Though Richard Adams originally conceived of Watership Down as a fanciful tale about rabbits meant to entertain his two young daughters on a long car ride, the finished text is rife with violence, cruelty, and brutality, both physical and emotional. In highlighting the viciousness of the rabbit world in unsparing, often gory detail, Adams argues that though violence is indeed a part of nature, all too often, creatures both human and nonhuman use amplified, targeted violence—or the threat of it—to subdue rather than protect one another in the scrabble for dominance and power.
In each place the rabbits visit on their journey to establish a new warren on Watership Down, a large hill in the English countryside, they encounter rabbits who seek to use unnatural violence against one another as a means to power. When Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and their companions initially attempt to leave Sandleford, they meet with Holly, the captain of their warren’s Owsla, or “ruling clique”—essentially, the law enforcement outfit. Holly threatens the rabbits with violence if they attempt to leave—and when Bigwig attempts to push past Holly, the two end up scrapping until Hazel threatens Holly with death. Hazel is determined to secure freedom and autonomy for himself, his brother, and his friends—and in this moment, as he turns the threat of violence on a rabbit he once shared a home with, Hazel begins playing into the mechanisms of violence and threats that allow him to take the power in the situation.
After a treacherous journey along the heath outside of Sandleford, the rabbits unknowingly walk into violence of a more sinister nature when they encounter a rabbit from another warren—Cowslip—who brings them all to his home for shelter. The rabbits are showered with hospitality and kindness, but soon begin to realize that something in this new warren is not right. They eventually learn that the rabbits, though well fed because a local farmer leaves carrots, roots, and lettuce above-ground for them to eat, live in constant fear of being captured by the farmer and skinned or cooked. The farmer allows the rabbits to stay on his property because he occasionally kills them and uses them for his own gain; Cowslip and his companions were prepared to bring Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and the others into this fold without giving them any warning about the reality of the situation. This, too, is a kind of violence, though it’s far more underhanded and menacing than what the rabbits experienced with Holly. The rabbits in Cowslip’s warren allow one another to be systemically picked off and killed in exchange for the hope that those who survive will be able to live lives of abundance. They shove down the knowledge of what’s truly going on because they know that to leave would be to abandon stability and that to demand better lives for themselves would be to open themselves up to disappointment. To stay in this miserable, fraught situation—in spite of its violence—is to remain in control to at least some extent, and thus, in their minds, in power over their own lives. Hazel, Fiver, and the others—recognizing that any of them could be sacrificed at any time—flee, deciding that they cannot abide such a cruel, violent way of life.
After Hazel and the others begin settling Watership Down, they realize that they will need doe rabbits to survive. The rabbits learn of Efrafa—a large but militaristic warren not far from Watership Down—and decide to infiltrate the burrow to rescue does who are essentially living in a police state. Once Bigwig infiltrates Efrafa, he bears witness to the kind of violence that goes on there—including the fact that rabbits are branded with horrible bite marks at birth which, for the rest of their lives, keep them assigned to a Mark and thus a regimented pattern of work, sleep, eating, and relieving themselves. Any rabbits who step out of line in Efrafa face physical consequences, and many rabbits Bigwig encounters have horribly mangled ears or noses.
Bearing witness to the violence in Efrafa—the most outwardly opportunistic, power-hungry use of violence he’s seen yet—Bigwig understands at last, in full, just how mechanisms of fear, violence, and power work. He is not intimidated, though, by the threat of the Efrafan’s violence, and neither are the does he gathers to help escape. All of them have reached the point where they would rather die than spend another day in the fearsome Efrafan leader General Woundwort’s sick cycle of intimidation, cruelty, and brutality. In escaping Efrafa, Bigwig, Hazel, Fiver, and the others must—as they did at the start of the novel to escape Sandleford—use violence against other rabbits, but this time they do not threaten death or physical harm: they use the elements of nature and allies from the animal world, such as the bird Kehaar and a large dog from a nearby farm, to attack Woundwort and his lackeys. This shows that Hazel and the others do not want to manufacture violence as a means of power; they have learned to use nature and the elements to take back power rather than relying on fear, intimidation, and targeted brutality.
As Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and the others traverse the countryside and encounter the natural violence of the world—the circle of life, the food chain, and the threat of the elements—they come to understand that manufactured or weaponized violence that pits rabbit against rabbit only serves to weaken the ties that bind them to one another and create even more suspicion, fear, and mistrust. Though Adams has stated that Watership Down is not a metaphor or an allegory, it is easy to see how the violence that permeates the rabbit world mirrors the violence of the human world—and how the mechanisms of fear, manipulation, and both physical and emotional cruelty that Hazel and his friends face are the same which humans must, unfortunately and often, face off against themselves.
Violence and Power ThemeTracker
Violence and Power Quotes in Watership Down
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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!”