Book Review: Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership_Down_coverBook: Watership Down

Published: 1972

Author: Richard Adams.

Born in 1920 in England, Adams didn’t begin writing until after his service in World War II, dabbling in fiction. Originally a story written for his two daughters, who urged him to publish, Watership Down became an international bestseller touching the lives of many people all around the world. Adams created an entire language called “Lapine” for the story of the rabbits, used to name the main characters and various things they meet and interact with in the story. The multiple award winning book was then adapted into an animated film (1978) and a 39-episode television series (1999-2001).


Hazel: The main protagonist, is a kind-hearted rabbit that earns the trust of those who eventually follow him.

Fiver: Hazel’s brother and the runt of the group, he is a quiet though intelligent rabbit, who has powerful visions that Hazel and the others use for guidance.

Bigwig: The “muscle” of the group, he is the bravest and often very clever in defending the others.

General Woundwort: The main antagonist, he created the Efrafa warren, a community he overseas as a dictator who seeks revenge against the rabbits for stealing does.

Hyzenthlay: A doe who has similar visions like Fiver, she once lived in Efrafa but escaped with other does with the help of Bigwig.

Plot: When Fiver has a vision of their warren (called Sandleford) becoming destroyed, he tells Hazel they must leave, but both are unable to convince the chief rabbit of the warren’s coming plight. Spreading the news, they secretly gather a small band of believers and decide to leave on their own and find a new home, barely escaping the warren’s Owsla militant guards ordered to stop them. Two of the best of that guard, Bigwig and Silver join the group, now led by the formerly innocuous Hazel who is dependent on his brother and his visions. After some adventures, Fiver’s visions lead them to Watership Down, a peaceful warren that offers haven for the rabbits, though Hazel quickly realizes that without does, the warren can’t survive and with the help of a black-headed gull named Kehaar who found refuge in Watership Down after he’d injured his wing, find a nearby warren that is overcrowded and populated with many does but ruled by a tyrannical leader. When word is heard that some does want to leave the police state, Hazel and Bigwig make a plan for their escape.

Rex Collings Publications
Illustration by Aldo Galli (Rex Collings Publications)

That Moment In: Watership Down

Chapter 35: Groping: It is learned in the first infiltration of Efrafa, the nearby warren (by Holly, a former captain at Sandleford), that it is run by General Woundwort, and because of his strict enforcement of rules, has survived but become dangerously overcrowded. Morale is terribly low and nothing can be done in the community without the guards overseeing nearly every aspect of the rabbits. A few does have made a plea with Woundwort to let them leave peacefully in an attempt to find a new home far, far away from Efrafa, promising never to return or interfere, though they are met with a stern decline. They become hopeless and weak. When Bigwig joins Efrafa as a spy, his size and former lot grant him a position in the guard as an officer and he is given free reign. This allows him to mingle around the heavily protected warren where he moves about cautiously, knowing the place must be full of spies who would report any suspicious behavior to Woundwort. He eventually sees four does in a hollow in a meadow who are talking among themselves. Needing to trust and earn trust in someone, he inches closer overhears one telling a tale of better days gone by. The story is about a burdensome life in a warren with no hope. Adams writes, describing the moment when she finishes the story:

The doe was silent and her three companions said nothing: but their stillness showed plainly enough that she had spoken for all of them. A flock of starlings passed overhead, chattering and whistling, and a liquid dropping fell into the grass among the little group, but none moved or startled. Each seemed taken up with the same melancholy thoughts–thoughts which, however sad, were at least far from Efrafa.

Bigwig is moved by the lament, despite his tough exterior, who, like most creatures that has experienced troubles, recognizes their suffering. As a trained guard, he knows how to judge a rabbit’s character and their worth, and could see that the does are at the end of their resolve. He understands that an animal with no will might direct its energies toward death and yet he had made this mistake with assessing the morosefull Fiver, who turned out to be a kind of savior. He senses a pervasive despair about these does, but what he knows about Efrafa, it isn’t surprising. He draws nearer to them and they look upon him resentfully, suspecting, by his position, that he means to condemn them. He knows one of them already, a pretty doe named Nelthilita and so asked about the others. One reluctantly gives her name, but it’s the last who affects him deepest. Adams writes:

She turned to him a look of such wretchedness, so full of accusation and suffering, that it was all he could do not to beg her then and there to believe that he was her secret friend and that he hated Elfrafa and the authority which he represented (. . .) As Bigwig stared back at her, he suddenly recalled Holly’s description of the great yellow hrududu* that had torn open the earth above the destroyed warren. “That might have met a look like this,” he thought. Then the doe answered, “My name is Hyzenthlay, sir.”

Why it Matters: Hyzenthlay is a meek and strong-willed rabbit on her introduction that is saddened by the loss of a true rabbit’s life, unable to find a love and have children of her own and of her own choice. She and her friends are withering in despair, to which Bigwig thinks makes her and them of no value for Watershed Down. But Bigwig, despite his sometimes sexist attitude about does, is not blind to the changes that he’s seen since leaving Sandleford warren. He also recognizes Hyzenthlay’s name as one who had spoken to Holly, confessing to Holly of the sorrow of the warren. Bigwig ultimately sees the merit in Hyzenthlay and it is because of her that many succeed in freeing themselves from Woundwort, with Bigwig battling the General in the attempt. This decision proves its value as Hyzenthlay is a much more powerful and important figure than at first suggested, and this moment, with Bigwig’s compassion and Hyzenthlay’s impressive stance make all the difference in the fate of the Watership Down warren.

*a vehicle in Lapine language


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