Throughout the course of the novel, Hazel and his comrades continually find themselves in conflict with authoritarian regimes and power structures. From the strict Sandleford warren, to the ominous home of the rabbit Cowslip and his fellow rabbits, to the fascistic Efrafa (where rabbits are branded at birth and forced to eat, work, and relieve themselves in shifts), Hazel and his friends keep coming up against strict, sinister, or downright despotic establishments. Their search for home is also the search for a place where democracy can thrive, and where they can each be free. As Adams tracks the rabbits’ journey, he argues that authoritarian regimes and power structures are almost always built on fear, and use that fear as a mains of maintaining power—while democratic structures and societies use hope in the place of fear to inspire rather than demoralize their denizens.
The authoritarian structures and regimes throughout Watership Down are all quite different, yet at their core, they are the same: their only purpose is to inspire fear in the rabbits they are sworn to protect and use that fear as a means of distracting and preoccupying the other rabbits in order to maintain control over the warrens. In Cowslip’s warren, the burrow seems prosperous at first—the rabbits who live there are all large and healthy, and feast daily on delicious roots and vegetables rather than grass. The longer Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their group stays, though, the more sensitive they become to a tense, sinister atmosphere in the warren. They soon learn that the reason the rabbits eat so well is that a local farmer feeds them—but every once in a while, kills one of them for their pelt or their meat. Unlike the militaristic Efrafa—which the rabbits will soon discover—this warren is not a fascistic place dominated by one cruel rabbit. Rather, the rabbits who live here submit to another kind of authoritarianism—the “rule” of an individual not even of their species, to whose whims they are entirely vulnerable. The pervasive atmosphere of terror and uncertainty in this warren keeps them focused on doing their best to avoid notice—or to altogether ignore the precarious, weakening threads which hold their society together.
In Efrafa, the regimented nature of the society and General Woundwort’s all-encompassing power are tools meant to inspire fear in the rabbits and keep them focused only on playing by the rules in order to avoid the threat of violence. Woundwort uses fear not only of retribution to keep his rabbits in line, but also uses fear of change, of the outside world, and of deviating from the norm in order to keep his subjects down. Unaware that any other way of life is possible, many of the Efrafans submit to these fears and succumb to authoritarian rule, never dreaming of a way out. A select few, having heard tales of the outside or simply developed the desire to break from the mold, are willing to follow Bigwig into the world beyond, resisting for the first time in their lives the autocratic regime which has dictated every aspect of their being. Bigwig’s arrival gives these rabbits—most of them does—hope that there is another way to live, and that freedom can be attained.
The democratic society Hazel and his fellow rabbits envision—and, ultimately, achieve—is based on hope and freedom, and Hazel’s can-do mindset and readiness for any challenge show how democracy begets open-mindedness while authoritarianism leaves room for only small-minded fear and focus on survival. At Watership Down, Hazel and his fellow rabbits set to work creating a society unlike the one they came from—and unlike one any of them have imagined. They create a large communal room called the Honeycomb, a place where they can gather to spend time together, tell stories, and share warmth on cold nights. They forage for food whenever they please and become the first buck (male) rabbits they’ve heard of to construct a new warren from scratch. Watership Down is a place where each rabbit is free to be himself—no longer will Fiver feel afraid to share his prophetic visions, the rabbits will not have to live under the rule of the strong and powerful Owsla, and every rabbit’s concerns, needs, and desires will carry equal weight. Unlike Cowslip’s warren or Efrafa, Watership Down is a place founded upon the idea of all the things it could be, or might be, rather than a place founded upon the fear of the social growth or forces of nature that stand to threaten it.
In creating a place whose potential for growth doesn’t seem to have a limit, Hazel and the others establish a democratic environment of trust, openness, and good faith. There is no need to keep one another down through fear—rather, Hazel uses the rabbits’ common fears to unite them as they figure out solutions to the threats of predators, men, weather, and other rabbits who would seek to decimate their home.
Ultimately, Adams uses the fictional rabbit world to highlight many of the pitfalls of the human world—namely, the threat of authoritarianism. Though written in the mid-1970s, long after the fall of the Axis powers and the encroaching threat of Nazism across Europe, Adams uses Watership Down to indict fascistic regimes and highlight the power of communities forged in hope, trust, truth, and transparency to better the world.
Authoritarianism vs. Democracy ThemeTracker
Authoritarianism vs. Democracy Quotes in Watership Down
“But surely it alters them very much, living like that?” asked Dandelion.
“Very much indeed,” replied Holly. “Most of them can’t do anything but what they’re told. They’ve never been out of Efrafa and never smelled an enemy. The one aim of every rabbit in Efrafa is to get into the Owsla, because of the privileges: and the one aim of everyone in the Owsla is to get into the Council. The Council have the best of everything. But the Owsla have to keep very strong and tough. They take it in turn to do what they call Wide Patrol. They go out over the country—all round the place—living in the open for days at a time. It’s partly to find out anything they can, and partly to train them and make them tough and cunning. Any hlessil they find they pick up and bring back to Efrafa. If they won’t come, they kill them. They reckon hlessil a danger, because they may attract the attention of men.”
“We can’t go on with nothing but these two does.”
“But what else can we do?”
“I know what we’ve got to do,” said Hazel, “but I still can’t see how. We’ve got to go back and get some does out of Efrafa.”
“You might as well say you were going to get them out of Inlé, Hazel-rah. I’m afraid I can’t have given you a very clear description of Efrafa.”
“Oh, yes, you have—the whole idea scares me stiff. But we’re going to do it.”
“It can’t be done.”
“It can’t be done by fighting or fair words, no. So it will have to be done by means of a trick.”
As the warren grew, so Woundwort developed his system to keep it under control. Crowds of rabbits feeding at morning and evening were likely to attract attention. He devised the Marks, each controlled by its own officers and sentries, with feeding times changed regularly to give all a share of early morning and sunset—the favorite hours for silflay. All signs of rabbit life were concealed as closely as possible. The Owsla had privileges in regard to feeding, mating and freedom of movement. Any failure of duty on their part was liable to be punished by demotion and loss of privileges. For ordinary rabbits, the punishments were more severe.
“Thlayli, you are very brave. Are you cunning, too? All our lives will depend on you tomorrow.”
“Well, can you see anything wrong with the plan?”
“No, but I am only a doe who has never been out of Efrafa. Suppose something unexpected happens?”
“Risk is risk. Don’t you want to get out and come and live on the high downs with us? Think of it!”
“Oh, Thlayli! Shall we mate with whom we choose and dig our own burrows and bear our litters alive?”
“You shall: and tell stories in the Honeycomb and silflay whenever you feel like it. It’s a fine life, I promise you.”
“I’ll come! I’ll run any risk.”
“You dirty little beast,” said Woundwort. “I hear you’ve attacked one of the Council police and broken his leg. We’ll settle with you here. There’s no need to take you back to Efrafa.”
“You crack-brained slave-driver,” answered Bigwig. “I’d like to see you try.”
“All right,” said Woundwort, “that’s enough. Who have we got? Vervain, Campion, put him down. The rest of you, start getting these does back to the warren. The prisoner you can leave to me.”
“Frith sees you!” cried Bigwig. “You’re not fit to be called a rabbit! May Frith blast you and your foul Owsla full of bullies!”
At that instant a dazzling claw of lightning streaked down the length of the sky. The hedge and the distant trees seemed to leap forward in the brilliance of the flash. Immediately upon it came the thunder: a high, tearing noise, as though some huge thing were being ripped to pieces close above, which deepened and turned to enormous blows of dissolution. Then the rain fell like a waterfall. In a few seconds the ground was covered with water and over it, to a height of inches, rose a haze formed of a myriad minute splashes. Stupefied with the shock, unable even to move, the sodden rabbits crouched inert, almost pinned to the earth by the rain.
A small voice spoke in Bigwig’s mind. “Your storm, Thlayli-rah. Use it.”
Sights and feelings swirled through Bigwig as though in a dream. The things that were happening no longer seemed connected by anything except his own dazed senses. He heard Kehaar screaming as he dived again to attack Vervain. He felt the rain pouring cold into the open gash in his shoulder. Through the curtain of rain he glimpsed Woundwort dodging among his officers and urging them back into the ditch on the edge of the field. He saw Blackavar striking at Campion and Campion turning to run. Then someone beside him was saying, “Hullo, Bigwig. Bigwig! Bigwig! What do you want us to do?”
As Blackavar came up with Hyzenthlay, Bigwig said, “You told us how it would be, didn’t you? And I was the one who wouldn't listen.”
“Told you?” said Blackavar. “I don’t understand.”
“That there was likely to be a fox.”
“I don’t remember, I’m afraid. But I don’t see that any of us could possibly have known. Anyway, what’s a doe more or less?”
Bigwig looked at him in astonishment, but Blackavar, apparently unconcerned either to stress what he had said or to break off the talk, simply began to nibble the grass. Bigwig, puzzled, moved away and himself began to feed a little distance off, with Hyzenthlay and Hazel. […]
“In Efrafa,” said Hyzenthlay, “if a rabbit gave advice and the advice wasn’t accepted, he immediately forgot it and so did everyone else. Blackavar thought what Hazel decided; and whether it turned out later to be right or wrong was all the same. His own advice had never been given.”
When the punt floated down the river in the rain, part of General Woundwort’s authority went with it. He could not have appeared more openly and completely at a loss if Hazel and his companions had flown away over the trees. […] They had suddenly shown their own cunning greater than his, and left him bewildered on the bank. He had overheard the very word—tharn— spoken by one of his officers to another as they returned to Efrafa through the rain. Thlayli, Blackavar and the does of the Near Hind [Mark] had vanished. He had tried to stop them and he had conspicuously failed.
“Rabbits have enough enemies as it is. They ought not to make more among themselves. A mating between free, independent warrens—what do you say?”
At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate. For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit’s idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him. The sun dipped into the cloud bank and now he could see clearly the track along the ridge, leading to the beech hanger and the bloodshed for which he had prepared with so much energy and care.
“I haven’t time to sit here talking nonsense,” said Woundwort. “You’re in no position to bargain with us. […] Go and tell Thlayli that if the does aren’t waiting outside your warren, with him and Blackavar, by the time I get down there, I’ll tear the throat out of every buck in the place by ni-Frith tomorrow.”
Vervain advanced slowly across the floor. Even he could derive little satisfaction from the prospect of killing a tharn rabbit half his own size, in obedience to a contemptuous taunt. The small rabbit made no move whatever, either to retreat or to defend himself, but only stared at him from great eyes which, though troubled, were certainly not those of a beaten enemy or a victim. Before his gaze, Vervain stopped in uncertainty and for long moments the two faced each other in the dim light. Then, very quietly and with no trace of fear, the strange rabbit said, “I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could.”
“Blame you?” answered Vervain. “Blame you for what?”
“For your death. Believe me, I am sorry for your death.” […]
As [Vervain] continued to meet the eyes of this unaccountable enemy—the only one he had faced in all the long night’s search for bloodshed—horror came upon him and he was filled with a sudden fear of his words, gentle and inexorable as the falling of bitter snow in a land without refuge. The shadowy recesses of the strange burrow seemed full of whispering, malignant ghosts and he recognized the forgotten voices of rabbits done to death months since in the ditches of Efrafa.
Woundwort alone stood his ground. As the rest fled in all directions he remained where he was, bristling and snarling, bloody-fanged and bloody-clawed. The dog, coming suddenly upon him face to face among the rough tussocks, recoiled a moment, startled and confused. Then it sprang forward; and even as they ran, his Owsla could hear the General’s raging, squealing cry, “Come back, you fools! Dogs aren’t dangerous! Come back and fight!”