Watership Down is a heroic fantasy/political allegory novel about a small group of rabbits, written by English author Richard Adams. Although the animals in the story live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits' odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way. Fiver, a small buck predicts the destruction of their birth warren (Sandleford Warren) and convinces his brother Hazel and several others to leave before the destruction takes place, having failed to convince the Sandleford Warren's Chief rabbit that they all ought to leave.
Fiver has a dream that something terrible will happen to the warren, and he convinces Hazel that they must go visit the Chief Rabbit. Hazel convinces a member of the Owsla (the strongest rabbits in a warren who surround the Chief Rabbit) named Bigwig to let them see the Chief Rabbit. Fiver tells the Chief Rabbit, called the Threarah (meaning "Lord Rowan Tree"), of his premonition. However, the Threarah ignores the warning and later scolds Bigwig for allowing them to interrupt his sleep. Hazel, Fiver, and two of their friends - Dandelion and Blackberry - are discussing the conversation with the Chief Rabbit when Bigwig comes up to the group. He informs them that he has left the Owsla and wants to leave the warren with them. Hazel says they will leave that evening, after moonrise, and that they should try to convince other rabbits to come.
Hazel, Fiver, and Pipkin (a friend of Fiver's) wait for the other rabbits to arrive. Dandelion brings a rabbit named Hawkbit with him. Blackberry brings Buckthorn - a large rabbit and potential Owsla member - and two other rabbits Hazel does not know, Acorn and Speedwell. They wait a while, and finally Bigwig comes with Silver, a large rabbit who recently joined the Owsla. Just before they leave, Captain Holly, leader of the Owsla, comes to arrest Bigwig because he believes they want to overthrow the Chief Rabbit. Bigwig attacks Holly and forces him to retreat. The rabbits leave.
They spend the night crawling through the woods, slowly and cautiously. Hazel leads them forward, going forward himself at times to make sure the way is safe. The rabbits grow exhausted, however, and they decide to rest. Hazel realizes they are tense and nervous, so he asks Dandelion to tell them a story.
Dandelion tells a story about El-ahrairah, the father of all rabbits. The story goes that when the world was first made, all the animals were friends and the rabbits populated the entire earth. But then Frith, the sun god who created the world, told El-ahrairah to stop his people from multiplying. El-ahrairah, however, would not listen, boasting that his people were the strongest in the world. Frith then decided to trick El-ahrairah, and he told all of the animals to come get a gift. To foxes, stoats, weasels, and many other animals Frith gave gifts of cunning and strength to hunt and kill rabbits. El-ahrairah heard this and decided to hide as he realized that Lord Frith cannot be tricked. He began to dig a hole, but at that moment Frith came upon him. Frith, seeing El-ahrairah's bottom sticking out of the hole, said that he had a gift to bestow upon him. El-ahrairah, afraid to show his face, said he could not come out and told Frith to bless his bottom, as it was sticking out of the hole. So, Lord Frith blessed El-ahrairah's bottom and gave him strong back legs and a shining white tail. He told the prince of the rabbits that he will have a thousand enemies, but that if his people are crafty they will survive.
A lendri (badger) surprises the rabbits and they run away from it. Then they come to a river that Fiver decides they need to cross, but they are unsure if they can. To the rabbits the river seems immense, but on the other side are fields that look much better than the woods where they have been.
Bigwig wants to know what they are going to do, and Blackberry convinces him to swim across and take a look at the other side to make sure it is safe. Bigwig comes hurrying back to tell them that there is a dog loose in the wood. Hazel realizes they must get across, but Pipkin is hurt and will not be able to swim. Blackberry figures out a way to float Fiver and Pipkin on a piece of wood, and they all get across safely. Blackberry's discovery mystifies all of the other rabbits except Fiver, who understands what happened.
Pipkin and Fiver are attacked by a crow, but Bigwig fights it off. The rabbits come across a beanfield and settle down there to rest. They are awakened from their sleep by the sound of a gunshot, and they scatter all about the field. Hazel and Silver return to the spot where they were all sleeping, and slowly the others come back as well. They set off across the field, but Hazel soon stops when he sees a car coming along a road. He does not know about roads, and Bigwig explains to him that the hrududil (cars) are not dangerous during the day, but that at night their lights are so bright that they dazzle any creatures in their path.
The rabbits cross the road and continue on for some time in unfamiliar terrain until Hawkbit, Acorn, and Speedwell come to Hazel and tell him that they want to go back. Hazel tries to reason with them, but Fiver comes along wanting to speak with Hazel. Fiver, in a trance, tells Hazel his vision of where they need to go, to some hills that are very far away. Fiver says they are in for trouble on the way but that they need to get to the hills. Hazel is dubious because of the distance and worried about what they will do. When Fiver comes to himself and asks what he was talking about Hazel tells him to forget it. Meanwhile, Bigwig gives the three insubordinates a rough dressing down.
Hazel knows that Acorn, Speedwell, and Hawkbit are unhappy because of the way Bigwig treated them, and he knows they need to rest and find a place to settle down. Although Hazel is unsure of himself, he promises he will take the others to a better place soon. They travel through difficult terrain for hours, and just when it seems they can go no further, they come upon a perfect field.
The rabbits laze about contentedly in the field and begin to scratch out a few holes. They do not work very seriously, however; since real digging, such as warrens and burrows, is done by does (female rabbits), and they are all bucks. Soon they see a strange rabbit looking at them. Hazel and Blackberry go to speak to him. The rabbit, who seems unconcerned that they wish to stay and comes over to meet the rest of the group, puzzles them. His name is Cowslip, and he invites them to stay in his warren, which has many empty burrows. He runs off before the rain comes, and the group talks it over. Everyone thinks that there is no danger, except Fiver, who believes they should stay away. Hazel decides they will go to Cowslip's warren.
Cowslip's warren is strangely conspicuous, and Hazel leads his rabbits down into it. They come to a huge burrow where all of the rabbits from the warren are gathered. Hazel's group quickly mixes among them, except Fiver, who sits apart. Hazel goes off with a rabbit named Strawberry, who tells him that they never have to deal with any elil (predators), because the man who lives nearby often shoots them. Strawberry shows Hazel around but seems to dodge Hazel's questions and shows him a form of stone artwork that bewilders Hazel, as most rabbits do not create art. Hazel realises that Strawberry will not answer any question beginning with the word "where."
They return to the big hall and Hazel wants to talk to Blackberry alone. He tells Cowslip they are going to silflay (eat outside), but Cowslip tells them that they have plenty of food inside and that it is raining outside anyway. When Hazel insists, Cowslip laughs at them. Laughter is foreign to rabbits, and Hazel and Blackberry run outside, puzzled. They meet Pipkin and the three of them discuss how strange these rabbits seem to be. They go back downstairs and fall asleep.
The rabbits are awakened by Strawberry stamping and calling out to wake everyone. He explains that there is flayrah (good food) outside. The rabbits all go outside and find carrots in the field. They eat their fill, and then Cowslip explains how to carry some food back to the warren for later. Hazel sees an angry Fiver, who tells him that there is something unnatural about the warren. Fiver slept outside and will not join them, and Hazel is worried.
Hazel sees Bigwig later, and although they both agree the warren is strange, they have been treated well and they see no reason to alter things. Bigwig forces Fiver to come down into the burrow with them. The other rabbits ask for a story, and, after a discussion, Blackberry says that Hazel will describe their adventures. The rabbits are awkwardly silent, and Hazel's group, puzzled by this, confers again and decides that Dandelion should tell another story of El-ahrairah.
In the great burrow, Dandelion tells the story of a time when El-ahrairah and his people were down on their luck and living in marshland where there was little food. El-ahrairah convinced Prince Rainbow, whom Frith had placed in charge of the world, to let his people out of the marshes if he could steal King Darzin's lettuces. King Darzin had a great animal kingdom and his lettuce garden was heavily guarded, but along with his friend Rabscuttle, the Captain of his Owsla, El-ahrairah pulled off the trick. And from that day on, rabbits could not be kept out of vegetable gardens, as they always had a trick for the occasion.
Hazel and his gang are sure that Dandelion has made a favorable impression because he has told a classic rabbit story and told it very well. However, they soon realize that the reception they have received is not very enthusiastic. They learn that these rabbits do not tell the traditional stories and that they believe that rabbits need dignity, not tricks. One of the new rabbits, Silverweed, a young poet, recites a disturbingly beautiful poem about movement and life, and it affects Fiver greatly. He writhes in agony and tries to escape, pushing roughly past the other rabbits. Hazel follows him out along with Bigwig. Fiver thinks they have come out with him because they also sense danger, but he is startled to learn that they are only upset because he may have endangered their relationship with Cowslip and the other rabbits. They bully Fiver into going back underground to sleep.
Hazel wakes up, is angry to see that Fiver has gone, and goes with Bigwig to find him. Fiver tells them he is leaving. Hazel, now more concerned than angry, tells Bigwig he must go with Fiver a little way to hear what he has to say and to try to convince him to stay. Bigwig loses his temper with Fiver because he believes that Fiver is being selfish and just trying to get attention.
Bigwig turns to run back to the warren and gets caught in a snare. He struggles furiously until a desperate Hazel asks him what he learned about snares in the Owsla. Bigwig, choking, gasps that they need to dig the peg out. Fiver runs for help and brings the others. Blackberry finds the peg and they get it out, but Bigwig appears to be dead. They learn that Cowslip and all the others deliberately ignored Fiver when he asked for help, and that Cowslip struck out at Fiver when he persisted.
Suddenly Bigwig staggers to his feet, saying that he will go and kill Cowslip. The rabbits, enraged, agree with him, deciding to take the warren for themselves and kill the residents, but Fiver silences them all and tells them the story he has pieced together. The snares are there for the rabbits, set out by the farmer who feeds them and protects them from elil. The rabbits know about the snares, but they pretend everything is all right and came up with art and poetry to pass the time while forbidding all talk of snares and punishing any rabbit who disobeyed. Fiver convinces them that the warren is a death trap, and they are about to leave when Strawberry comes running up and begs them to take him with them. Hazel agrees and they leave.
By the evening of the next day, the rabbits have travelled over three miles. They trust each other more after their experience in Cowslip's warren, and Fiver's intuitions are no longer questioned. They rest in a barn where they are attacked by rats, but Silver and Buckthorn fight them off under Bigwig's guidance. Finally the rabbits come to the foot of the downs, and Fiver wants them to climb up to the top. Hazel, Dandelion, and Hawkbit go ahead to scope out the territory. Hazel and Dandelion find that the top of the downs is perfect for them, and Hawkbit finds some rabbit holes on the way up that will be great places for them to sleep that night.
The rabbits sleep well that night. The next day, Blackberry suggests to Hazel that they build a warren for themselves. Although this is normally a task for does, not bucks, they decide that it is a good idea and begin working. Later, Hazel, Bigwig, Dandelion, and Speedwell go down the hill to find some good grass. Soon they hear a terrible sound, one that they cannot place. They hide together, but then the sound becomes a voice, and it calls Bigwig's name. Shocked, Hazel bravely goes to see what it could be. He finds a rabbit in terrible shape, on the verge of collapse—it is Captain Holly of the Sandleford Owsla, from their home warren.
Hazel realizes that they are in danger, as the injured Holly smells of blood and will attract predators. Soon, another rabbit appears—Holly's friend Bluebell. Hazel manages to get Holly and Bluebell up to the top of the down without any trouble. Pipkin and Dandelion take the two injured rabbits into one of the holes and tell the others to leave them to rest as much as they need.
The next day, Hazel takes the others back to continue digging the new warren, which he wants to have a great burrow like the one in Strawberry's old warren. Soon, Strawberry takes control of the building process, using his knowledge from the other warren to help build the great burrow, which they call the Honeycomb. Hazel saves a mouse from a kestrel by telling it (in a common woodland dialect) to come down into one of their holes.
Captain Holly has recovered enough to tell them his story—one that he warns will drive fear into all of their hearts—but before he does so, the mouse speaks to Hazel. The mouse promises to help Hazel sometime in return for saving his life earlier.
Holly tells them that after they left, the Threarah explained that even if Fiver were right in his premonition, moving an entire warren is a tremendous undertaking. The Threarah pointed out that it is almost always better to stay underground and hide from the dangers than to run away, as such a large group of rabbits could not make a long journey without attracting predators.
A few days later, Holly was out on his own, and when he came back he saw a group of men and a boy with a gun. The men filled in many of the holes and then sprayed poisonous gas into each of the holes they had left open. Bluebell picks up the story and describes the terror inside the burrows. Rabbits panicked and mothers fought with any who came near their young. Bluebell managed to find a run that went far down into the earth and came out of a hole in the woods, escaping with another rabbit, Pimpernel, who was in bad shape.
Before they escaped, Holly saw a great plough come and destroy the entire field. Then, with the two other rabbits, he followed the path that Hazel had taken. The trail lead them near the warren of the snares, where they took shelter in a small ditch. Upon awakening they were surrounded by Cowslip's rabbits, who attacked them and killed Pimpernel, who was sick and unable to defend himself, but Holly and Bluebell managed to escape. Holly attacked Cowslip and would have killed him, but Cowslip told him where Hazel and the others had gone. They went on without sleeping, and by the end Holly was delirious and hallucinating. It was at that point that Hazel found him.
After Holly's story is finished, Hazel tells them why he saved the mouse. He figures that it cannot hurt to befriend other animals who are enemies of their enemies. They go out to eat, and Hawkbit tells Hazel that another mouse told him of a place where there is very good grass to eat. They go eat, and Hazel is pleased that helping the mouse paid off.
Bluebell then tells a story about El-ahrairah that took place soon after the events in the story Dandelion told about the King's Lettuce. Prince Rainbow wanted to put El-ahrairah in his place, so he brought a rabbit named Hufsa to live with him and made Rabscuttle live somewhere else. Hufsa spoiled all of El-ahrairah's plans by secretly telling Prince Rainbow about them. El-ahrairah finally tricked Hufsa into looking like a fool, and managed to steal Prince Rainbow's new carrots in the process. He went with Hufsa to steal the carrots, but he bribed some other animals to meet them and do strange things along the way (telling a hedgehog to try and sing, and a pheasant to swim around in a pond). Prince Rainbow had El-ahrairah tried for stealing the carrots, with Hufsa as the witness, but everybody believed that Hufsa was talking nonsense when he mentioned the singing hedgehog and the swimming pheasant. The jury, made up entirely of elil—the enemies of rabbits—acquitted El-ahrairah, and a frustrated Prince Rainbow took Hufsa away.
Bigwig and Silver find an injured bird in a hollow. The bird is a black-headed gull, something the rabbits have never seen before. Hazel goes with them to look at the bird, talks to it in the same dialect that he used with the mouse, and decides that it is hungry. They collect worms and other insects and bring them to the gull. After feeding the bird, Hazel tries to convince it that they want to help. The bird wants nothing to do with them, however, so they leave it.
Later that afternoon, Hazel convinces the bird to come and stay in a hole. While the other rabbits dig the hole, Hazel explains to the bird the way they live. By the next day, the bird is much better and much friendlier, and Bigwig becomes its constant companion. Bigwig finds out that a cat injured the bird's wing, and that the bird comes from a place far away where the earth stops and is followed by so much water that no land can be seen. The rabbits are impressed and incredulous, but Bigwig is sure the bird, whose name is Kehaar, is not lying.
As they learn about the bird, Hazel tells the others of his plan. He points out that they have no does in the warren and, unless they find some, their new warren will have been built in vain. Hazel wants to persuade Kehaar to fly around and find some does, as the bird can travel farther much faster than the rabbits could. Bigwig says he will work on it.
A few days later, when Kehaar is better, he comes to Hazel and says he will go and find females for the rabbits. Kehaar leaves and returns after several days, telling them that there are rabbits in a shed on a farm at the bottom of the hill. He also tells of a warren he found that would take them a few days to reach. They decide to send an expedition to the other warren to try to bring back some does. Holly, Silver, Buckthorn, and Strawberry set off the next morning.
That night, Hazel decides that he should see about securing a few does before the expedition comes back. He sets off with Pipkin to look at the rabbits on the farm. Inside the shed, Hazel has Pipkin keep watch for cats while Hazel talks to the rabbits. He meets Boxwood, who tells him there are two does and two bucks. Hazel tells them he wants them to join the warren, and he promises to come back and free them. Just then, Pipkin warns him that a cat is outside. Hazel waits for the cat to approach and then goads it into jumping at them. The rabbits take off, getting away just in the nick of time.
The next day, Fiver finds out about Hazel's adventure to the farm, and Fiver is angry because he believes that Holly will bring back plenty of does and that Hazel is risking his life for no good reason. Hazel disagrees with his brother, and later on he and Pipkin tell the others about the visit. Bigwig is excited to go, and he and Hazel convince Blackberry to come with them to figure out how to open the rabbit hutch. Dandelion, Speedwell, and Hawkbit are also to go along. Fiver warns Hazel that he foresees danger for him, so Hazel promises he will not go into the farmyard himself.
They leave the next evening. At the end of the barn, the rabbits stumble upon a cat (a different cat from the one Hazel and Pipkin met earlier). Dandelion and Bigwig attack the cat and send it running. Blackberry figures out a way to break the leather door hinges, and they free the other rabbits. But the rabbits in the hutch are not certain whether to follow the others or not. Two of them, Boxwood and Clover, try to move quickly, but the other two, Haystack and Laurel, hang back. Soon the other cat arrives and the dog begins barking. The rabbits run off, leaving Laurel and Haystack behind.
They get to Hazel, who tells them to continue on. Hazel goes back with Dandelion to get the other two. Suddenly a car pulls up, blinding the rabbits with light. The men catch Laurel, and the other rabbits run off. While the men search, the rabbits get stuck in a ditch. Hazel runs out to distract the men so the others can get away, and he is shot. He crawls up a drainpipe and hides.
The other rabbits gather together and wait for Hazel, and then Dandelion and Bigwig go down to look for him. They see the blood and the men's footsteps, and they go back to tell the others. The rabbits make the march back to the downs to meet Fiver, who already knows about Hazel's ordeal from a vision. Later that night, Holly comes back with Buckthorn, Strawberry, and Silver. Only Silver is unhurt. The rabbits have no does with them.
Fiver has a dream in which he learns that Hazel is still alive. Fiver asks Blackberry if he knows where Hazel was shot, and he tells Blackberry to take him to that spot. Even though Blackberry is sure that Hazel must be dead, Fiver convinces him to go. They return to the farm, Fiver rushing as fast as he can and telling Blackberry to hurry up. Fiver moves through the ditch and follows the trail of blood to the drain. He looks in the drain and sees that Hazel is inside, and that he is still alive.
Deprived of their leader, the rabbits are uncertain of themselves and do not know what to do. Holly tells the story of what happened on their journey to Efrafa, the warren that Kehaar told them about. They bumped into a wandering hare who told them not to go to Efrafa, but just then three big rabbits approached them and escorted them in.
The Owsla in Efrafa are in complete control, along with a council of advisers (Owslafa), and a rabbit named General Woundwort is the leader. The warren is designed to avoid detection from humans. Each of the rabbits is marked with a bite and then put in a group with a similar mark, and they may only silflay with their group. Each mark goes up to silflay at a separate time. The Owsla run a "Wide Patrol"—they move far away from the warren looking for enemies to fight, or for wandering rabbits to capture. The Wide Patrols are used to train rabbits to become fierce and cunning, but they also carry a high risk of death, and they help to keep the warren's burgeoning population under some control.
A rabbit called Captain Campion took Holly and the others into a burrow, where they learned about the warren by talking to the inhabitants - in particular a doe named Hyzenthlay, who told them that the warren was overcrowded. They were brought before the Council, and Holly tried to explain that they just wanted a few does for their own warren. However, General Woundwort denied them permission to leave Efrafa—they quickly realized that they were prisoners, not guests.
Holly came up with a plan to escape, and they ran away while their guard was eating outside. They were soon pursued, however, and were nearly caught. Only crossing a railroad track saved them, although Holly did not know what the track was. A train came through and cut them off from the Efrafan Owsla. Holly describes the train as a giant hrududu sent by Lord Frith himself to save them. They managed to make their way back to the warren, only to learn that Hazel was shot in the raid on the barn.
Blackberry comes and tells them that Hazel is alive and that he is with Fiver at the bottom of the hill. Bigwig runs down to help and finds Hazel sleeping. The next morning, Kehaar comes down and pulls the shotgun pellets out of Hazel's leg. Hazel spends three days resting and tells Holly and the rest what they need to do. They need to return to Efrafa and bring back some does, and Hazel wants Blackberry to figure out how to do it.
Holly speaks out against the plan, saying it is suicide. But then Fiver says that he will go and claims that he thinks it will work. Bigwig also says that he is going and that Kehaar is coming with them. Kehaar tells Hazel he will help them to find the does, but that he must leave afterwards. He promises to return another time in the future.
The rabbits set out on their quest for Efrafan does, leaving behind only Buckthorn, Strawberry, Holly, and the hutch rabbits. Hazel wants to find a hiding place close to Efrafa, and Kehaar comes and tells him they can hide on the other side of the nearby river. They ask Dandelion to tell a story, and Bigwig requests the story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé.
The story tells of a time when King Darzin sent his soldiers to get rid of El-ahrairah once and for all. The soldiers attacked the rabbits as soon as they came out of their holes, and soon all of El-ahrairah's people were miserable. El-ahrairah could not figure out a way to get rid of King Darzin, and he realized he needed special help. He decided to seek out the Black Rabbit of Inlé, an immortal rabbit appointed by Lord Frith to determine the deaths of all rabbits. El-ahrairah wanted to offer the Black Rabbit his own life in exchange for the safety of his people.
After a long journey with his friend Rabscuttle, El-ahrairah came to the dwelling of the Black Rabbit and tried to bargain with him, but the Black Rabbit would not accept his offer. El-ahrairah tried to trick the Black Rabbit, but he lost his whiskers, his tail, and his ears in the process. Finally, the Black Rabbit told El-ahrairah to leave, and said that he had already gotten rid of King Darzin's soldiers. Rabscuttle and El-ahrairah made their way home, getting lost and having many adventures on the way. When they finally returned, the warren was bigger and the younger rabbits knew nothing about the war with King Darzin. In fact, they thought war itself was foolish. El-ahrairah sat to think, and Lord Frith came to talk to him, telling him that wisdom is not easy, and brought him a tail, whiskers, and a pair of ears with starlight in them. Just then, Pipkin interrupts the story to tell the others that there is a fox approaching.
Hazel gathers everyone to run from the fox, but at that moment Bigwig rushes past him, draws the fox's attention and runs into the undergrowth with the fox in hot pursuit. A few moments later, they hear a rabbit squeal and then, surprisingly, Bigwig comes running back. Hazel is angry with him, but Bigwig says he needed to do something because he was very tense. He tells Hazel that when he went into the brush with the fox behind him, he bumped into some strange rabbits. He told them to run, but they tried to stop him, so he knocked one of them down and then ran off. He figures the fox must have gotten the rabbit that he knocked down.
The rabbits move on through the night. In the morning, Kehaar comes and tells them that there is a patrol nearby that will find them soon if they do not hide. They cross over the iron road—the railroad tracks—that Holly told them about, and Kehaar tells them they are safe. The rabbits go to sleep.
Hazel realizes that Bigwig's stunt with the fox probably broke up a Wide Patrol that was very close to finding them. He asks Kehaar to take them to the river, which is huge and awes the rabbits. The need to get to the other side, so Kehaar shows them the way to a bridge. Fiver reassures Hazel that the bridge is no worse than many other places they have been, and is in fact better than some. Fiver and Hazel go across first with Pipkin, and soon Silver and Dandelion follow. Many of the other rabbits are even more reluctant than Hazel to cross, and Fiver has to convince them all to come over. They check out the terrain and then sleep.
Blackberry and Hazel need to figure out the last step in the plan. They explore the other side of the river and find a smaller bridge further down the river. They cross it, along with Fiver, Bigwig, and Bluebell. They come upon a boat, which Kehaar explains to them, and Blackberry strikes upon using the boat themselves. The plan is complete, and Bigwig heads towards Efrafa.
General Woundwort is a huge, fearless rabbit who has battled with many types of elil and taken control of other warrens by force, killing any rabbit who fought against him. He created Efrafa so that he could merge all the conquered warrens into one, and he fully controlled it from the beginning. He used the Wide Patrols to systematically gain control over the area surrounding Efrafa, and he made sure that the burrows were carefully concealed from men and predators. This, combined with the mark system, made the warren a very safe place to live.
However, the General is concerned because Holly's group's escape hurt the prestige of the Owsla and also caused the death of a good captain (who was hit by the train). Furthermore, the fox that chased Bigwig killed another of Woundwort's best officers. Captain Campion, Woundwort's most trusted officer, comes to tell him that they have found a rabbit who wants to join Efrafa.
The rabbit is Bigwig, although Woundwort does not know him. Bigwig convinces the General that he would be a good addition to the warren, and Woundwort makes him an officer.
Bigwig learns about the Efrafan security, and begins to think that his task may be close to hopeless. He meets a rabbit called Blackavar, who tried to escape but was caught by Campion. Blackavar had his ears torn up by the Owslafa, and he is exhibited by them as a warning to potential escapees. Bigwig decides that if he brings anyone out, Blackavar is coming with them. Bigwig meets Hyzenthlay and some other does, and later he has her come to see him. He talks to Hyzenthlay and tells her that he plans to break some does out of Efrafa. She is intelligent and helpful and tells him that they must leave in the next two nights, because after that their Mark will not go out at night. They settle on the next night, and she is to tell the does just before they go out to eat.
One of the officers wakes Bigwig up the next day, and he heads out to feed with his Mark. Outside, he sees Kehaar and, while eating, talks to the bird. He tells Kehaar that the rabbits must be ready at sunset and that he must attack the sentries. Bigwig goes to tell Hyzenthlay and her friend Thethutinnang about the plan. Just as Bigwig gets ready to make the break that night, General Woundwort calls him aside to talk to him.
Woundwort questions Bigwig because one of the officers from the patrol Bigwig encountered while running from the fox has recognized him. Bigwig explains to Woundwort that he did not bring the fox on them intentionally. Woundwort asks him if he knows anything about the other rabbits that his Patrol was tracking. Bigwig says that he saw their tracks, but otherwise has no idea where they went. Woundwort invites Bigwig to go on a Wide Patrol with him two days later and then tells him to keep an eye on Hyzenthlay because there may be more trouble.
Hazel and the other rabbits realize that something must have gone wrong. They return to the other side of the river, trying to keep their spirits up. Bigwig is very worried, and to add to his troubles he learns that Hyzenthlay and Thethutinnang have already told the other does of the plan. He is worried that one of them will talk and that they will be found out. The next morning, Bigwig finds a way to send a message to Kehaar by using another officer as his unwitting pawn. He tells the bird to come back that night. Later, Bigwig finds Blackavar apart from his escort for a moment and tells him to be ready to break out later that night.
Hazel and the others get Bigwig's message through Kehaar and prepare to meet him. Hyzenthlay wakes Bigwig up to tell him that a doe has been arrested. He tells her to gather the others quickly and goes to get Blackavar. Bigwig attacks one of the escorts, while Blackavar fights with the other. Bigwig knocks down both guards and then takes off with Blackavar and the does right behind him.
Woundwort learns what has happened and takes off after them. Campion tries to get Bigwig to stop, but they continue on. Soon, however, the General and his subordinates catch up to them. Just when the escapees turn to fight, lightning flashes, giving everyone pause. It begins to pour, and then Kehaar attacks out of nowhere. The other rabbits come to Bigwig and the does' aid, and they make a hasty retreat towards the river, where Hazel has been gnawing through the rope tying the boat to the bank.
Woundwort and his rabbits come at them from one side while Campion comes from the other. Woundwort attacks one of the does, and the does all jump onto the boat. Dandelion is left behind, with the Efrafans between him and the boat, but Bigwig calls out that Kehaar is coming. Woundwort, startled, leaps back, and Dandelion jumps on the boat. This breaks the already frayed rope, and the rabbits drift away from Woundwort and Efrafa.
The rabbits float down the river, wondering what to do next. Kehaar tells them that there is a bridge coming and that they might not fit under it. They squeeze through the bridge, but one of the does is hurt as they go under. They come to another bridge that stops the boat. Kehaar tells them to jump out and swim underneath the bridge, and he does so himself just to show them that it is safe. Hazel does not know whether Kehaar’s advice is sound for rabbits, but then a group of men passes over the bridge and Hazel realizes how unsafe their position is. He and Pipkin jump into the water, and Blackavar follows behind them. Once safe on land, Blackavar points out that they can walk around to the other side of the bridge. From there they tell the others that it is safe to jump. Although some of the does need convincing, they finally all jump in, drift to the shore, and fall asleep.
In the morning they learn that the injured doe, Thrayonlosa, has died during the night. Hazel and Bigwig say goodbye to Kehaar, who takes off for the ocean, promising to return in the winter. Then the rabbits set off on the road home. Blackavar proves himself very useful because his Efrafan training taught him to track very well. At one point, Hazel wants to stop and dig some holes to stay in for a few days, and Fiver is not opposed to doing so. Blackavar feels that they are in fox country, but Bigwig disagrees and Hazel decides they should rest.
Two days later, a fox ambushes them and grabs one of the does. The group moves on. They stumble upon an Efrafan patrol led by Campion, who only sees a few of them at first and tries to get them to surrender, but soon realizes he is outnumbered. Blackavar tells Hazel that they must kill the patrol, or else it will report back to Efrafa, but Hazel wants no fighting. They move on and make their way back to the down. Campion and his patrol, who have followed them at a distance, see the warren and then go back to Efrafa to report.
Everyone is content in the warren. The sixteen bucks manage to get along with only ten does, and they are all pleased to be once again living normal rabbit lives. They persuade Dandelion to tell them a story, and he tells them about the time that El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle played a trick on Rowsby Woof, a vicious dog, so that they could eat some good food from a man's house. El-ahrairah dressed up and pretended to be the Fairy Wogdog, a spirit sent by the Dog Queen. El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle got their food and left Rowsby Woof convinced that he saved both his master and the Fairy Wogdog from an evil rat spirit.
A little while later, Hazel is visited by his mouse friend, who brings news of other rabbits gathered close by. Bigwig wants to talk to Hazel and ignores the mouse, but Hazel asks the mouse to repeat its message and then insists on sending Holly and Blackavar to check. Speedwell comes out happily to tell them that Clover has had a litter of six kittens.
Bigwig chats with Hazel, but then Holly and Blackavar come running back. They bring news that a huge raiding party has come from Efrafa. They have bumped into Campion and they think Woundwort himself may be there. Hazel decides to fill in the holes leading into the burrows so their enemies will have to dig them out, leaving one hole open to enter and exit. Hazel decides to go try to talk to General Woundwort, and he makes Bigwig Chief Rabbit until he returns.
We learn that Woundwort's authority was damaged after Bigwig engineered the great escape, and he was determined to get revenge. He sent Campion to look for the escapees at the spot where the fox ruined their earlier patrol. After learning where the warren was, he set up a war party.
Once Woundwort learns that they have been spotted, he takes a few of his own rabbits with him to look at what the enemy is doing. Hazel meets them and offers a compromise. He suggests that they create a warren between Efrafa and the downs, made up of rabbits from both warrens. Woundwort considers Hazel's offer for a moment before rejecting it, saying that he will kill all the bucks in the warren if Bigwig, Blackavar and all the does are not handed over to him at once. He turns away to discuss battle plans with his officers, and Hazel returns to the warren with the news.
Blackavar, Buckthorn and Silver fight off the first few Efrafans who break through the outer runs. While the Efrafans struggle to dig down into the Honeycomb, Bigwig suggests to Hazel that they move everyone into the burrows behind the Honeycomb and block the runs between them. Bigwig plans to lie in wait behind the blockade, so that the Efrafans will have to go through him to get to the rest of the warren. Fiver falls into some sort of trance, screams, and Hazel has a vision: he needs to go to the farm and free the dog. He takes Blackberry and Dandelion with him and they flee to the farm, escaping through an open run.
Woundwort breaks into the Honeycomb. Bigwig has had to leave Fiver in the Honeycomb because he was still in a trance and would not wake up, but Woundwort thinks Fiver is dead and leaves him alone. Woundwort brings in more rabbits, and they see the newly formed wall of earth at one end of the hall. When they break through the wall, Woundwort steps in first, and Bigwig, who has buried himself under the dirt, bursts out and bites deep into the General's foreleg. Woundwort pulls away, attacks again, and begins to overpower Bigwig with his weight. Just as Woundwort goes for the kill, his foreleg gives way and he falls backward, receiving a few blows across the face from Bigwig.
Meanwhile Hazel gnaws through the dog's rope, and it chases Dandelion. After a brief rest in the cattle shed, he manages to keep the dog following him up to where Blackberry is waiting. Dandelion catches up, and together the two rabbits get the dog's attention. It charges after them.
Woundwort tries to persuade Bigwig to come out with promises and threats, but Bigwig knows that even his dead body will be a major obstacle, as it will block the way. Finally Woundwort jumps at Bigwig and pushes him backwards. Bigwig struggles, but is slowly pushed back, when suddenly Woundwort loses strength. Bigwig's blows have caused Woundwort's nose to bleed, and he cannot breathe as he tries pushing Bigwig.
Finally the General, wounded and exhausted, lets go and retreats. His troops are incredulous at his defeat, and when he sends Vervain - the savage captain of the Owslafa - to finish off Bigwig, Vervain is afraid to go and pretends to have grit in his eye. Woundwort, disgusted, goes above ground to work out a new digging plan. Just then, Campion goes tearing by and screams for everyone to run. The dog bursts in, scattering the Efrafans, and only Woundwort stands his ground, urging the others to stay and fight.
Lucy, the little girl who lives on the farm, hears squealing and rescues Hazel from her cat. She wants to show the hurt rabbit to the local doctor, who comes over to the farm just as the dog returns, with a scratch on his nose and a bite on his leg. The doctor says the rabbit is fine, and he offers to give Lucy a ride to somewhere they can let it go. She lets it go right at the foot of Watership Down.
Woundwort's standing up to the dog has probably saved the lives of many rabbits by giving them time to run away. Campion decides that the Efrafans should go home, and manages to make it back with only six or seven rabbits of his party left alive. Several Efrafans ran into the hole when the dog came and surrendered themselves to Fiver. Bigwig is hurt badly, but he eventually recovers, and Hazel comes running up to tell the story of what happened at the farm.
It is October, and two more of the does, Hyzenthlay (Hazel's mate) and Vilthuril (Fiver's mate), have had litters, and everyone is living well. The Efrafans who surrendered have joined the warren and get along fine, although they believe Woundwort - whose body has never been found - is still alive somewhere. Hazel thinks they should start a new warren between theirs and Efrafa (which is now run by Captain Campion). The young kittens are growing up, hearing stories of adventure and receiving training from Bigwig in how to attack cats.
Later, the new warren is started and things go well with all three warrens. Woundwort is never seen again, but he lives on in rabbit folklore. Hazel lives a much longer time than rabbits usually live. One cold morning in March, a rabbit with shining light in his ears comes for Hazel. They walk out into the day, and Hazel leaves his body behind him, looking back only to see that all is well with the warren before moving on to his new world.
- Hazel: The protagonist, Fiver's brother; he leads the rabbits from Sandleford and eventually becomes 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 absolutely.
- 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 very 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" who 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 very 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".
- Blackavar: A rabbit with very 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 colourful language. 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, Vervain is ordered by Woundwort to kill Fiver, but Fiver's supernatural calmness and prophesising of his (Vervain's) death terrify Vervain 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 very 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-ahrirah several times, but is always outsmarted by the rabbit.
- Rabscuttle: Another mythical folk hero, Rabscuttle is El-ahrairah's second in command and Owsla captain. He participates in many of El-ahrairah's capers. He is considered to be almost as clever as his chief.
- Black Rabbit of Inlé: A somber 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.
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.
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 confirmed that the BBC would be airing a new animated series based on the book. In April 2016 it was announced that the series would be a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, and would consist of four one-hour episodes. The series will have a budget of £20 million.
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.
Follow-Up Sequel Edit
Tales from Watership Down is a collection of 19 short stories by Richard Adams, published in 1996 as a follow-up to Adams's highly successful 1972 novel about rabbits, Watership Down. It consists of a number of short stories of rabbit mythology, followed by several chapters featuring many of the characters introduced in the earlier book. Like its predecessor, Tales from Watership Down features epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter and a Lapine glossary.