Watership Down Essays and Criticism
by Richard Adams

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Themes of the Hero's Journey

(Novels for Students)

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Throughout prehistory and history, people have told stories of wanderers who, seeking a better life, travel through adversity, danger, and hardship to a new home. Richard Adams's Watership Down is a classic example of this "quest" story, and in his epigrams to the chapters, Adams pays homage to previous literary quests, citing John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur about the quests of noble knights; the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest quest stories known; Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examines quest myths and stories worldwide; and Walter de la Mare's poem "The Pilgrim," and in the text, he mentions that "Odysseus [the mythical Greek wanderer] might have borrowed a trick or two from the rabbit hero."

In the classic quest, according to Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero, in this case Hazel, is called to leave home and begin a new life. Fiver's prophetic vision, which is sparked by the human scent of a cigarette butt lying in the grass, is of the field where they live, covered with blood. This sense of the imminent, violent destruction of their old life leads Hazel, Fiver, and a few other rabbits to leave their comfortable warren—where no danger is yet evident—in search of a new home, which Fiver intuits will be a high, clean hill, far from humans and other dangers. Joseph Campbell calls this stage of the journey "the call to adventure," and writes that this call "signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown."

This means that the journeyers can no longer count on things they previously did, and that once they leave home, they must contend with a variety of dangers, both seen and unseen, some physical, some psychological. Like other wanderers, the rabbits must break out of their accustomed patterns of thought and try new things—such as crossing a river on a raft made of an old wooden notice board, digging a home for themselves, and making friends with a mouse and a seagull; must escape from predators such as dogs and foxes, and must contend with subtle, hidden dangers. When the sleek, ultra civilized rabbit Cowslip invites them to his wealthy warren, at first they are lulled by its prosperity and peace, and by the physical health and ease of its inhabitants. They are in great danger, but none of them know it except Fiver, whose intuition tells him this is a dangerous place and that death is near. They finally discover, almost too late, that a nearby farmer is snaring the rabbits, but not before Bigwig is snared and almost killed. Campbell calls this phase of the journey "the road of trials," and tells of the tests, ordeals, and dangers that other heroes faced in dreams, literature, and myths from all over the world.

The rabbits finally leave the treacherous warren and make their exhausted way to Watership Down, where they begin digging a new home. No quest is that easy, however; as Campbell wrote, "The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path." The rabbits realize that it's not enough to find a home; they must also secure a future for themselves, and without families and offspring this is impossible. They need to find female rabbits, and this need sparks two perilous expeditions: one to a nearby farm where humans and dangerous cats and dogs lurk, the other to Efrafa, a repressive, totalitarian warren from which no rabbit has ever escaped alive. Like the larger journey to Watership Down, both of these journeys are fraught with perils, ordeals, and trials involving predators, treacherous terrain, doubt, and fear. In the end, both expeditions succeed, but not without great cost; rabbits are injured and changed forever, and some are killed. Like many heroes of the great quest myths, the rabbits face the presence of death, and although they survive, they are never the same.

They also...

(The entire section is 4,166 words.)