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Watership Down

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Watership Down
Richard Adams WatershipDown.jpg
First edition cover
Author(s) Richard Adams
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Fantasy novel
Publisher Rex Collings
Publication date November 1972
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 413 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-901720-31-3 (first edition, hardback)
Followed by Tales from Watership Down

Watership Down is the title of Richard Adams's first and most successful novel. The novel is about a group of rabbits and is named after Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England. The story is a heroic fantasy with rabbits of human intelligence but in their natural environment. They are depicted as having a culture, including a language ( Lapine), proverbs, poetry and mythology. Several chapters present pieces of rabbit lore and many editions also include an appendix of Lapine vocabulary.

It was published in the United Kingdom by Rex Collings Ltd in 1972 and it has never since been out of print. In his struggle to get it into print, Adams had seen it rejected by 13 other publishers. Watership Down is near the area where Adams grew up. The story is based on a collection of tales that Adams told to his young children on trips to the countryside. Adams's description of wild rabbit behaviour was much influenced by The Private Life of the Rabbit by British naturalist Ronald Lockley, although Adams had already written the essentials of the story when he discovered Lockley's work.

Watership Down has been made into an acclaimed classic film and a television series, and is Penguin Books' best selling novel of all time.

Plot summary

The real Watership Down, near the Hampshire village of Kingsclere, in 1975

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 traveling group of rabbits find themselves following the leadership of Hazel, who previously was 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. 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.

At Watership Down, Hazel realises that there are no does among them. With the help of a seagull named Kehaar, they locate another nearby warren called Efrafa, which is overcrowded and has many does. Hazel sends a small emissary to Efrafa to present their request for does. When the group returns, Hazel and his rabbits learn that Efrafa is a police state led by the despotic General Woundwort; Hazel's rabbits barely returned alive. However, the group did 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.

Characters in Watership Down

Most of the rabbits in the book have a distinct personality. The names presented here are the forms that most commonly appear in the book. These are mostly nicknames: where they have an original "Lapine" name, it is given in parentheses along with its meaning in that language. Woundwort, Vervain, and Ragwort are named after English plants found in Watership Down where the story is set, as are many other names.

Hazel's rabbits

The original group that leaves the Sandleford warren, all bucks, consists of the following.

  • Hazel, the leader, eventually Hazel-rah, the Chief Rabbit. Quiet, but has a talent for bringing out the best in his followers. Unlike most chief rabbits, Hazel is not particularly large or strong but rather wins the other rabbits' devotion by making quick, intelligent decisions. Sometimes the leadership can get to his head, but, conversely, the idea of leading intimidates him.
  • Fiver (Hrairoo, "Little Thousand"; hrair is any uncountable large number, and since rabbits can only count to four, the fifth kitten in a litter is the thousandth), Hazel's little brother. He is small and weak but also the seer of the group. He has an almost prophetic ability to sense all sorts of danger.
  • Dandelion, the storyteller (an important job in lapine society) and fastest runner of the group.
  • Blackberry, the thinker and problem-solver. Blackberry is able to understand complicated concepts, such as boats and latches, that the other rabbits cannot begin to fathom.
  • Bigwig (known in Lapine as Thlayli, meaning "Fur-head"), the best fighter and the strongest rabbit of the group. A member of the Owsla (military elite) of Sandleford warren. Receives his name from the unusual thickening of the fur around his ears.

Non-rabbit allies

  • Kehaar, a migratory black-headed gull whose injured wing forces him to take refuge on Watership Down. He later befriends the rabbits and helps in many unexpected circumstances. He is an especial friend to Bigwig. Kehaar is gregarious and often coarse-mouthed; he speaks in a pidgin form of Lapine. For example, "Bigwig" is pronounced "Peegveeg"; he cannot pronounce the name "Dandelion" and so calls that rabbit "Meester Dando".


  • General Woundwort, a tyrannical Chief Rabbit and founder of Efrafa. Woundwort is obsessed with control, which he believes to be the only successful means of safety. He is also impatient and bloodthirsty, desiring no outcome to occur but the one he has set himself to accomplish. Eventually, he is killed or driven away by a dog; later generations associate him with the Black Rabbit-- the symbol of death-- and use him to warn disobedient youngsters against mischief.
  • Vervain, Woundwort's lieutenant and commander of his Owslafa.
  • Campion, a Captain of Owsla; a superb tracker and leader of Woundwort's Wide Patrols.
  • Cowslip, a member of a warren of rabbits (known later by Hazel's group as the Tharn Warren, or Warren of the Snares) who are 'harvested' for food by a human.

Characters in rabbit lore

  • El-ahrairah (literally Elil-hrair-rah, the "prince with a thousand enemies" and is pronounced with the same stresses as in the phrase "Never say die") is the folk hero at the centre of most of the rabbits' stories. As time passes the adventures of real living rabbits are transformed into fantastical tales of El-ahrairah. (El-ahrairah and his stories resemble Odysseus and his travels to some extent; also see euhemerism.)
  • Black Rabbit of Inlé, the rabbit grim reaper. A servant of Frith who ensures that all rabbits die at their appointed time.
  • Frith, literally "the sun", is a god-figure who created the world and promised that rabbits would always be allowed to thrive.
  • Prince Rainbow, a demigod-figure who communicates between El-ahrairah and Frith. He is always trying to beat El-ahrairah at his own devious games.

Awards and nominations

Watership Down has become a modern classic and won the Carnegie Medal in 1972.

  • In 2003, Watership Down came 42nd in a public vote for the 100 greatest books of all time taken by the BBC.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In 1978 the book was adapted as an animated film, directed by Martin Rosen. A picture book of the animated film was also produced, titled The Watership Down Film Picture Book. Two editions of the book were published, one a hard-cover, the other a reinforced cloth-bound edition. The contents include multiple stills from the film linked with a combination of narration and extracts from the script, as well as a preface written by Richard Adams and a foreword written by Martin Rosen.

The song "Bright Eyes", written by Mike Batt and sung by Art Garfunkel, was released as a single with a video of scenes from the film. The song was a UK no. 1 hit. The song was re-released in 2000 by Stephen Gately as a double A-side with 'A New Beginning'. Stephen had sung the cover of Bright Eyes for the TV Series.

Influences on popular culture

It was the major inspiration for the role-playing game Bunnies and Burrows, and has been credited by George Lucas for providing inspiration in creating a "fictional universe" in Star Wars.

It is also referenced in the ABC hit show Lost, when Sawyer is reading the book.

It was referenced in a deleted scene in the film Donnie Darko's special features where Donnie and his teacher debate the necessity of caring for rabbits and a looming destruction of a culture's way of life.


One sequel, Tales from Watership Down, has been published. It takes place after the events in Watership Down, but does not continue the main plotline. Instead, it is a collection of short stories taking place after Watership Down and involving some of the same characters, also telling stories like "The Fox in the Water" which Bigwig hears Bluebell telling to several other rabbits during the siege of Watership Down, and many more tales of "El-ahrairah".


UK editions

  • ISBN 0-14-030601-3 (Puffin, paperback, 1973)
  • ISBN 0-14-003958-9 ( Penguin, paperback, 1974)
  • ISBN 0-14-036453-6 (Puffin Modern Classics, paperback, 1993)
  • ISBN 0-14-118666-6 (Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 2001)

U.S. editions

  • ISBN 0-02-700030-3 ( hardcover, 1974)
  • ISBN 0-606-05080-9 ( prebound, 1975)
  • ISBN 0-380-00428-3 (paperback, 1976, Anniversary Edition)
  • ISBN 0-380-00293-0 ( mass market paperback, 1976)
  • ISBN 1-56849-250-2 ( library binding, 1994, reprint)
  • ISBN 0-684-83605-X ( hardcover, 1996)
  • ISBN 0-7838-8081-2 (hardcover, 1997, Large Type Edition)
  • ISBN 0-06-093545-6 (paperback, 2001)


  • Chinese: 魔幻的瓦特西普高原 (Rabbit's Special Watership Down)
  • Czech: Daleká cesta za domovem (The Long Way Home)
  • Danish: Kaninbjerget (The Rabbit Mountain)
  • Dutch: Waterschapsheuvel (Watership Hill)
  • Finnish: Ruohometsän Kansa (Folk of the Grass Forest)
  • French: Les Garennes de Watership Down (The Warrens of Watership Down)
  • German: Unten am Fluss (Down by the River)
  • Hebrew: גבעת ווטרשיפ (Watership Hill)
  • Hungarian: Gesztenye, a honalapító (Hazel, the Founding Father)
  • Italian: La collina dei conigli (The Rabbits' Hill)
  • Japanese: ウォーターシップ・ダウンのうさぎたち (Watership Down no Usagi-tachi, "The Rabbits of Watership Down")
  • Korean: 워터십 다운의 토끼 (Woteosip Daunui Tokki, "Rabbits of Watership Down") and 워터십 다운의 열한 마리 토끼 (Woteosip Daunui Yeolhan Mari Tokki, "Eleven Rabbits of Watership Down")
  • Norwegian: Flukten til Watership (The Escape to Watership)
  • Polish: Wodnikowe wzgórze (Aquarius Hill)
  • Portuguese: Era uma vez em Watership Down (Once Upon a Time in Watership Down)
  • Brazilian Portuguese: A Longa Jornada (The Long Journey)
  • Russian: Обитатели холмов (Dwellers of the Hills)
  • Serbian: Брежуљак Вотершип/Brežuljak Voteršip (Watership Mound or Watership Ridge)
  • Slovenian: Vodovnikova vesina (Watership Down)
  • Spanish: La Colina de Watership (Watership Hill)
  • Swedish: Den långa flykten (The Long Escape)
  • Ukrainian: Небезпечні Мандри (The Dangerous Travel)
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