The rabbit Fiver and his brother Hazel were feeding one sunset in May, when they saw a human-made signpost. Fiver, who was a seer, had an intense feeling that something bad would happen to the entire warren and that they all must leave almost immediately. Hazel, who knew that his brother was reliable, decided that they should tell the Chief Rabbit. He was not pleased at being woken up at ni-Frith (noon) and gave them all the rational reasons why moving a contented warren in the middle of May was a stupid idea, clearly not willing to believe a young, crazy rabbit. Fiver was insistent that they leave, and as younger, smaller rabbits, the two of them weren’t having the best time, anyway. So they recruited as many who would join them, which ended up being about ten. It did include Bigwig, the member of the Owsla (Chief Rabbit’s guard), who the Chief Rabbit had chewed out for letting Hazel and Fiver see him that noon, and was fed up, along with Silver, the Chief Rabbit’s nephew. When Captain Holly of the Owsla came to arrest Bigwig and Silver, they fought back, and after the Owsla left for reinforcements, they hopped into the woods.

Rabbits travel slowly and fearfully, especially in the woods, and they tend to straggle rather than going as a group. Hazel began to show his leadership in the wood, risking his safety to scout out safety. They reached a small stream, which most of them swam across, but Fiver and Pipkin were too exhausted. As an elil (predator) approached, the inventive Blackberry suggested a raft from a nearby plank of wood, which the two got on and Blackberry pushed across the stream. They rested under cover of beanstalks in a garden. The next day they traveled along a heath, which was rocky and had rough plants. Fiver was able to see where they needed to go to: a down several miles off, that had good visibility all around. At the moment, however, several of the rabbits were frustrated with Hazel’s leadership and the hardships and wanted to go back. Just then a scouting party returned saying that they had found a good area. Fiver had misgivings, feeling that there was a fog that would mislead their way. There was no fog, and it was a farm with much good grass.

The group was met by a lone rabbit, Cowslip, who invited them to live in his warren, as there was plenty of space. His nonchalant, take-it-or-leave-it-I-don’t-care attitude unnerved Hazel, and they dug a few scratches in the hillside. Not knowing the local weather, they dug them facing into the wind, and spent a miserable night in the rain, and the next day they joined the warren. The rabbits there were a little odd. They made Shapes (simple art), had elaborate greeting rituals, and enjoyed Dandelion’s telling of a rabbit myth as a well-told tale by a group that still really believes their myth and has not discovered their simpleness yet. Their own storyteller recited a poem full of angst. The strangest thing was that whenever Hazel asked a question involving “where,” his host Strawberry changed the subject. There was also food delivered every day, and a big underground room. Fiver, however, disliked the warren intensely and spent the nights above ground. Finally Fiver told Hazel he was leaving, even if it meant leaving them. During the discussion, Bigwig got entangled in a wire snare. After the panic subsided, he told the others to dig the peg out, and he went free, albeit a little wounded. Then they realized that the warren was really just food for the farmer, and they covered up the pain of having random rabbits disappear by making themselves Cultured and Modern and refusing to talk about the issue. Of course, inviting new rabbits into the warren means less chance of everyone else dying. So they leave, but not before Strawberry asks to join them after deciding that he was tired of hiding the truth from himself.

They came to Watership Down, and climbed the hill that Fiver had foreseen. It was ideal for a rabbit warren: good soil for digging, good view of any attackers, in a spot not frequented by humans, and lots of available food. Bucks do not dig, as a rule, that being for does, but Hazel made everyone dig so that they would have a comfortable warren. They had observed that the roof of Cowslip’s warren’s big room was held up by tree roots, so they used the same principle to make a large room with a root colonnade.

One night shortly after arriving, they were returning from evening silflay (above-ground-feeding) and heard a rabbit making a loud and mournful sound, so distressed that he did not think of the risk of alerting elil to his presence. As they wondered who or what this could be, the rabbit called Bigwig’s name. They took the risk to meet him, and found that it was Captain Holly from their old Sandleford warren. After he recovered from his distress, he told them all that after they had left, men had come a gassed the warren. Almost all the rabbits died, and he only made it out because another rabbit showed him a secret escape tunnel.

They had established themselves in a new warren with plenty of room to grow, and Hazel was now unanimously seen as Chief Rabbit, but there was only one problem: there were no does. When a bird attacked a mouse, Hazel told it to come into the warren for safety. It took many hours for it to recover from the terror, but it was eternally grateful. Likewise, when they found a seagull lying wounded in a depression, they brought it bugs to eat. Initially it thought they were enemies, but they won it over, and Hazel even had the entrance to a burrow widened so that the bird could live there. He told the warren that they were to befriend any creature in need—the bird especially could scout for them and tell them of any neighboring warren where they could get some does. Bigwig liked talking to the bird and hearing its tales of the “Peeg Vater,” and was able to plant the idea of scouting for does into the birds mind. When Kehaar’s wing recovered he suggested that he search for “mudders” (mothers) for them, and flew around in reconnaissance missions. He found a nearby farm with some caged rabbits, and several miles away there was a large warren.

Hazel organized a party to go and ask the warren for some does. The others did not allow him, as Chief Rabbit, to run the risk of going. But he felt useless, so he took Pipkin (who would obey him rather than ask questions) and talked to the hutch rabbits at the farm one night. They seemed open to the idea of escaping, so several nights later, Hazel took a couple of rabbits, went to the farm, gnawed through the leather straps holding the doors of the hutch together, and they escaped. However, the dog woke up and started barking, the farmer got up, saw the wild rabbits, and shot at Hazel, hitting his leg. Hazel was able to crawl into a culvert, but nothing else, and the rest went back to the warren. One of the hutch rabbits was killed by the cat during the escape, but there were two does now, even if they were completely ignorant of how to live life free. The diplomatic mission returned at this time saying that not only was their request refused, but Efrafa warren was highly militaristic and refused to even let them go. In fact, they only managed to escape the pursuit because El-ahrairah (the mythological Chief of rabbits) sent an angel (a train) along the iron road at exactly the right time. The entire warren was dejected, having lost their Chief Rabbit and failed to acquire any does beyond two that did not even seem likely to be fertile.

Fiver had a dream where he saw Hazel in a well stained with blood. A man was posting a sign announcing Hazel’s death, but couldn’t finish because he needed to hang Hazel up on it, but he wasn’t there. Fiver practically forced Blackberry to take him back to the place where Hazel had been shot, where Hazel was alive but the pain had driven him into a state where he did not want to live. Fiver practically dragged him back to the down, where he had to stay in a ditch for several days until his leg recovered enough to climb the hill. Kehaar knew about gun wounds and fished out the remaining pellets in Hazel’s leg. Hazel coming back alive raised everyone’s spirits considerably, and once he was well, Hazel set about planning how to get does from Efrafa.

Efrafa was ruled by General Woundwort, a rabbit whose mother had been killed before his eyes by an elil, then he was rescued by a human. Woundwort escaped, and vowed to create a warren of safety. He founded Efrafa because no men came there, and he organized the warren into Marks. The Marks rotated on silflay, and most of the time the Mark spent its time underground except to pass hraka (which was done in designated spots to remain hidden from elil and men). Daily life was controlled by Woundwort, his council, the council police (Owslafa), and the Owsla, and was oppressive. Furthermore, Woundwort organized constant and disciplined Wide Patrols, which scouted the area for anything unusual and reported it. No outside rabbits were allowed to take knowledge of Efrafa’s existence outside the warren and those trying to escape were killed.

Hazel slowly formed a plan, telling only Bigwig—if they were captured, no one could tell that which they did not know. The previous party was scared to return to Efrafa, so Hazel took only those who were willing and could be trusted, but a large enough number to have some chance of winning a fight. They slowly journeyed to Efrafa. The first night they were attacked by a fox, and Bigwig dashed across the field to some bushes on the other side, inadvertently leading the fox into a Wide Patrol (the fox killed the captain of the patrol). The next night they bivouacked at the river near Efrafa. There was a human boat, which Hazel realized could be used like the plank they used in their journey from Sandleford warren, only this time as a getaway which Wouldwort could not follow.

Woundwort was short on seasoned leaders when Bigwig arrived. The one that had been tricked into leaving his post to receive non-existent orders (allowing the first party to escape) had been demoted; another one had been killed by the train as he tried to intercept that party leaving; a third had been killed by an fox coming out of nowhere. So Bigwig’s arrival, though suspicious (why would any rabbit want to join Efrafa?), was welcome. He had experience in the Owsla and was a strong and sizeable rabbit, one of the biggest apart from Woundwort himself. He was assigned to a Mark and started receiving training from the captain.

Efrafa was overcrowed, and the does were restless. Overcrowding causes them the take their embryos back into their body, and the does were frustrated. The arrival of the emissaries from Hazel had triggered a group of does to ask to leave. They were denied, and they were sulking. An unfortunate side-effect of a strict rules-following culture is that no directions were given that the ringleaders be in separate Marks, merely that the group be split up, and it happened that the ringleaders were together and in Bigwig’s Mark. His captain asked him to keep an eye on them, so he told the ringleader, Hyzenthlay, to meet him in his burrow, ostensibly because he wanted to mate. (The captain had said, “if a member of the Owsla wants a doe, he has her.”)  Bigwig explained his mission and asked her to recruit anyone who was interested in leaving.

The escape was supposed to take place the next day at evening. Kehaar was ready to create a diversionary tactic. But General Woundwort himself asked to talk to Bigwig, who could hardly refuse. Both the does and Kehaar were confused. Plans were further complicated by Bigwig seeing a disfigured rabbit at the edge of the silflay, and was told that he had tried to escape. He was disfigured and placed at the exit hole of the Mark which currently had silflay, as an example of what happens if you try to escape. Bigwig determined to save him, as well. Things were not going according to plan; the atmosphere of Efrafa was oppressive, the weather foretold thunder in the future, the Mark would lose evening silflay in a day (and thus their chance to escape for several weeks), and the burden of keeping the conspiracy secret while being under such oppression and observation stressed Bigwig to the limit. Then, shortly before silflay, one of the stick-it-to-the-man-type does had hinted that they would be getting their comeuppance soon. She was arrested and taken to the council. Bigwig knew he could not wait, as the Council would compel her to talk.

Bigwig took advantage of some delegated responsibility to gather the does, informed the rabbits guarding the disfigured Blackavar that evening silflay was early, then he attacked one of them while Blackavar took on the other. Then they all ran out the hole as it started to rain. The captain pursued immediately, but did not have enough rabbits to fight. Woundwort led a group around to outflank them. As Bigwig had promised, a big white bird attacked Woundwort, but he was a wily rabbit, and positioned himself where the bird could do no harm, yet he could prevent their escape across the bridge of the river. When he realized that they were not going towards the bridge he changed his plan, but not quite in time to prevent them from loading onto the boat. The loading was tricky, as the does refused to get on the boat without Bigwig, who was held up trying to escape from Woundwort. But he did escape, and Hazel finished gnawing through the rope. The boat drifted down the river as the astonished General Woundwort stared disbelievingly after them.

The boat drifted downstream and got stuck on a low bridge. Exhausted as they were, they had to swim in the current underneath the bridge until it came to a low bank on the other side. They slept in the tall vegetation, having safely escaped from Efrafa, with only two does who died. The next day the lead rabbits (Hazel, Blackavar, etc.) encountered a Wide Patrol who threatened to attack them. Since the Efrafan rabbits always traveled together, it did not occur to there might be more of them, but more came steadily up and since the numbers were greater, the Patrol had to run away. Hazel brought everyone safe to Watership down, and Kehaar flew away to the Big Water.

The Patrol had trailed them back to the warren, however, and reported back to General Woundwort. The General’s authority had taken a hit, since Bigwig had escaped by means of lightning, the help of a big white bird, and a completely unexpected means of travel. Many rabbits had threatened supernatural punishment, but this one had actually done it. The return of the Patrol with the discovery of the escapee’s warren and that it was within reach helped restore confidence, and Woundwort planned an attack for late that summer, in the middle of August. The plan was to travel in one day, to prevent any news from potentially reaching Bigwig’s warren.

Dandelion had finished telling a story about how El-ahrairah (the mythically cunning rabbit king) had outwitted a dog, when Hazel went with the change of sentries. He saw the mouse that he had saved from the kestral earlier, and chatted with it. It commented that there were new rabbits coming, asking if they were friends. Hazel realized that the Efrafans were coming to attack, and went to meet them as a parlay. They received him as such, and he suggested they not attack, but instead co-found a warren in-between, which would relieve the overcrowding problem at Efrafa. Woundwort, however, wanted power over rabbits, so he refused. So they hastily blocked holes and organized a defense.

Woundwort had rabbits tunnel down from above, and Hazel realized that they could not successfully defend the warren. As he was wondering what to do, Fiver fell into a trance and made a terrifying and un-rabbitlike sound, which unnerved both attacker and defender alike. Then Hazel had a vision of a dog loose, and he realized that El-ahrairah had shown him what to do. He took Dandelion and Blackberry and went to the nearby farm. He instructed Blackberry to wait halfway there, and to draw the dog back to the warren when he came. Then he and Dandelion went to the dog. The dog was asleep, and Hazel climbed its doghouse and began gnawing on the rope that limited the dog’s reach. As he was almost finished he saw the cat crouching to leap onto Dandelion. He panic-stamped, and Dandelion bolted just as the cat lept onto where he had just been. The dog woke up, saw Dandelion, and ran after him, barking. The rope snapped and Dandelion discovered that the dog was much faster than he had imagined. Tired and panicked, but aware of the need to lead the dog on, he kept running. Hazel, somewhat lame in his leg since the farmer shot him, was surprised by the cat.

In the warren, the attacker’s tunnel had breached the warren. General Woundwort went first, but found it empty except for a dying rabbit (Fiver, still in his trance). After a fearful search, for apart from Woundwort, who had no fear, none of the rest were sure that the white bird was not there (his droppings were still in the entrance to one of the major tunnels), and were still freaked out by the unnatural yell. But Woundwort found the soft earth that stopped up the tunnels they were hiding in. He opened it up, coming face to face with Bigwig. They exchanged threats, then attacked. Woundwort was a bigger rabbit, and knew how to use his weight, but Bigwig was able to seriously wound him. When Bigwig said that their Chief Rabbit was away, but would be returning to deal with him, Woundwort, who had assumed that Bigwig was Chief Rabbit because of his large size, assumed that Hazel was even bigger. Weakened as Woundwort was, and afraid to face Bigwig again, he withdrew to wait for more holes to be opened up, so that the attacker’s superior numbers would overwhelm the defenders. Then the apparently dead Fiver appeared behind Woundwort and his second-in-command. Fiver calmly and regretfully said that he was sorry for their death, but the Efrafans did come to kill them. Something about his voice had the ring of truth that plenty of threats by plenty of rabbits had not.

By this time Dandelion was returning with the dog on his heals. The dog had a tendency to give up, so Dandelion had to lead him on quite a bit. But when he got up the hill and saw all the rabbits from Efrafa, he went crazy. Woundwort and his second had exited the warren, so everyone was above ground. Most fled, for after the unearthly yell indicative of some non-rabbit creature inside the warren, the fact that General Woundwort emerged with blood all over his face, and the dog made them run for their lives. Only General Woundwort stood his ground (“come back you fools, dogs are not dangerous!”). The dog did get scratched up around the nose and was less eager to chase the others, but the General’s body was never found. Blackavar said that he must still be a live, and went to start a new warren, although one was never found. Hazel was rescued from the cat by the farmer’s daughter, and was driven most of the way back to the warren in the family doctor’s hrududu (motor vehicle) to be released back into the wild.

Some of the attackers had fled down the warren, and were allowed to stay. The new warren flourished, so much so that Hazel had to send out some to start the new warren near Efrafa. The warrens intermingled and soon no one knew or cared if their ancestry was Efrafan or Watership down, and a long peace descended. The Efrafans brought a greater discipline, an uncanny ability to draw conclusions from something unusual, and good fighting ability. Hazel’s rabbits brought freedom and cunning. Together they made a stronger warren, both able to defend itself but free and happy. After living for several years, Hazel felt his time coming, and one night a rabbit with ears that sparkled faintly like dim moonlight appeared, asking if Hazel would join his Owsla. Hazel knew it was El-ahrairah, who was given those ears by Frith (the sun-god), after he had lost them in bargaining with the Black Rabbit to save his people. And he realized he wouldn’t need his body any more, so he left it by the ditch and followed El-ahrairah.

I first read Watership Down in sixth grade—I saw Erika Baxter reading this huge book, and it turned out that we had it, too, so not to be outdone by her, I read it. It has stuck in my memory all those years, which says a lot for the storytelling. Of course, I looked at it as a story of rabbits fleeing from danger and founding their own warren. It is, but having reread it, it seems like it is more a book about leadership. As a kid, I felt like the book was about Fiver, the prophetic one, because he is the one who has the vision. Hazel just implements it. Now that I am older, though, it is really Hazel’s leadership that is highlighted. In particular, there are several values that are highlighted. He uses the strengths of each rabbit for the right purpose: Fiver for vision, Dandelion for creativity and diversion via a story, Bigwig for fighting ability. He values working together, even with other species, which ends up being critical to their success. He is merciful and forgiving, adoption Captain Holly from the Sandleford warren even though he tried to arrest the party when they left, and he lets the five Efrafa fighters stay, even though they tried to kill them all.

Hazel’s leadership is contrasted with Cowslip and General Woundwort. Cowslip is the absence of leadership: sweeping the problems under the rug and trying to bring outsiders as fodder for the problem. General Woundwort is the controlling leader, who has a vision that is good (keep the warren safe) but the use of control to implement his vision turns him into a dictator and makes Efrafa an oppressive place. (So much so that one of the few scenes I remembered from my childhood reading was Bigwig terrified and exhausted with the effort of keeping the conspiracy secret, as he felt the oppression of both Efrafa and the approaching thunderstorm.)  Leadership is about building culture, and from the beginning Hazel builds a culture of working together for the common good, which is what freedom is. When faced with insurmountable obstacles, Hazel relies on El-ahrairah and thinks outside the box. Cowslip denies and decieves; Woundwort fights and controls; Hazel is merciful and creative. In fact, one could see Hazel as a modern El-ahrairah, as he exhibits El-ahrairah’s cunning, but also his concern for his people.

One of the things I have always remembered about Watership Down is the richness provided by the stories of El-ahrairah. I cannot tell if they lend commentary to the events in the story or whether they are solely culture-creating, but they certainly give a rich mythology. The stories about El-ahrairah’s incorrigible raiding of vegetable gardens, and psychological tricks to pull that off establish that cunning is valued by the society, and that the job of a leader is to protect his community. El-ahrairah’s cunning is established when he raids the king’s well-guarded gardens even after publicly announcing that he would, by means of disguising himself to get into the grounds, and then having his second provide a diversion. The value of protecting the community is shown when El-ahrairah journeys to the Black Rabbit seeking relief from the siege that Prince Rainbow put his people under for stealing his vegetables. El-ahrairah succeeds through by wearying the Black Rabbit, but it is at the cost of his ears and tail (restored to him afterwards by Frith). The last story, about how El-ahrairah tricks a dog into leaving vegetables unguarded by using the dog’s vanity perhaps is to put the reader in mind of dogs. Besides than the Lord of the Rings, Watership Down is the book that feels most like there is a real world behind it, that there is more left unsaid.

One of the things that gives the book its emotional power is the characters’ vulnerability. In addition to events and reasoning behind decisions, we also experience how the characters feel. Bigwig is not merely worried that the secret might get out. No, the reader knows that the penalty for failure will be death, or worse, disfigurement and being shown to all the Marks at silflay. And it is not just the rational fear of his secret being known, we feel the oppression that is actually attempting to squeeze the secret out, as well as attempting to eliminate his free will. We do not see Fiver delivering a prophetic message, we see him gripped by a fear that he cannot explain to others but knows is real, but is completely reliant on Hazel to believe him and organize something.

Fiver is another thing I like about the book. It is the only secular book that I am aware of that gives a understanding picture of what believers in a religion experience. (I don’t get the feeling that the author is a Christian believer, but it is sympathetic enough to make me wonder.)  Prophecy in Watership Down is real; thus there is some God figure that cares about them. The rabbits are unaware of who this is; they seem to attribute the visions as from El-ahrairah but physical deliverance from Frith (such as the train, which is seen as Frith’s timely angel). It is a mixture, much like in reality. When the as-yet-unknown Holly is a moaning black silhouette against the sunset sky, Hazel’s reaction is “there’s probably a much more rational explanation for this than the Black Rabbit has appeared,” yet Hazel believes the visions, and accepts the angel from Frith. Belief is accepted, is normal even, in Watership Down, and at the end it is proven right, as El-ahrairah comes.

The book jacket talks about the book being a commentary on our disturbing the environment, but that seems far-fetched. The only obvious commentary is actually on the modern attitude to indigenous beliefs. Cowslip’s warren prides themselves on their artistry and their advancement by discarding the traditional stories as mere myths, to be enjoyed by a good story teller in museum sort of way, but real Culture is depressed poetry and unnecessary formalities. And in the end, modernity turns out to be a cover for the death underneath, whereas the indigenous culture is the true freedom and the traditional beliefs turn out to be true.

Watership Down is obviously a 100-year book. The plot has good pacing, but is fairly non-stop action (perhaps the myth-stories act as a bit of a breather), so it is definitely exciting. But it also puts you in the experience of being a rabbit, at least an anthropomorphic one, with a strong cultural history and sense of values. At the same time it clearly comments on human experience, but subtly, so that it can be wholly a story, but one which raises nagging questions. What is faith? What is a good society? Where do we get vision? And, of course, the most important, What will happen next?

Review: 10