Novel * Richard Adams * Wabbits * 1972
Watership Down is a story about rabbits. English rabbits, in particular, though to be honest I don’t really get a sense of rabbity nationalism here. These rabbits are sentient, in that they have conversations and an autonomous sense of self. To be perfectly clear right out the gate, these are not anthropomorphic rabbits. This is not a furry situation. No, these are perfectly ordinary rabbits doing perfectly ordinary rabbity things like hopping around and nibbling grass and pooping and gettin’ it on. While that might sound quite dull, I assure you that Watership Down is in fact an outstanding story of adventure, perseverance, horror, and heroism. This novel is remarkable not just because it’s an excellent story, but because Adams elicits real emotions and creates relatable characters out of a bunch of fucking rabbits. It’s a weird yet noteworthy achievement.
A rabbit named Hazel is our protagonist. He’s a young buck, by which I mean he’s a young male rabbit. The ladies are does, and the young rabbits are kittens. Like any other fantasy novel you’ve ever read, there are some made-up words here and there, but it’s nothing overwhelming. Anyway, Hazel’s our boy. He’s a plucky young rabbit with ambitions. He has a bro named Fiver, who is kind of runty but is blessed with mystical wabbit power which grants him a preternatural sense of foreboding greater than knowing if a fox is around. The novel opens with Fiver having a vision of a terrible rabbit apocalypse. Hazel and Fiver are hopping around like adorable little bun-buns looking for the real fancy plants when they come across a notice board near their warren. Fiver flips all the way out: dark times are coming.
Rabbits are kind of dumb. That should be apparent to anyone who’s ever met a rabbit. These rabbits, despite having self-awareness and an organized society, are also kind of dumb. They can count to four, which is impressive, but anything past that is simply “a lot.” They can talk to each other and various other woodland creatures, but mostly they just eat and poop and fuck and hide. They’re rabbits. So when Fiver and Hazel recognize that the warren is going to be destroyed by men, obviously the rabbits in charge ignore them. However, occasionally warrens get overcrowded and there aren’t enough does to go around (and I will tell you right now that there is no such thing as feminism with rabbits, so the lady rabbits dig and breed litters and that’s pretty much it and that’s why the bucks have all the actual adventures) so the lowest bucks on the, uh, rabbit ladder, take off to seek their fortune elsewhere.
Fiver figures out the apocalypse is coming, like right now, and convinces his more persuasive brother to gather up a ragtag group of rabbits to get out of Dodge. It’s lucky they do because Fiver is right. Men arrive in short order and kill all the rabbits and dig up the warren and basically rain incomprehensible fire down from the heavens to smite all the complacent rabbits. In other words, men show up and want to build some townhouses or something. Meanwhile, it’s on Hazel to lead his charges to somewhere else that’s suitable for building a new warren. The entire rest of the novel is about Hazel and his crew establishing a new, functional home. In order to do this they must not only secure a safe haven to live, but also find some lady rabbits to propagate the community. Both of these activities are met with significant resistance. However, between Fiver’s prognostic gift, Hazel’s leadership, Bigwig’s size and aggression, Dandelion’s storytelling, and Blackberry’s ingenuity, they have a fighting chance. Oh, and yes, all the rabbits have the most precious bunny names.
I have this wonderful live-action film version of Watership Down firmly in my head now. Basically, it’s just actual rabbits doing all the things the characters in the story do, except without any dialogue. The whole movie is rabbits running around doing improbable things. Plus lots of eating and pooping. Because they’re rabbits. Okay, on second thought that would be a terrible movie. However, that’s still the image in my head, and it’s a testament to the skilled realism Adams brings to the story. These are rabbits what act like rabbits. That said, you can’t actually tell a compelling story about literal rabbits. This is why Adams spices it up with both an apocalypse and a fascist rabbit dystopia. Just because it is on a vastly smaller scale than humans are used to doesn’t make the situation any less dire or devastating.
Humans are not given a particularly sympathetic depiction in Watership Down. We are actually terrible. We’re gross, and everyone smokes, and we build roads everywhere to splat innocent woodland creatures, and we shoot everything, oh, and we propagate rabbit genocide and wreck their whole shit up. We suck. It also doesn’t help that every human described in the story is a total fucking bumpkin. Just the worst kind of “yee-haw Geech, Imma done kill that rabbit good I tell you what” except, you know, British. Anyway, it’s clear that Adams is working from a place of great distrust in human nature. I mean, listen to this.
“’There’s a terrible evil in the world.’
‘It comes from men,’ said Holly. ‘All other elil [predators] do what they have to do and Frith [Bunny Sun-God] moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.’”
Pretty much! What Holly here is describing is the human practice of domesticating wilderness, or the devastation of natural habitat. It’s the heedless churning up of huge tracts of land (heh) in order to spread out humanity to all the wild corners of the earth. This is not to say that the Midlands of England are in any way ‘the wilderness,’ but what Watership Down does is illustrate the smaller scale of life humans are not accustomed to consider when doing human stuff. And Holly has a point. Since when is humanity content with simply using what they need to survive? Hell no, we’ll drive entire species to extinction for funsies (when we’re not inadvertently doing it to clear millions of acres of forest and the like). We have little to no interest in living alongside the natural world. We must dominate it.
Perhaps more insidious than simply inflicting the apocalypse on Hazel’s old home is the way humanity’s worst tendencies have found a home among other rabbits. On their journey to Watership Down (which is the place where Fiver has decreed is ideal for a new warren), Hazel’s crew comes across another warren of rabbits. They’re weird and spooky and unsettling. These rabbits are clearly well-fed and content, but they do not act like natural rabbits. Their warren is massive but mostly empty, and they have the odd habit of collecting food to keep underground. Also sometimes rabbits disappear and these vanished individuals are not to be talked about. Most of Hazel’s crew seems okay with the weird shit because the food is good and the ladies are smokin’ and it’s free from foxes and owls and cats. Only Fiver is upset and refuses to go underground. Turns out, Fiver is right, which everyone else figures out when Bigwig gets his big dumb head stuck in a snare.
Don’t worry, Bigwig doesn’t die. However, Hazel’s rabbits learn a valuable lesson about unnatural rabbit organization. Turns out, the fat-fat bun-buns were being harvested. They were given an unnaturally safe environment by men, who were keeping the warren alive by shooting all the elil who would come skulking about. Then they’d leave out carrots and lettuce and fancy food like that so the rabbits would get nice and fat, but not gross and docile like your typical hutch rabbit. The only mitigating factor of living in such a situation is that every once in a while a rabbit would disappear. Because he’s now dinner. Once Hazel figured all this out, his much more sensible group of rabbits got the hell up out of there, because rabbits who have been corrupted by men are creepy.
Eventually, Hazel and company get to Watership Down, which is a dope place for a warren. Our heroes start digging tunnels and spreading out and feeling good about life. Hazel, who is a cool guy, makes some strange friends, like a field mouse (who the other rabbits like to look down on cuz they’re racist) and a sea gull. Turns out these unnatural buddies come in handy later on. Meanwhile, there’s a problem. There’s all these dudes and no ladies, so while the new warren is great it’s also short-lived. Lucky for them, their sea gull friend discovered a large warren some distance away from Watership Down that very well may have an excess of ‘mudders.’ Turns out they’re a bunch of fascists.
No, for real. These other rabbits live in a dystopian nightmare society which prioritizes safety and organization over personal freedom. This place is led by a fellow with the not-nearly-as-precious name General Woundwort. He’s a dick. He also hates men with a fiery passion not usually associated with rabbits. However, because he is so blinded by his own all-encompassing rage against humanity, General Woundwort does his best human impression when creating his terrible warren, Efrafa. It’s basically a police state where ordinary rabbits are only allowed outside at certain times and nobody can leave, ever. Anyone who tries is either killed or punished. It doesn’t even matter that the warren is dangerously overcrowded, because Woundwort is a crazy person obsessed with total control. So when Bigwig shows up and starts talking about freedom and eating outside whenever and pooping wherever one pleases, well, he starts a ruckus.
Eventually, Hazel and company figure out a way to break a bunch of does out of prison and escape the wrath of Woundwort and Efrafa. They do this using their friendship with the sea gull and the ingenuity of Blackberry, who basically steals a boat to float away from the scene of the crime. The boat thing is confusing to everyone except the smartest rabbits because it is unnatural. Bunnies are like hobbits in that they don’t understand boats. However, there is a marked difference between the unnatural activities of Hazel’s crew and Efrafa. Hazel is simply a good leader. He listens to everyone and utilizes cleverness when he sees it. His only goal is for his rabbits to live happily and naturally and do normal rabbit stuff. Woundwort, on the other hand, is driven to unnatural acts by his goal, which is total control. In order to do this, he turns to the tactics of his most hated enemies, humanity.
In the end, Hazel wins. Nature reigns supreme and all the hoppity, floppity, huggity bunny-buns live happily ever after. This does not mean they’re free from danger, far from it. They’re rabbits, after all. However, because they live according to their nature, they’re okay with running from the occasional stoat. It’s more important for them to live like Frith intended instead of trying to either accommodate human interests or co-opt their fucked-up government systems. And I still can’t believe I got this worked up over a bunch of damn rabbits.