The Plot

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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.

Historical Context

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A Created WorldWatership 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...

(This entire section contains 525 words.)

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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 back farther than that; events taking place any time earlier than that gradually become part of the mythic age of El-ahrairah, the rabbits' clever, trickster hero.

The book is set in an actual area in England; Adams writes in a note at the beginning that "Nuthanger Farm is a real place, like all the other places in the book," but that the few humans mentioned in it are fictitious. In addition, Adams's close observation of place makes it evident that the places mentioned are real. Since the book was written almost three decades ago, it would be interesting for a reader, or for Adams, to go back now and note whether the landscape has changed—whether Watership Down is still safe from development, or whether the real farms, fields, and forests the fictional rabbits traveled through have changed through human intervention.

The culture of the Watership Down rabbits is similar to some traditional human cultures, with an emphasis on oral tradition and on tribal/community values such as heroism, self-sacrifice, community, family, and compassion, as well as democracy. Like human societies, however, rabbit culture and government differ from warren to warren, and as the rabbits discover, Efrafa is a physically and spiritually oppressive dictatorship. At the time Adams wrote the book, many nations lived under this type of system, most notably the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, on which Efrafa seems to be modeled. The Cold War was still a very important factor in European and American consciousness, and people outside those countries were well aware that torture, killing, and imprisonment of dissidents was commonplace. Like Efrafa, these countries justified this oppression of their citizens with the rationale that their tight control was for the ultimate security and safety of all. Since Adams wrote Watership Down, the governments of many of these countries have become more democratic, but dictatorships still exist in many places in the world and the example of Efrafa is still relevant. Just as in Efrafa, history has shown that in these countries there will always be dissidents, attempts to escape, and discontent.

Setting

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Adams pays particular attention to the landscape in Watership Down. By providing a detailed map of the land around Nuthanger Farm and frequent descriptions of the countryside and climate, Adams creates a tactile, three dimensional setting, so convincing that eavesdropping on the conversation or thoughts of rabbits seems natural. All of the places in the novel, including Watership Down itself, are actual locations in England. By using specific geographical details, Adams adds a sense of reality to his fantastic tale. In addition, he ends the book with a "Lapine Glossary" which further recognizes the rabbits as having a culture and language all their own.

Literary Style

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Myths and Tales
A most unusual feature of the book is its depiction of rabbits' mythological and spiritual life. Throughout Watership Down, chapters telling tales of rabbit adventures are interspersed with stories of another kind—legends from the rabbit mythology. The rabbits tell each other tales of how the first rabbit, El-ahrairah, received a white tail and strong back legs from Frith, the sun god, and at the same time, was marked as prey for many other animals. "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning." Other stories tell how El-ahrairah stole the king's lettuce; how he was put on trial for stealing Prince Rainbow's carrots; how, when his people were under siege, he went to the Black Rabbit of Inle (Death personified) and offered his own life in exchange for the safety of his people; how he outwitted a huge dog, and other tales. All these stories serve to reinforce the rabbits' sense of a shared heritage. They also reinforce the rabbits' view of themselves as fast, cunning, compassionate, and community-minded. Traditional rabbit virtues are like old-fashioned human ones: the hero El-ahrairah is ready to help his companions, give up his own life for them, and fight for what he believes in. At the same time, he is quick, cunning, has a bright sense of humor, and is a consummate storyteller, all traits the rabbits value highly. These myths help bond the rabbits together in times of trouble, and also inspire them with ideas to use in their own difficulties.

Naturalistic Detail
Another feature, as notable as Adams's use of myth and exactly opposite from it, is his use of closely observed, factual details of rabbit life and nature. Many of the epigrams preceding chapters are drawn from the naturalist R. M. Lockley's book The Private Life of the Rabbit, which Adams also cites in his acknowledgments. Adams clearly used this book to inspire and inform his descriptions of rabbit behavior and "customs." He was also a keen observer of many other aspects of natural phenomena, including weather, flowering times, the movements and appearance of insects, and the habitats of various birds and plants. A list of all the birds, plants, animals, and insects he mentions would probably comprise a relatively complete field guide to the part of England where the story is set.

As the rabbits travel across country, Adams also keenly observes and describes the smells, textures, and fauna of the different territories they cover, from the damp river bank to the mysterious and dangerous forest, to the peaty, boggy, rocky upland, to the high, clean height of Watership Down. All these places are real—though of course the characters are not—and these rich details serve to ground the reader in Adams's setting, give the story authority, and encourage the reader to believe in the "truth" of the tale.

Animal Communication
Another interesting feature of the book is that in Adams's world, rabbits can communicate with each other and with other animals, although communication with other animals takes place through a sort of universal pidgin, or primitive language, which all the animals use when talking to other species. The one "animal" who cannot understand the rabbits, and whom the rabbits can't understand, is the human. In Adams's world, humans are outside the natural order and even in opposition to it—their presence almost invariably leads to death and destruction. (The one exception to this is Lucy, the farmer's daughter, who saves Hazel and insists that the doctor bring him back to the warren in his car; perhaps this is because she is a child, and therefore still innocent and perhaps closer to the animals than adult humans are.) The book reverses the usual perception of animals as "dumb" creatures that cannot feel or communicate; in it, humans are the senseless, speechless ones. They kill without thinking, and unlike natural predators such as foxes who kill to survive, they simply roll on in their cars, or build their developments, without even noticing the devastation they've caused.

Literary Qualities

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The success of Watership Down results from several stylistic features. The first technique is the use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. These epigraphs, drawn from the Bible, classical literature, English poetry, science, and folklore, serve the narrative function of indicating the direction the action will take. They also serve the thematic function of suggesting the seriousness of the action. If passages from Shakespeare, Blake, and Saint Paul illuminate the tale, then surely it is more than an entertaining story about rabbits. The epigraphs also place Watership Down in the tradition of the nineteenth-century English novel, which frequently used such epigraphs as a sign of seriousness.

In plot structure Watership Down has suggestive parallels to the Roman epic, the Aeneid. The rabbits' escape from doomed Sandleford, their temporary sojourn at Cowslip, and the battle with Efrafa warren recall Aeneas's flight from besieged Troy, his dalliance with Dido at Carthage, and his warfare against Turnus in Latium to establish a city for the surviving Trojans. Like the epigraphs, the epic suggestiveness establishes Watership Down as a serious literary work.

Animal stories are as old as human imagination. Fables use animals to represent human behavior, and fairy tales often employ animals with magic powers to change human destiny. Other animal stories, such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877) and Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903), relate the animal's interactions with human beings, often in sentimental language. Watership Down is distinguished by the remoteness of the human world and by Adams's ability to have his animals' dialogue in human speech, yet remain rabbits in their behavior, instincts, and knowledge. Adams also avoids the didactic tendency of animal fiction; that is, the explicit teaching of human ethics or morals.

Social Concerns

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Watership Down tells how a handful of male rabbits escape from a warren (doomed by developer's plans), travel across a hostile countryside, and establish their own warren by stealing females from a neighboring community. After the novel became a best seller, Adams explained in interviews that he intended his novel to be a good cliff-hanging tale, to pay tribute to the beautiful English countryside (Watership Down is a real place), and to describe the qualities of leadership.

Adams's last two intentions suggest how he touched upon issues important to readers of the early 1970s. His tribute to the English countryside is less pastoral than ecological. Adams's account of rabbit habitat reflect the ecosystem of a rural landscape where all living things are part of a balance which must be respected. If one part of the ecosystem is carelessly destroyed, the whole environment suffers. Adams's account of leadership offers a positive image to a society that seems to have lost its ability to accept direction from anyone other than a media celebrity, a well groomed politician, or an ideological bully.

Additional Commentary

Adams's tribute to the English countryside is less pastoral than ecological. His account of rabbit habits and habitat reflects the ecosystem of a rural landscape where all living things constitute a delicate balance. If one part of the ecosystem is carelessly destroyed, the whole environment suffers. Adams's offers a positive image of leadership to a society that seems to have lost its ability to accept direction from anyone other than media celebrities, well-groomed politicians, or ideological bullies.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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The success of Watership Down results from several stylistic features. The first is Adams's attention to the landscape of the novel. By providing a detailed map of the land around Nuthanger Farm and frequent descriptions of the countryside and climate, Adams creates a tactile, three dimensional setting so convincing that eavesdropping on the conversation or thoughts of rabbits seems natural.

Another technique is the use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. These epigraphs demonstrate Adams's wide reading: They are drawn from the Bible, classical literature, English poetry, science, and folklore. These epigraphs serve the narrative function of hinting to the reader which direction the action will take. They also serve the thematic function of suggesting the seriousness of the action: If passages from Shakespeare, Blake, and Saint Paul illuminate the tale, then this rabbit story is more than an idle fiction. The epigraphs, too, place Watership Down in the tradition of the nineteenth-century English novel, which frequently used such epigraphs as a sign of seriousness.

A third technique is a plot structure that possesses suggestive parallels to the Roman epic, the Aeneid. The rabbits' escape from doomed Sandleford, their temporary sojourn at Cowslip, and the battle with Efrafa warren recalls Aeneas' flight from besieged Troy, his dalliance with Dido at Carthage, and his warfare against Turnus in Latium to found a city for the surviving Trojans. Like the epigraphs, the epic suggestiveness establishes Watership Down as a serious literary work.

Animal stories are as old as imagination. Fables use animals to represent human behavior, and fairy tales often employ animals with magic powers to change human destiny. Novels with animal characters are almost as old as novels themselves: Pompey the Little (1751) appears just eleven years after Samuel Richardson's Pamela, usually designated the first English novel. Classics in the genre include Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903), Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), and Marjorie Rawlings's The Yearling (1938. In these stories the animal characters' interactions most importantly are with human beings, and are described in sentimental language. Watership Down is distinguished by the remoteness of the human world and by Adams's ability to have his animals' dialogue in human speech yet remain rabbits in their behavior, instincts, and knowledge. Another strength of Watership Down is that its author avoids the didactic tendency of animal fiction; that is, the explicit teaching of human ethics or morals.

Media Adaptations

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Watership Down was adapted as an animated motion picture, produced by Martin Rosen of Nepenthe Productions and directed by John Hubley and Martin Rosen, in 1978. Voice actors included Joss Ackland as the Black Rabbit, Richard Briers as Fiver, Michael Graham-Cox as Bigwig, Micheal Hordern as Frith and the narrator, and John Hurt as Hazel.

For Further Reference

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Anderson, Celia Catlett. "Troy, Carthage, and Watership Down." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Spring 1983): 12-13. Points out the epic parallels with Virgil's Aeneid.

Chapman, E. L. "The Shaman as Hero and Spiritual Leader: Richard Adams's Mythmaking in Watership Down and Shardik." Mythlore 5 (Autumn 1978): 7-11. Discusses the role of Fiver.

Green, Timothy. "Richard Adams's Long Journey from Watership Down." Smithsonian (July 1979): 76-82. Provides photographs of the landscapes behind Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, and quotes Adams on the intentions of his fiction.

Metzger, Linda. "Richard Adams." In Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1981. This useful survey provides biographical details, bibliography, and a sampling of reviews of the novels.

Pawling, Christopher. "Watership Down: Rolling Back to the 1960s." In Popular Fiction and Social Change, edited by Christopher Pawling. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. Analyzes the pastoral and quest elements in the novel and argues that the book reflects the values of a conservative middle class.

Shippey, T. A. Watership Down. In Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature. Vol. 4. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 1983. An analysis of plot, characters, and themes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Campbell, Joseph, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen, 1949.

Clift, Jean Dalby, and Wallace B. Clift, The Archetype of Pilgrimage, Paulist Press, 1996.

Hume, Kathryn, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature, Methuen, 1984.

Hunt, Peter, ed., International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Routledge, 1996.

Levoy, Gregg, Callings, Three Rivers Press, 1997.

Lurie, Alison, Review, in New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974.

MacRae, Cathi Dunn, Presenting Young Adult Fantasy Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Mano, D. Keith, Review, in National Review, April 26, 1974.

Rawicz, Slavomir, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Lyons Press, 1956.

Searles, Baird, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin, A Reader's Guide to Fantasy, Facts on File, 1982.

Tymn, Marshall B., Kenneth J. Zahorski, and Robert H. Boyer, Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide, R. R. Bowker, 1979.

For Further Study
Adams, Richard, The Day Gone By, Century Hutchinson, 1990.
Adams's autobiography.

Helbig, Alethea K., and Agnes Regan Perkins, Dictionary of British Children's Fiction: Books of Recognized Merit, Vol. 1: A-M, Greenwood Press, 1989.
Provides a biography of Adams.

Smith, Elliot Fremont, Review of Watership Down in New York, March 4, 1974.

Bibliography

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Anderson, Celia Catlett. “Troy, Carthage, and Watership Down,” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. VIII (Spring, 1983), pp. 12-13.

Jordan, Tom. “Breaking Away from the Warren,” in Children’s Novels and the Movies, 1983.

Pawling, Christopher. “Watership Down: Rolling Back the 1960s,” in Popular Fiction and Social Change, 1984.

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