Themes of the Hero's Journey

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1581 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 grow through their adventures. Hazel matures from a yearling with potential into a calm, wise, balanced, and beloved leader. Bigwig mellows from a rather overbearing type into a seasoned, compassionate, and protective old soldier who is loved by the young rabbits, and Fiver's prophetic and intuitive gifts are respected as the ultimate source of guidance and safety in the warren. "As long as we've got some of that," Hazel says of this gift, "I dare say we'll be all right."

Journeyers in all ages will recognize this pattern. Even in modern times, those who take to the road undergo these same phases of leaving home, facing trials and dangers, and sometimes even death, and of being buoyed up by intuition, a connection to mystery, and coincidence. In The Archetype of Pilgrimage, Jean Dalby Clift and Wallace B. Clift quote Alan Nichols, who rode a bicycle through Central Asia and was lost in a blizzard: "I accepted the fact that I was going to die ... I told myself I would fight to survive as long as I could. I prayed. After a time, the first of my miracles occurred. The snow storm stopped, the wind died down, and the sky cleared leaving only a huge full moon in the sky. I took that to be a sign that I would survive."

This is remarkably similar to the tale of the rabbits in Watership Down, who tell stories of their gods and heroes and draw upon their strength in dangerous times. When Holly, Silver, Buckthorn, and Strawberry escape from Efrafa, they experiences a miracle in the form of a train that thunders down the track they have just crossed and cuts off the rabbit soldiers pursuing them. When Hazel is shot by men and left bleeding to death in a drainage ditch, he is found and saved only because Fiver, in a vision, sees where he is and summons help.

At Efrafa, the danger is both physical and mental—rabbits are tortured and killed, and they are also deprived of free speech and the right to think independently. In a harrowing scene, the dissident Blackavar is exposed for all to see, his ears ripped to shreds, as he pathetically mumbles his crime: wanting to leave Efrafa. Bigwig courageously goes to Efrafa and, with the help of the other rabbits and the seagull Kehaar, manages to escape, bringing female rabbits from Efrafa with him. A very similar, but true, story of an escape from a totalitarian prison is told in Slavomir Rawicz's gripping book, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, in which Rawicz describes his and his companions' three-thousand-mile trek across Siberia, through China and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and across the Himalayas to India in the early 1940s, after their escape from a Siberian prison camp in the Soviet Union. Like the rabbits in Efrafa, Rawicz learned early on that "the prisoner was left in no doubt that a deviation off course to right or left would mean death from the carbine or pistol of the guards marching two paces behind him." Blackavar, who likewise is always accompanied by two burly guards, tells Bigwig what he has been taught to say: "Every Mark should see how I have been punished as I deserve for my treachery in trying to leave the warren."

Another aspect of the classic journey is that when the journey is over, the journeyer must share the story with others, thus inspiring them. At the end of the book, the rabbit Vilthuril tells the young rabbits the story of the wandering rabbits' adventure, except that now it has been incorporated into the rabbits' body of myth; Hazel and the others have become the rabbit hero El-ahrairah and his people, and Cowslip's wealthy, civilized warren is now a place where all the rabbits "were in the power of a wicked spell. They wore shining collars round their necks and sang like the birds and some of them could fly." Likewise, Kehaar the seagull has become "a great white bird which spoke to [El-ahrairah] and blessed him."

Just because the rabbits' true story has become amplified into myth, however, does not mean that it is now distorted. As Gregg Levoy wrote in Callings, "myths may not be literally true, but they are psychologically true. The pattern of breaking away from home, undergoing trials, and experiencing change and growth as a result is something that everyone, in every age and culture, can relate to and learn from. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the success of Watership Down." Levoy wrote that two similar stories, the Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz, are not just the stories of Odysseus and of Dorothy, and in the same way, Watership Down is the story of everyone who struggles to find the way home. Above all, Levoy noted, these and similar quest stories are "stories of transformation: from chaos to form, from being lost to finding our way. They describe the stages of life, the initiations we all go through as we move from one level to another: child to adult, young to old, single to married, cowardly to courageous, life to death, death to life."

Source: Kelly Winters, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Winters is a freelance writer and editor and has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers.

Old Worlds and New: Anti-Feminism in Watership Down

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Writers of fantasy enjoy the incomparable opportunity to create the world anew, but they suffer from the same problem as Archimedes, who said he could move the world with a system of levers if only he were given a place to stand apart. In creating the new world of Watership Down (Macmillan), Richard Adams stands squarely in the old one. His novel draws upon not only epic and picaresque literary traditions but also an anti-feminist social tradition which, removed from the usual human context and imposed upon rabbits, is eerie in its clarity.

Watership Down well deserves the Carnegie Medal and the praise it has won from critics and reviewers, for Adams has created a splendid story, admirable for its originality as much as for its craft. Since the stereotype to which the female characters conform dictates their colorlessness and limits their social range, they are so peripheral they are scarcely noticeable. Its anti-feminist bias, therefore, damages the novel in only a minor way.

A literary work may survive such flaws as peripheral prejudice or cruelty or racism. It is important that the soldier in Andersen's "The Tinderbox" gratuitously murders the old woman and does so with impunity; it is important that the elephants in the Babar books sometimes seem more human than the "savages." But despite what may be viewed as ethical lapses, these stories still merit qualified praise. Just so, it is important that in Watership Down, Richard Adams has grafted exalted human spirits to the rabbit bodies of his male characters and has made the females mere rabbits. The males are superhuman and the females subhuman, creatures who occupy only a utilitarian place in the novel's world. That fact is important, notwithstanding the artistic merit of the work as a whole.

Adams' band of rabbit refugees who escape the poison gas and bulldozers of a housing project are not the sweet bunny rabbits that have accompanied the treacle into the nursery ever since imitators first bowdlerized Beatrix Potter's miniature hair-raisers. No. The refugees are literal rabbits, subject to the dictates of biology, to the compulsions of their reproductive impulses, their hunger, and their need for shelter. So they recognize and name every plant they encounter, or they feel inborn terror when they smell a dog approaching.

The refugees owe their survival and the establishment of a new warren to the variety of their talents. They exhibit admirable human traits—bravery to support their daring; the common-sense kind of wisdom; originality; reverence for history tempered by flexibility; compassion. The group includes a bard, a politician, a seer, a soldier, and even an intellectual. As they travel together, they improvise a new community which not only accommodates but values their great differences. Thus, it seems an enormously civilized and humane society, an association of equals whose personal gifts are recognized. But the members of this civilized society are all males.

To my mind, a just community is a cooperative venture which enriches individual lives instead of restricting them for the supposed good of the group. Even when membership is exclusive, one can admire fictitious community where one finds it—in a rathole with Mole and Ratty in The Wind in the Willows (Scribner) or on a journey through Mirkwood in The Hobbit (Houghton)—if one ignores any deprived class. So Kenneth Grahame and J. R. R. Tolkien wisely avoid the intrusion of females into the fraternity, just as cultivated gentlemen lock the massive doors of their oak-and-leather clubs. The illusion of civilization, of equalitarian warmth and respect, could hardly be maintained in the presence of a declassed group.

Richard Adams himself avoids that problem throughout the first half of Watership Down, which describes the itinerants' perilous journey. Like Grahame and Tolkien, he simply omits females from consciousness. However, when the rabbit troupe settle down, they begin to long for female companionship, a longing based on afterthought.

For one thing, they'd like to have some females around to do the work: In established warrens, nubile females do all of the serious digging. Adams has so skillfully bridged the distance between rabbits and people that, whoever digs the burrows in rabbit reality, one easily draws conclusions from Adams' rabbit fiction about the appropriate roles of men and women. The girl who rescues chief Hazel from a barnyard cat's jaws receives her orders from men with a lapine docility that reinforces this rabbit/human connection.

Additional considerations also bring females to the refugees' minds. As Hazel observes, "We have no does—not one—and no does means no kittens and in a few years no warren." The narrator further explains the need for females after Hazel kidnaps two does from Nuthanger Farm:

The kind of ideas that have become natural to many male human beings in thinking of females—ideas of protection, fidelity, romantic love and so on—are, of course, unknown to rabbits, although rabbits certainly do form exclusive attachments.... However, they are not romantic and it came naturally to Hazel and Holly to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren. Although the males are rarely called bucks but are individually designated by name and collectively referred to as rabbits, the females are usually called does, a distinction analogous to the classifications people and women with reference to human males and females. For all its subtlety, that is a psychologically charged distinction, as Simone de Beauvoir suggested when she wrote that there are two classes of people, human beings and women. When women try to be human beings, she said, they are accused of acting like men.

Furthermore, the narrator makes it clear that only two alternatives exist in relations between sexes, the human way of romantic idolatry or the rabbit way of animal husbandry. In either case, the female is deprived of anything like the participation granted male members of the brotherhood by virtue of their maleness. Consorting with females seems to be an onerous necessity.

Eventually the refugees act on their longing and raid Efrafa, a neighboring rabbit police state. Of the ten does who willingly escape the totalitarian rule of General Woundwort, only two are even superficially characterized. One is a scatter-brained youngster who reveals the escape plan by chattering uncontrollably to Efrafan officers. All of the others, except Hyzenthlay, are powerless to act on their own initiative—paralyzed by fear at every critical turn.

Only Hyzenthlay possesses courage or dignity. She is a seer, gifted like the male Fiver, with prophetic vision. And like Dandelion, the refugees' bard, she is an artist, a poet whose lament resembles primitive poetry. But her artistic energies, like her determination to escape, are biologically directed, for what she laments is lost opportunities for reproduction. Although the males' sex makes demands upon them, as do their needs for food and shelter, sex does not dictate every form and detail of their lives. But Hyzenthlay is first and only a female, with her poetry seeming merely an aspect of her femaleness. Indeed, since her talents are neither admired nor even noticed, the rabbits of Hazel's warren consult her only as mate, not as prophet or bard. With motherhood, her poetry apparently ends.

A male victim of Efrafan violence says without correction when a fox kills one of the females, "What's a doe more or less?" He accepts the leader's decisions automatically, even forgetting his own opinions if they differ from those of the chief. Asked if her thought processes are like those of the Efrafan male, Hyzenthlay cryptically replies, "I'm a doe." After her brief heroism in the run for freedom, Hyzenthlay turns, in accordance with her sexual definition, to the roles of mate and mother. Her presence on stage is so brief, though, it hardly matters.

Watership Down survives the flawed characterization and the discrepancy between the richness of the male rabbits' lives and the spiritual penury of the females'. Although it seems odd that Adams counters an ugly totalitarian society with a system where females are merely interchangeable ciphers, one easily ignores that discrepancy too, because the females are unessential baggage, present only to motivate the male characters, not necessary to the story for their own individual sakes.

All of this is important, like the murder of Andersen's expendable old woman and like the beastiality of Babar's black neighbors. Within the framework of an otherwise delightful story, Richard Adams has embodied an anti-feminism which deprives his female characters of the spiritual fruit of community.

Source: Jane Resh Thomas, "Old Worlds and New: Anti-Feminism in Watership Down," in Horn Book, Vol. 50, No. 4, August 1974, pp. 405-08.

Letter from England: Great Leaping Lapins!

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Watership Down is presently a name to conjure with. An extraordinary feat of sustained narrative, the novel appeared in England towards the end of 1972. The coterie critics got excited before it was even published, the reviewers duly raved, and everyone who bothers at all about children's books (and some who don't) have now formed extreme opinions—this being one of those books about which it is not easy, if at all possible, to be neutral. I've no doubt that, as with Alice, the hobbits, and Batman, there'll be cultishness to cope with before long.

I gather Macmillan is bringing it out in the States, and I shall be fascinated to discover the kind of response this quintessentially English book stirs in American commentators. As I wouldn't want to steal one rumble of their thunder, my instinctive impulse to launch into a detailed revelation of all that makes this epic novel so unusual is as instinctively frustrated. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly report on children's books in this country without saying something about it, however tantalizing, however premature it might be.

Watership Down was written by Richard Adams, who, it turns out, is an official in the Department of the Environment—a biographical nicety not without ironic overtones, as may become clear in a moment. He is new to the ranks of published authors; has, I fancy, spent years on his novel; and hawked the bulky manuscript round numerous reputable houses—all of which turned it down and must now be suffering agonies of belated regret—before finding his way to the desk of Rex Collings.

Mr. Collings is one of a new breed. Until recently an editor with a monolith firm, he decided to opt out from literary factory production dominated by accountants and to set up on his own in faith and hope, if not on—or even in—charity. There are a number of people trying the same optimistic gambit just now, and one cannot but applaud their efforts to revivify literary publishing.

According to his own somewhat sugary publicity, Mr. Collings was forced at bowler point to read the daunting manuscript by its desperate author, found himself hooked by the end of the first chapter, and thereafter took the undoubtedly courageous step (for such a young firm) of publishing the fat volume. Unfortunately, his courage was not matched by his production skills: He designed an ugly edition, with cramped typography and dressed in an appallingly inept dust-jacket. The outward and visible appearance doubtless turned off more readers than were turned on.

The hardback edition is, in fact, four hundred and thirteen pages thick, fifty chapters and one map long, and is all about rabbits. Now, lapine fantasy is not my literary cup of tea—be it for children or not, and I question whether Watership Down was ever really intended for children until the question of publication arose. Rabbits, to my mind, are best left to their own rodent activities. And had I not had to review the tome, I would certainly have given it the go-by. (Will one ever learn to judge books, like people, only after listening a while! For sure, first impressions were utterly deceptive in this case, and ugliness only jacket deep.)

What next took me aback was that a quotation from Aeschylus's Agamemnon stood sentinel at the head of Chapter One, a lost Victorian device made the more startling because it was quoted in the original Greek. I flipped the pages. Quotations sprouted like thorny, protective hedges at the beginning of every chapter, taken from sources as disparate as the aforementioned classic to bits from R. M. Lockley's erudite treatise on your true and living bunny.

Disconsolate, a reviewer in professional straits, I set to work. But work it remained for only a page or two. Thereafter, I was an addict. I could have stayed on Watership Down (which, incidentally, is a real and visitable part of chalky Hampshire, as are all the places named in the book) as long as Mr. Adams wished to keep me there. Four hundred and thirteen pages seemed, when they were finished, a less than generous amount. Absorbing, sensational, staggeringly unexpected, flawed to the point of critical disaster, brilliant, exciting, evocative (the sense of place and atmosphere, climate and season is beautifully achieved), English to the last full-stop, tough, gentle, bloodshot, violent, satisfying, humorous. The list of epithets, superlatives, qualifiers, paradoxes, and blazoned blooming nouns could cover the rest of the space allotted me.

In sum, Watership Down, though not a comfortable nor even a lovely book, is deeply moving and vividly memorable in the way that all "good" books, all works of true art, are: They implant themselves—some by main force, others by subtle injection—into the living tissues of your being, to remain there, illuminating your view of life ever after. Most obviously and least importantly, rabbits will never be the same again for me, a warren never again be simply a collection of messy holes in the ground. But to say that is to say little. There are some who speak of allegory and hint at many hidden and profound meanings burrowed beneath the surface of the narrative. They may well be right. But I suspect there are as many different tunnels of meaning as one cares to dig. So, to return for now to the pleasantly simple and obvious: I shall never again watch a bobbed and white-lined tail stub its way across a field in pursuit of a hedge without believing it belongs to a lapine guerrilla from the warren Mr. Adams biographs in such rich and intimate detail.

The story is what one might expect had Wind in the Willows been written after two World Wars, various marks of nuclear bomb, the Korean and Vietnam obscenities, and half-a-dozen other hells created by the inexhaustibly evil powers of Man. In fact, the tale begins with a deliberate act of demolition, when human beings destroy an ancient warren in order to clear a building site, inadvertently leaving alive a handful of ill-assorted rabbits to wander the countryside as refugees. Despite all the calamities that befall luckless Toad, no one ever dreamt Toad Hall would be bulldozed. And putting the pick into the medieval rooms inhabited by Badger would have been unthinkable. But that was 1908. And 1908 is gone, Wind in the Willows with it. Watership Down, if none the wiser than that wise and lovely book, is a great deal better informed.

But I must stop. To go on would be to spoil things for your own reviewers. Let me finish by mentioning that Puffin paperbacks will soon be publishing the book in better and more attractive clothes. Then we shall very soon discover how much it is a children's book children will read, and how much it is enjoyed by adults only.

Source: Aidan Chambers, "Letter from England: Great Leaping Lapins!," in Horn Book, Vol. 49, No. 2, June 1973, pp. 253-55.


Critical Overview