Published in 1972 in London, “Watership Down” is a story of rabbits on an adventure. Although they are rabbits living in warrens, Richard Adams gives them the voices, morals, and stories of people. They have a government, culture, language, mythology, etc.
When Fiver is given the premonition that something bad is coming and they must relocate, a small band of males leave to start a new warren. They face numerous hardships along the way and finally settle in a safe warren. When they realize the need females, they face dangers again to rescue them from an evil rabbit and bring them to their warren. Finally, the rabbits destroy their enemies, make friends with other animals and birds that have the same enemies and live happily ever after.
Richard Adams invented the rabbits in this book in order to entertain his daughters on long car rides. The little girls loved the stories so much they insisted their father write them down. He learned a lot of the information on the natural behavior of rabbits from his friend and naturalist, Ronald Lockley. The two men later took a trip to Antarctica to coauthor a book on the trip.
Watership Down is the winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize among other awards. In 1978 the book was turned into an animated movie and then in 1999 to 2001 it was a television show. Twenty-five years after writing “Watership Down” Richard Adams wrote a sequel, “Tales from Watership Down”. It is a collection of short stories.
Hazel and Fiver are a year old, and rabbits. Since they are not up to their full weight, yet, they eat often. Hazel is the larger of the two, but Fiver will never be large. He is smart, though. He begins to sense something is wrong on evening while they are out feeding. They see a sign, and even though he can’t read it, Fiver knows something bad is coming to their warren. The sign said, “This ideally situated estate, comprising six acres of excellent building land, it to be developed with high class modern residences by Sutch and Martin, Limited, of Newbury, Berks.”
After he has a nightmare, Fiver convinces Hazel to seek out the Chief Rabbit, the Thearah. But when the two get close to him they are denied. He refuses to listen to Fiver’s premonition from his dream.
Hazel, Fiver, their friends, Dandelion and Blackberry are joined by Bigwig in an exodus to leave the warren. Hazel wants them to convince of rabbits in the warren to join them. They manage to get a few others to join them, but then Captain Holly, a leader of the Owsla, tries to stop Bigwig. He thinks Bigwig is trying to overthrow the Chief Rabbit. After an altercation between the two, the rabbits leave.
The trip is long and arduous. When the rabbits start to tire, Hazel asks Dandelion to tell them a story. The story is about El-ahrairah. He was there when the earth was made. In the beginning all the animals were friends. But, Frith, the sun god, decided the population of the rabbits was growing too fast. He wanted the rabbits to stop multiplying. When he didn’t agree, Frith called all the animals and gave them the ability to hunt rabbits. But, El-ahrairah dug into the ground and told Frith that they would have to catch him.
After the story ends Fiver and his group come to a river. They can see a beautiful field across it, but can’t figure out how to get across. Finally they decide to swim across and use a piece of wood to float Fiver and Pipkin across. Fiver was too small to swim and Pipkin had been hurt.
While the group rests on the bank of the river, Hazel searches for a safe place for the group. He finds a field of bean plants. He knows the smell of the beans will hide their scents from predators. Pipkin and Fiver are trailing the group and are attacked by a crow. Hazel, Bigwig, and Silver rush back to help. Bigwig hits the crow who flies away angrily. After they stop to rest Hazel takes first watch. He finally checks Pipkin and finds a thorn in his paw. He removes it.
The rabbits are meeting with hazards along the way. They scatter when they hear gunshots, then group back together and continue on their journey. When they come to a road, Bigwig explains to Hazel what it is and about the dangers of cars. They are fine during the day, but at night their lights are blinding.
When some of the rabbits want to turn around, Fiver tells them about a vision he’s having. He tells them they have to keep going to the hills. When the vision is over, Fiver doesn’t remember what he said. Hazel keeps leading them across difficult terrain with Bigwig keeping dissenters in line. Finally they come to a perfect meadow. While the rabbits are enjoying the peace of the on, they see a strange rabbit watching them. His name is Cowslip and he invites them to stay in his warren because he has a lot of empty burrows. After he leaves the group to talk it over. The rain is coming so the group thinks it should be safe. Fiver disagrees. His fears are overridden.
The rabbits reach Cowslip’s warren and notice that it is not hidden very well. Everyone but Fiver blends into the group and when Hazel spends time with Strawberry, another rabbit, he tries to ask questions. But Strawberry evades his questions and shows him some stone artwork that puzzles Hazel because that’s not what rabbits do. Strawberry tells him that the man who lives near them shoots the natural enemies of the rabbits.
Cowslip’s group seems more and more strange to them. When Hazel and Blackberry want to talk alone and say they will eat outside, Cowslip laughs at them. Hazel is surprised because rabbits don’t laugh. Hazel’s group go downstairs and fall asleep.
The next morning the group are woken up by Strawberry. He tells them there is good food waiting outside and they find carrots in the field. Afterwards Cowslip shows them how to carry some of the carrots back to their warren. Although Hazel’s group thinks the strange rabbits act odd, they feel they are treated well. But, Fiver doesn’t trust them and slept outside. He thinks there is something unnatural about the warren. Bigwig forces Fiver to join them. They ask Dandelion to tell them another story about El- ahrairah.
During a time with little food, El- ahrairah convinces Prince Rainbow to allow his rabbits into the garden of King Darzin. Although the garden is well guarded, the lettuce was worth the try. El- ahrairah worked with his friend and captain, Rabscuttle. They pulled off a trick to steal some of the lettuce and from then on rabbits could not be kept out of gardens.
Hazel is surprised to discover that the strange rabbits aren’t impressed with Dandelion’s story. They don’t like traditional stories and think rabbits should show dignity instead of using tricks. Soon one of the strange rabbits tells a beautiful poem that bothers Fiver. After he has a fit of agony Hazel and Bigwig drag him out of the warren. They are embarrassed by him and leave him outside while they go back inside to sleep.
The next morning Fiver tells them he is leaving. Hazel sends Bigwig to try to talk him out of leaving. He yells at Fiver when he catches up, but after he turns back, Bigwig gets caught in a snare. Fiver runs back to get help. Their group helps Bigwig to freedom, but when Fiver tells them Cowslip’s group refused to help, Bigwig and their group want to go back and kill the strange rabbits. Fiver stops them by telling them that the group knows about the snares but pretend they don’t exist. Instead, they eat the vegetables left out by the farmer who then traps them. They fill their time with poetry and art. Fiver finally convinces them the warren was a death trap and they decide to leave. Strawberry runs out to them begging them to take him along. Hazel agrees.
The next night the rabbits stay in a barn where rats attack them. Bigwig, Silver and Buckthorn fight them off. The next day they come to the foot of the downs. At Fiver’s suggestion, they climb to the top and find it to be perfect. Then Hawkbit finds them some holes to sleep in.
On the next day they decide to build a warren, even though that is the job of the does, female rabbits. Afterwards a few of them go out to hunt for grass when they hear a voice calling for Bigwig. It is Captain Holly from their home warren. He is hurt. Although the rabbits take him and Bluebell, when he arrives, into their warren, they worry about the blood trail. It might attract predators.
The building of the new warren continues with Strawberry in charge, since they want a nice one like his old warren. They call it the Honeycomb. Hazel sees a mouse being chased by a falcon and saves him by allowing him into their warren. The mouse promises to help Hazel sometime in the future for saving his life.
When Holly heals enough to speak, he tells them what happened to their old warren, Sandleford. Threarah had said that although Fiver maybe right with his premonition, it is too much to move a whole warren and they should stay underground.
One day, while Holly was out of the warren men and a boy find the warren. They have guns and close up the openings; then they fill it with gas. Through the horror of rabbits panicking, Bluebell manages to find another path out. He and Pimpernel, who is wounded, meet up with Holly. Before they leave, they see a plow destroying the field. They decide to follow Hazel’s trail. Soon they come to Cowslip and their group. They avoid the snares and are attacked by Cowslip’s group who manages to kill Pimpernel. Holly almost killed Cowslip, but let him live when he told him where to find Hazel.
“The story over, the demands of their own hard, rough lives began to re-assert themselves in their hearts, in their nerves, their blood and appetites.” Hazel tells them he thinks they should make friends with the enemies of their enemies. They should help any animal or bird that isn’t an enemy, as he did the mouse. That pays off when a mouse tells them where to find good grass. Then Bluebell tells another story about El- ahrairah.
Prince Rainbow sent a spy to El- ahrairah. He replaced Rabscuttle with Hufsa. Soon Hufsa was caught and El- ahrairah tricked him into helping steal carrots from the Prince. During this time, he makes the other animals see Hufsa as unbalanced. So, when they are arrested by Prince Rainbow, El- ahrairah call for a trial by the animals. The Prince agrees but forbids the rabbits from being in the jury since they would take his side. But, to Prince Rainbow’s surprise the animals call for El- ahrairah’s release. Then El- ahrairah tells Prince Rainbow to take Hufsa away, “for he troubles us with his foolishness.”
In trying to be more helpful to other animals, the rabbits find a bird that is hurt. They nurse it and it lives with them becoming a friend to Bigwig. When the bird heals they ask him to find does for them. He comes back with news that he found a large group of rabbits in a farm at the bottom of the hill. A group heads out the next day with hopes of bringing some does back.
While the larger group is gone, Hazel contacts a small group nearby. Two bucks and two does. He tells them he can help them escape the cages they are in. Fiver warns Hazel of a danger. After fighting with a cat, they free two of them. The other two are too frightened to follow. Hazel goes back after them and gets shot. The expedition team come back empty handed. No does. Fiver has a vision that Hazel still lives. He convinces Blackberry to go back to look for him. He finds Hazel in the drain and still alive.
Holly, who was with the expedition looking for does, tells the story of what happened. They went to the warren the bird told them about. They were taken in and try to talk to some of the rabbits. The warren is overcrowded, but the rabbits aren’t hardly allowed topside. When Holly’s group met with the leader of the warren, General Woundwort, they learned that they weren’t guests, they were prisoners. Holly and his group manage to escape, but when they get home they learn Hazel is supposed dead.
Suddenly Blackberry comes back to tell them Hazel is still alive and he left Fiver with him. They send a retrieval unit. After they remove the shotgun pellets Hazel begins to heal. After three days he calls some of the rabbits for a meeting. He tells Blackberry to find a way to bring some of the does back from Efrafa, the warren Holly and his group were prisoners. Although some of the rabbits think it is too risky, Fiver thinks it will work. Before they start out, Bigwig asks Dandelion to tell a story of El- ahrairah.
King Darzin has decided to get rid of El- ahrairah. He puts soldiers at the entrances of their holes. The soldiers attack El- ahrairah’s rabbits when they leave. Noticing how unhappy and frightened his people are, El- ahrairah finds the Black Rabbit of Inle’. He is an immortal rabbit. The Black Rabbit has been given the job, by Lord Frith, to determine which rabbits are to die. El- ahrairah wants to make a deal to exchange his life for theirs.
When he found the Black Rabbit he refused to take El- ahrairah’s deal. El- ahrairah tried to trick the Black Rabbit, but ends up losing his whiskers, tail and ears. Black Rabbit tells them to go home, he has already gotten rid of King’s soldiers. After taking the time to heal, El- ahraiah and Rabscuttle make it back to their warren where they find everyone in good health and safe. They talk to some of the young ones who don’t even remember any battles with King.
While El- ahrainah ponders the change of events Lord Frith arrives. He says, “Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside, El-ahrairah, where none comes to feed, and the stony bank where the rabbit scratches a hole in vain. But, speaking of gifts, I have brought a few trifles for you. A pair of ears, a tail ad some whiskers. You may find the ears slightly strange at firs, I put a little starlight in them, but it is really quite faint: not enough, I am sure, to give away a clever thief like you.” Pipkin rushes in interrupting the story. He warns that there is a “fox coming up the combe!”
Bigwig leads the fox off even though Hazel thinks it was too dangerous even though he wasn’t hurt. A large group of rabbits, led by Hazel start off on their mission. Kehaar, the bird arrives telling them they have hide because a patrol is coming. After they cross the iron road, (railroad tracks) Kahaar assures them they are safe. They stop for the night.
The next day they came to a river. Kehaar finds a bridge for them to cross. Fiver convinces the reluctant rabbits to cross. They find a boat that they think can be used in their plan to bring some of the does with them. Part of their plan involves Bigwig going undercover into Woundwort’s warren. Bigwig meets with Hyzenthlay and tells her he plans to help her and some other does escape. She tells him they have to do it before the next two days. They decide to go the next night, and she has to gather does.
As their escape nears, the danger escalates. Bigwig finally leads the group of does in their escape. Woundwort discovers them fleeing and chases after them. Just as Woundwort and his men catch up to them lightning strikes and Kehaar attacks with the other rabbits joining in the battle. Bigwig and his refugees head towards the river. With Woundwort on one side and Campion on the other the rabbits jump onto the boat and float downstream.
After passing under a bridge, they come to another with Kehaar leading the way. At the bridge, they jump into the river in a shallow place and swim to shore. They all fall asleep on the shore. The group slowly makes their way back to the warren. Along the way, Campion finds them but is outnumbered, and instead of killing him and his patrol, Hazel lets him go. He follows them to the warren and goes back to Efrafa to report to Woundwort. At the warren the rabbits settle into a comfortable life. The does match up with some of the bucks. One evening they ask Dandelion for a story.
El- ahrairah and Rabscuttle play a trick on a mean dog named Rowsby Woof. They want to eat some great food from a large garden the dog was guarding. El- ahrairah dons a costume to look like Fairy Wogdog who is a ghost sent by the Dog Queen. He sends the dog off to feed. On the second night the Fairy Wogdog comes back and lets Rowsby Woof think he is saving his master and is saving Fairy Wogdog from an evil spirit of a rat. They gathered lots of wonderful vegetables.
After the story, Dandelion goes on sentry duty while Hazel is visited by his mouse friend. The mouse warns him some rabbits are gathering outside of his warren. After shoring up their holes, Hazel leaves Bigwig in charge and heads out to talk with General Woundwort. Hazel offers the idea that they establish a warren halfway between the two warrens but Woundwort tells him that if the does and Bigwig aren’t waiting for him when her returns he will kill all of the bucks.
At the warren, Bigwig blocks all the entrances, while Fiver goes in into a trance and begins to scream. Then Hazel has a vision. He goes to the farm and frees the dog. Suddenly the cat appears, the dog jumps breaking the leash the rest of the way, and Hazel falls into the kennel. The cat is staring down at him.
Meanwhile Woundwort attacks the warren. Bigwig jumps from a hiding place and attacks Woundwort biting his leg. The two engage in a bloody battle. Finally Woundwort pulls away unable to get past Bigwig. He plans to dig from another angle when Campion runs up screaming to run because a dog is coming. All the rabbits flee except Woundwort who refuses to run.
Back at the farm, Lucy, the human girl, hears Hazel squealing and rescues him from her cat. She shows Hazel to the vet while the dog appears with a scratch on his nose and a bite on his leg. After the vet takes a look at Hazel he pronounces him well and takes Lucy to Watership Down so she can let the rabbit go. Campion leads the rabbits back to their warren. Bigwig recovers from his wounds and Hazel runs in. He tells them his story. Some of the rabbits from Efrafans surrendered to Fiver.
Six weeks later on a clear October evening the story picks up again. Litters have been born, and everyone is getting along, including the Efrafans who surrendered. Even though they fear Woundwort is still alive. Hazel has renewed the idea of building a warren halfway between the two warrens. Bigwig gives lessons in attacking cats.
Years later the story picks up again. All three warrens are doing well. Woundwort never showed up. On a cold morning in the month of March, Hazel is taken by a rabbit with light in his ears. As they are leaving, Hazel takes one look back at his body and is told by the rabbit not to worry about the rabbits left behind. They would be all right.
Hazel – the leader of the rabbits. He and his brother, Fiver set out with a few others to set up their own warren. He is brave and takes risks to protect his people. He is quick and witty finding ways to secure their peace. Hazel instigates a system of making friends with other animals and birds that have the same enemies. Therefore, they succeed because of the help they give them.
Fiver – Hazel’s little brother. He is smaller than the others but has the power of a sixth sense. The other rabbits learn to listen to him for their success. He manages to give advice to Hazel without ever undermining him.
Bigwig – the strongest of the rabbits. He is the soldier that fights their battles. Although he only fights when he has to and makes friends with a bird. He is smart and good at strategy. When Bigwig goes undercover he uses his abilities as a spy to help some of the rabbits escape General Woundwort’s warren.
Threarah – the leader of the Owsla, the warren Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig started in. He is closed minded and refuses to move his group when Fiver tells them of his vision. Therefore, most of their warren is killed by the farmer when he gasses them.
Captain Holly – a captain in Owsla. After his warren is destroyed, he follows the tracks of Hazel and settles down with them.
Blackberry – the best at making plans. He is a good strategist. Anytime Hazel needs a plan for a mission he comes to Blackberry.
Pipkin – small like Fiver. He and Fiver are best friends. He is also loyal to Hazel and follows him unquestioningly.
Dandelion – the fastest runner and the best scout. Dandelion is also the story teller. Whenever the group wants to hear a story about the fabled, El – ahrairah they ask him to tell it.
Kehaar – a bird that Hazel found hurt. He insists they heal him and he becomes friends with Bigwig. He becomes their scout and their eyes in the sky. He is strong, brave and smart.
Buckthorn – brought in by Blackberry. He is strong and big. He is also a good fighter and fights for Hazel. Although he is quiet, Buckthorn is honest and a warrior.
Strawberry – the only rabbit to leave Cowslip’s warren and join with Hazel’s group. He directs the design of Honeycomb, Hazel’s warren.
Silver – from the Owsla warren. He goes with Bigwig on Hazel’s exodus. He is a good addition to the group because he is big, strong and loyal. He quickly assesses the problems and acts.
Cowslip – the leader of the warren that is near the traps. He knows the rabbits are being caught, but he ignores it and thinks they are safe. He tries to keep Hazel and his group. After they escape he is almost killed by Holly when he tries to capture his small band searching Hazel. Holly spares him because he tells him where to find Hazel.
General Woundwort – he is the leader of the Efrafa warren. He is big and strong. He is used to being obeyed unquestioningly. He runs a military warren keeping all his rabbits subjugated.
El- ahrairah – a rabbit of myth. He is tricky and sly. He gets around the gods and makes his way into the gardens of people starting the ability rabbits have to be able to get into a garden undetectable. He and his friend, Rabscuttle perform their tricks smoothly. Dandelion tells his stories.
Richard Adams Biography
Richard George Adams was born on May 9th, 1920 in Newbury, Berkshire, England. The son of a doctor, Adams attended Horris Hill School during the 1920s and then Bradford College and then Oxford during the 1930’s. In 1940, Adams was drafted into the British Army for World War II. He joined the Royal Army Service Corps where he worked as a brigade liaison in Palestine, Europe and Asia for the next five years. Fortunately he did not experience any combat.
Adams returned to Oxford after the war was over to continue his studies for two more years. In 1948, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree and then went on to receive a Masters in 1953. After which he returned to the British Civil Service to serve as Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It was during this time that he began writing fiction.
Adams originally conceived of that idea behind his most famous novel, “Watership Down” while telling his two daughters a story on a long car ride. His daughters begged him to turn it into a book and Adams took two years to write the manuscript, finally finishing in 1968. It was finally published in 1972, after being rejected be several publishers. The book was an immediate success and sold over a million copies worldwide.
For the novel, Adams won two of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature, The Carnegie Medal, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
In 1974, Adams published a second novel, “Shardik” about a lonely hunter and a large bear he believes is a God. After this publication, Adams left the Civil Service and became a professional author going on to publish 18 more books in his lifetime.
Adams lived to be 96 years old, dying on December 24, 2016 in Oxford, England from complications pertaining to a blood disorder. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth and his two daughters, the inspiration for his bestselling novel, Juliet and Rosamond.