Study Guide

Watership Down Man and the Natural World

By Richard Adams

Man and the Natural World

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. (1.1)

Watership Down opens with an exciting… landscape, full of flowers and plants. You might be tempted to yawn (or swoon, if you're the outdoorsy type). But notice that this peaceful natural scene isn't completely natural—there're little reminders that humans are around, like the fence and the ditch.

Fu Inlé means "after moonrise." Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or of punctuality. In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started. (4.1)

The idea that rabbits are like "primitive people" comes up a few times in this book, which might be a little insulting to "primitive people" (and/or rabbits). But it does emphasize the idea that there's a conflict between nature and industry and technology. If you have a watch, you don't look at the moon or sun for the time, because you don't need to. You've got an object pumped out of a factory somewhere that can do that for you.

"One day the farmer thought, 'I could increase those rabbits: make them part of my farm—their meat, their skins. Why should I bother to keep rabbits in hutches? They'll do very well where they are.' He began to shoot all elillendri, homba, stoat, owl. He put out food for the rabbits, but not too near the warren. For his purpose they had to become accustomed to going about in the fields and the wood. And then he snared them—not too many: as many as he wanted and not as many as would frighten them all away or destroy the warren. They grew big and strong and healthy, for he saw to it that they had all of the best, particularly in winter, and nothing to fear—except the running knot in the hedge gap and the wood path. So they lived as he wanted them to live and all the time there were a few who disappeared. The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits." (17.91)

This is Fiver telling the other rabbits what the real skinny is when it comes to Cowslip's terrible, creepy warren. Since this is Fiver, we probably buy this long explanation as the truth (because Fiver is basically as smart as a reader and then some). What's curious to us is that final line: the farmer isn't trying to make weird rabbits, but that's what he's doing by interfering in the natural order.

Nowadays, among fields and woods, the noise level by day is high—too high for some kinds of animal to tolerate. Few places are far from human noise—cars, buses, motorcycles, tractors, lorries. The sound of a housing estate in the morning is audible a long way off. People who record birdsong generally do it very early—before six o'clock—if they can. Soon after that, the invasion of distant noise in most woodland becomes too constant and too loud. 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)

Richard Adams takes a whole paragraph to describe how noisy and disruptive and generally annoying humans are (it's true—we're terribly noisy, so try to keep it down please), just to make the point that Watership Down is far from humans—and therefore safe from all our noisy meddling. What's curious is that humans don't build cars, motorcycles, etc. in order to be loud. The noise is just a side effect. (Like the farmer accidentally making Cowslip's rabbits weird.)

"[…] Toadflax answered, 'That wasn't why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.'" (21.34)

Toadflax is just a bully rabbit in Sandleford, so it's somewhat fitting that he understands humans, the ultimate bullies. (This quote from Toadflax is in Holly's story of what happened to Sandleford when the humans poisoned the warren.) We get this same idea earlier in the chapter. Other animals follow nature but people are just jerks: "Men will never rest till they've spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals" (21.5). That's British for "these guys are the living worst."

Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass. (22.1)

Frankly, this paragraph seems a little confused: (a) rabbits are like people—both can overcome disaster and get on with life. But (b) rabbits overcome disaster by being "wild" creatures focused on the Now. So are rabbits like people or unlike people? What's it gonna be, Mr. Adams?

When several creatures—men or animals—have worked together to overcome something offering resistance and have at last succeeded, there follows often a pause—as though they felt the propriety of paying respect to the adversary who has put up so good a fight. The great tree falls, splitting, cracking, rushing down in leaves to the final, shuddering blow along the ground. Then the foresters are silent, and do not at once sit down. After hours, the deep snowdrift has been cleared and the lorry is ready to take the men home out of the cold. But they stand a while, leaning on their spades and only nodding unsmilingly as the car-drivers go through, waving their thanks. The cunning hutch door had become nothing but a piece of wire netting, tacked to a frame made from four strips of half-by-half; and the rabbits sat on the planks, sniffing and nosing it without talking. (25.78)

Here's another example of humans and rabbits being directly compared to each other. The narrator doesn't even hide that comparison, but emphasizes it by setting it within those em-dashes ("—men or animals—"). But then, one difference is in what they're fighting: men fight trees and snow (nature), while rabbits fight the cage (human technology). (Not to be confused with rabbits fighting in a cage, WWE-style, which might warrant a call to PETA.)

"He spoke very well about the decency and comradeship natural to animals. 'Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.'" (27.42)

This is Holly reporting to the warren what Strawberry said to Woundwort. Usually a speech like this would end with a reference to "humanity" (and someone standing on a chair or table to address the whole room.) But here, Strawberry is directly pointing out that "humanity" is a terrible thing if you're an animal. And here's some extra bonus irony: Strawberry is saying that animals act naturally, but he's talking to Woundwort, one of the least natural rabbits out there.

However, they are not romantic and it came naturally to Hazel and Holly to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren. (28.56)

So "it came naturally" for the rabbits just to think about female rabbits in terms of getting babies out of them. This is some messed-up medieval-sounding stuff, as if we mixed Watership Down with A Game of Thrones. How do you feel about this reduction of does to breeding stock? Is it misogynistic or just plain lapine? Does this stay constant throughout the book? After all, Bigwig may start out thinking about does as "breeding stock," but then he starts to appreciate Hyzenthlay as "a strong, sensible friend who would think on her own account and help to bear his burden" (35.119). Ah, so maybe what's "natural" can change over time.

Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, as for poor men, winter is another matter. Rabbits, like most wild animals, suffer hardship. (50. 2)

Instead of comparing rabbits to "primitive people" (4.1), this quote compares them to "poor men" and "wild animals." Again, this might seem insulting, but maybe it's really meant to point out how insensitive we can be. Maybe this quote wants to remind us that not everyone (or every animal) has the same benefits that we have. Man, this novel makes us feel bad for being human. Sorry, fuzzy bunnies.