Study Guide

Watership Down Violence

By Richard Adams


Pipkin, some way away from Hazel, crouched at his ease between two huge rabbits who could have broken his back in a second, while Buckthorn and Cowslip started a playful scuffle, nipping each other like kittens and then breaking off to comb their ears in a comical pretense of sudden gravity. (13.19)

When Hazel's group meets Cowslip in chapter 12, they are really suspicious and cautious for a while. But by chapter 13, everyone is friendly and playful. But notice how Buckthorn and Cowslip are play-fighting; and notice how the narrator reminds us that there's the potential for danger all around with Pipkin near some big rabbits who could seriously hurt him. Even when everything seems peachy, violence is hard to get away from.

He turned and dashed back through the nearest gap in the hedge. On the instant, a fearful commotion began on the farther side. There were sounds of kicking and plunging. A stick flew into the air. Then a flat, wet clod of dead leaves shot clean through the gap and landed clear of the hedge, close to Hazel. The brambles thrashed up and down. Hazel and Fiver stared at each other, both fighting against the impulse to run. What enemy was at work on the other side of the hedge? There were no cries—no spitting of a cat, no squealing of a rabbit—only the crackling of twigs and the tearing of the grass in violence. (17.37)

When Bigwig gets caught in a human snare, all we know at first is that some terrible violence is going on. We hear the sounds of a body jerking around, we see the bush shake—but we don't know what's going on. This is almost like a horror story, where we don't know what terrible thing is going on behind the bush, so it's natural for the rabbit impulse to be to run away. But they don't (hurray)—Hazel and Fiver run in to help when they hear violence going down.

The story over, the demands of their own hard, rough lives began to re-assert themselves in their hearts, in their nerves, their blood and appetites. Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept. (22.1)

You could write a story where all these rabbits have PTSD and are haunted by memories of violence they've encountered. But that's not the book that Adams wants to write and he tells us how he's going to avoid that topic right here: Rabbits live in the Now with a capital N. So they may be surrounded by violence, but as long as they aren't being attacked right Now, they're going to move on with their lives. Natural life—eating, pooping, sleeping—is more important than being sad about violence in the past.

It may seem incredible that the rabbits had given no thought to so vital a matter. But men have made the same mistake more than once—left the whole business out of account, or been content to trust to luck and the fortune of war. Rabbits live close to death and when death comes closer than usual, thinking about survival leaves little room for anything else. But now, in the evening sunshine on the friendly, empty down, with a good burrow at his back and the grass turning to pellets in his belly, Hazel knew that he was lonely for a doe. (23.107)

Sure, if you're not being attacked, you get on with life. But we could categorize most of the rabbits' adventures getting to Watership Down as "getting attacked." Now they've escaped Sandleford and Cowslip's warren and are in a landscape without too many predators—so now Hazel can put aside violence for a moment, and start thinking about babies.

All were subdued and doubtful at heart. Like the pain of a bad wound, the effect of a deep shock takes some while to be felt. When a child is told, for the first time in his life, that a person he has known is dead, although he does not disbelieve it, he may well fail to comprehend it and later ask—perhaps more than once—where the dead person is and when he is coming back. When Pipkin had planted in himself, like some somber tree, the knowledge that Hazel would never return, his bewilderment exceeded his grief: and this bewilderment he saw on every side among his companions. (27.1)

Now wait just a minute. We've read that rabbits don't get obsessed and upset over sad stories. But now that they have two pieces of bad news, suddenly the rabbits are all sad and subdued. Do these two statements make sense together—or is the narrator playing a little loose so that the readers can identify with the down-in-the-dumps, confused rabbits?

"'Bargains, bargains, El-ahrairah,' he said. 'There is not a day or a night but a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his Chief Rabbit's. Sometimes it is taken, sometimes it is not. But there is no bargain, for here what is is what must be.' (31.25)

Here's the Black Rabbit of Inlé explaining to El-ahrairah that he doesn't make deals about dying (even though he kind of does make a deal at the end of this story and saves El-ahrairah's warren). We like this quote because it seems to capture the rabbit attitude towards death: You can fight and fight and fight, but when it happens, it's time to move on. Or maybe, since El-ahrairah fights this attitude, we good rabbits are supposed to fight it.

Bartsia fell forward out of the hole with Bigwig on top of him. He was not a member of the Owslafa for nothing and was reckoned a good fighter. As they rolled over on the ground, he turned his head and sank his teeth in Bigwig's shoulder. He had been trained to get a grip at once and to hold it at all costs. More than once in the past this had served him well. But in fighting a rabbit of Bigwig's strength and courage it proved a mistake. His best chance would have been to keep clear and use his claws. He retained his hold like a dog, and Bigwig, snarling, brought both his own back legs forward, sank his feet in Bartsia's side and then, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, forced himself upward. He felt Bartsia's closed teeth come tearing out through his flesh and then he was standing above him as he fell back on the ground, kicking helplessly. Bigwig leaped clear. It was plain that Bartsia's haunch was injured. He struggled, but could not get up. "Think yourself lucky," said Bigwig, bleeding and cursing, "that I don't kill you." (38.43-4)

The violence in this book would give us nightmares if we had read this when we were kids, like that description of Bartsia's teeth tearing through Bigwig's shoulder. But the narrator here also doesn't want to scar us for life (though he does want to scar Bigwig). The narrator continuously comments on the action like a sports commentator, telling us what Bartsia is doing wrong. So we know that Bigwig might get hurt here, but that he's going to come out of it okay, mainly because Bartsia doesn't know his way around a boxing ring.

With a kind of wry envy, Hazel realized that Bigwig was actually looking forward to meeting the Efrafan assault. He knew he could fight and he meant to show it. He was not thinking of anything else. The hopelessness of their chances had no important place in his thoughts. Even the sound of the digging, clearer already, only set him thinking of the best way to sell his life as dearly as he could. (44.20)

Not all rabbits dislike violence. In fact, we see a lot of rabbits enjoying a little rumble, even if it's only play-fighting. But Bigwig and Woundwort are in a class all by themselves. Like Woundwort, Bigwig seems to like violence, even though Bigwig is supposed to be a good rabbit. How do you feel when you read this note about Bigwig looking forward to violence? A bit icky? Yeah, us, too.

When it came to fighting, Woundwort was not given to careful calculation. Men, and larger animals such as wolves, usually have an idea of their own numbers and those of the enemy and this affects their readiness to fight and how they go about it. Woundwort had never had any need to think like this. 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. (46.53)

Woundwort's secret isn't that he has the biggest army or the sharpest claws. He's just the baddest rabbit around when it comes to "taking it outside," so to speak. He's even worse than "Men, and […] wolves" when it comes to liking the fight. This love of violence gives him power over other rabbits. But it's also very unnatural, not to mention creepy.

"Bigwig was right when he said he wasn't like a rabbit at all," said Holly. "He was a fighting animal—fierce as a rat or a dog. He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running. He was brave, all right. But it wasn't natural; and that's why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do. I believe he'd have hunted like the elil if he could." (50.11)

We could fill up this whole page with quotes about Woundwort's love of violence. From his time as a baby, when he bit the hand that fed him (34.4), Woundwort has always been a violent, dangerous rabbit. And here's Holly—who isn't a pacifist by any means—telling us how un-rabbit-like that love of violence was. Woundwort's love of violence might have been a source of strength, but it's also what led him to his death.