Study Guide

Watership Down Analysis

By Richard Adams

  • Tone

    Deadly Serious and a Little Distant

    As an example of "deadly serious and a little distant," check out when Bigwig gets caught in a snare and he's not moving:

    Blackberry pressed his nose against Bigwig's head. As he nuzzled him gently the head rolled sideways and back again.

    "Bigwig," said Blackberry in his ear, "the peg's out."

    There was no response. Bigwig lay still as before. A great fly settled on one of his ears. Blackberry thrust at it angrily and it flew up, buzzing, into the sunshine. (17.64-6)

    Now, this is a serious moment, where one of our main characters may be dead. Notice what this section doesn't do: it doesn't make a joke about Bigwig's death; but it also doesn't go on and on about what a tragedy this is. There are no jokes when it's a matter of life-and-death, but it doesn't tell us how to feel. We're not being manipulated into growing weepy and sentimental. It just shows us the situation and let's us come to our own emotional conclusion. That's what we mean by distant.

    Also, check out how detailed that scene is, how the narrator can slow down the action to tell us basically the same thing twice: "There was no response" pretty much means the same as "Bigwig lay still as before." But by repeating the same info, the narrator slows down the action so that we can insert our own feelings into the story.

    So when we read that Bigwig might be dead, the narrator doesn't tell us that this is a big freaking tragedy, but slows down the action so that we can feel how tragic this circumstance is. Their friend is dead, so it's like time is standing still. The narrator doesn't bombard us with feelings, so we can have our own emotional response, which is, for those of us who have hearts, horrific.

    But notice also how close the narration stays to the rabbits. Even though it's an omniscient narrator, we mostly hear what the rabbits are feeling or doing. We're not going to get, for instance, to see how disappointed the farmer is that he doesn't get to eat a delicious rabbit. And that's why we say the tone is only a little distant.

  • Genre

    Quest

    Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits get caught up in a lot of adventures. But we're classing this as a quest story (rather than as an adventure story) because all of these adventures are very goal-oriented. They leave Sandleford Warren to go find a better place to live; they go to Nuthanger Farm and Efrafa Warren to get does; etc. The bunnies aren't just having adventures for the sake of adventures, but because they need to do something to survive.

    Young Adult

    Putting this book in the Young Adult category is a hard decision, and we know Adams faced this problem when he was trying to publish the book. On one hand, the characters are bunnies and it's told in a pretty simple style that's really good for kids. (In fact, as we mention in our "In a Nutshell" section, Adams started this story for his kids on a car trip.) But on the other hand, this book is full of death and violence, which might not be suitable for kids.

    Even though adults love this book, we're going to call it Young Adult because the issues it deals with—like trying to find a place in the world to call home—are issues that young adults especially have to deal with. Also, it has bunnies.

    Fantasy

    Maybe rabbits really do talk to each other and tell stories about a great hero rabbit named El-ahrairah, but until we know that for sure, we're going to classify this as a fantasy. Also, there's the little issue of Fiver's and Hyzenthlay's supernatural abilities.

    Put it this way: When the publisher Rex Collings accepted Watership Down, he wrote to a friend, "I've just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I'm mad?" (source). Not mad, just fantastic.

    Folklore

    Watership Down isn't folklore, but the stories about El-ahrairah definitely are. The narrator compares El-ahrairah to other folklore figures like Brer Rabbit, John Henry, and Robin Hood (5.11). Plus many of the stories contain familiar folklore events—like when El-ahrairah tries to make a deal with death (which is a common folklore plot). Most of this book isn't folklore, but these stories are so folkloric it hurts.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Watership Down is named after a real location in England that is, frankly, pretty boring. In fact, it's just a hill. There were no battles there, no famous speeches, no iPod factories or summer music festivals. (Actually, there were probably battles and summer music festivals, since those are everywhere; but there are no really famous battles or festivals.)

    And that's kind of the point: it's just a boring hill. But while Watership Down (the hill) is not important to us, it is important to the rabbits since that's where they make their home. In fact, it's not the home that they start out at—it's the ideal home that they're trying to get to. It's the place they work together to reach in the beginning, the warren they build with their cleverness in the middle, and the home they fight to protect at the end. If this book is falls into the quest genre, then Watership Down is the object of their quest. So naming the book after that hill reminds us readers of what the rabbits are fighting for—even when they don't know it themselves.

    Watership Down may not be important to us humans, but it's the place the rabbits call home. Naming the book after this place is another way of saying "humans aren't the only living things. Rabbits have needs, too."

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    How many happy endings involve the death of a main character? Not many, we think, but that's just what happens here. But we'll get to that in a second.

    First, we'll tell you that the epilogue to Watership Down gives us lots of info about how everything turned out for everybody. It's like one of those high school movies that ends with captions telling how everyone ended up after graduation. Except instead of graduation, it's the war with Woundwort that they just survived.

    But once we've gotten all that where-are-they-now nonsense out of the way, the epilogue focuses on Hazel, who gets older and then dies. But it's not a "boo-hoo, the hero is dead" sort of ending. In fact, Hazel is visited by some rabbit spirit (who we believe is El-ahrairah). This rabbit spirit invites Hazel to join his Owsla, where they can pull tricks and raid gardens and watch over all the young rabbits in Watership Down from rabbit heaven:

    It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

    "You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be all right—and thousands like them. If you'll come along, I'll show you what I mean." (Epilogue.8-9)

    The whole book has been about Hazel founding a new home for rabbits, and the epilogue seals the deal: he has succeeded in that goal. Watership Down will continue without him because he's given the rabbits of Watership Down all of his strength and speed (and hopefully cleverness, too). Even El-ahrairah notes that they'll be okay here, so we don't have to worry about them. That's a pretty happy ending.

  • Setting

    Where? The Fields of England; When? After the Invention of the Car

    If central England were to disappear, you could probably recreate it from this book. That's how gigantically detailed and realistic this book's setting is. No, let's rephrase our first sentence: You could recreate central England from this book, if you only wanted to recreate a few fields, some small rivers, and a farm. Since these are bunnies and not international bankers, most of the action takes place in a rural area that doesn't actually cover a whole lot of ground.

    The important thing here, is that the setting is incredibly accurate. If you have trouble picturing any locations, you can check out the "Best of the Web," because several superfans have gone over this landscape and taken pictures. (If you ever go to England, there's probably a walking tour you can take to see the sights.) It's so realistic that Richard Adams points out which geographical survey maps could be used to see this setting.

    In his introduction, Adams also notes that this setting is one he's very familiar with (if you had any doubts): "When I was a little boy I often walked on the downs with my father, who used to point out the birds and wild flowers; and thus began my lifelong love of natural history." So the fact that this book spends so much time on the plants and the natural setting isn't an accident. "Setting" to Adams means "nature," as far as bunnies are concerned.

    Or rather, let's say that this super-realistic setting of England emphasizes the conflict between the natural and the human. Sure, there's some safe spaces for the rabbits (like Watership Down), but the rest of the setting shows signs of humanity's meddling—railroad tracks, a road, a farm, etc. In other words, if you're in England, you could probably walk outside your door and see this conflict played out in the fields right outside of town.

    Or let's put it this way: maybe Richard Adams spends so long making the setting realistic because this book makes us ask how we're going to treat the wild(ish) spaces and nature right outside our door. If you can read this book and then go exterminate a warren to build an apartment building, you might have missed the point entirely.

    Modern(ish) Times

    Most of the action in the book takes place over less than a year. The story opens in May (1.2) and ends in autumn (50.58). But in what year? We don't know and the rabbits don't care. The narrator never tells us the year, which (a) probably makes the story seem a little more current (although, seriously, if we were writing this today, humans wouldn't be smoking so much); and (b) reminds us that the story isn't really interested in human life that measures the years.

    Is there a war on? Who is president or prime minister? What is Nicki Minaj up to? The rabbits couldn't ask any of those questions, and since the book is primarily told from their point of view, we can't ask those questions either.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    There isn't a single epigraph to the whole book, so we can't easily say "Well, the epigraph expresses themes X and Y which we see in the book." But every single chapter contains some epigraph, each of which does two things for us.

    (1) The epigraph is often from some pretty difficult book or poem. For example, the first chapter contains a quote from the classic Greek tragedy, Agamemnon, which you might not expect in a book about adventurous bunnies; and some of the epigraphs aren't even in English, like chapter 7's French quote from Napoleon about courage. These are serious epigraphs, dude.

    But that seriousness might be part of the point. By putting in these serious epigraphs at the beginning of serious chapters, Richard Adams reminds us that these serious rabbits are engaged in serious business. There is tragedy here, as much as there is in the Greek Agamemnon, thank you very much. And these rabbits are as brave (in their way) as Napoleon. So, yes, we're reading a fun book about bunny adventures; but we're also reading a book about death, about finding your place in the world, about sacrifice.

    Bunny sacrifice, sure, but still sacrifice.

    (2) Every epigraph gives some hint about what's going to happen in the chapter. It may not always be obvious, and sometimes you might have to reread to understand the hint.

    A Closer Look

    For example, take the epigraph to chapter 3, "Hazel's Decision":

    What am I lying here for?... We are lying here as though we had a chance of enjoying a quiet time.... Am I waiting until I become a little older? - Xenophon, The Anabasis (3)

    If you know who Xenophon was, you're probably a scholar of Ancient Greek. If you don't, we'll tell you that Xenophon was a soldier who led his Greek mercenaries out from behind enemy lines.

    But, hey, even if we don't know any of that handy cocktail party fodder, the epigraph still foreshadows what's to come. Here's some guy asking why he's "enjoying a quiet time" when they really don't have the time for some R&R. What is he waiting for? If the only reason to wait is to get older, well, that's a terrible reason to wait. Now is the time for Xenophon to act.

    And then, when we read the chapter, we see that Hazel has to make a decision: should they leave the warren and when? (Okay, you don't have to read the whole chapter to get that—the title kind of hints at that since it's "Hazel's Decision.") But when we put the epigraph and the chapter together we see that Hazel is like Xenophon, if you substitute "rabbit" for "Ancient Greek": he's the leader of a group of Ancient Greeks/rabbits who has to act now. (And if you know who Xenophon is, then you know that Hazel, like X, has to act now in order to bring his followers to safety.)

    Or take the epigraph to chapter 35, "Groping": "This world, where much is to be done, and little known... - Dr. Johnson." It's a little strangely put, but the idea here is pretty simple: we live in a world that's is full of stuff that we don't know about. And this is exactly the situation that Bigwig is in when he enters the "world" of Efrafa. He has to break out the does, but he's only now learning about how totally controlled this warren is. Again, the epigraph here really works with the title of the chapter. Bigwig is groping for answers to all the unknowns in this world.

    In that way, this epigraph hints at what Bigwig is going to face (uncertainty) in the same way that chapter 3's epigraph hints at what Hazel is going to have to face (a decision to act). We could go through all the epigraphs, but—according to Richard Adams's daughter Juliet in the book's introduction—part of the fun of the epigraphs is that "when you read one for the first time, you can't imagine how it is going to have anything to do with the story; and then, as you read on, you see how it does."

    (For info on the particular references in the epigraphs, check the "Shout-Outs" and the "Summary," where each epigraph is briefly summarized.)

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    If we were only talking about the epigraphs to each chapter (see Shout-Outs), we'd probably give this a 6 or an 8 for difficulty. But we're rating the book a 4. Why?

    The book is a wee bit hard because

    • The narrator occasionally uses pretty difficult vocabulary, like mercurial and malodorous. Or any tough words that start with an M, at least.
    • The narrator is super precise about the natural world, and likes naming each and every flower: pink lousewort, bog asphodel, hibbledy peonies. (Fine, we made up that last one, but we probably could've gotten away with it.) You may not need to know what a bog asphodel looks like in order to understand the story; but the narrator isn't shy about using words (and flower names) that most readers might not know. So you might have to make the long trek to a dictionary to look up hard words and to a plant guide to look up unfamiliar plants.

    But the book is easier because

    • The narrator tells us things we need to know. For instance, when we meet Hazel, we get told that "He looked as though he knew how to take care of himself" (1.4). Which is totally true, especially when we compare him to Fiver, who acts very nervous—he's always jumping and turning to look around him, suggesting "ceaseless, nervous tension" (1.5). So in two sentences at the very beginning of the book, the narrator just told us most of what we need to know about these two rabbits.
    • Also, the narrator helps us by stopping the action and explaining things to us, especially things about the rabbit world and language. For instance, there are those footnotes that explain things to us: what Fiver's name means (he's the runt, the little one) (1.8); how to pronounce "El-ahrairah" (5.10); what this or that Lapine word means, like "embleer" (8.16); etc.

    So Richard Adams isn't afraid of using big words and sending us to a dictionary—but he'll also help us out once in a while by telling us what's going on rather than making us guess. He's not a jerk like that.

  • Writing Style

    Straightforward (Mostly) and Descriptive (of Nature)

    When we say "straightforward," we mean that the sentences move ahead with a pretty standard "Noun + Verb" structure:

    The two rabbits went up to the board at a hopping run and crouched in a patch of nettles on the far side, wrinkling their noses at the smell of a dead cigarette end somewhere in the grass. Suddenly Fiver shivered and cowered down. (1.26)

    That first sentence isn't small and simple, but each segment of it moves the action forward or adds to the description. You can read an Adams sentence as answering a set of questions:

    What did the rabbits do? They went up to the board. And then? They crouched. What did they find there and how did they respond? They wrinkled their noses at cigarettes (which are one of those human things that rabbits don't like).

    So it's a long sentence, but a pretty straightforward one, nonetheless.

    Describing the Surviving

    Then we hear about Fiver's reaction and learn more about him: he reacts "Suddenly" (because he's jumpy and nervous); not only does he shiver, but he cowers (because he's extra nervous); and no one ever "cowers UP," so saying "cowered down" is a bit redundant but it reminds us how nervous Fiver is.

    So remember when we said that the style here was "Straightforward (Mostly)"? This is the "mostly" part. Occasionally, the sentences will keep that "Noun + Verb" form that we love so much, but slow down the action to describe something. Sometimes that description may be in the form of repeating the same basic idea to emphasize how much this is true. This short sentence about Fiver really just wants to describe how nervous he is.

    And sometimes you have to pay super close attention because that description might only be a word or two. For instance, notice that the cigarette that they smell isn't "extinguished" or "used"—it's "dead," a word which carries a slight hint of danger.

    Flower Power(fully Rich Description)

    We need a whole special (but short, we promise) subsection on the description of nature in this book. Because there's a lot of it. Like seriously, this book could be used as nature guide based on the sheer number of flowers it mentions. For instance, the first chapter goes on for about three paragraphs about the flowers, the grass, the sunset, and what all the animals are doing. (Hint: not their taxes.) And then eventually we get to hear about the rabbit main characters and the rabbit society.

    Or, for another example, take the long paragraph in chapter 28 which is all about Watership Down in the moonlight. It's a whole paragraph describing the landscape and how it looks different at night. Here's a small taste:

    In moonlight, two acres of coarse bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse's mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. It does not reveal but changes what it covers. (22.28)

    Check it out: it's a whole section that doesn't have to do with plot or with character. It's pretty slow and maybe requires a little extra care because it's written in a different style. For instance, notice the long pause between the noun and the verb of that first sentence: "two acres of coarse bent grass [noun] […] appear [verb]." Everything in between that noun and that verb is just description.

    All this long paragraph does is describe the natural landscape—and, also, talk about our relationship to that natural landscape. Here, the moonlight may remind us that the Downs aren't just good land for building or hunting. This long description of the moonlight reminds us that the natural world can be enjoyed just as it is. As long as we don't mess it up too badly with cigarettes and apartment complexes.

  • The El-ahrairah Myths

    El-ahrairah pretty much always wants to (a) eat and (b) protect his people. There's not a lot of room for character growth in that, but there is a lot of room to think about the El-ahrairah myths as a symbol—say a couple of paragraphs' worth of room.

    Chief Rabbit of All Chief Rabbits

    First, El-ahrairah is pretty close to being a perfect Chief Rabbit, as we noted on his character page. The only problem he has is that occasionally his trickster nature gets the better of him, as when he choses to make a joke about Frith rather than listening to him, which results in Frith making a bunch of predators. So El-ahrairah serves as a symbol of what Hazel and the other Chief Rabbits should be; and an ideal to compare them to.

    In fact, the first time we hear about El-ahrairah, it's because Dandelion is comparing Hazel to that hero and Hazel recognizes this as a compliment: "It was warm praise and cheered him" (5.10). That's a pretty simple sentence, but it nicely mixes in Hazel's feelings—the praise is warm, it cheered him. (And to be clear, words can't really be warm, so when we hear that this praise is warm, we know that we're hearing about the feeling those words cause.) Whenever Hazel comes up with a clever plan, he gets compared to El-ahrairah, as with his plan to use Kehaar to scout out the land (23.117). To be compared to El-ahrairah is a very good thing since he's the ideal model of a Chief Rabbit.

    It's Hard out Here for a Rabbit

    Second, El-ahrairah's name reminds us that the world is a very dangerous place for rabbits. We say "El-ahrairah" (actually, we're saying it a lot these days), but his name is actually Elil-Hrair-Rah.

    Elil: enemies
    Hrair: thousand
    Rah: prince

    All together his name means "Enemies-Thousand-Prince" or "Prince with a Thousand Enemies." So, in this dangerous world, where the rabbits face a thousand predators, they need a rabbit as clever as El-ahrairah to protect them.

    Storytime

    Third, El-ahrairah and the tales about him serve as a reminder of community for the rabbits. That is, the stories about El-ahrairah are the sort of oral folktales that every rabbit knows. We know this because the narrator directly tells us during the first El-ahrairah story we hear: "All the rabbits had heard the story before: on winter nights, when the cold draft moved down the warren passages and the icy wet lay in the pits of the runs below their burrows; and on summer evenings, in the grass under the red may and the sweet, carrion-scented elder bloom" (6.7).

    All the rabbits know this story and it's a constant factor in their lives, from winter (when you tell stories indoors) to summer (when you tell stories outdoors). The narrator spends a lot of time there describing the changing weather from winter to summer, which emphasizes what doesn't change: the storytelling.

    That's why it's so shocking when the rabbits in Cowslip's warren don't seem to know or care for the story Dandelion tells. When Cowslip says that this story is "An unusual tale," Blackberry responds with surprise: "But he must know it, surely?" (16.5-6). That "surely" at the end captures that surprise that Blackberry and Hazel's rabbits must feel about Cowslip's rabbit not responding to this story.

    This lack of interest in El-ahrairah stories is one of the strongest reminders that the rabbits in Cowslip's warren aren't like regular rabbits anymore. When they don't seem to know or like these traditional stories, what they're really saying is "We don't really belong to the same community."

    Immortality for Rabbits

    Fourth, though rabbits die, their memory can live on in El-ahrairah myths. We see this at the end in two ways, one obvious, one less obvious. Obviously, we hear about Woundwort becoming a mythological figure: "And yet there endured the legend that somewhere out over the down there lived a great and solitary rabbit, a giant who drove the elil like mice…" (Epilogue.3). We also hear that Woundwort is remembered as the Black Rabbit's cousin. This legendary version of Woundwort emphasizes his power and danger, which is how the rabbits of Watership Down remember him.

    The less obvious example of a living rabbit becoming a myth is when Hazel's own adventures get turned into more El-ahrairah stories. In chapter 50, Vilthuril tells her cubs a story about swimming a river (chapter 8), going through a lonely place (chapter 10), and going through Cowslip's warren (chapters 12-17). It took us a few readings to notice that Vilthuril is telling Hazel's story as El-ahrairah's story (50.43-46). (We didn't notice it at first, but Hazel gives a big hint when he notes that this story seems familiar.) So Hazel's stories will live on as El-ahrairah stories—which will keep alive Hazel's virtues and ideals for other rabbits to be inspired by.

  • Watership Down

    Both the place and the warren are pretty symbolic, so it's a good thing that the book is named after them. As a place, Watership Down is far from humanity, which is a good thing in this book. For instance, we hear all about how quiet the Down is:

    Few places are far from human noise—cars, buses, motorcycles, tractors, lorries. […] During the last fifty years the silence of much of the country has been destroyed. But here, on Watership Down, there floated up only faint traces of the daylight noise below. (19.2)

    Did you notice that all the noisy things that the narrator mentions are all big transportation machines? It's not just like "humans build noisy factories"—because if humans build a factory, the rabbits can move away from it. But a car or motorcycle can follow a rabbit.

    That means that Watership Down is a great place for rabbits because it's far from humans (who aren't very good about taking care of nature). When Hazel's rabbits get to Watership Down, they no longer have to worry about humans, unless they decide to go raid a farm, but what stupid rabbit would do that?

    And just as Hazel is almost an ideal Chief Rabbit, the Watership Down Warren is a pretty ideal warren. And we can learn a lot about the rabbits by looking at their warrens. The Efrafan rabbits, for example, aren't allowed to dig and expand their warren—so Efrafa is always the same warren, which makes it a nice symbol for how inflexible the politics of Efrafa are.

    In comparison, Watership Down is very flexible, able to mix-and-match different styles together. So it seems pretty old-fashioned in most of its creation, like Sandleford Warren; but it's able to incorporate new designs, like the Great Burrow from Cowslip's warren. In fact, Watership Down Warren starts from some old warren that the rabbits find there, which is a nice symbol of how they use traditional techniques (or holes) in addition to digging new ones.

    Discovering Home

    Even the discovery of Watership Down Warren is symbolic. Hazel notes that Fiver is responsible for them getting to this awesome place. Hazel even calls Fiver "Fiver-rah," meaning "Lord Fiver" (18.25). So the rabbits owe Watership Down to the special, psychic rabbit, right?

    Ah, not so fast, because the narrator makes a big deal over the fact that the old holes that serve as the basis for Watership Down Warren were found by Hawkbit: "Thus it fell to one of the rank and file to make a lucky find that brought them at last to the downs" (18.42). So if you think about it (and we have, a lot), the Watership Down Warren seems like a joint effort of the unusual rabbits that get to be main characters (like Fiver and Hazel) and the regular characters that don't get a lot of attention (like Hawkbit, a regular "rank and file" rabbit). In that way, Watership Down Warren may be a symbol of cooperation and community.

  • Does

    We're going to go out on a limb here and say that we her at Shmoop would like to see Watership Down from the perspective of the female rabbits. What's their experience really like? Because the does don't get a lot of time in the spotlight here to show us what they would do as main characters. And we think that's a bummer.

    But that does mean these does probably serve some sort of symbolic purpose. Sure, they may not be fascinating characters, but the male rabbits of Watership Down sure are obsessed with getting some ladies.

    Of course what they symbolize depends on where they are. In Sandleford, does are connected to the idea of home, as when the wandering rabbits fondly remember the home dug "by countless great-grandmothers and their mates" (12.65). Yes, that sentence does mention "mates," but notice that it's "great-grandmothers" who get all the attention here. For once, the does get top billing—when it's connected to the idea of home (and the work that goes into making a home).

    In Efrafa, the does are symbolic of how unnatural the warren is under Woundwort's control. Hyzenthlay neatly sums this up for Holly: the does "can't produce litters, because of the overcrowding, but no one is ever allowed to leave" (27.34). So we pretty much know all we need to know about Efrafa through how the does live. It's a tightly controlled place where the natural cycle of things is messed up by the tyrannical rule of Woundwort.

    And for Hazel's rabbits, does mean children and the continuation of the warren. As Hazel explains, without does "this warren's as good as finished, in spite of all we've done" (23.102). The warren won't die out immediately without mating (though it might feel that way), but it will in a few years. That's precisely the amount of time that Hazel gives the warren: "no does means no kittens and in a few years no warren" (23.106). So for Hazel's rabbits, does symbolize the future and the continuation of the warren, which is kind of the whole reason they got outta Dodge (Sandleford) in the first place.

  • Humans

    For a fun rainy day activity, we suggest making a chart that shows human stuff and rabbit responses in this book, like so:

    Human Stuff What It Means for Rabbits
    Human road Stinky: "the strange, strong smells of tar and oil" (10.25).
    Human pets (cats and dogs) Danger, Will Robinson!
    Poison gas Rabbits die in droves
    Cigarettes, "burning white sticks" Usually leads to danger, like the farmer trapping Cowslip's rabbits or the construction men smoking before they start poisoning rabbits
    YouTube Cute cat videos are terrifying for rabbits

    Okay, so maybe the rabbits in Watership Down don't have access to YouTube. And sometimes, there are human-related things that don't mean death and danger, like Lucy Cane, who rescues Hazel. (Although, to be clear, Lucy rescues Hazel from the family cat, so… Let's call it even.) But almost everything human-related is no good for bunnies and not very natural.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Imagine this story told from the point of view of Hazel or one of the other rabbits. That bunny narrator would use lots of bunny words—hrairoo, Owsla, hraka—and never need to define what those words mean. Or imagine this story told from the point of view of one of the humans, which would result in a much shorter book: "Those bunnies are fighting. Oh well, who wants rabbit stew? Someone grab my Winchester."

    Because the narrator here is third person omniscient, the narrator can stop the action at any time and tell us everything that we need to know in order for the story to make sense. We're not restricted to a rabbit's-eye view of the world, but can move back and forth from rabbit to human perspectives when the occasion calls for it. So the narrator can tell us what it's like for a rabbit to walk uphill in comparison to a human, and come to this conclusion:

    The rabbits' anxieties and strain in climbing the down were different, therefore, from those which you, reader, will experience if you go there. (18.17)

    The narrator doesn't make a lot of direct references to "you, reader"; but the omniscient narrator can do a lot of comparing between how rabbits feel about things (scared) vs. how humans feel about things (hungry). And that helps us readers (humans) understand what these rabbits are going through. That's why the narrator can get away with putting footnotes explaining rabbit language (or "Lapine"). So the third person omniscient narrator gives us readers all the info we need to know for the story to make sense, without straying too far from the rabbit world and its rabbit problems.

    But here's one more reason why third person omniscient narrator helps us: the narrator doesn't restrict us to Hazel's point of view (like a limited omniscient narrator would). This narrator can happily skip over and into… General Woundwort's head (shudder). That's not a fun place to be, but it does help tell us more about this character. After all, Woundwort's not going to have a long conversation over coffee with Hazel about his childhood, so the only way we can get that is for the narrator to just up and tell us.

    And so we get a long section in Chapter 34 about Woundwort's childhood (messy), which helps us see both Woundwort's trauma and his good qualities. The omniscient narrator can tell us how brave and powerful he is: Woundwort "was a singular rabbit" (34.3) and "In a month he was big and strong and had become savage" (34.4).

    All of which is important to learn because (a) this info makes the story tenser, since Hazel and Bigwig are facing a serious opponent; and (b) this info makes Hazel and Bigwig all the more heroic when they out-smart and out-fight Woundwort. And (c) it tells us that Woundwort isn't a complete monster, but is mostly motivated by his fear of humans, who killed all his family. So at least we know why the guy's such a big fat jerk.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    "You're all going to die if you stay here!": Leaving Home (Chapters 1-3)

    The initial situation of Watership Down is (a) they are living in Sandleford Warren; (b) Fiver knows that the warren is doomed; and (c) not all of the rabbits are totally happy with Sandleford Warren. So Hazel organizes an expedition to leave their comfortable home in Sandleford to find a better home… somewhere else.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    "You're all going to die along the way": Finding a New Home (Chapters 4-17)

    Sandleford Warren may be doomed, but at least you can be comfortable there while you wait for death. Out in the wider world, Hazel's expedition faces lots of new dangers, including a badger, a dog, a crow, a road, a human, a river, some owls, and eventually Cowslip's warren. Cowslip's warren is probably the worst part of the journey because it seems at first like a place they could call home. And then we learn that it's deadlier than anything they've faced. So they need to go on and find a new home.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    "We could live here—unless we all die!": Protecting a New Home (Chapters 18-44)

    Watership Down Warren does not have the best relationship with Efrafa Warren: there's the failed diplomatic mission lead by Holly; the escape with the does; and then the war against General Woundwort. This relationship is the climax for us—even though it's a long, long climax—because it shows (a) how different these two warrens are; and (b) how far Hazel's rabbits are willing to go to create and protect their new home. Put it this way: when Sandleford Warren is threatened, Hazel leaves his old home; but when Watership Down Warren is threatened, Hazel is ready to run any risk to save his new home.

    Falling Action

    "You might actually survive!": Almost Dying for Your Home (Chapters 45-50)

    Bigwig and Hazel come really close to dying in order to protect Watership Down Warren from Efrafa Warren: Bigwig faces Woundwort, while Hazel is dealing with a dangerous dog and cat at Nuthanger Farms. But in the end, they all live, thanks to their (almost) sacrificing themselves and to the help they receive. In particular, Hazel gets help from some very nice people, which is a nice contrast to how Sandleford Warren ended up.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    "Well, you've got to die sometime": Hazel dies but his home lives on (Epilogue)

    After all that work to find and protect a new home, the story ends with the death of Hazel and the survival of his new home. So even though Hazel dies (of old age), it's a happy ending because he succeeded in his goal of founding a new home where rabbits could be at peace. And we know that this is the correct cycle for the rabbits' life because the story ends with the primroses blooming—which connects to the opening the book, where the primroses were done blooming. Cue "Circle of Life".