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Watership Down is a heroic fantasy novel about a small group of rabbits, written by Britishmarker author Richard Adams. Although the animals in the story live in their natural environment, they are anthropomorphised, possessing their own culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology. Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits' odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way.

The novel takes its name from the rabbits' destination, Watership Downmarker, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. The story is based on a collection of tales that Adams told to his young children to pass the time on trips to the countryside.

Published in 1972, Watership Down was Richard Adams' first novel, and is by far his most successful to date. Though it was initially rejected by thirteen publishers before eventually being accepted by Rex Collings Ltd, Watership Down has never been out of print, and was the recipient of several prestigious awards. Adapted into an acclaimed classic film and a television series, it is Penguin Books' best-selling novel of all time. In 1996, Adams published Tales from Watership Down, a follow-up collection of 19 short stories about El-ahrairah and the rabbits of the Watership Down warren.

Publication history

Watership Down began as a story Richard Adams told to his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, on a long car journey; in an interview, Adams said he "began telling the story of the rabbits ... improvised off the top of my head, as we were driving along." He based the struggles of the animals in the story on the struggles he and his friends encountered during the Battle of Oosterbeek, Arnhem Holland in 1944. His daughters insisted he write it down—"they were very, very persistent"—and though he initially delayed, he eventually began writing in the evenings, completing it eighteen months later. The book is dedicated to his daughters.

However, Adams had difficulty finding a publisher; his novel was rejected 13 times in all, until it was finally accepted by Rex Collings, a small publishing house. The publisher had little capital and could not pay Adams an advance; but "he got a review copy onto every desk in London that mattered."

Adams's descriptions of wild rabbit behaviour were based upon The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. The two later became friends and went on an expedition to the Antarctic, resulting in a joint writing venture, Voyage Through the Antarctic, published in 1982.

Plot summary

In the Sandleford warren, Fiver, a young runt rabbit who is a seer, receives a frightening vision of his warren's imminent destruction. When he and his brother Hazel fail to convince their chief rabbit of the need to evacuate, they set out on their own with a small band of rabbits to search for a new home, barely eluding the Owsla, the warren's military caste.

The travelling group of rabbits find themselves following the leadership of Hazel, previously an unimportant member of the warren. They travel through dangerous territory, with Bigwig and Silver, both former Owsla, as the only significantly strong rabbits among them.

The company cope with many dangers, but none so insidious as their encounter with Cowslip's Warren. Here, the company encounter an apparently prosperous rabbit colony with pampered and fastidious citizens who enjoy plenty of food and protection from predators by humans. However, Fiver is profoundly suspicious especially when he observes the local culture disdains the traditional tales of El-ahrairah in favour of maudlin fatalistic poetry. When Fiver attempts to leave, a derisive Bigwig learns firsthand the deadly secret of the warren; the whole area is a human designed rabbit farm with numerous snares placed to harvest them. After helping Bigwig escape, Fiver convinces his fellows to leave this decadent colony immediately and afterward his counsel is then on followed without question.

Fiver's visions promise a safe place in which to settle, and the group eventually finds Watership Down, an ideal location to set up their new warren. They are soon reunited with Holly and Bluebell, also from the Sandleford Warren, who reveal that Fiver's vision was true and the entire warren was destroyed by humans.

Nuthanger Farm, Hampshire, England, in 2004.
Although Watership Down is a peaceful habitat, Hazel realises there are no does, thus making the future of their new home uncertain. With the help of a seagull named Kehaar, they locate a nearby warren, Efrafa, which is overcrowded and has many does. Hazel sends a small emissary to Efrafa to present their request for does. While waiting for the group to return, Hazel and Pipkin successfully raid the nearby Nuthanger Farm to rescue a group of hutch rabbits there, returning with two does. When the emissary returns, Hazel and his rabbits learn Efrafa is a tyrannical police state led by the despotic General Woundwort; Hazel's rabbits barely return alive. However, the group does manage to identify an Efrafan doe named Hyzenthlay who wants to leave the warren and can recruit other does to join. Hazel and Bigwig devise a plan to rescue the group of rabbits from Efrafa to join them on Watership Down. The Efrafan escapees start their new life on Watership Down, but soon Woundwort's army arrives to attack the Watership Down warren. Through the bravery and loyalty of Bigwig and the ingenuity of Hazel, the Watership Down rabbits defeat Woundwort.

The story's epilogue tells the reader of how Hazel, dozing in his burrow one "chilly, blustery morning in March" many springs later, is visited by El-ahrairah, who invites Hazel to join his Owsla. Leaving his friends and no-longer-needed body behind, Hazel departs Watership Down with El-ahrairah, slipping away, "running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom."


  • Fiver – A small runt rabbit; his Lapine name is Hrair-roo, which means "Little-five" or "Little-thousand" (rabbits cannot count above four, so any number greater than that is "hrair," meaning "many" or "thousand" thus giving El-ahrairah [and Fiver, for example] the names elil-hrair-rah: Prince with a Thousand Enemies.). As a seer, he has visions and very strong instincts. Fiver is one of the most intelligent rabbits in the group. He is quiet and intuitive, and though he does not directly act as a leader, the others listen to and follow his advice.
  • Hazel – Fiver's brother; he leads the rabbits from Sandleford and eventually becomes Chief Rabbit. Though Hazel is not particularly large or powerful, he is loyal, brave, and a quick thinker. He often relies on Fiver's advice, and trusts in his brother's instincts absolutely.
  • Bigwig – An ex-Owsla officer, and the largest rabbit of the group. His name in Lapine is Thlayli, which literally means "Fur-head" and refers to the shock of fur on the back of his head. Though he is powerful and fierce, he is shown to also be cunning in his own way when he devises a plan to defeat the larger and stronger General Woundwort.
  • Blackavar – A rabbit with very dark fur who tries to escape from Efrafa but is apprehended, mutilated, and put on display to discourage further escape attempts. When he is liberated by Bigwig, he quickly proves himself as an expert tracker and ranger.
  • Kehaar – A black-headed gull who is forced, by an injured wing, to take refuge on Watership Down. He is characterised by his frequent impatience, guttural accent and unusual phrasing. After discovering the Efrafa warren and helping the rabbits, he rejoins his colony. According to Adams, Kehaar was based on a fighter from the Norwegian Resistance in World War II.
  • General Woundwort – A vicious, psychotic and brutally efficient rabbit who was orphaned at a young age, Woundwort founded the Efrafa warren and is its tyrannical chief rabbit. Though he is greater even than Bigwig in terms of his size and power, he lacks the former's loyalty and kindness. He even leads an attack to capture the Watership warren as an act of revenge against Bigwig. After his apparent death, he lives on in rabbit legend as a bogeyman.
  • Frith – A god-figure who created the world and promised that rabbits would always be allowed to thrive. In Lapine, his name literally means "the sun."
  • El-ahrairah – A rabbit trickster folk hero, who is the protagonist of nearly all of the rabbits' stories. He represents what every rabbit wants to be: smart, devious, tricky, and devoted to the well-being of his warren. In Lapine, his name is a contraction of the phrase Elil-hrair-rah, which means "prince with a thousand enemies".
  • Black Rabbit of Inlé – A sinister phantom servant of the god Frith who appears in rabbit folklore. He is the rabbit equivalent of a grim reaper in human folklore, and similarly ensures all rabbits die at their pre-destined time. Inlé is the Lapine term for the moon or darkness.


Watership Down has been described as an allegory, with the labours of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Silver "mirror[ing] the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state." Adams draws on classical heroic and quest themes from Homer and Virgil, creating a story with epic motifs. Additionally, some scholars have criticized its representation of gender.

Religious symbolism

It has been suggested that Watership Down contains elements of Christian or anti-Christian symbolism, or that the stories of El-ahrairah were meant to mimic some elements of real-world religion. When asked in a 2007 BBC Radio interview about the religious symbolism in the novel, Adams stated that the story was "nothing like that at all". Adams said that the rabbits in Watership Down didn't worship, however, "they believed passionately in El-ahrairah". Adams explained that he meant the book to be, "only a made-up story... in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls". Instead, he explained, the "let-in" religious stories of El-ahrairah were meant more as legendary tales, similar to a rabbit Robin Hood, and that these stories were interspersed throughout the book as humorous interjections to the often "grim" tales of the "real story".

The hero, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid

The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the "making of a hero and a community". Joan Bridgman's analysis of Adams's work's in The Contemporary Review identifies the community and hero motifs: "[T]he hero's journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people" is a powerful element in Adams's tale. This theme derives from the author's exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and in particular, Campbell's "monomyth" theory, also based on Carl Jung's view of the unconscious mind, that "all the stories in the world are really one story.".

The concept of the hero has invited comparisons between Watership Down's characters and those in Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. Hazel's courage, Bigwig's strength, Blackberry's ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion's and Bluebell's poetry and storytelling all have parallels in the epic poem Odyssey. Kenneth Kitchell declared, "Hazel stands in the tradition of Odysseus, Aeneas, and others". Tolkien scholar John Rateliff calls Adams's novel an Aeneid "what-if" book: what if the seer Cassandra (Fiver) had been believed and she and a company had fled Troymarker (Sandleford Warren) before its destruction? What if Hazel and his companions, like Aeneas, encounter a seductive home at Cowslip's Warren (Land of the Lotus Eaters)? Rateliff goes on to compare the rabbits' battle with Woundwort's Efrafans to Aeneas's fight with Turnus's Latins. "By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Vergil [sic] told it in 19 BC."

Gender roles

The 1993 Puffin Modern Classics edition of the novel contains an afterword by Nicholas Tucker, who wrote that stories such as Watership Down "now fit rather uneasily into the modern world of consideration of both sexes". He contrasted Hazel's sensitivity to Fiver with the "far more mechanical" attitude of the bucks towards does, who Tucker considers are portrayed as "little more than passive baby-factories".

In "Male Chauvinist Rabbits," an essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review, Selma G. Lanes criticized Adams's treatment of gender. She observed that the first third of the story is a "celebration of male camaraderie, competence, bravery and loyalty as a scraggly bunch of yearling bucks ... arrive triumphant at a prospectively ideal spot", only to realize that they have no females for mating. "Fully the last two-thirds of Adams's saga," Lanes argued, "is devoted to what one male reviewer has blithely labelled 'The Rape of the Sabine Rabbits,' a ruthless, single-minded and rather mean-spirited search for females – not because Watership Down's males miss their companionship or yearn for love, but rather to perpetuate the existing band." For Adams, Lanes continued, the does are only "instruments of reproduction" to prevent the achievement of reaching Watership Down from "becoming a hollow victory." As evidence, Lanes pointed to Hazel and Holly's assessment of the rescued Nuthanger does' value: "it came naturally ... to consider the two Nuthanger does simply as breeding stock for the warren."

Lanes argued that this view of the female rabbits came from Adams himself rather than his source text, Ronald Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit. In Lockley's text, by contrast, the rabbit world is matriarchal, and new warrens are always initiated by dissatisfied, young females. Hence, Lanes concluded, Adams's novel is "marred by an attitude towards females that finds more confirmation in Hugh Hefner's Playboy than R. M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit."

In similar vein, literary critic Jane Resh Thomas stated that Watership Down "draws upon ... an anti-feminist social tradition which, removed from the usual human context and imposed upon rabbits, is eerie in its clarity." Thomas did find much to admire about Watership Down, calling it a "splendid story". For her, its "anti-feminist bias ... damages the novel in only a minor way." Yet she later explained: "I wrote about Watership Down because I was angry and hurt when I read the book. ... I felt he [Adams] had treated me and my kind with a contempt I couldn't be silent about."

Adams' 1996 sequel, Tales from Watership Down includes stories where the does play a more prominent role in the Watership Down warren. It has been suggested that this might have been an attempt to modernise the story, to make it more politically correct and gender sensitive for the 1990s in which it was published.


The Economist heralded the initial publication of Watership Down with, "If there is no place for “Watership Down” in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead." Peter Prescott, senior book reviewer at Newsweek, gave the novel a glowing review: "Adams handles his suspenseful narrative more dextrously than most authors who claim to write adventure novels, but his true achievement lies in the consistent, comprehensible and altogether enchanting civilisation that he has created." Kathleen J. Rothen and Beverly Langston identified the work as one that "subtly speaks to a child", with "engaging characters and fast-paced action [that] make it readable." This echoed Nicholas Tucker's praise for the story's suspense in the New Statesman: "Mr. Adams’ ... has bravely and successfully resurrected the big picaresque adventure story, with moments of such tension that the helplessly involved reader finds himself checking whether things are going to work out all right on the next page before daring to finish the preceding one."

The "enchanting" world Prescott admired was not as well received upon its 1974 American publication. Although again the object of general approval, reception in the United States was more mixed unlike the predominantly positive reviews of 1972. D. Keith Mano, a science fiction writer and conservative social commentator writing in the National Review, declared that the novel was "pleasant enough, but it has about the same intellectual firepower as Dumbo." He pilloried it further: "Watership Down is an adventure story, no more than that: rather a swashbuckling, crude one to boot. There are virtuous rabbits and bad rabbits: if that’s allegory, Bonanza is an allegory."

Despite the criticism, Watership Down was a hit with the reading public. The novel found a spot on the Publishers Weekly’s Best-Seller List in March 1974; it attained the number one ranking on 15 April 1974, and remained there for another three months. The book did not drop off the list until February 1975.

John Rowe Townsend notes that the book quickly achieved such a high popularity despite the fact that it, "came out at a high price and in an unattractive jacket from a publisher who had hardly been had heard of". Fred Inglis, in his book The Promise of Happiness: Value and meaning in children's fiction, praises the author’s use of prose to express the strangeness of ordinary human inventions from the rabbits' perspective.


Watership Down won both the Carnegie Medal in 1972 and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 1973. In The Big Read, a 2003 survey of the British public, it was voted the forty-second greatest book of all time.



In 1978 Martin Rosen wrote and directed an animated film adaptation of Watership Down. The voice cast included John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, and Roy Kinnear. The film featured the song "Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel. Released as a single, the song became a UK number one hit.

Although the essentials of the plot remained relatively unchanged, the film omits several side plots. Though the Watership Down warren eventually grew to seventeen rabbits, with the additions of Strawberry, Holly, Bluebell, and three hutch rabbits liberated from the farm, the movie only includes a band of eight. Rosen's adaptation was praised for "cutting through Adams' book ... to get to the beating heart".

The film has also seen some positive critical attention. In 1979 the film received a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Additionally, Channel 4's 2006 documentary 100 Greatest Cartoons named it the 86th greatest cartoon of all time.


From 1999 to 2001, the book was also adapted as an animated television series, broadcast on CITV in the UK and on YTV in Canada. It starred several well-known British actors, including Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, John Hurt, and Richard Briers, and ran for a total of 39 episodes over three seasons. Although the story was broadly based on that of the novel, with most characters and many incidents retained, in later episodes especially some story lines and characters were entirely new. In 2003, the second season was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Original Music Score for a Dramatic Series.


In 2006, Watership Down was adapted into a theatrical production by Rona Munro for the Lyric Hammersmithmarker in Londonmarker. Directed by Melly Still, the cast included Matthew Burgess, Joseph Traynor, and Richard Simons, and ran from November 2006 through January 2007. The tone of the production was inspired by the tension of war: in an interview with The Guardian, Still commented, "The closest humans come to feeling like rabbits is under war conditions ... We've tried to capture that anxiety." A reviewer at The Times called the play "an exciting, often brutal tale of survival" and said that "even when it’s a muddle, it’s a glorious one."

Role-playing game

Watership Down inspired the creation of Bunnies & Burrows, a role-playing game centred around talking rabbits, published in 1976 by Fantasy Games Unlimited. It introduced several innovations to role-playing game design, being the first game to allow players to have non-humanoid roles, as well as the first with detailed martial arts and skill systems. Fantasy Games Unlimited published a second edition of the game in 1982, and the game was modified and republished by Steve Jackson Games as an official GURPS supplement in 1992.


Americanmarker folk rock trio America performed a song titled "Watership Down", released by Warner Bros. Records in April 1976 on their Hideaway album. Composed by singer/songwriter Gerry Beckley, the song's lyrics refer obliquely to the story elements, including the phrase "you might hear them in the distance, if your ear's to the ground." Although the song did not chart, it did receive airplay on FM album rock stations during the year.

Swedish progressive rock musician Bo Hansson released Music Inspired by Watership Down in 1977.

The British electro group Ladytron shot a music video for their single "Ghosts," off their 2008 album Velocifero, which featured many references to Watership Down.

British crust/sludge band Fall of Efrafa are based around the mythological and political messages in the book . The band have written a trilogy of records collectively known as "The Warren of Snares" - Owsla, Elil and Inlé.


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