The story of Watership Down is the story of a group of rabbits and their search for their forever home—a place where they will be free from oppression and fear, and able to live as they please in harmony with both nature and with one another. Through the rabbits’ story, Adams crafts a larger narrative metaphor about the importance of belonging—not just in the animal world, but in the human one as well, ultimately arguing that the need for physical refuge and belonging is mirrored by the need for an emotional “home” and a deeper, more soulful sense of belonging.
The rabbits’ journey and their search for a place to make their homes is as much an emotional journey as it is a physical one. The rabbits are motivated to leave the Sandleford warren by fear—but as they set out and see the wide world for the first time, they understand that it is larger and filled with more surprise, danger, and opportunity than they’d imagined. As the rabbits traverse the dangerous and yet beautiful physical world, their journey takes them inward, too, as the things they thought they knew about themselves and one another are tested and their true inner strengths are revealed.
The rabbits’ journey begins as one borne of a need for a place to stay once their own warren, according to Fiver’s vision, is threatened with becoming uninhabitable and dangerous. Many of the rabbits who set out with Hazel and Fiver have never known life beyond the Sandleford warren and are frightened of what it will mean to leave the place they have called home. Out on the heath, as the rabbits encounter—and escape—threats from predators, weather, men, tractors, other strange rabbits, and physical exhaustion, they understand that they are capable of pushing themselves to their limits and still emerging triumphant. The rabbits begin to wonder if, having conquered the physical aspect of their journey and found a new place to call “home” was only the beginning—and whether there is more to be gained from life.
As the rabbits fulfill their physical needs—for food, shelter, water, and refuge from predators and the elements—they discover that there are emotional needs to be met as well if they are to find home and belonging in the fullest sense. Throughout their journey in search of a home, the rabbits have done their best to stay together—and in so doing have discovered the joys of communal living, the importance of having someone to lean on both physically and emotionally in times of trouble, and the perils of living only for survival. They have witnessed the pain of the rabbits’ lives at Cowslip’s warren, and have heard tales of the despotic, violent warren at Efrafa. Hazel and his band of rabbits set out in search of the bare minimum—survival—but now, after all they’ve been through, they long not just to live, but to perpetuate the lives they’re making in Watership Down and desire the company of does who will keep their burrow full and carry on their bloodlines. The rabbits want to enjoy life, and to secure that same kind of enjoyment for their future progeny, as well.
In the end, the rabbits are at last able to secure both the physical and more “spiritual” things they have discovered they need out of life. They have a warm place to live and have also ensured that it allows them a communal space to connect with one another—an innovation few if any other warrens have. They have secured mates as well, and in so doing have secured both the proliferation of their warren and the emotional stability of friendship and partnership. They have eliminated the Efrafan threat and absorbed several Efrafan rabbits into their own burrow, making their land safe and their territory free of enemies but also exploring the possibility of redemption and community in the face of prior instances of violence and mistrust.
The rabbits have thus found a home and sense of belonging—not just a physical one, but an emotional one as well. They have embraced their quest not just for physical safety but for emotional security and spiritual happiness. Drawing upon the tales of the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah, their experiences in Efrafa and the lands beyond it, and the triumph of having settled a new burrow, the rabbits have realized that they can want more from life than just survival—they can seek enjoyment, fulfillment, and a true sense of belonging that extends beyond having a place to lay their heads at night.
In sending his rabbits out on a quest that proves just as spiritually taxing as it is physically demanding, Adams highlights the inextricable relationship between journeys made on foot across vast distances and journeys that are equally vast but lead inward. Adams shows that as the rabbits’ need for physical safety and comfort expands, they develop a set of emotional needs as well—and strive to meet them with the same faith, daring, and dedication they harnessed in trying to establish a physical sense of well-being and belonging.
Home and Belonging ThemeTracker
Home and Belonging Quotes in Watership Down
To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous. The first reaction is to startle, the second to bolt. Again and again they startled, until they were close to exhaustion. But what did these sounds mean and where, in this wilderness, could they bolt to? The rabbits crept closer together. Their progress grew slower. Before long they lost the course of the brook, slipping across the moonlit patches as fugitives and halting in the bushes with raised ears and staring eyes. The moon was low now and the light, wherever it slanted through the trees, seemed thicker, older and more yellow.
“One day the farmer thought, ‘I could increase those rabbits: make them part of my farm—their meat, their skins. […] He began to shoot all elil—lendri, homba, stoat, owl. He put out food for the rabbits, but not too near the warren. For his purpose they had to become accustomed to going about in the fields and the wood. And then he snared them—not too many: as many as he wanted and not as many as would frighten them all away or destroy the warren. They grew big and strong and healthy, for he saw to it that they had all of the best, particularly in winter, and nothing to fear—except the running knot in the hedge gap and the wood path. So they lived as he wanted them to live and all the time there were a few who disappeared. The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away.”
Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no more quarreling. The truth about the warren had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended, and they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them.
Things had not looked better since they had first set out from Sandleford.
A spirit of happy mischief entered into Hazel. He felt as he had on the morning when they crossed the Enborne and he had set out alone and found the beanfield. He was confident and ready for adventure. But what adventure? Something worth telling to Holly and Silver on their return. Something to—well, not to diminish what they were going to do. No, of course not—but just to show them that their Chief Rabbit was up to anything that they were up to.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
[Hazel] raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said. “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body anymore, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right—and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.