by Richard Adams
If we were to make a violent video game with rabbits—Grand Theft Bunny, Rabbit Kombat, or Call of Bunny: Black Rabbit of Inlé—we might make Woundwort the main character because he's very good with violence. And boy, does he like it, too. Woundwort always seems to try violence and force as the solution to his problems. Unfortunately, Woundwort's problems include all of Hazel's rabbits, so Woundwort comes off as the major villain in the second half of this book.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
Yes, Woundwort is the antagonist here, but he could real easily be a hero. After all, he has a lot of good qualities that we would like in our Chief Rabbit:
(1) He's brave, as everyone notes; even Bigwig, in the middle of running away from Woundwort, takes time to say how brave Woundwort is (38.129).
(2) Woundwort also is clever: he designs Efrafa to hide the entrances and make it harder for humans to exterminate them (34.7). It's such a good design that Bigwig talks about "paying homage to the design" (that is, stealing it) for Watership Down (42.38).
(3) He's very good at organizing his troops and improvising a plan, like when Hazel's rabbits are escaping (38.138).
(4) He's an inspiring leader who encourages his troops. The narrator subtly—oh so subtly—hints at this when he says, "He knew how to encourage other rabbits and to fill them with a spirit of emulation" (34.10).
(5) And he really seems to take care of the rabbits who follow him, using all his strength to help them.
That last one's key:
When the does stopped digging, Woundwort himself went on with their work while they slept. If a man was coming, Woundwort spotted him half a mile away. He fought rats, magpies, gray squirrels and, once, a crow. When litters were kindled, he kept an eye on their growth, picked out the strongest youngsters for the Owsla and trained them himself. He would allow no rabbit to leave the warren. Quite early on, three who tried to do so were hunted down and forced to return. (34.7)
Whoa, wait, what? Notice how that (yes, long) quote moves from "I heart Woundwort" to "Woundwort is a crazy tyrant"? We start with talking about how Woundwort has all these good qualities: he works tirelessly, he looks out for danger, he fights animals to protect the other rabbits, which is all well and good. But after all this awesomesauce, we get the kicker, which is that he's helping protect these rabbits for his own goal of building up Efrafa into the warren that he wants it to be. And if a rabbit doesn't like that, that's tough luck because Woundwort will use all his strength to force them to stay and behave.
You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Rabbit
That's Woundwort in a nutshell: he's almost a hero, but because he uses his qualities for selfish and unnatural goals, he's the villain of the piece. (Although if you actually put him in a nutshell, he would bust out violently and come looking to beat you up.)
So we hear all about how special and strong Woundwort is, but the key word to understanding Woundwort is probably unnatural. Woundwort may have some good qualities, but they are not rabbit qualities used for rabbit goals.
Both Bigwig and Silver make this observation, that Woundwort isn't like a rabbit: instead of running away from danger, Woundwort seeks it out (38.140, 50.10). And as Captain Holly notes, Woundwort was brave, of course, "But it wasn't natural; and that's why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do" (50.11).
Rabbits may be able to change the way they do things in small ways, but if Woundwort is any lesson, then going against one's nature is bound to end poorly, especially if there's a bloodthirsty dog on the loose. (See "Themes: Man and the Natural World" for more on this.)
And About That Name…
Woundwort sounds like a bad name, right? Would you want your name to start with "wound"? (How about "injury" or "damage"?) But here's the thing, the herb woundwort has actually been used for centuries to cure people. "Wort" just means "herb" or "plant"; so "woundwort" means something like "herb for wounds." In fact, another name some people use for woundwort is "heal-all". Not so scary now, is he?
But then add General to the name. Then we can see how his name nicely captures who he is. He's a military rabbit; and he's got a lot of good qualities, so he could have helped out and healed other rabbits; but instead he's chosen to wound and hurt other rabbits.