Watership Down is a survival and adventure novel by English author Richard Adams. Set in southern England, around Hampshire, the story features a small group of rabbits. Although they live in their natural wild environment, with burrows, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language, proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel follows the rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren and seek a place to establish a new home (the hill of Watership Down), encountering perils and temptations along the way.
Adams completed a sequel almost 25 years later, in 1996, Tales from Watership Down, but as a collection of 19 short stories about El-ahrairah and the rabbits of the Watership Down warren, instead of a novel, with "Notes on Pronunciation" and a "Lapine Glossary".
Plot summary[edit | edit source]
Part 1[edit | edit source]
In the Sandleford warren, Fiver, a young runt rabbit who is a seer, receives a frightening vision of his warren's imminent destruction. When he and his brother Hazel fail to convince their chief rabbit of the need to evacuate, they set out on their own, accompanied by nine other rabbits who choose to go with them. The first challenge in the small band's search for a new home comes immediately, as they are forced to elude the Owsla, the warren's military caste, who believe that they are trying to spread dissent against the chief.
Once out in the world, the travelling group of rabbits finds itself following the leadership of Hazel, who, until now, has been just another unimportant member of the warren. The group travels far and through dangerous territory. Bigwig and Silver, both former Owsla and the strongest rabbits among them, do well to keep the others protected, along with Hazel's keen observations and good judgment. Along the way, they evade a badger (known in Lapine as lendris), a dog, a car, and a crow; Hazel also manages to stop three rabbits from returning to the Sandleford warren.
They meet a rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren. At first, Hazel's group are largely relieved to finally be able to sleep and feed well – except for Fiver, who senses only death there. Bigwig, Blackberry and Fiver's friend Pipkin suspect something suspicious, but they don't think too much of it. When Bigwig is nearly killed in a snare, Fiver, in a crazed lecture, makes the group realize that the new warren is managed by a farmer who protects and feeds the rabbits, but also harvests a number of them for their meat and skins. The residents of the new warren are simply using Hazel and the others to increase their own odds of survival. Fiver and the rest of the group work together to rescue Bigwig from the snare, then continue on their journey, taking with them a rabbit from Cowslip's warren called Strawberry, who asks to join them after it is implied that his doe is killed in a snare.
Part 2[edit | edit source]
Fiver's visions have promised them a safe place in which to settle, and the group eventually finds Watership Down, which matches Fiver's description of the perfect home exactly. There they are soon reunited with Holly and Bluebell, who were with Bigwig in the Owsla. The two are nursing severe injuries which, they reveal, were inflicted as they escaped the violent human destruction of Sandleford, and then later at Cowslip's warren. Holly also confesses that it was he who had tried to stop them leaving that first night rather than working under the chief rabbit's orders, but Fiver's vision coming true has left him a changed rabbit and he is there to join them in whatever way they will have him.
Although Watership Down is a peaceful habitat, Hazel realizes there are no does, making the future of the warren certain to end with the inevitable deaths of the rabbits present. With the help of their useful new friend, a black-headed gull named Kehaar, they locate a nearby warren called Efrafa, which is overcrowded and has many does. Hazel sends a small embassy, led by Holly, to Efrafa to present their request for does.
Meanwhile, Hazel and Pipkin, the smallest member of the group, scout the nearby Nuthanger Farm, where they find two pairs of hutch rabbits. Despite their uncertainty about living wild, the hutch rabbits are willing to come to Watership. Hazel leads a raid on the farm the next day, during which he rescues both does but only one of the bucks, and at the expense of badly injuring Hazel's hind-leg. When the emissary returns soon after, Hazel and his rabbits learn that Efrafa is a police state led by the despotic General Woundwort. Holly and the other rabbits dispatched there have managed to return with little more than their lives intact.
Parts 3 & 4[edit | edit source]
However, Holly's group has managed to identify an Efrafan doe named Hyzenthlay who wishes to leave the warren, and can recruit other does to join in the escape. Hazel and Bigwig devise a plan to rescue Hyzenthlay's group and bring them to Watership Down; Bigwig is sent to do the mission, with infrequent help from Kehaar, and the group escape using a raft. Again, Bigwig nearly dies in the escape attempt. Once they are at Watership Down, the Efrafan escapees start their new life of freedom.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Owsla of Efrafa, led by Woundwort himself, arrives to attack and colonise the warren at Watership Down. Through Bigwig's bravery and loyalty, and Hazel's ingenuity, the Watership Down rabbits seal the fate of the Efrafan general by unleashing the Nuthanger Farm watchdog. As the Efrafans flee in terror, Woundwort, despite being greatly wounded in his battle with Bigwig, refuses to back down and leaps at the dog. His body is never found, and at least one of his former followers continues to believe in his survival. Hazel is nearly killed by one of the farmhouse cats, but, in a deus ex machina, he is saved by the farm girl Lucy, the former owner of the escaped hutch rabbits.
Epilogue[edit | edit source]
The story's epilogue tells the reader of how Hazel, dozing in his burrow "one chilly, blustery morning in March" some years later, is visited by El-ahrairah, the spiritual overseer of all rabbits, and hero of all traditional rabbit stories. El-ahrairah invites Hazel to join his own Owsla, reassuring him of his warren's success and its future. Leaving his friends and no-longer-needed body behind, Hazel departs Watership Down with the spirit guide.
Characters[edit | edit source]
- Hazel: The protagonist, Fiver's older brother; he leads the rabbits from Sandleford and eventually becomes the Chief Rabbit. Though Hazel is not particularly large or powerful, he is loyal, brave and a quick thinker. He sees the good in each individual, and what they bring to the table; in so doing, he makes sure that no one gets left behind, thus earning the respect and loyalty of his warren. He often relies on Fiver's advice, and trusts in his brother's instincts immensely.
- Fiver: A runt rabbit whose name literally means "Little Thousand" (rabbits have a single word, "hrair", for all numbers greater than four; Fiver's name in Lapine, Hrairoo, indicates that he is the smallest of a litter of five or more rabbits) and Hazel's younger brother. As a seer, he has visions and strong instincts. Fiver is one of the most intelligent rabbits in the group. He is quiet and intuitive, and though he does not directly act as a leader, the others listen to and follow his advice. Vilthuril becomes his mate.
- Bigwig: An ex-Owsla officer, and the largest and bravest rabbit of the group. His name in Lapine is Thlayli, which literally means "Fur-head" and refers to the shock of fur on the back of his head. Though he is powerful and fierce, he is also shown to be cunning in his own way when he devises a plan to defeat the larger and stronger General Woundwort. His final battle with Woundwort leaves him severely wounded, but he survives and becomes the leader of Hazel's Owsla.
- Blackberry: A clever buck rabbit with black-tipped ears. He is often capable of understanding concepts that the other rabbits find incomprehensible. He realises, for instance, that wood floats, and the rabbits use this tactic twice to travel on water. He also works out how to dismantle the snare that almost kills Bigwig, saving him. He is one of Hazel's most trusted advisors, given the task to plan a way to rescue does from Efrafa.
- Holly: Former captain of the Sandleford Warren Owsla, escapes with Bluebell when his warren is destroyed by men. He is near death when he finds the warren at Watership Down, but is nursed back to health and becomes one of Hazel's most trusted companions.
- Bluebell: Buck rabbit who escapes with Holly during the destruction of Sandleford and tells jokes to cope and help Holly recover from the mental strain of seeing the Sandleford warren destroyed. He will often jokingly speak in rhyme.
- Strawberry: Buck from Cowslip's warren who leaves with the Watership Down rabbits after his doe is killed by a snare. Strawberry is strong and sleek but not as hardy as the other rabbits given his warren upbringing but learns quickly and gets along well with the group. It is for this reason that he is selected to represent the rabbits on an expedition to Efrafa.
- Haystack: One of the hutch rabbits who escapes in order to live with the wild rabbits.
- Buckthorn: A strong buck who was expected to be part of the Sandleford Owsla once he reached maturity.
- Hawkbit: Described in the book as a "rather stupid rabbit" but is accepted by Hazel regardless.
- Dandelion: A buck rabbit notable for his storytelling ability and speed. He is instrumental in luring the Nuthanger Farm dog into the Efrafans during the siege of Watership Down.
- Silver: A strong buck rabbit, given his name for his silver-grey fur, he fights alongside Bigwig and helps defend the rabbits during their journey. He is teased for his silver fur at the Sandleford warren which is one of the reasons he was more willing to leave.
- Pipkin: A small and timid buck rabbit, who looks to Hazel for guidance and protection. Hazel encourages him, and Pipkin grows loyal to Hazel. He proves to be a constant comforter, particularly for Holly after the destruction of Sandleford warren. His name is Hlao in Lapine.
- Hyzenthlay: A doe who lives in Efrafa and assists Bigwig in arranging for the liberation of its inhabitants. General Woundwort, who suspects her of fomenting dissension, orders his guards to keep a close eye on her. She escapes Efrafa with Bigwig and becomes Hazel's mate. Like Fiver, she has visions. Her name means literally "shine-dew-fur", or "fur shining like dew".
- Vilthuril: A doe who lives in Efrafa. Similar to Fiver and Hyzenthlay, it is understood that she has visions and is a seer. She escapes Efrafa with Bigwig, Hyzenthlay and the other does. She becomes Fiver's mate and is said to be the only one to understand him as well as Hazel.
- Blackavar: A rabbit with dark fur who tries to escape from Efrafa but is apprehended, mutilated, and put on display to discourage further escape attempts. When he is liberated by Bigwig, he quickly proves himself an expert tracker and ranger, and also shows himself to be an effective fighter when the Efrafan rabbits attack the warren.
- Kehaar: A black-headed gull who is forced, by an injured wing, to take refuge on Watership Down, and befriends the rabbits when they help him. He is characterized by his frequent impatience, guttural accent and unusual phrasing. After discovering the Efrafa warren and helping the rabbits, he rejoins his colony, but promises to visit. According to Adams, Kehaar was based on a fighter from the Norwegian Resistance in World War II.
- General Woundwort: The main antagonist, a fearless, cunning and brutally efficient rabbit who was orphaned at a young age, Woundwort founded the Efrafa warren and is its tyrannical chief. Though larger and stronger than Bigwig, he lacks mercy and kindness. He even leads an attack to destroy the Watership warren as an act of revenge against Bigwig stealing does from Efrafa, which is narrowly defeated by Hazel's ingenuity and Bigwig's bravery. After his apparent death fighting the Nuthanger farm dog, he lives on in rabbit legend as a bogeyman.
- Captain Campion: Woundwort's most trusted subordinate, Campion is a loyal, brave and clever officer. After Woundwort disappears, he becomes the Chief Rabbit of Efrafa and reforms it, making peace with the Watership rabbits.
- Vervain: The head of the Council police in Efrafa, said to be one of the most hated rabbits in the warren. When Woundwort's forces storm the Honeycomb, he is ordered by Woundwort to kill Fiver, but Fiver's supernatural calmness and prophecising of his (Vervain's) death terrify him into fleeing, and he is never seen again.
- Frith : A god-figure who created the world and promised that rabbits would always be allowed to thrive. In Lapine, his name literally means "the sun".
- El-ahrairah: A rabbit trickster folk hero, who is the protagonist of nearly all of the rabbits' stories. He represents what every rabbit wants to be; smart, devious, tricky, and devoted to the well-being of his warren. In Lapine, his name is a contraction of the phrase Elil-hrair-rah, which means "prince with a thousand enemies". His stories of cleverness (and excessive hubris) are similar to Br'er Rabbit and Anansi. His name is pronounced with the same cadence as the phrase "Never say die", thus, "El-a-hrai-rah".
- Prince Rainbow: A god-figure who serves as a foil to El-ahrairah. He attempts to rein in El-ahrairah several times, but is always outsmarted by the rabbit.
- Rabscuttle: Another mythical folk hero, Rabscuttle is El-ahrairah's second in command and the Owsla leader. He participates in many of the El-ahrairah's capers. He is considered to be almost as clever as his chief.
- Black Rabbit of Inlé: A sombre phantom servant of the god Frith who appears in rabbit folklore as a kind of analogue to the grim reaper, and similarly ensures all rabbits die at their predestined time. "Inlé" is the Lapine term for the moon or darkness.
Adaptations[edit | edit source]
Film[edit | edit source]
In 1978 Martin Rosen wrote and directed an animated film adaptation of Watership Down. The voice cast included John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, and Roy Kinnear. The film featured the song "Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel. Released as a single, the song became a UK number one hit, despite Richard Adams "hating" it.
Although the essentials of the plot remained relatively unchanged, the film omitted several side plots. Though the Watership Down warren eventually grew to seventeen rabbits, with the additions of Strawberry, Holly, Bluebell, and three hutch rabbits liberated from the farm, the movie only includes a band of eight. Rosen's adaptation was praised for "cutting through Adams' book ... to get to the beating heart".
The film has also seen some positive critical attention. In 1979 the film received a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Additionally, British television station Channel 4's 2006 documentary 100 Greatest Cartoons named it the 86th greatest cartoon of all time.
From 1999 to 2001, the book was also adapted as an animated television series, broadcast on CITV in the UK and on YTV in Canada. It was produced by Martin Rosen and starred several well-known British actors, including Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, John Hurt, and Richard Briers, running for a total of 39 episodes over three seasons. Although the story was broadly based on that of the novel and most characters and events retained, some of the story lines and characters (especially in later episodes) were entirely new. In 2003, the second season was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Original Music Score for a Dramatic Series.
In July 2014, it was announced that the BBC would be airing a new animated series based on the book and in April 2016 that the series would be a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, consisting of four one-hour episodes, with a budget of £20 million. The four episode miniseries premiered on the BBC and Netflix on 23 December 2018, with the voices of James McAvoy as Hazel, John Boyega as Bigwig, and Ben Kingsley as General Woundwort. It received generally positive reviews, with praise for the performances of its voice cast, but receiving criticism for its tone and the quality of the computer animation.
In 2006, Watership Down was again adapted for the stage, this time by Rona Munro. It ran at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Directed by Melly Still, the cast included Matthew Burgess, Joseph Traynor, and Richard Simons. The tone of the production was inspired by the tension of war: in an interview with The Guardian, Still commented, "The closest humans come to feeling like rabbits is under war conditions ... We've tried to capture that anxiety." A reviewer at The Times called the play "an exciting, often brutal tale of survival" and said that "even when it’s a muddle, it’s a glorious one."
In 2011, Watership Down was adapted for the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago by John Hildreth. This production was directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth and the cast included Scott T. Barsotti, Chris Daley, Paul S. Holmquist, and Mandy Walsh.