Watership Down is a 1972 novel written by British author Richard Adams. The story tells of a band of rabbits that journey across the wilderness to find a new home when their old home is in danger. Once they reach their new home, they try to build it up and eventually fight off an invading army of enemy rabbits.
In the countryside in southern England, a warren of rabbits graze peacefully. Brothers Hazel and Fiver hang around the edge to enjoy the late afternoon, but they spot a burning cigarette near a billboard. Suddenly, Fiver starts exclaiming that he sees blood covering the field and urges Hazel that they have to get everyone to leave. After getting permission from "Owsla" guard Bigwig, they tell the chief rabbit about the danger, but the chief dismisses them. The brothers gather a few rabbits after dark (one of those rabbits including Bigwig, who had decided to quit the Owsla) and, after a brief encounter with Captain Holly, make their escape.
The rabbits encounter many dangers along the way, from predators to cars, to which some rabbits want to turn back and return home. One danger they face is another warren owned by a rabbit named Cowslip, who offers them good food and shelter. The rabbits are easily swayed by the easy life, but Fiver feels uneasy about the state of the warren: fresh vegetables left behind by humans and the rabbits looking very plump (the rabbits are getting prepared to become a part of the farmer's stew). Fiver keeps feeling like this new warren has an ominous feeling to it, but the other rabbits (even his brother Hazel) ignore him. Bigwig gets fed up with Fiver's cautious nature and starts running off back to Cowslip's warren, but he is suddenly caught in a snare, which cuts into his throat. Hazel and the other rabbits dig the peg out, but it appears that Bigwig had died. Fortunately, Bigwig turns out to be alive, and they escape Cowslip's warren along with a reformed Strawberry (who reveals that his own mate had died from the snares).
After the final length of their journey, they finally arrive at a hill that overlooks many hills: Watership Down. Their first task is digging out burrows, which they decide to do in place of the females, who have been known to make burrows for their babies. Captain Holly arrives at the warren, wounded, out of breath, and in despair as he tells them that Fiver was right all along: their old warren was bulldozed by humans. Not long after, the rabbits take care of an injured seagull named Kehaar, who offers to help them find females to help the males carry on the next generation. He finds one called Efrefa, and Hazel sends a patrol of four rabbits (Holly, Silver, Strawberry, and Buckthorn) to bring home some does. Hazel eventually gets restless and decides to carry out a raid on a nearby farm, where they try to free a band of hutch rabbits. But the farmer notices them and manages to shoot Hazel in the leg. Fiver goes off in search of his older brother, believing that he is still alive, and he and Blackberry find him wounded but alive in a sewer pipe.
Holly, Silver, Strawberry, and Buckthorn return to Watership Down empty-handed and badly injured. It turns out that Efrefa is a totalitarian warren ruled by a tyrannical rabbit named General Woundwort, whose patrol of rabbits have had caused the ambassadors' injuries. When he listens to the dangers of Efrefa, Hazel decides to get as many does out of there as he can. Bigwig infiltrates Efrefa as a wanderer in pretense of wanting to join them as part of their owsla, asking the local rabbits about the pitiful conditions of the warren. During that time, the Watership Down rabbits plan a getaway by a boat in the river. After witnessing the misery of the does and the mistreatment of an older rabbit named Blackavar, Bigwig begins hatching a plan to get them all out, which eventually alerts Woundwort and his council of what is really happening. A confrontation between Bigwig and Woundwort takes place under the railroad bridge before Kehaar distracts Woundwort by attacking him, and the Watership Down rabbits make their getaway with the does and Blackavar.
But as the Watership Down rabbits get the surviving does home and celebrate, they get terrible news: Woundwort has found out about their warren and plots on going there to destroy them all in war. Hazel personally goes over to Woundwort's camp and proposes a peace treaty between the two warrens, but Woundwort (not knowing that he's actually speaking to Watership Down's chief rabbit) coldly rejects the offer and is persistent on wiping them out. With not much choices left, Hazel decides to take a patrol with him to the farm to lure the farmer's dog into fighting the Efrefa rabbits. Woundwort breaks into the warren only to be confronted by Bigwig, who fights him and refuses to let him through; during the standoff, he declares that his "Chief Rabbit" had told him to defend his home, stunning Woundwort into believing that there was another rabbit stronger than Bigwig. Fiver even accidentally frightens one of Woundwort's rabbits - Captain Vervain - into fleeing after foretelling his death. The farmer's dog soon arrives at the warren and kills as much Efrefan rabbits as it can before lunging at Woundwort, who does the same (and leaves his fate up to the reader to guess). In the meantime, Hazel gets caught by the farmer's cat but is rescued by a girl named Lucy, who returns him to the wild.
With the threat of Woundwort finally gone and peace has come to the rabbits, the rabbits of Watership Down decide to focus on preparing for the upcoming winter, as well as maintaining a truce with the Efrefa survivors, led by Captain Campion. The epilogue shows a chilly early March morning, where an elderly Hazel is greeted by the Black Rabbit of Inle (the rabbit Grim Reaper), who offers to take him to the rabbits' afterlife to join his ranks. Hazel agrees and peacefully passes away, his spirit young as he joins the Black Rabbit in the afterlife, leaving the warren in capable paws.
Watership Down/Sandleford rabbits
Hazel: Hazel is one of the three main protagonists of the novel. Clever and calm, Hazel takes on the role of leader when he and a band of rabbits leave their old warren in search of a new one. While not as big as Bigwig or swift as Dandelion, he is just as loyal and brave, as well as being a quick thinker. He also learns to think outside the box, seeing potential in anyone they come across (like Kehaar's scouting) and trying to see the good in others.
Fiver: Fiver is one of the three main protagonists of the novel. He is Hazel's younger brother and a prophet of sorts, prone to having fits while receiving his visions. He foretells the destruction of the Sandleford warren, which comes true when he and the other rabbits leave the warren. In the book, rabbits cannot count higher than five, thus explaining his name.
Bigwig: Bigwig is one of the three main protagonists of the novel. He is an officer of the Owsla (strong fit rabbits appointed to guarding the warren and alerting others for danger). Often gruff and eager for a fight, Bigwig is ultimately loyal to Hazel and Watership Down, having a kinder and nobler side to him as well. He is named for the tuft of thicker fur on the top of his head, thus his name in Lapine (rabbit language) meaning Thlayli.
Blackberry: Blackberry is a friend of Hazel's and one of the rabbits to leave Sandleford Warren. He is an intelligent rabbit, understanding how things in the world around them work (an example being learning how wood floats). The 1999 cartoon has his sex switched from a male to a female and becoming a mate for Captain Campion.
Pipkin: Pipkin is a small rabbit from Sandleford Warren. He is Fiver's friend and the group's "baby" who looks up to Hazel as a protector and advisor. Hazel encourages him to do his best, and Pipkin grows very loyal to Hazel. He proves to be a constant comforter, particularly when he comforts Holly after the destruction of their old warren.
Dandelion: Dandelion is a rabbit from Sandleford Warren, swift and gifted in telling stories. He is one of the rabbits to help lead the farmer's dog into fighting Efrefa. The 1999 animated series has him being one of the slowest rabbits instead, though he is still gifted in telling stories and is friends with Hawkbit. The 2018 miniseries has Dandelion being the fastest rabbit like in the book, but his gift in storytelling is given to Bluebell.
Silver: Silver is a big silvery-gray rabbit (hence the name) and the old chief rabbit's nephew. Like Bigwig, he is eager to fight but also has a nobler side, but he can be a bit more callous as seen in nearly harshly rejecting the reformed Strawberry.
Hawkbit: Hawkbit is a rabbit said to be slow and stupid, questioning the way Hazel and Fiver are leading the others to their new home. He is a minor character compared to the other rabbits. In the 1999 cartoon, he has a more prominent role and gets a grouchy sarcastic personality with a hidden heart of gold. The Netflix miniseries has him be a more minor character, getting into quarrels with Dandelion over Strawberry's affections.
Captain Holly: Captain Holly is a former owsla officer from the Sandleford warren. When Hazel and his group try leaving the warren, Holly tries stopping them. He witnesses the humans bulldozing their home and escapes with a few rabbits including Bluebell (the only other rabbit in his group that survived, while the other rabbits were either poisoned or killed), facing dangers until finding Hazel as he and his group settle in at Watership Down. Holly becomes a new member of the Watership Down owsla and is one of the four chosen rabbits to be ambassadors sent to Efrefa. The Netflix miniseries has him have mainly the same role, except that it also includes Holly falling in love with Hyzenthlay before eventually being killed in the siege.
Bluebell: Bluebell is a member of the Sandleford warren, being the only rabbit in Holly's fleeing group to survive besides Captain Holly himself. He's known to be a jokester, telling jokes and stories to lift up other rabbits' spirits. Some of his poems are given a biting response from Hazel up until the end of the novel, where Hazel genuinely adds a heartwarming part to Bluebell's latest poem.
General Woundwort: Woundwort (often referred to as General Woundwort) is the main antagonist of the novel. He is the chief of a nearby warren called Efrefa, where he rules with an iron paw. He keeps the rabbits in his warren in seclusion to the point of them overcrowding and even refuses to let anyone leave. Unafraid of anything, he even charges at a dog that's charging at him as well, leaving his fate up to the readers as well as making him a legend in his own right. His introduction chapter reveals that his mother had died protecting him from a weasel, and a kindly old schoolmaster had taken him in and adopted him. Woundwort, however, ends up nearly killing the schoolmaster's cat and flees back into the wild.
Campion: Captain Campion is Woundwort's most trusted subordinate, a brave and loyal officer. Once Woundwort disappears, he becomes the new chief rabbit of Efrefa, reforming it and making peace with Watership Down.
Vervain: Vervain is the head of the Efrefan police, but he is one of the most hated rabbits in the warren. When he and the other Efrefans lay siege to Watership Down, Vervain corners Fiver, but Fiver's calm and ominous prediction of his death sends him fleeing. The 2018 Netflix miniseries has him as a more minor character, killed by an oncoming train while chasing the Watership Down ambassadors across the railroad.
Hyzenthlay: Hyzenthlay is one of the female rabbits in Efrefa, known to be a troublemaker among them. She teams up with Bigwig in hatching an escape plan for all the does in the warren. In the TV series, she's named Primrose and has three kittens with Hazel.
Blackavar: Blackavar is a prisoner of Efrefa, his ears torn to ribbons for trying to escape the overcrowded warren, and he is paraded out into the open to show the punishment he had received for trying to leave. Bigwig feels sympathy and compassion for Blackavar and thus gets him out as well as all of the does. The 1978 film has him taking a personal final stand against Woundwort, briefly fighting the latter before Woundwort kills him by tearing his throat out.
Cowslip: Cowslip is the top rabbit in his warren, which lives near a farmer's garden. He and his rabbits have all the vegetables they can eat, looking fatter and well cared for than the wilder rabbits. However, the farmer nearby traps rabbits in the "shining wire" (rabbit traps) to catch for a stew, and they seem resigned to their fate; Cowslip even says that rabbits must have dignity and acceptance to their fate instead of cleverness and tricks. When Bigwig gets caught in a trap and the others go back for help, Cowslip and the others pretend to not know who Bigwig is, and Cowslip even scratches at Fiver's ear for the latter insisting that they had to help.
Strawberry: Strawberry is one of the rabbits living at Cowslip's warren, being described as big and plump from having eaten many vegetables that the humans leave out. Like the other rabbits in Cowslip's warren, Strawberry keeps quiet about the rabbit traps laid out until Bigwig gets trapped in one. His own mate gets trapped and killed in a snare, so he decides to come along with Hazel and the others and escape from Cowslip. The cartoon adds almost the same story here, except that Strawberry doesn't have a mate in the cartoon, and he gets pretty lazy before his character development. By the time the third season premiered, he has become more fit and active. He's made into a female in the 2018 Netflix miniseries; here, she wants new friends and becomes the eye of affection for Dandelion and Hawkbit before becoming Bigwig's mate.
Kehaar: Kehaar is a male black-headed gull and a scout for the rabbits of Watership Down. He is discovered with a broken wing after having fought a cat and befriends the rabbits while recovering, leaving near the end to rejoin his seagull colony while promising to visit again during the winter. He is known for his unusual way of speaking (broken bits of English that the rabbits eventually understand), strange language, and bits of impatience. Richard Adams had once said that Kehaar was inspired by a Norwegian soldier he had known during World War II. The 2018 miniseries gives him a more clear language and a Scottish accent, though he is also more selfish compared to his book counterpart.
Frith: Frith (Lapine for "the sun") is a godlike figure who created the world and all its animals. While he punishes El-ahrairah and his people for the former's arrogance and unwillingness to stop overreproduction, promised that rabbits will always thrive.
El-ahrairah: El-ahrairah (Lapine for "prince with a thousand enemies") is a rabbit trickster folk hero, who is the protagonist of nearly all of the rabbits' stories of cleverness (and hubris), which are similar to those of Uncle Remus's Br'er Rabbit and Anansi of African folktales. He represents everything about the rabbits' culture: smart, tricky, and devout to protecting his or her warren.
Prince Rainbow: Prince Rainbow is a godlike figure who serves as a foil to El-ahrairah. He tries to one-up El-ahrairah in an attempt to keep him under control, but he is always outsmarted.
Rabscuttle: Rabscuttle is another folk hero, El-ahrairah's second in command and the leader of his Owsla. He participates in many of El-ahrairah's adventures and is said to be almost as clever as his chief.
Hufsa: Hufsa is a rabbit from another country, appointed by Prince Rainbow to keep El-ahrairah under control and report any troublemaking. After Hufsa's spying nearly endangers his warren, El-ahrairah arranges for a series of strange events to happen before him and Hufsa before he goes to trial for stealing Prince Rainbow's carrots. Hufsa is labeled as insane as he describes all he had seen, and the jury of predators (for rabbits would get to the bottom of this trick while predators don't care who's innocent or guilty as long as they hunt) declare him as insane while El-ahrairah asks Prince Rainbow to remove Hufsa from the warren.
Rowsby Woof: Rowsby Woof is a dog described in the tales of El-ahrairah, described as stupid and drooling. He's easily fooled into believing that the "Fairy Wogdog" (El-ahrairah in disguise) is rewarding him for being a loyal pet.
Black Rabbit of Inlé: The Black Rabbit of Inlé (Inlé being the Lapine word for "darkness") is a sinister phantom in service to Frith. As the Grim Reaper of rabbits, it is his job to assure that any rabbit will die when it is their time, his prescence making rabbits unable to sense a predator or a gun when their time is up. In spite of his frightful appearance, the Black Rabbit means no harm and only means to do his appointed task, speaking kindly and gently to dying rabbits as he escorts them to the afterlife. In the Netflix adaptation, the Black Rabbit's role mainly remains the same except his gender being changed to a female.
Watership Down has often been considered an allegory, though Richard Adams had stated that the book was meant to be entertainment, not an allegory or satire. While that is true, there are lessons to be learned during the course of the story.
The tasks and goals of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and even major character Silver are described as battles between freedom and tyranny, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state. Richard Adams has even drawn on inspiration from the works of Homer and Virgil, reflecting in the poetry in his story.
The book also shows conservatism being slowly progressive. One example is when the book explains that female rabbits (does) do most of the digging to make burrows for their kittens, but the male rabbits (bucks) decide to break tradition for once and dig in their place. Another example is when the Watership Down rabbits take inspiration of making their honeycomb-like warren like in Cowslip's warren while retaining their traditions.
Mild environmental themes show up in the story, like the rabbits fearing man above all predators; it's mentioned that unlike humans, predatory animals will hunt for survival. However, this can be seen as distaste for urbanizing the countryside entirely, and the girl Lucy saving Hazel can be seen as humans being stewards for the world that God has created.
In 1978, an animated film of Watership Down was released in theaters in England, starring John Hurt (Hazel) and Michael Cox (Bigwig). The movie stays mainly faithful to the story besides revealing what happened to the old warren and the death of Blackavar, but it's also well-known for its violent and often frightening moments.
In 1999, an animated cartoon series of Watership Down premiered, lasting three seasons. Some episodes contain elements from the original novel, as well as introducing new elements including Hazel having a love interest and the introduction of other warrens like Redstone and Darkhaven. Compared to other adaptations, this is the most family-friendly.
Netflix released a CGI miniseries in late 2018, distributed by BBC and starring James McAvoy (Hazel), John Boyega (Bigwig), and Ben Kingsley (General Woundwort). The story somewhat remains the same except for some notable changes. One is where Bigwig infiltrates Efrefa by pretending to be a storyteller as opposed to a member of the owsla. Another is the change in gender of some characters like Strawberry and the Black Rabbit of Inlé.
Watership Down has inspired plenty of animal fantasy books, including Tailchaser's Song and Fire Bringer, as well as The Sight and Fell (sequels to Fire Bringer). Tailchaser's Song tells of a stray tomcat named Fritti Tailchaser who searches for a molly cat named Hushpad, joined by friends and assisted by cat gods (including a god named Firefoot disguised as a crazy old cat named Eatbugs). Fire Bringer tells of a Scottish red deer named Rannoch who is prophesized to speak the tongue of many animals and eventually defeat a dictator stag named Sgorr, who is determined to become a "lord of all herds" at any cost.