Richard Adams’ Watership Down is an anthropomorphic story showing the effect of humans on nature. As rabbits, heroes Hazel and Fiver are dependent on the countryside for shelter and food, and they live in concert with all other life. Hazel and his companions initially flee their burrows because a developer has decided to build homes on the site of their warren, but they see the effects of human involvement through other encounters, including those with a domesticated warren, a rabbit hutch at a local farm, and a warren that lives in fear of discovery by humans. Only the Watership Down seems protected from human encroachment.
Fiver, a young rabbit in the Sandleford warren, sees a vision of his home, the Sandleford fields, awash with blood. After a futile attempt to convince the chief rabbit of the impending destruction, he and his brother Hazel gather as many rabbits as possible to seek a safer home in the hills. The rabbits who join their ragtag band are primarily of lower status, among them Dandelion, Buckthorn, Pipkin, Blackberry, Hawkbit, Speedwell, and Acorn. The group manages to acquire the help of two members of the warren’s police force (the Owsla), Bigwig and Silver.
Their immediate danger is “the thousand,” the enemies that prey on rabbits, but there are other, subtler, threats. In their flight from the Sandleford warren, they are forced to rely not on their instincts but on their adaptability. At one point, they use a wooden board as a raft to escape a dog. At another point, they encounter a warren of strange rabbits who create poetry and art. These unnatural actions bewilder Hazel and his band. Their instincts tell them that any warren is safer than being out in the open. This warren in particular has food and is protected by a local farmer. Only Bigwig’s nearly fatal encounter with the farmer’s snare drives them from what their instincts tell them is safe.
Once settled at Watership Down, the rabbits realize their need for does to prosper; their group is composed only of bucks. Forays to a local farm and Efrafa, an overcrowded warren, bring does to Watership Down but also inspire the hatred of the chief rabbit of Efrafa, General Woundwort. Woundwort is driven by his fear and hatred of humans. All of his rabbits live in a terror of discovery that overwhelms their natural desire to live in the open fields. His attack on Watership Down challenges the adaptive life Hazel has created. The final battle at Watership Down epitomizes the struggle between two modes of life. When Hazel, Blackberry, and Dandelion lure a dog to Watership Down to kill the invaders, Woundwort cannot believe his vulnerability. He attacks the dog and is vanquished.
In the end, the rabbits find peace at Watership Down. When Hazel dies, he is called to join the Owsla of the Black Rabbit of Inle, having achieved the Valhalla of rabbits through his bravery. As death takes him, he realizes that he, like Abraham, has ensured his “people’s” survival.
A Created World
Watership Down is set in the larger human world of Berkshire in England, but the historical time in which it takes place is vague. The events clearly take place sometime in the second half of the twentieth century, since cars and trucks are commonplace, and age-old fields and farms are threatened by development. However, Adams is not interested in the human world or in human history. The rabbits are the focus of the story, and of course don't know of historical events in the human world, so this aspect of the story is deliberately left vague. This gives the book an immediacy and refreshing lack of datedness that it would not have if Adams had identified the time period: the book could be taking place now, or in the 1970s, when Adams wrote it.
The rabbits do have a history and a culture of their own, although their immediate history is not as detailed, since they don't write anything down. Rabbits may have heard stories of their grandfathers or grandmothers, but their history seldom goes...
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