Study Guide

Watership Down Themes

By Richard Adams

  • Man and the Natural World

    In Watership Down, humans are very often the ultimate enemy of nature: they poison warrens, they shoot rabbits, they trap rabbits, and they generally just kill rabbits. But this isn't just a book about what jerks humans can be to nature. There are also hints that humans and rabbits aren't so different: we both have social structures and politics and art. So perhaps humans can learn to appreciate and live in the natural world, just as good rabbits do (but also with computers).

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Can humans live with nature in Watership Down? What's the most positive interaction between humans and nature?
    2. Why do rabbits become unnatural? Is it usually traceable back to human actions?
    3. What similarities are there between rabbits and humans?
    4. Can a character (or a species) learn and change and still be natural?

    Chew on This

    In Watership Down, what's unnatural is always wrong, plain and simple.

    Watership Down ignores the several real examples of humans living happily with animals, like the cats and dog on Nuthanger Farm. Harsh.

  • The Home

    In Watership Down, home isn't just where you keep your stuff and park your car—home is about where you belong. Warren life for rabbits involves family and friends, as they build community through working together. In this book, this is literally true for Hazel's rabbits, who work together to dig Watership Down Warren. In that sense, they're not just finding a home, but creating one. For Hazel's rabbits, creating a home will take a lot of work and a fair bit of sacrifice, but it's worth it because it will be their own.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What does a warren need to be a home? Could Cowslip's warren or Efrafa ever really be home for Hazel's rabbits? Are those warrens truly home to the rabbits who live there?
    2. What do we learn about the different rabbits from their different warrens?
    3. How do team-switching rabbits—like Strawberry and Blackavar—change their home? Do most rabbits change their home because they choose to do so or because they have to?
    4. How does Watership Down deal with home for humans or other animals?

    Chew on This

    In Watership Down, home is all about self-sacrifice, whereas the bad warrens are all about sacrificing others.

    The ultimate image of home in Watership Down is at the end, when Hazel feels his power entering the new generations of rabbits—because home is about permanence and continuation.

  • Power

    In Watership Down, power comes in many forms, but it generally has one result: making others do what you want. The simplest form of power is just brute strength: that's the power used by bully rabbits like Toadflax (Sandleford) and Vervain (Efrafa). Even good rabbits aren't afraid to use force to get things done. But other (and more interesting) rabbits have a whole range of other powers, including Blackberry's inventing power, Hazel's intelligence and cleverness, and the power to inspire others, like Dandelion does with stories and Woundwort does with his great bravery (and tremendous violence). Now that's power.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who is the most powerful rabbit in the book? Hazel, with his cleverness? Woundwort, with his violence? Fiver, with his strange psychic powers?
    2. Does Watership Down have a lesson about power? Is power always good? Or does it depend on how it is used?
    3. How does the community deal with power? Do powers usually disrupt stable home-life or make the home more secure in this book?
    4. What are the best uses of power in this book? Who uses power best? When do powerful rabbits fail (like Hazel raiding Nuthanger Farm and Woundwort's war on Watership Down)—and why do they fail at those times?

    Chew on This

    In Watership Down, the most powerful rabbits use their intelligence more than their strength.

    Watership Down constantly reminds us that rabbits are weak, vulnerable to everything from weather, to predators, to human development.

  • Exploration

    Watership Down is about a group of rabbits setting out from the old, known home to find or make a better world out there somewhere in the unknown. In other words, exploration here is often about facing fears and finding the perfect place to set down some roots (or use them to hold up your living room). Almost every episode of their journey involves some form of exploration: they leave Sandleford and hop across unknown parts of England; find a new (and weird) warren; raid a new farm; send two expeditions to a new (and dangerous) warren. Really, the only time Hazel's rabbits aren't exploring is when they're protecting their home from Woundwort's army, but that's because they've already found their spot of earth—now it's time to defend it.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Is exploration ever a bad thing in this book? Should the rabbits ever stay at home rather than explore?
    2. How does the journey change different characters? Which character changes the most from all the exploring?
    3. Does it matter that all this new and exciting (read: scary) exploration is happening in a really ordinary and well-known part of the world?
    4. Like, what if Watership Down were about seals in the Arctic Ocean or some other far off place?
    5. Does the description of the landscape change depending on whether the rabbits are in familiar versus new territory?

    Chew on This

    In Watership Down, exploration is a tool. The ultimate goal of all exploration is to find a place to stay so you don't have to explore any more.

    Only human-built landscapes are truly new and dangerous to the rabbits.

  • Fear

    Fear is such a huge part of rabbits' lives that they even have a word for a special type of fear they feel: Tharn, meaning paralyzed with fear (5.14). (If this were an American book, we'd expect a rabbit-version of FDR to give the speech about only tharning tharn itself.) Of course, if you were a rabbit too, you might be afraid, since just about anything can kill you—humans, disease, other animals, cars, a mean look, etc. So rabbits need some level of fear to survive from all the dangers they face. But fear can itself be part of the problem if they become too paralyzed to act, which happens a fair few times in Watership Down.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Who is the most fearful character? How do they deal with their fear? Do they ever overcome their fear? Are we saying the word "fear" a lot? We're afraid so.
    2. Does fear ever motivate rabbits to do good or positive actions? Does fear ever keep rabbits from harm?
    3. Do any other animals seem to fear? Does Kehaar fear anything? Do the mice that we meet? What about humans—do they fear anything?
    4. Does the Black Rabbit of Inlé inspire any feelings besides fear?

    Chew on This

    As cheesy as it sounds, fear can be overcome through teamwork in Watership Down.

    Fear always leads to bad things for the rabbits.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Usually rabbits in fiction are heavily muscled action heroes, like Bunny Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude van Hare. Wait, that's not right—rabbits are usually tricksters, like Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. Because rabbits aren't the strongest creatures in the world, they only survive if they use their wits to outsmart their enemies. That's actually something Frith says to El-ahrairah in the legend: "Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed" (6.8). This may be weird because we usually elevate straightforward types, like George Washington (who couldn't tell a lie); whereas the heroes in Watership Down would lie all the time if it would help their rabbit friends. So do the ends justify the means?

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Are there any examples of cunning and cleverness that end negatively for our favorite rabbits?
    2. Do any evil rabbits or predators (like cats) use tricks? Are there any times when Hazel or other rabbits are cunning—but about something they shouldn't be?
    3. Who are the most cunning rabbits in Watership Down? Are other animals in this book cunning, too?
    4. Are there problems that cunning and cleverness can't solve? For instance, what's the cunning solution to Cowslip's problem?
    5. How does rabbit cunning compare to the cunning of other fictional characters? Do we like our heroes to be sneaky and tricky?

    Chew on This

    Cleverness is not the most important rabbit trait—kindness is.

    Blackberry and Fiver are the cleverest and most important rabbits to the survival of Watership Down Warren, and that's that.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In Watership Down, there are many ways to be free. Rabbits can be free from worrying about food, like the rabbits in Cowslip's warren. Of course, those rabbits aren't free from humans catching and killing them. The Efrafan rabbits are free from that worry—they only have to follow every single law that Woundwort sets up. Maybe the hutch rabbits are the freest, since they don't have to worry about food, or carnivorous humans (since they're pets), or psychotic rabbits. Those lucky hutch rabbits only have to live their entire lives in a cage. Wait. That suddenly doesn't sound do free. Maybe there's no way for a rabbit to be totally free from all the cages and worries and elil. After all, even El-ahrairah occasionally has to face some confinement.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How do wild rabbits react to being confined in cages or traps in this book? How do domesticated (hutch) rabbits respond to being out in the open world?
    2. Which rabbits trade freedom for something else, like comfort, security, or cell reception? What do they trade freedom for? How does the narrative make you feel about those trades?
    3. Who is the most free rabbit (or rabbits) and what is that rabbit (or rabbits) free from? What is that rabbit (or rabbits) not free from?
    4. What role does freedom play in the myths of El-ahrairah and the epilogue? Is Hazel freed when he dies?

    Chew on This

    Rabbit freedom is more important than security.

    No rabbit is ever free because nature limits a rabbit's possibilities—look what happens to a rabbit like Woundwort who tries to be a fighter instead of a runner.

  • Art and Culture

    In Watership Down, "arts and culture" mostly means "telling stories about El-ahrairah," with a side order of games like "bob-stones." We don't see a lot of "bob-stones," but we see lots of storytelling. Telling stories about El-ahrairah does lots of things. For one thing, it bonds the rabbits into a community. But perhaps even more importantly, it holds up El-ahrairah as a model inspires rabbits in times of trouble. In doing so, the stories tell us what the rabbits value.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What other arts do rabbits practice in this book besides story telling? What arts do the rabbits in Cowslip's warren or Efrafa practice?
    2. Do the El-ahrairah stories parallel the action of Hazel's rabbits? When do the stories get told? Why do the rabbits tell these particular stories?
    3. Do we see any evidence that El-ahrairah stories change over time? How do rabbits come up with new stories?
    4. How do other rabbits tell stories? How does Silverweed's poem differ from Hyzenthlay's poem?
    5. How do the Efrafans tell stories? What do you think about the transformation of Woundwort into a mythological figure?

    Chew on This

    Cowslip's warren shows us that gaining new arts always involves losing others. Tough luck.

    Storytelling is a way for rabbits to remember the lessons of the past in a fun, exciting form. In other words, storytelling is Shmoop for rabbits.

  • Politics

    Rabbits in Watership Down don't have political parties and elections (or attack ads), but they do have politics. For rabbits, politics boils down to "Whom do you want to lead you?" and "What sort of world do you want to live in?" We see several different warrens, each with their own political organization, from the more democratic Watership Down (where everyone has a voice and everyone is free to do what comes naturally), to the more tyrannical totalitarian Efrafa (where the rabbits are controlled and not allowed to be natural). Rabbits may not vote every four years, but they do have feelings about their Chief Rabbits, like admiration and fear. And they do express them.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Do all the different warrens have different political systems? Does Cowslip's warren have some political system?
    2. How does Woundwort control his warren? Is it through power and violence alone? Or does he also inspire his followers?
    3. Why doesn't Bigwig become the Chief Rabbit? Would he make a good Chief Rabbit?
    4. How do rabbit political systems differ from human systems? Do we have a human equivalent of the Chief Rabbit and the Owsla?

    Chew on This

    In Watership Down, friendship is the basis for the best political communities. Yeah, tell that to Congress.

    The war between Watership Down and Efrafa proves that tyrannical political systems will always fail because they lack flexibility (and are vulnerable to dog attacks).

  • Violence

    The rabbit world is full of violence and the threat of death. Very few rabbits get to die peacefully in their beds with a bunch of grandkiddos gathered round, partly because rabbit carpentry hasn't advanced to making beds. Most rabbits in Watership Down face the constant peril of an icky death (or at least maiming), via getting poisoned or shot, attacked by farm animals (dogs and cats) or by wild animals (foxes and owls), or attacked by one's own fellow rabbits. But at the end of the day, it seems that this violence is the price that rabbits pay for living a free life out in the violent world.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What's most dangerous to rabbits? Elil, rabbits, man? What kills the most rabbits?
    2. When is violence ever not dangerous to the rabbits? Are their games violent? Are they violent to each other in playful ways (and do not try this at home)?
    3. Do good rabbits ever use violence or threats of violence? Is that violence talked about in different ways than when bad rabbits use violence? How do you feel when heroes use violence?
    4. Is violence ever associated with the female rabbits? Do the female rabbits respond to violence differently?

    Chew on This

    Violence is a natural part of the world—it is neither good nor bad. Just messy.

    Watership Down shows that violence is only proper when used to protect the weak from the strong. Cough Woundwort cough.