Study Guide

Watership Down Exploration

By Richard Adams


To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous. The first reaction is to startle, the second to bolt. Again and again they startled, until they were close to exhaustion. But what did these sounds mean and where, in this wilderness, could they bolt to? (5.5)

For rabbits and senior citizens, exploration can be a scary business. Usually, when they have a home nearby, rabbits are nervous but they at least have some place to run to. But while Hazel's rabbits are off on their exploration, there is no safe space they can count on. They've left every certainty behind.

Then his sense of adventure and mischief prompted him. He would go himself and bring back some news before they even knew that he had gone. That would give Bigwig something to bite on. (9.2)

Exploration isn't all scary and dangerous. For some rabbits like Hazel, exploration can be fun—or at least a way to express his power (just like Neil Armstrong did, showing the moon who's the boss). Here Hazel is going out to explore something new (in this case, a beanfield), and he's not feeling fear. He's excited, and he wants to show Bigwig who's in charge. Ah, Hazel's pride in action.

"Still, we'd better make one or two scrapes, don't you think?" said Hazel. "Something to give us shelter at a pinch. Let's go up to the copse and look round. We might as well take our time and make quite sure where we'd like to have them. We don't want to have to do the work twice." "Yes, that's the style," said Bigwig. "And while you're doing that, I'll take Silver and Buckthorn here and have a run down the fields beyond, just to get the lie of the land and make sure there isn't anything dangerous." (12.9-10)

Exploration isn't just a fun hobby for Hazel's rabbits, like scrapbooking (which rabbits love), it's a means to finding or making a home of their own. Hazel and Bigwig may not always agree, but they agree on this: they can make a better home if they explore first. A rabbit should never settle for less than perfect digs.

"There's a lot we don't know," said Blackberry. "About this place, I mean. The plants are new, the smells are new. We're going to need some new ideas ourselves." (19.9)

Blackberry is one of our favorite rabbits because he has an open mind. He goes out into a strange new place and he allows himself to change and come up with strange new ideas. If he ran for Chief Rabbit we'd vote for him (sorry Hazel).

"Well, I admit a mouse might or might not come in handy," said Hazel. "But I'm sure a bird would, if we could only do enough for it. We can't fly, but some of them know the country for a long way round. They know a lot about the weather, too. All I'm saying is this. If anyone finds an animal or bird, that isn't an enemy, in need of help, for goodness' sake don't miss the opportunity. That would be like leaving carrots to rot in the ground." (22.18)

Here's Hazel defending his new plan to make nice to other animals, while Bigwig is being a little bit racist (or species-ist). We can put this next to Blackberry's comment about coming up with new ideas because we can see how Hazel has a new idea and Bigwig is kind of an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy about it.

It was no cat. The creature in the hollow was a bird—a big bird, nearly a foot long. Neither of them had ever seen a bird like it before. The white part of its back, which they had glimpsed through the grass, was in fact only the shoulders and neck. The lower back was light gray and so were the wings, which tapered to long, black-tipped primaries folded together over the tail. The head was very dark brown—almost black—in such sharp contrast to the white neck that the bird looked as though it were wearing a kind of hood. The one dark red leg that they could see ended in a webbed foot and three powerful, taloned toes. The beak, hooked slightly downward at the end, was strong and sharp. As they stared, it opened, disclosing a red mouth and throat. The bird hissed savagely and tried to strike, but still it did not move. (23.10)

Check out this incredibly long description of a bird who isn't all that special—it's a black-headed gull, very similar to the bird that is right outside your window right now, going through your trash and eating your leftover moo shu pork. But of course, the rabbits don't know about gulls—and the narrator drives that point home by giving us a very long description of the bird rather than just naming the species. If you know something, you can name it, but if it's new, you can only describe it, and we get to see that describing in action.

Kehaar's speech was so outlandish and distorted at the best of times that it was only too common for the rabbits to be unsure what he meant. The vernacular words which he used now for "iron" and "road" (familiar enough to seagulls) his listeners had scarcely ever heard. Kehaar was quick to impatience and now, as often, they felt at a disadvantage in the face of his familiarity with a wider world than their own. (23.169)

Kehaar has an almost human-level of knowledge about the world: he knows about boats and bullets and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even railroads (the "iron road"). But when the rabbits hear "iron road," they have no idea what he's talking about. (And when they see a railroad, they think they're seeing a supernatural force from Frith. That's yet another reminder that rabbits are pretty new to this whole exploration thing.

Then there was their sense of mischief. All rabbits love to trespass and steal and when it comes to the point very few will admit that they are afraid to do so […]. (30.1)

Okay, let's try to get this straight: on one hand, rabbits are scared of everything new, but on the other hand, they love to do a little breaking-and-entering (usually of gardens). How can creatures that are so fearful also love to explore and get into trouble so much? We're calling a technical foul on this.

Although there was no enemy or other danger to be perceived, they felt the apprehension and doubt of those who have come unawares upon some awe-inspiring place where they themselves are paltry fellows of no account. When Marco Polo came at last to Cathay, seven hundred years ago, did he not feel—and did his heart not falter as he realized—that this great and splendid capital of an empire had had its being all the years of his life and far longer, and that he had been ignorant of it? That it was in need of nothing from him, from Venice, from Europe? That it was full of wonders beyond his understanding? That his arrival was a matter of no importance whatever? We know that he felt these things, and so has many a traveler in foreign parts who did not know what he was going to find. There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you. (33.13)

Sure, the rabbits might be simple—they don't even know what a railroad or a 401K account is—but in their own way, they're experiencing something comparable to the great explorers of all time. In the future, instead of playing the pool game Marco Polo, rabbits will probably play Hazel-rah. (Well, they'll play El-ahrairah still, but incorporate Hazel's stories into that game.) Too bad that a lot of exploration is about realizing how big the world is and how tiny and vulnerable you are (especially if you're a rabbit).

The road crossed the river on a bridge about thirty feet long. It did not occur to Hazel that there was anything unusual in this. The idea of a bridge was beyond him. He saw only a line of stout posts and rails on either side of the road. Similarly, simple African villagers who have never left their remote homes may not be particularly surprised by their first sight of an airplane: it is outside their comprehension. But their first sight of a horse pulling a cart will set them pointing and laughing at the ingenuity of the fellow who thought of that one. Hazel saw without surprise the road crossing the river. (33.28)

Here's another of those "rabbits are like simple people" moments. (If you were rewriting this today, you might talk about how grandparents don't understand Twitter rather than about how Africans don't understand planes—because that's actually pretty offensive.) But here we see the limits of exploration: sure, exploration may broaden the mind (think of Blackberry coming up with new ideas to fit the new place), but at some point, rabbits just don't understand human things. And since they don't speak English or Swahili, we doubt they ever will.