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Free Study Guide for Watership Down by Richard Adams

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The story plot is a journey which takes the rabbits from a place where they are in danger to a place where they can live in safety. Two major subplots are the discovery of the secrets of the tame warren and the journey to Efrafa and back.

As with most journey stories, the most important lessons are those that are learned on the journey itself. The rabbits have a tremendous amount of learning to do for an 8 mile trip. They have to learn when to trust and when to be suspicious, how to find unexpected friends, how to be examples of leadership and courage. They have to learn how to contribute to the overall welfare of a balanced society, even when it means doing something that would not usually be expected of them. They also have to learn to separate appearance from reality. The experiences of the journey equip the rabbits to survive, not only under the leadership of the talented Hazel, but also on their own, not unlike a father image, perhaps. Hazel and his closest advisors set an example of courage and persistence that will enable younger rabbits to leave the new warren and eventually build their own warrens.



Like most journey stories, one of the primary themes is that of growing up. The rabbits are adults when they start on the trip, but they mature in other ways, such as in their abilities to work together, to think both independently and as a unit, and in their appreciation of each other.

The Ideal Society

Although Adams claims that he had no political agenda in mind when writing the story, some readers noticed a similarity between different forms of government and the rabbit communities in the story. Sandleford has been compared to the traditional monarchy where the leaders get the best of everything and really donít even know their "people" although the citizens can do almost anything they want within the boundaries of their class. The Cowslip warren is analogous to extreme socialism with a lack of constructive leadership. The only leadership is in the form of rigid rules and a direction to violence whenever something threatens to reveal the faulty ideology. Efrafa could be compared to a totalitarian state with Woundwort being a rabbit "Hitler." Finally, the Honeycomb might be considered a benevolent "republic." One student has said that the Honeycomb is Utopia with all aspects of the society functioning perfectly. I donít quite buy that one; given the extreme differences of personality, characters like Bigwig and Holly will always have occasional differences of opinion. Somewhere, the rabbits will always have an enemy ready to harm them if they get too lazy or sloppy.

The Ideal Leader

While comparing the story to various social forms among people may be reaching, examining the characters in terms of leadership qualities is not. Hazel initially leads the rabbits because he believes in what he is doing. He does not designate himself the leader and is surprised when Cowslip asks if he is the chief rabbit as he had never thought himself so. The early discontents who try to mutiny are also unsure of who is the leader as Bigwig is more forceful and has the Owsla background, but Hazel seems to call the shots. Hazel sort of falls into the leadership role and has to learn how to handle it as he goes. However, since he has leadership abilities, he learns quickly and can be given credit for leading his band to a safe and happy home. As he becomes a more efficient leader, the other rabbits learn to trust his judgement and depend on him for the correct decisions.

Establishing a Home

Creating a safe and healthy home is a basic motif in all cultures and thus in all literature. As the rabbits travel along, they arrive at several different locations where one or more rabbits will ask if they can just "stay here." We see a religious resonance with this theme; recall that the Hebrew Father Abraham received a message from God to take all of his family and go to a land that God would show him. In the novel, the rabbits have no idea where they are headed. Fiverís only direction is to the high hills in the distance. They have no real sense of how long it will take them to get there, but Fiver and Hazel believe they will recognize the right place when they find it. Thus the experiences along the way show them what they do NOT want in their new home even as they accumulate new skills that will be put to good use in the Honeycomb.

Departure and Return

Another basic cultural motif is the concept of leaving and coming back. Although the entire novel is a journey, the trip to Efrafa forms a journey within a journey. This secondary journey has a different motive; those who leave are expected to bring something back. Although the first group of rabbits is not criticized for their failure, the success of the second further establishes leadership roles, and might even be considered a type of "manhood" rite, especially since the goal of the trip is to acquire females. The successful bunch must be able to do much more than run when the time comes. They must arrive successfully, deceive and outsmart the enemy, escape with and defend both themselves and the does who follow them, and finally return with evidence of their success that includes physical evidence and stories that can be told.


Joseph Campbellís hero of the journey myth works very well in this story. In both the primary journey and the journey to Efrafa, the journey hero elements are present. They consist of a call, preparation, departure, the trip itself with unexpected events or help, and the return with some lesson or insight. Of course, the rabbits never return to Sandleford as the primary journey is for the purpose of establishing a new home. In both journeys, however, the hero is the rabbit who is able to accomplish the goal of the journey successfully both for himself and for the rest of his group. To be properly identified as a hero, the character must be trustworthy, creative, courageous, and realistic.


The novel offers great lessons in tolerance, both of the weaker characters and of characters who are perceived as "different." Had the rabbits refused to befriend the mouse and the gull, the events at Efrafa would have had to be written quite differently. Furthermore, the rabbits not only had to accept and befriend the gull, but had to serve him which meant helping collect food that was disgusting to the rabbits. The events show that individuals do similar things differently; being different does not mean bad, nor does it mean that all should be alike. The rabbits wait on the gull and supply what he needs, but none of them are expected to start eating slugs or dead fish.


Limited Omniscience from the perspectives of Hazel, Woundwort or Bigwig, depending on the section of the story involved.


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Ruff, Karen SC. "TheBestNotes on Watership Down". . 09 May 2017