Study Guide

Watership Down Politics

By Richard Adams


"It isn't Speedwell's fault," said Pipkin. "You stood by me at the river, so I thought I'd come and look for you, Hazel." (20.26)

In Watership Down, the political is often personal: some rabbits follow Woundwort out of fear, while other rabbits follow Hazel because he's admirable. In Pipkin's case, he follows Hazel (everywhere) because of what Hazel did for him that one time. This is either awesomely loyal, or incredibly annoying, depending on how cranky Hazel feels at a given moment.

Woundwort was no mere bully. He knew how to encourage other rabbits and to fill them with a spirit of emulation. (34.10)

Why do rabbits follow Woundwort when he's a crazy psycho rabbit? Because he makes being a crazy psycho rabbit look good. Seriously, rabbits are so afraid of everything, so a rabbit who stands up and is brave—well, that's pretty inspiring. In his own way, Woundwort is admirable.

"I come here for the Mark to see me," said the rabbit in his low, drained voice. "Every Mark should see how I have been punished as I deserve for my treachery in trying to leave the warren. The Council were merciful—the Council were merciful—the Council—I can't remember it, sir, I really can't," he burst out, turning to the sentry who had spoken. "I can't seem to remember anything." (35.26)

This is Blackavar explaining to Bigwig why he's in this tunnel where everyone can see him, which is so that everyone can see how he's been punished. So Woundwort inspires some bullies to be like him and join the Owsla or Owslafa, but the rest of the warren is run by fear and intimidation. Sounds like a winning combination to us (if your goal is to be a fascist).

"Now, about burying hraka," said Chervil, "you can't be too strict. If the General finds any hraka in the fields he'll stuff your tail down your throat. They always try to dodge burying, though. They want to be natural, the anti-social little beasts. They just don't realize that everyone's good depends on everyone's cooperation." (35.4)

Even Hazel might say that the common good requires cooperation. But according to Chervil, the Efrafan political system requires the officers to force the regular rabbits into doing unnatural things. So the politics of Efrafa are opposed to the natural habits of rabbits.

"In Efrafa," said Hyzenthlay, "if a rabbit gave advice and the advice wasn't accepted, he immediately forgot it and so did everyone else. Blackavar thought what Hazel decided; and whether it turned out later to be right or wrong was all the same. His own advice had never been given."

"I can believe that," said Bigwig. "Efrafa! Ants led by a dog!" (40.59-60)

Does this remind anyone else of 1984? There's something similar about Efrafa and the totalitarian government of 1984, in how they both try to affect people's memory. Also, notice how Bigwig's response is to note how unrabbit-like the Efrafans are (they're ants, dogs, etc.). Here's a nutshell lesson: totalitarian politics lead to unnatural situations. Also known as, don't be totalitarian.

By this time there were captains in the Owsla who said privately to each other that the General was in the grip of an obsession. Some way would have to be found of getting him to drop it before it went too far. At the Council meeting the next evening it was suggested that the patrol should be discontinued in two days' time. Woundwort, snarling, told them to wait and see. An argument began, behind which he sensed more opposition than he had ever encountered before. (43.8)

Though Woundwort is the tyrant of Efrafa (ruling with the help of the Owsla and Owslafa that try to be more like him), he does face some challenges, like Blackavar's escape attempt and Hazel's raid. We've seen how he dealt with rabbits who don't follow the rules (with Blackavar being beaten up and tortured and put on display). But Hazel's raid makes Woundwort seem fallible and weak—and since he's trained all of these Owsla rabbits to respect only power, that means trouble for him.

At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate. For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit's idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him. (43.37)

This is the only time we hear the word "tyrant" (or "pirate") in this book, and the narrator makes the case pretty clear: if Woundwort refuses Hazel's idea to start up a new warren between Watership Down and Efrafa, then he's just a tyrant. Of course, he is a tyrant, so he refuses. But he is tempted by that idea for "one beat of his pulse." You may interpret this differently, but this moment reminds us that Woundwort isn't totally a jerk. (He's just mostly a jerk.)

What he had learned from all his experience of fighting was that nearly always there are those who want to fight and those who do not but feel they cannot avoid it. More than once he had fought alone and imposed his will on crowds of other rabbits. He held down a great warren with the help of a handful of devoted officers. (46.53)

Woundwort isn't just a bully. But whatever other qualities he has, he still is a bully, who rose to power because of how much he likes fighting and violence. That's another reason why other rabbits follow him (because he'll beat them up if they don't), but it doesn't make him seem like a great leader.

"My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." (47.55)

Bigwig started out the book almost like a bully himself. For instance, when Hawkbit and the other rabbits talk about going home, Bigwig yells at them and even bites (11.3). And he even doesn't like taking orders even from the Threarah. But by the end of the book, Bigwig is willing to sacrifice himself to save his home, and all because his Chief Rabbit told him to. Talk about a turn around.