Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

3 Jun 2011

(Novel) Watership Down by: Richard Adams

(Reaction) Freedom Rabbits by: Antonio Conejos

There are many human sayings glorifying the sanctity of a home. There is after all no place like home and a man's home is his castle, even if it is not built with bricks nor its entrance with a rampart and moat. While Watership Down oftentimes emphasizes the different between men and rabbits; in this the two species are the same, both prize home as a sanctuary worth fighting for. Throughout the novel the question of what a home should be, and the lengths one will go to live in such a place, is explored.

The original cause which excites the rabbits to leave their initial warren is Fiver's premonition (ignored by those in authority) that something terrible is about to happen. While this is their cause for leaving, their reasons for leaving are entirely different. Most of the rabbits leave because they simply want to live in a better place.

As Blackberry (the rabbit recognized by all as the most intelligent) puts it, I'll come... there are too many bucks in this warren, and it's pretty poor fun for any rabbit that's not in the Owsla. Even Hazel, who believes in his brother's premonitions, goes not out of fear that a disaster is about befall the warren. Rather, Hazel also leaves to live a better life, If we get away from the warren, I'm not going to let Bigwig run everything, or why bother to go?

In the beginning, most of the rabbits (except Hazel) do not put much stock in Fiver's premonitions. At the end of the tale all believe in his visions, and regard him as a sort of oracle; but they still do not understand his queer clairvoyance. That Fiver and his ability are beyond the comprehension of the rabbits is neatly reflected in Fiver's name. Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above four is hrair - 'a lot,' or a 'a thousand.' Literally then Fiver is outside of the normal schema of rabbit understanding, someone beyond the quantifiable.

Fittingly too, the etymology of Fiver's name is also the etymology for the term rabbits use for the wide variety of their enemies. 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. The link between Fiver and elil is appropriate as many of Fiver's visions are a result of the rabbits figuring out a way to use their enemies to overcome a particular obstacle.

Fiver's ultimate vision of settling on Watership Down is first seriously threatened when the group of refugee rabbits stumble upon Cowslip's warren. Cowslip's name is also indicative of his character. Just as cowslips are a delicacy among rabbits, Cowslip and his warren are the epitome of comfort and luxury. Food is never scarce and the elil, never a problem. Hazel succinctly describes the ease of life of Cowslip and his ilk, He smells like a big fat rabbit to me, with a lot of carrots inside.

There is something rotten about Cowslip's warren though, and it's not the food. Silverweed, who is the poet of the warren, speaks of wanting to leave (petitioning the stream, the leaves, the wind and the sky to take him) and surrender (For I am ready to give you my breath, my life). The prosperous life of Cowslip's warren comes at a cost, They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear....

Fittingly it is Fiver who recognizes Cowslip's warren for what is is, an acknowledgement that some losses are acceptable, that not everyone's life is worth saving (or rather that one's life is only valuable in so far as its sacrifice will benefit the community). Don't you see? The farmer only sets so many snares at a time, and if one rabbit dies, the others will live that much longer.

Hazel and his refugees cannot accept this calculated loss of life, food and protection for blood, one's comfort in exchange for the life of a brother or a friend. Cowslip's warren is not the home for them and they continue on to Watership Down. As illustrated by Cowslip's warren, in some situations it is immoral to demand that the lives of some are forfeit for the good of the group. In this case, the needs of the many do not outweigh the needs of the few.

Eventually the rabbits establish a warren at Watership Down. While the locale is ideal, both for food and protection, it is Hazel-rah, as befitting his status as Chief Rabbit, who recognizes that they will need does if the warren is to survive (all the refugees at this point are male). The quest for mates leads the rabbits to Efrafa, another warren that serves as a counterpoint example to Watership Down. Efrafa, like Cowslip's warren, is not a hospitable home.

Where Cowslip's warren accepted the enemy and reached an accommodation with him, Efrafa stood proudly defiant against any elil. Cowslip's warren and Efrafa illustrate opposite and extreme reactions to dealing with an enemy.

In order to make Efrafa as secure as possible, General Woundwort had to institute draconian measures of paranoia and fear. There is no freedom in Woundwort's police warren, everything is regulated, from the mealtimes to when and where a rabbit can go about its natural excretions. If Cowslip's warren leads to a physical death, Efrafa also kills, but not one's body but one's mind and soul. As Holly reports to the horrified rabbits, You can't call your life your own... Most of them can't do anything but what they're told.

General Woundwort is the chief architect of Efrafa and it is an extension of his will to dominate. When he had explored the limits of his own strength, he set to work to satisfy his longing for still more power in the only possible way - by increasing the power of the rabbits about him. He needed a bigger kingdom... As the warren grew, so Woundwort developed his system to keep it under control.

Inevitably Woundwort's system warps those in power such that they wield it merely for their own privilege. The arrogance of Woundwort's Owsla leaks out in virtually every sentence the officers say to each other. Chervil tutors an undercover Bigwig on the finer points of throwing their weight around, They want to be natural, the anti-social little beasts... What I do is to set three or four of them to dig a new trough in the ditch every day, as a punishment. You can always find someone to punish if you try hard enough.

Faced with these two inhospitable warrens, Hazel manages to thwart both Cowslip's indifference and Woundwort's paranoia. He integrates what is best about each warren in Watership Down. For instance, the meeting hall of Watership Down is patterned after that in Cowslip's warren. Moreover, Hazel is quick to welcome the skills of the Efrafa bucks who were either rescued (as in the case of Blackavar) or who have surrendered.

That Hazel serves as a middle point between different ideas, and a filter to sift through those ideas to determine which best are implemented, is seen in his insistence that a warren be established between Watership Down and Efrafa. This new warren is to be populated with rabbits from warrens.

This insistence on mediation between extremes bear fruit in the peace that follows the defeat of General Woundwort. Before many months had passed, no one on Watership knew or particularly cared to know whether he himself or his mate was descended from one or two Efrafan parents or from none at all. Hazel was glad that it should be so.

Ultimately Watership Down serves as a middle point between out rightly surrendering to the dangers of the world and the desire to completely wall one's self off from the inevitable elils of life. It is a home where everyone has a say and where a wise leader knows best how to use the abilities of his people to the best of their abilities.


I had not read Watership Down as a child and warily came to it as an adult. A book for children about rabbits is not the easiest sell to a young man whose usual leisure reading is science fiction. Still, I had heard a lot about the novel over the years and so picked it up one day on a lark. I was genuinely taken aback how engrossing and gripping I found the story (especially when the rabbits begin to deal with Efrafa).

Alongside the riveting plot is language which will please any reader, young or old, male or female, human or rabbit. A passage I particularly liked is Vervain's epiphany that the end is near, it manages to combine both sudden realization and inexorability, Now, as he continued to meet the eyes of this unaccountable enemy - the only one he had faced in all the long night's search for bloodshed - horror came upon him and he was filled with a sudden fear of his [Fiver's] words, gentle and inexorable as the falling of bitter snow in a land without refuge.

There's no denying that the characters are stock (the noble leader, the honorable soldier, the cunning adviser) yet their reactions to the events around them are so natural that the reader feels quite a lot of empathy for Hazel and his ragtag group of refugees cum would-be settlers.

The character that best personifies this paradoxical complexity through cliche is General Woundwort. Here is a genuinely evil rabbit, and he shows us just how malicious he can be. Yet at the same time the reader develops a grudging respect for the General who showed the elil that rabbits can fight. His last words are a testament to the defiance which fueled his life, Come back, you fools! Dogs aren't dangerous! Come back and fight!

So rich is the novel that any number of reactions could be done on it. For instance, I was tempted to write about how rabbits prize the natural, indeed the Black Rabbit personifies this with his refrain, For what is is what must be. Yet precisely Hazel rebels against this kind of thinking. What is can be changed; hence the whole impetus of the novel!

One could also comment on how does (females) are little more than objects in the novel. Yet at the same time they show an inner resilience which the bucks do not see. This is seen in Hyzenthalyís telling assertion. When she is asked if she thinks like an Efrafan, she simply replies, Iím a doe.; implying an inner resilience which male rabbits do not have.

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