Study Guide

Watership Down Power

By Richard Adams


"I'm sick and tired of it," he said. "It's the same all the time. 'These are my claws, so this is my cowslip.' 'These are my teeth, so this is my burrow.' I'll tell you, if ever I get into the Owsla, I'll treat outskirters with a bit of decency." (1.18)

In Sandleford Warren, power = strength. And we know this equation is accurate since we've just seen Toadflax and some other rabbit threaten Hazel and Fiver over some food. This is the simplest form of power—and the type that Hazel doesn't want to rely on in his ideal home.

And Frith called after him, 'El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.' (6.8)

In the Blessing of El-ahrairah story, Frith (God) gives El-ahrairah a blessing—strong legs and a cute tail. But notice all the different skills and powers that Frith lists: digging and running are strength-based, but being "cunning and full of tricks" is all about cleverness. And since that type of power (brain-power) is in the same sentence as "your people shall never be destroyed," maybe Frith is saying that that's the most useful type of power.

"Now Bigwig's put their backs up, and they'll think they've got to go on because he makes them. I want them to go on because they can see it's the only thing to do. There are too few of us for giving orders and biting people." (11.4)

As we've said before, Bigwig doesn't make an awesome first impression on us reader. He's kind of a bully and he also won't stick out his little, rabbity neck for the small rabbits. And here's Hazel complaining that Bigwig has messed up by using strength to bully some rabbits rather than cleverness. (And we know Hazel is right because he's always right—as long as he agrees with Fiver.)

They were all in no doubt that Dandelion had done them credit. Ever since their arrival most of them had felt out of their depth among these magnificent, well-fed strangers, with their detached manners, their Shapes on the wall, their elegance, their adroit evasion of almost all questions—above all, their fits of un-rabbitlike melancholy. Now, their own storyteller had shown that they were no mere bunch of tramps. (16.4)

What's better than strength? The ability to tell stories. Okay, that might not sound like a great power (or superpower), but look at how Dandelion's storytelling power gets all Hazel's friends to feel better about themselves. In other scenes, Dandelion's art will inspire Hazel's rabbits with some ideas for tricks. So it's actually not a bad power to have.

Hazel's anxiety and the reason for it were soon known to all the rabbits and there was not one who did not realize what they were up against. There was nothing very startling in what he had said. He was simply the one—as a Chief Rabbit ought to be—through whom a strong feeling, latent throughout the warren, had come to the surface. (23.117)

We may think of the boss as the one with the most power, but with rabbits, it's a different story. Or at least, with Hazel, it's not about forcing his power onto other rabbits. In fact, it's almost the reverse: his power is that he channels the rabbits' feeling. It's like total democracy.

"As soon as we got in, we were put up in front of this General Woundwort, and he really is a grim customer. I don't think even you'd match up to him, Bigwig. He's almost as big as a hare and there's something about his mere presence that frightens you, as if blood and fighting and killing were all just part of the day's work to him." (27.38)

Woundwort has lots of powers and Holly here recognizes it: not only is he physically strong, but he's got a certain scary charisma, like Queen Elizabeth (or is that just Shmoop?). Watership Down doesn't play around about Woundwort's powers—not only does Holly tell us about his strength and presence, but when we finally meet him, the narrator tells us the same things.

"You may think it's a wonderful thing to be saved by Lord Frith in his power. How many rabbits has that happened to, I wonder? But I tell you, it was far more frightening than being chased by the Efrafans. Not one of us will forget lying on that bank in the rain while the fire creature went by above our heads. Why did it come on our account? That's more than we shall ever know." (27.62)

Whatever powers they my have, rabbits are still rabbits. So human technology is a type of power that's beyond their comprehension. They understand guns (guns = dead rabbits), but that's about it. So when they see a train, they think it's a messenger from God. They also don't understand poison gas, construction equipment, boats, etc. Just a reminder: powerful rabbits are just weak rabbits compared to us. They got the fuzzy end of the food chain lollipop.

It was all he could do to stand up to the rough play. "I wonder what would happen if I lay down under it?" he thought. "They'd kick me out, I dare say. They wouldn't have a crippled Chief Rabbit. This is a test as well as a welcome, even though they don't know it themselves. I'll test them, the rascals, before I'm done." (29.2)

Hazel comes back after getting shot and gets thrown a parade—except it's not a parade, it's some rough playing, just like Neil Armstrong got. Hazel may be wounded and crippled (he'll limp forever), but he's got lots of power here still: he's smart enough to realize this is a test, even if the other rabbits don't realize that; and he's got enough strength and willpower to come through it.

When he had explored the limits of his own strength, he set to work to satisfy his longing for still more power in the only possible way—by increasing the power of the rabbits about him. He needed a bigger kingdom. (34.6)

Woundwort is a weird and unnatural rabbit. But check out how Woundwort considers his power to be extendable through other rabbits. Hazel expresses what everyone feels; whereas Woundwort wants the warren to express what he feels (which is usually anger and fear).

Hazel felt at a loss. What exactly was he to understand from this? Kehaar was not a rabbit. Whatever the Big Water was like, it must be worse than this and Kehaar was used to it. He never said much in any case and what he did say was always restricted to the simplest, since he spoke no Lapine. He was doing them a good turn because they had saved his life but, as Hazel knew, he could not help despising them for timid, helpless, stay-at-home creatures who could not fly. He was often impatient. Did he mean that he had looked at the river and considered it as if he were a rabbit? (39.52)

We focus a lot on rabbit power (which started with the rabbit power movement of the 1970s), but we shouldn't forget that these rabbits are just rabbits. They may be clever and fast (and some of them are violent and dangerous), but in this world, they are probably the least powerful creatures around. (Except for children, who have to do what adults say—for the most part.) These rabbits aren't even as worldly and strong as a seagull (or a train).