincts and traveling in the countryside (a target for any of the “thousand enemies” of his kind), and in following a dream to an unknown future defines his heroic stature in the world of rabbits, if not in that of humans. Hazel’s acceptance into the Black Rabbit’s Owsla indicates that he is a legend among rabbits.

Some critics of the English epic outside the science-fiction and fantasy genres allow that a work can fulfill the spirit of epic without necessarily being heroic. Seriousness of language and form, a directing purpose or goal for the heroes’ quest, and a close connection to the world of the author are as easily fulfilled by Adams’ classic as by Homeric verse. The ten square miles of countryside, small to humans and yet a world to rabbits, become a universe as broad as Odysseus’, and Fiver’s vision of the hills is a grail worthy of King Arthur.

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Critical Context