Though set in the word of humans, the plot of Richard Adams’s Watership Down borrows from classic epics and “hero’s journey” tales such as Homer’s Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even, in a meta-textual turn, the rabbit world’s own folk hero, El-ahairah. When Hazel and a small group of likeminded rabbits leave their home in the Sandleford warren after Hazel’s brother Fiver experiences a disturbing vision about their home’s fate, they spend months traversing field and down, river and stream. Along the way they encounter diversions, obstacles, and threats that alternatingly throw them off-course and lead them to exciting new places and alliances. In invoking the rubric of an “epic journey” unfolding in the “smaller” arena of the animal world, Adams deconstructs the stereotypes of the hero’s tale and ultimately suggests that it is not distance or scope but emotion that dictates the stakes of any “epic” tale.
In order to highlight the separate parts of the classic epic or hero’s tale, Adams breaks his novel down into four distinct sections—each of which has a micronarrative of its own and represents an emotional leg of the rabbits’ larger journey. In the novel’s first part, “The Journey,” the rabbits set out from their home warren, Sandleford, after Fiver has a vision of destruction coming to the warren. Fiver’s vision of blood spreading over the hill above the warren is eventually brought to fruition after the rabbits escape: construction on a new housing development decimates their former home, and the workmen’s cruel and unusual methods of emptying the warren leaves most of Hazel and Fiver’s former friends dead. The novel opens with calamity and destruction, launching the rabbits onto a vulnerable and dangerous quest for survival. The emotional and physical stakes are enormous, even if the intensity of the rabbits’ early journey is marked by simple challenges—ones that humans might consider nonthreatening—like rain, foxes, and tractors.
In the novel’s second part, “On Watership Down,” the rabbits arrive at the titular hill and at last find the place they mean to settle and go about constructing a warren from scratch—but soon realize that without any does to mate with, their group will die out within a few years. In this section of the novel, the rabbits must navigate a more existential fear. Having navigated the terrain of the English countryside and at last found shelter, the rabbits must now confront the finality of life and the need for community—a small but epic reckoning in and of itself.
In the novel’s third part, “Efrafa,” Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and several other rabbits—along with the help of their gull friend, Kehaar—concoct a plan to infiltrate the nearby police-state warren Efrafa, rescue several does, and bring them back to Watership Down. This part of the novel contains the bloodiest battles, the trickiest schemes, and the most dramatic twists of the novel. Many rabbits, occasionally modeling their actions on ancient lore about the trickster and rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah, prove themselves heroes—the fearsome Bigwig, who goes undercover in the dangerous Efrafa in order to carry out the rabbits’ plan, most of all. As Bigwig navigates the new warren and struggles to make sure that he and the does are able to make it out alive, Adams crafts a high-stakes showdown for his characters. Again, though the physical journey they must make is a short one, all kinds of challenges crop up—such as how to maneuver a boat down a raging river—each time testing the characters’ resolve and their commitment to pursuing the utopian life they want on Watership Down.
In the novel’s fourth part, “Hazel-Rah,” the struggle with the Efrafans has ended—or so the rabbits think. As they settle into a peaceful life on Watership Down, they are unaware that General Woundwort has designs on destroying their new warren, and that they will have to face off against him and some of the core members of his military again. As the rabbits undertake one final battle—recruiting the unwitting help of a nearby dog—and emerge victorious, they reflect on the long journey they’ve been on, and the full emotional force of the novel settles in. The rabbits have traversed a very small spit of land and have spent a lot of time locked in repetitious conflicts with the Efrafans—and yet though the scope of their journey has been small, the emotional toll it has taken (and the things the rabbits have learned through their epic adventure) have changed the rabbits’ lives forever.
Adams’s “epic” is set in the small, underfoot world of rabbits and unfolds over a relatively small period of time (one summer) and a relatively small distance (throughout their harrowing journey, the rabbits traverse a distance of just about ten miles.) And yet in spite of the small scope of their journey, Adams imbues the trek with references to classics of the genre in order to show how far the rabbits have come emotionally, and how much they have changed. Just as in Moby-Dick, the rabbits have wrestled with things larger than themselves—both predators they have wrangled into their service (in the case of the gull Kehaar and the dog from Nuthanger Farm) and existential threats including the fear of death and the idea of legacy. The rabbits, like the characters in the Greek myths of Odysseus and Agamemnon, have contended with accursed visions, violent adversaries, a sense of statelessness, and the search for belonging. In sending his characters off on a journey that tests their physical and emotional strength and their relationships to one another, Adams engages the epic hallmarks of classic hero tales and transmutes them to the quiet, damp fields of England, showing that the most epic journeys are those rooted in the emotional rather than the physical.
The Epic Journey ThemeTracker
The Epic Journey 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.
‘I will bless your bottom as it sticks out of the hole. Bottom, be strength and warning and speed forever and save the life of your master. Be it so!’ And as he spoke, El-ahrairah’s tail grew shining white and flashed like a star: and his back legs grew long and powerful and he thumped the hillside until the very beetles fell off the grass stems. He came out of the hole and tore across the hill faster than any creature in the world. And Frith called after him, ‘El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.’
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.
“The four of us went wandering away and we must have gone almost in a half-circle, because after a long time we came to the brook, below what had been our field. We followed it down into a big wood; and that night, while we were still in the wood, Toadflax died. He was clear-headed for a short time before and I remember something he said. Bluebell had been saying that he knew the men hated us for raiding their crops and gardens, and Toadflax answered, ‘That wasn’t why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.’ Soon after that he went to sleep, and a little later, when we were alarmed by some noise or other, we tried to wake him and realized he was dead.
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.
“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.”
“I’m angry with you,” [Hazel] said. “You’re the one rabbit we’re not going to be able to do without and you have to go and run a silly risk like that. It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t even clever. What were you up to?”
“I’m afraid I just lost my head, Hazel,” replied Bigwig. “I’ve been strung up all day, thinking about this business at Efrafa—got me really on edge. When I feel like that I have to do something—you know, fight or run a risk. I thought if I could make that fox look a fool I wouldn’t feel so worried about the other thing. What’s more, it worked—I feel a lot better now.”
“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?”
Most of the rabbits had very little idea of what was happening. The Efrafan does had never seen a river and it would certainly have been beyond Pipkin or Hawkbit to explain to them that they were on a boat. They—and nearly all the others—had simply trusted Hazel and done as they were told. But all— bucks and does alike—realized that Woundwort and his followers had vanished. Wearied by all they had gone through, the sodden rabbits crouched without talking, incapable of any feeling but a dull relief and without even the energy to wonder what was going to happen next.
That they should feel any relief—dull or otherwise—was remarkable in the circumstances and showed both how little they understood their situation and how much fear Woundwort could inspire, for their escape from him seemed to be their only good fortune.
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.”
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!”
[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.