Themes and Meanings
The success of an animal fable depends on the ability of the writer to tell a story on two levels at once. To capture and maintain the reader’s interest, the story needs interesting events in a concretely presented secondary world. To become significant and memorable for the reader, the story must speak to human needs and human concerns. Adams uses several techniques to achieve the first of these objectives, making his secondary world seem real.
A close observation of the plants and animals of the English downs informs the story, and all the details of nature are seen from a rabbit’s-eye-view; the reader may find freshness and sharp reality in even the familiar daisy when the flower is seen from that unusual perspective. Part of the theme of the story is that human perspective is not the only one from which the earth is seen.
Like J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), Adams uses invented languages to present Watership Down from these unique viewpoints. Not only do the rabbits have their own language, words of which the reader encounters from time to time, but also rabbits from different regions speak various dialects. The other animals of the downs have their own languages, as the characters from the warren discover when they meet a field mouse and a seagull. Adams employs his rabbit language not merely as an exotic detail but to reveal further insights into rabbitkind, as an analysis of the word hrair shows. First, since rabbits can conceive of numbers only up to four, larger numbers are expressed as simply “a lot” or “many,” and this is one of the meanings of hrair. Next, when a litter of rabbit kittens numbers more than four, the fifth—or runt—of the litter is likely to be named hrair, hence the name of Hazel’s brother, translated into English as “Fiver,” a name expressive of his small size and status. Again, hrair in its meaning of “the many” may be used to stand for all those animals that prey upon rabbits, and in this sense it is translated as “the Thousand.” Finally, in the name “Prince El-ahrairah,” the word hrair translates as part of a title, “the Prince with a thousand enemies.” The interweaving of the lapin language is skillfully and consistently worked into the plot, serving organically as one part of Adams’ secondary world.
In this secondary world, the story reveals a deep affection for the ordinary little creatures of the downs. There is no denying that human ideas of progress are often shown in an unfavorable light. Yet Watership Down is not simply an “ecological” story, one which shows humans only as despoilers of nature. All the themes of the story are presented from the rabbits’ viewpoint, and the humans who figure as accessories to the plot are always pictured through the consciousness of the rabbits, to whom humans and their works are simply inexplicable natural phenomena. At one point in the story, the appearance of an express train saves some of the rabbits from catastrophe, an event they interpret as divine intervention. Although humans set the action of the story in motion by destroying Cowslip Warren to make room for a subdivision, the rabbits feel no personal animosity toward the humans, whom they perceive as simply indifferent to the rabbits’ survival.
The Natural World and Development
A major concern in the book is the devastation of the natural world that results from human development of the land. The book's action begins when humans post a notice in the field where the rabbits live; it reads:
THIS IDEALLY SITUATED ESTATE, COMPRISING SIX ACRES OF EXCELLENT BUILDING LAND, IS TO BE DEVELOPED WITH HIGH CLASS MODERN RESIDENCES BY SUTCH AND MARTIN, LIMITED, OF NEWBURY, BERKS.
In a harrowing chapter, one of the two survivors of the poisoning and bulldozing of the rabbits' home warren tells of the cold destruction, and the rabbits' realization that the humans killed them, as another rabbit said, "just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit...
(The entire section is 1,880 words.)