Watership Down {essay}

~ a short essay on the 1972 novel Watership Down by Richard Adams

Rabbits & Death

What might it mean to be a rabbit?

This is the question implicitly posited by British writer Richard Adams in his debut novel Watership Down. A work of masterful fiction and mythic, inventive storytelling, it’s a ‘classic’ for good reason. In it, a group of adventurous, anthropomorphized rabbits take on their own courageous hero’s journey, unto glory and home. Or unto death.

Ah yes, death. The great equalizer. The endgame of entropy. The inevitable fate of all things. Death is omnipresent. But it is perceived much more ominously for some beings versus others {if it is perceived at all}. Take us versus animals, more specifically — humans versus rabbits. Both are mammals… Both evolved to survive. That’s kinda where the similarities end. Rabbits are small, fast, they have big ears, they like raiding gardens full of carrots, and they love digging holes. Humans are bigger, slower, they have weirdly expressive faces, they like to burn white sticks in their mouths, and they love digging metaphorical holes for themselves and their loved ones to try and dig out of. Rabbits live in the fields, where they can burrow out warrens and silfay (graze) and pass hruku (poop). Humans live inside glassy panopticons of reflective metals, where they can sit and stand around in a variety of different places for days and days on end, until they go crazy or leave or … die. 

Humans and rabbits of course both die eventually. For humans on average it takes about 75 years. For {wild} rabbits: 1-3 years. There are a multitude of ways each type of creature can die. Car accident, disease, overexposure to the elements, hunted and consumed by a thousand different types of predator… Humans are much more difficult to bring down, of course. And humans not only have less externalities bringing on death to worry about, but we typically don’t think about our own death everyday, let alone our every waking moment. We can, theoretically. But we don’t, for cognitive dissonance reasons and for survival reasons {they might be one and the same}. i.e. we have bigger fish to fry. The threats just aren’t as present for us, or as we think they are. And thus, our existence is not so much defined by the things that can kill us, and our survival, as much as it is about how we might go about living well, {typically} as luxuriously as we can manage. 

Rabbits, given culture, would likely develop very differently than humans due to these differences in environment and evolution. And this is the world that Adams creates upon the wild countrysides of Watership Down

In the realm of rabbits, in the fiction of this novel’s robust universe of animalia, they’ve got their own unique world of history and forms and language. Rabbits have built up a personalized mythology between their various warrens within the English countryside, and death is the central locus of this rabbit mythos. They deal with the real threat of death ubiquitously, on a daily basis, in their every waking moment. It is a foe capable of being tricked, if only temporarily. But ultimately, all rabbits die, or as they put it: stop running.

Inlé, the afterlife for the rabbit, is where one goes when they ‘stop running‘; this is well-known to all rabbits. But prolonging the arrival of that day via cleverness is a matter of adventurous rite of passage for every rabbit of the wild.

~

Rabbits are prey. The rabbit is a small mammal, and in case it isn’t obvious — they are especially evolved to be able to see, hear, and run. 

Heavy breeders, capable of digging homes everywhere and eating anywhere they may roam, rabbits are populous and capable of surviving and spreading at the most rapid rates of nearly any mammal. Their teeming presence within the ecosystem makes them an integral part of the food chain. And thusly, rabbits don’t just know about death — it’s a naturalized component of their deepest ethos. Rabbits are going to be hunted and consumed ad infinitum. In their special sentience within Adams’ world, it is only natural that the primacy of cultural manifestations of rabbit-kind deal with death and all the different ways a rabbit might go. 

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above four is U Hrair “a lot,” or “a thousand.” Thus they say U Hrair — “The Thousand” — to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits — fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc.

Elil, “The Thousand,” are their many predators. Always out there, an unseen foe, they are always hunting. At least, they are in the minds of their prey. A rabbit must continuously be aware of the threat of being devoured by the world around it, and The Thousand, waiting within the darkness of the unknown are the agents of that haunting presence. In the world of the rabbit, night is called ‘Owl Time.’ 

Rabbits are also escape artists. Such creatures, both physically and culturally, come to define themselves by the omnipresence of their killers and their capability of getting away from them. Priding themselves on their grand attributes of trickery, speed, and collective escapability, the rabbit’s innate talents are as creatures tasked with escaping The Thousand. Of course, they don’t always escape; rabbits die all the time. But the little fur balls are always avoiding death one way or another, trying to find their way to warmth, to each other, to home. It’s a through line in which they can come to understand themselves and their position in the world.

The rabbits’ collectively unconscious spiritual beliefs, in these ways, encompass a balanced perspective upon death and its embrace {their own little brand of memento mori‘We are all to stop running some day, let us hope it is not this day. But if it is: die as a rabbit, running and digging and tricking your way through all the way until the end.’} As much from their actions and simple conversations, the rabbits of Watership Down achieve this via these kinds of stories. 

In their myths, Frith is the rabbit creator God, aka the sun. In the ancient times of rabbits, as they tell amongst themselves, he communicated with them through messengers. The most prominent of which was The Black Rabbit of Inlé, aka the rabbit representation of ‘The Grim Reaper.’ A deathlike specter of mythic fearfulness, part-God, part-harbinger of mortal doom, his presence is both inevitable and to be feared and fled from. 

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow.”

On the flip side, El-ahrairah is the ultimate hero to the rabbits. Like Theseus or Hercules in human myth, he is the exemplar for rabbit-kind. El is so cherished for his super{rabbit} sense for plucky survival, even in the face of the Gods’ trying machinations, even compelling he and his kind’s extinction. In the events of the novel, through a series of stories told to one another by the group of rabbits during downtime, the reader learns all about the myths and acts surrounding El. It isn’t difficult to see why such a figure is beloved and emulated by the rabbits. The consummate trickster, El-ahrairah is the undisputed champion of getting out of impossible jam after impossible jam, laughing in the face of elil and Gods alike; El is always entertaining and he never stops running — his story lives on. 

Pipkin forgot his weariness and danger and remembered instead the great indestructibility of the rabbits.

Like humans, they tell stories about El in order to better understand themselves. The rabbits of Watership Down are embarking on adventures of their own and the reader soon understands they will be forced to be like El in order to continue down their path and survive to tell about it. This culture is fully realized as the reader follows this group of rabbits, led by Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, into the vast unknown outside of their longtime home and into a world of dangerous misadventure, chock-full of much more than a mere thousand ways to die. 

Roles & Responsibilities

The journey of Watership Down is initiated when Fiver, a pensive runt with a penchant for prescience, tells his buddy they must leave the warren. Wielding a stark vision of coming doom to everything that they know, in their current homestead of holes dug long ago and relatively safe, Fiver wills his friend, Hazel, to set himself to running away with him. Hazel, a sensible and charismatic rabbit of even temperament, trusts Fiver for some unspoken reason and soon sets himself to gathering as many allies as they can before they set off from the only home they’ve ever known. 

“We’re in for some mysterious trouble.”

Fiver’s story, when presented to the Chief Rabbit and quickly rebuffed, is able to persuade a member of the Owsla {the big, bodyguard rabbits, tasked with protecting the Chief Rabbit} of coming with them. With Bigwig comes a host of other rabbits, all of unique personality and skillset. In a combination of Fiver’s vivid description of the place’s destruction, Hazel’s credible reasoning in leaving, and Bigwig’s instinctive fear, the others are all compelled to follow the trio out into the wilds. And thus the adventure begins. A small group of rabbits, moving out into the world and away from safety, into the unknown wilds — all of it so counter to their nature as prey.

“If we ever meet again, Hazel-rah … we ought to have the makings of the best story ever.”

Like a proper adventuring party, the protagonist rabbits of Watership Down all have their roles to play, and their time in the spotlight of the story. They each bring something different to table. In order to survive, all of them must work together, and learn to trust one another. As we see, rabbits — much like humans — are strongest when they work together, and use their own distinct advantages to the strength of the group as a whole. 

~ Hazel, the natural leader, wields charisma and forges confidence into the band via strategic, convicted courses of action. Hazel has a discerning eye for he and his friends’ survival, and their individual strengths and current states of mind. 

~ Bigwig, the warrior, protects the group from the local dangers of fellow ground-dwelling mammals. Bigwig trusts his instincts. And he has good ones. Bigwig seems as a simple and strong rabbit, even to the others — but as his role increases, and the group covers more ground, he grows from the experiences and the complexities of his character are revealed.  

~ Fiver, the shaman, spies the future and bleeds his chaotic wisdom into the emotions of the others, for better or worse. By tapping into his own unconscious, and seeing the streams of the near future, Fiver brings impossible knowledge to bear within the group’s decisions. He is calmly confident, and shares an indestructible mutual trust with Hazel that serves them in their journey again and again. 

~ Blackberry, the scientist, holds knowledge of the world that others rabbit cannot even perceive, and uses it to give the band a leg up on their increasingly dangerous environments. 

~ Dandelion, the bard, is a renowned storykeeper and storyteller, relied upon by the group to perform when called upon. The most romantic and hopeful of the crew, he wafts in morale through the weaving of his mythic rabbit tales, always by request and always with enthusiasm. 

~ Silver, a fighter, loyalist, and reliable friend to the pack. He is Bigwig’s second in command. 

~ Pipkin, the baby. Weakest member of the crew but strong in spirit, and strongest in pathos. 

~ Strawberry, the exile. The squad picks him up from within another warren and he must earn his place. Serves as an example for the type of group that Hazel wants to lead, taking in all capable rabbits worthy of contributing, desiring to build a better life than before, leaving the past behind. 

~ Holly, the sage, is a survivor of the home warren the group leaves at the beginning. A purveyor of wisdom, he shores up Hazel’s position of leadership as a source of counsel.  

~ Bluebell, the jester, provides much needed comic relief to the the rabbits of the down in times of darkness. He and Holly, tragically, are the only survivors of the original warren’s human-caused destruction. 

~ Blackavar, the scout, comes from Efrafa gravely damaged but with every reason to help Hazel and his band: he desires more than an escape, he seeks vengeance.  

Every rabbit provides distinct value to the cause of survival. When faced with the many obstacles and enemies the group faces, it is these separate roles and responsibilities which serve them. Fiver’s instincts set the tone, Hazel devises the plans, Bigwig fights to enact them. The others support the decisions, providing insights of their own along the way. And by the climactic ending, each of them grows the necessary versatility to persist in the face of adversity. At different points of the story, each of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig share a vivid brush with the spectre of death itself, and they all come out stronger for it, more prepared to take on the world.

In their highest stakes mission, Bigwig goes undercover in Efrafa and learns all about the resourcefulness necessary to survive amidst difficult odds; something he previously relied on others to enact for him. A calm and effective trickster in his own right, Bigwig is more than a hero. He’s a good rabbit. The audience observes his internal struggling with the fraught moral considerations of his deceptions and the consequences for the others back home given his discovery. Ultimately, he stands upon righteous ground in his actions, and is willing to fight with all his heart, to the death, to defend his group.

Calmly wise, and filled to the brim with genuine affectation, Fiver is the soul of the squad. At the group’s darkest hour, Fiver — the most diminutive of them all — courageously stands up to the Efrafan invaders. Using his esoteric knowledge to frighten the stronger rabbits into flight, he appears almost as if he capable of casting spells. After leading Hazel toward his final gambit, Fiver feigns his own death to let the others fortify themselves. His sacrifice gives the larger group a puncher’s chance against a superior foe.

“I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could.”

“Blame you?” answered Vervain. “Blame you for what?”

“For your death,” said Fiver. “Believe me, I am sorry for your death.”

Hazel learns to rely on all the others as much as they have come to rely on him. After he nearly dies and carries the weight of an injury to his leg {as serious a setback for a wild rabbit as anything else}, Hazel understands that they won’t last long without all of them working together. Despite his injury and the failed initial attempt to bring back the does {female rabbits} from Efrafa, Hazel and the others are down but not out. He sees the challenge before the group not as a reason to safely settle for their solitary survival as long as they can manage it, an all-male warren destined for extinction, and instead as impetus to develop more plans, to forge closer bonds with one another, to be better rabbits

Hazel sees, as the reader does, this interdependence is no weakness. It allows them to survive all of their ordeals, not without hardship but also with pluck, and purpose. Maybe more than anything else, the group of rabbits within Watership Down, in their adventuring through the countryside and the cooperation to overcome fearsome opposition, shows the tremendous meaning there is in playing a role within something greater than yourself. The separations of their various skillsets build especially indestructible bonds. Not unlike the classes within a role-playing game, the state of play within their collective is one of this collaboration. They are aligned in their adventurous mission, their communal survival; and most importantly, they all cooperate in the charge of finding their true endgame: home

Home & Hearth

At the beginning of the novel, Hazel leads the group out of their old home, and from then on, they are naturally seeking out a new one. He intends for them to eventually settle down somewhere. Somewhere secure, safe from The Thousand. A new home. This is what Watership Down is all about: going out from the safety of your old world with a group of trusted allies, encountering the depths of darkness in the world outside of what you know, and securing a new community full of the spoils and boons, material and personal, the group earned along the way. The whole story is a hero’s journey for rabbits. 

These young rabbits … must move out if they are to survive. In a wild and free state they … stray sometimes for miles … wandering until they find a suitable environment.

~ R.M. Lockley, The Private Life of the Rabbit

The place they come to find — Watership Down — is a salient discovery. It is, and directly due to the nature of what a rabbit finds secure. It is a raised hill-like edifice for them to create their burrows within and be able to see, from this heightened vantage point, all of the surrounding area. This is the ultimate position: A rabbit able to observe its homeland, far and wide, for elil. 

But getting to the Down takes cleverness, bold action and vigilance in the face of the unknown. As Adams explains in various omniscient asides through the novel, there are a certain many things that rabbits are not designed for. Swimming, traveling overland for intermediate-to-long distances, interacting with any other animals outside of their group {or allying with them}. These are things wild rabbits simply don’t do. And yet, this is just what Hazel’s group does. Out of necessity, along their journey traversing the lands near and far from their original home, they travel through terrain unfamiliar to them, walk and sleep out in the open, and interact with mice, birds, and other rabbits. Through all this, an enterprising group of rabbits learns about the nature of buoyancy upon water, the uses of knowledge-sharing with other prey animals, and the dangerous roles humans play within their countrysides. 

We’ve been through a lot of danger. Everything new seems like danger to us.

To watch another in danger can be almost as bad as sharing in it.

It was not the death they deserved; it was not the right end of the clever track they had run … What could save them now?

In their journey, the rabbits must change as their adventure requires it. They do not fold in the face of the unknown, instead they grow. And all along the way they retain the chaotic and free-wheeling nature of being a rabbit, unbroken – even empowered – by their experiences. One could say this is the essence of the hero’s journey. 

At the same time, the Efrafan rabbits making up the mega-warren to the east of the Down — the final opponents at the end of this journey — are cultured into their own collective state of being, sophisticated and, most of all, safe. Introduced late in the novel, the Efrafan warren of rabbits is rumored to have does available for possible immigration. At the group’s first attempt, Hazel sends Holly, Silver and Strawberry to the warren to see if they can bring some rabbits back, of their own volition and as many as they can possibly convince. This results in failure, but they gather enough intel upon the warren and its current situation, and defenses, to warrant a second mission. This mission is what makes up the climax of the novel. 

Anything out of the ordinary is a possible source of danger.

~ Efrafan rabbit

Efrafa is led by a rabbit as big and strong as a hare, known as General Woundwort. He rules his rabbits with an iron paw; Efrafa is an authoritarian state… of rabbits. The Efrafan rabbits are perhaps safer than any other rabbits in the world. From within the leadership and stern structuring of their warren, unlike any other rabbits of the world, they have developed a system to ensure long-livedness. Strong-minded officers, well-trained and driven by chains of command, assume control of specific locales within the warren. This is where they oversee sects of rabbits living, breeding and eventually dying their natural deaths. Each of these sections are restricted and isolated with a rules-based structuring around how the rabbits may do anything at all, with schedules and consequences to misbehavior. As a direct result of all this, and the resulting long-livedness of its population, Efrafa is suffering from overpopulation. Even more so under this regime, the rabbits are suffering. Especially among the does, the discontent spawns from the misery of their decidedly unnatural living conditions. 

It isn’t too hard for the reader to see why. They might live much longer {as a domesticated rabbits might vs. wild rabbits}. But life itself is not the same for them. You see, in Efrafa, under the one called General Woundwort, they are not really rabbits anymore. 

Bigwig began to understand why Woundwort’s officers followed him and fought for him as they did.

“He’s not like a rabbit at all,” he thought. “Flight’s the last thing he ever thinks of.

I’d imagine that Adams, in his readings and observations of rabbits running about their habitat, embraced the all-too-human quality of imbuing the things one sees with bits of oneself. As a human, we tend to view the rest of the world, especially denizens of the animal kingdom, with the kind of consciousness we find so fascinating within ourselves. Within this novel, he deftly weaves perspectives between the inner experience of Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver and the other rabbits, with a higher-level, narrator-esque discernment of the world and its happenings, from the limited perspective of one of rabbit-kind. Except these words of what rabbits understand and misunderstand about reality come from a human perspective. This allows the reader to repeatedly test their own immersion within the localized story being told. In gifting his rabbits with consciousness, Adams has given them problems. These problems, in a successive flow, make up the tension and conflict within Watership Down. Problems that are simple to us, the human, but inherently complex to the rabbit’s perspective from which we experience the story. 

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” said Blackberry. “About this place, I mean. The plants are new, the smells are new. We’re going to need some new ideas for ourselves.”

For both groups of opposing rabbits, Hazel’s and Woundwort’s, consciousness is both a gift and a curse. As they become enmeshed within the wider world of possibilities, and of dangers, each rabbit is forced to change. To the reader, on the surface, these advancements are the simple boons that come with being able to use technology, complex planning and orchestration towards collective goals, the creation of effective systems of law and order. These changes grant the rabbits more effective ways of surviving and contending with the world around them. Given it is a world so filled with the thousands of creatures hunting them without end, these changes seem good. Of course, any rabbit must be clever to escape death. And these changes are simply additional methodologies to such ends. 

However, through the observation of both groups of rabbits, and their ultimate clash at the end of the novel, it’s clear to see that there is a difference between living and living well. Watership Down presents the question: what is the telos of a thing? In this case, what is the telos of a rabbit? Whether a rabbit lives for one season, or a decade of them, there can be a huge difference in what makes up a more meaningful life, for a rabbit {or for anything}. 

More than anything else, rabbits like to run and dig and be out in the sun at their own behest, at the beck and call of no other. Rabbits have no plans, no schedules, and no obligations or responsibilities beyond their instincts and their continued will to live. A rabbit is the best thing there is at being a rabbit. In this mode, no amount of setbacks can prevent a rabbit from living a fulfilled existence, even if it is short-lived and violently ended somewhere along the way. The reader gets the sense that rabbits like Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver get this

In the gifting of the rabbits within the novel with consciousness by Adams, their rabbitness is both raised and lowered. We see just how much a rabbit can understand about the world outside of themselves {minimal, but able to learn}, and the kinds of things they pay attention to, as a rabbit, in order to make their way in the world. In many ways their instincts are simply translated into language, but no less are they instincts. Namely, they wish to eat, sleep, breed and be out in the English countryside with their brethren. 

Simply put: Rabbits are meant to be what they are. Just like all animals, who live in the world of instinct, they just go. There are no thoughts {as we understand them}, no perception of time, no “problems,” no ambitions beyond the necessary acts of mortal endurance, for as long as they can go. 

Come where the grass is greener, said Bluebell,

And the lettuce grows in rows,

And a rabbit of free demeanor

Is known by his well-scratched nose.

In Watership Down, Woundwort and the Efrafans live much more like humans, generating systems and a rule of law to best proof themselves against the many fearsome spectres of death. Such systems come at a cost, however, to the well-being of the rabbits and their inner, unspoken telos to be rabbits. In the forging of hierarchical bonds of authoritarianism, the rabbits of Efrafa replace their wild instincts with an artificially elongated lifespan. With their initiative lost, they become more docile, and less able to make decisions for themselves. Ironically, in their more secure style of life, the rabbit loses the primary characteristic which makes it special: cleverness.

Rabbits are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.

~ Richard Adams

Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig, even in their consciousness, seem to have a much greater understanding of the way of the rabbit, and bend their course towards its ends. Their plans and sense of the world, and its many useful and beautiful objects and creatures, all lead toward their destined homestead and the cultivation of their community. Boldly led by Hazel’s continued direction, they deign to build something greater than themselves, together upon Watership Down. 

In a sincere attempt to avoid their final fight, Hazel offers Woundwort his vision of things: to work together, to come an agreement to create a joint-warren, both sides better for the effort. 

“A rabbit has two ears; a rabbit has two eyes, two nostrils. Our two warrens ought to be like that. They ought to be together — not fighting … Rabbits have enough enemies as it is. They ought not to make more among themselves.”

~ Hazel

At the end, each side within the rabbit conflict {like all human conflicts} is presented with the choice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said — to walk in the light of creative altruism or to walk in the darkness of destructive selfishness. And at dawn upon the Down, the rabbits choose their own fate. ~