Study Guide

Watership Down Fear

By Richard Adams


Here and there one sat upright on an ant heap and looked about, with ears erect and nose in the wind. But a blackbird, singing undisturbed on the outskirts of the wood, showed that there was nothing alarming there, and in the other direction, along the brook, all was plain to be seen, empty and quiet. The warren was at peace. (1.2)

Even at the beginning of the book, rabbits are afraid. Even though they're safe(ish) and surrounded by nature, they're still sitting upright and looking and smelling around. And this is only the second paragraph, which is pretty much like a neon sign saying "rabbits are scared."

"Oh, Hazel! This is where it comes from! I know now—something very bad! Some terrible thing—coming closer and closer."

He began to whimper with fear.

"What sort of thing—what do you mean? I thought you said there was no danger?"

"I don't know what it is," answered Fiver wretchedly. "There isn't any danger here, at this moment. But it's coming—it's coming. Oh, Hazel, look! The field! It's covered with blood!" (1.27-30)

Rabbits in general are nervous nellies, but on top of his normal fears, Fiver has to deal with all his special fears, like being afraid that a field will be covered with blood. (Because… the blood dam burst?) The imagery of a field of blood is enough to give us the willies. But how do you react to this first freak-out by Fiver? Are you skeptical of his vision, or are you like, "get the heck outta there, rabbit fools!"?

Several were almost tharn—that is, in that state of staring, glazed paralysis that comes over terrified or exhausted rabbits, so that they sit and watch their enemies—weasels or humans—approach to take their lives. (5.14)

You know that old story that Inuit language has hundreds of words for snow? That's not entirely true, but it makes sense because we imagine the weather forecast is very important. Well, rabbits are like that but with fear: fear is such an important topic for rabbits that they even have a special Lapine word for a particular type of fear they feel. On the downside, Tharn isn't a useful fear to experience, so we kind of wish it didn't exist, let alone have its own terminology.

But if they lay brooding, unable to feed or go underground, all their troubles would come crowding into their hearts, their fears would mount and they might very likely scatter, or even try to return to the warren. He had an idea.

"Yes, all right, we'll rest here," he said, "Let's go in among this fern. Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story." (5.14-5)

While they're between warrens (and have nowhere to run to for safety), Hazel has to deal with his rabbits' fear. Normally, rabbits would react to fear by running underground or talking to their doctor about anti-anxiety medications. But here in the wild, the only technique they have available is… storytelling? Yep, storytelling. Hey, whatever gets you through the night (for us it's Seinfeld reruns).

The tired rabbits fed and basked in the sunny meadow as though they had come no further than from the bank at the edge of the nearby copse. The heather and the stumbling darkness were forgotten as though the sunrise had melted them. (12.3)

Fear may be the rabbits' most common feeling, but it's not a very long-lasting feeling, like love or hunger for pineapple. In fact, almost as soon as the rabbits are out of danger, they seem to forget all about the danger and have some fun. That's a pretty good trick, especially if you're afraid of everything.

A rabbit in fear of an enemy will sometimes crouch stock still, either fascinated or else trusting to its natural inconspicuousness to remain unnoticed. But then, unless the fascination is too powerful, there comes the point when keeping still is discarded and the rabbit, as though breaking a spell, turns in an instant to its other resource—flight. So it seemed to be with Fiver now. Suddenly he leaped up and began to push his way violently across the great burrow. Several rabbits were jostled and turned angrily on him, but he took no notice. Then he came to a place where he could not push between two heavy warren bucks. He became hysterical, kicking and scuffling, and Hazel, who was behind him, had difficulty in preventing a fight. (16.24)

This paragraph is made up of two normal parts, which together make up something very weird. The first part tells us all about rabbits in general: they hide or they run when something comes to eat them. The second part shows us how Fiver freaks out because of Silverweed's poem, which is also totally normal for Fiver. But put these two parts together and what do we have? We have a comparison between an enemy of rabbits and what's making Fiver freak out, which is Silverweed and his poem. So Silverweed's poem is dangerous to rabbits. Yep—a poem is dangerous. Tell that to your English teacher.

For a moment Hazel could hear nothing. Then he caught a distant but clear sound—a kind of wailing or crying, wavering and intermittent. Although it did not sound like any sort of hunting call, it was so unnatural that it filled him with fear. As he listened, it ceased.

"What in Frith's name makes a noise like that?" said Bigwig, his great fur cap hackling between his ears. (19.57-58)

Usually when the rabbits don't know something, we do: they see a big bird, we recognize a gull; they hear about an "iron road," we know it's a railroad. But here, we don't know what this is and the description doesn't help. Is it wailing or crying? It's not a hunting call, sure—but what is it? Suddenly, instead of watching the rabbits be afraid, we might be a little afraid with them. You got us, Richard Adams.

"The Efrafan Owsla are no joke, believe me. They're all picked for size and strength and there's nothing they don't know about moving in wet and darkness. They're all so much afraid of the Council that they're not afraid of anything else. (27.58)

Most of the time, fear doesn't seem to help rabbits: if they get too afraid of something, they'll just freeze up, which isn't a great defensive technique when someone's got you in their rifle sight. But here we have maybe the one example of fear being motivating for rabbits. Because in Efrafa, the Owsla are so afraid of Woundwort and his Council that they're not afraid of anything else. That might be irony, but it's also just bad news for anyone opposed to the Owsla.

Vervain in his time had encountered any number of prisoners who, before they died, had cursed or threatened him, not uncommonly with supernatural vengeance, much as Bigwig had cursed Woundwort in the storm. If such things had been liable to have any effect on him, he would not have been head of the Owslafa. Indeed, for almost any utterance that a rabbit in this dreadful situation could find to make, Vervain was unthinkingly ready with one or other of a stock of jeering rejoinders. 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 words, gentle and inexorable as the falling of bitter snow in a land without refuge. The shadowy recesses of the strange burrow seemed full of whispering, malignant ghosts and he recognized the forgotten voices of rabbits done to death months since in the ditches of Efrafa. (47.74)

Here's Vervain, jerk extraordinaire, finally finding love. No, wait, we mean finally finding fear. Notice that almost half of this paragraph is all about how tough Vervain is, how he laughs at dying rabbits who curse him, etc. Which probably makes clearer the contrast with how scary Fiver is. That's nice change of pace for Fiver, by the way. For once he's not freaking out—he's the cause of someone else freaking out. Ah, how the tables have turned.

"He made rabbits bigger than they've ever been—braver, more skillful, more cunning. I know we paid for it. Some gave their lives. It was worth it, to feel we were Efrafans. For the first time ever, rabbits didn't go scurrying away. The elil feared us. And that was on account of Woundwort—him and no one but him. We weren't good enough for the General." (50.14)

This is after Woundwort is long gone, but listen to Groundsel talk about how great and different he was. Woundwort wasn't afraid of everything, like other rabbits; instead, everything was afraid of him and his army. That might be a pretty good feeling and might explain why other rabbits followed him. (Of course, it doesn't end well for them, so maybe being fearless isn't so great if you end up dead.)