Watership Down – more than just a story about rabbits!
I was reminded this week with the announcement of the death of Richard Adams of one of the favourite books (and later films) of my childhood – Watership Down.
Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but this is another story influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell, in particular The Hero with a Thousand Faces. When interviewed about Watership Down, Adams once said:
“It’s closely modelled on the ideas of The Hero,” he says. “I bought it when it came out in 1949 and read it straight through twice. I had a lot of talks with him; one of the happiest things that has happened to me is my friendship with Joseph Campbell.”
I have written previously about the influence Campbell has had on other films such as Star Wars. Here are some links to previous blog posts:
The Hero’s Journey is evident throughout Watership Down: The rabbits get the call to go on a journey and have to leave the only home they ever know. They accept the call and embark on the journey and are exiled from their land. While on the journey, they experience many trials and tribulations, and face many dangers. But they survive these hardships along the way and are changed by the experience. They pass on the experience and the lessons learned to their offspring in the form of storytelling.
Here are the key points in the story, mapped into the hero’s journey framework.
Hazel is living peacefully in his warren
Call to adventure
Hazel’s brother, Fiver, dreams that terrible things are about to happen to their warren and they must leave.
Refusal of The Call
At first, Hazel is doubtful about the reality of Fiver’s dream and is reluctant to act upon it. The warren’s leader refuses to agree that the rabbits should all leave.
Meeting With The Mentor
The rabbits listen to stories of El-ahrairah which give them insight and courage throughout their journey. In this way El-ahrairah serves as their mentor.
Crossing the Threshold
Hazel and his companions decide to set off on their journey but soon encounter a river. Most of the rabbits can swim across but Pipkin is hurt. Blackberry finds a piece of wood that they use as a raft to carry Pipkin across.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The band of rabbits (11 in total) face many trials, including Cowslip’s warren. They are welcomed in but are unaware of the warren’s secret – it is surrounded by snares and traps set up by humans. Hazel and his companions then flee, along with Strawberry, a rabbit from Cowslip’s warren – now they are 12.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Realising they will not be able to set up a new warren without female rabbits, Bigwig is sent by Hazel into Efrafa to kick off his plan to get does for their warren. Efrafa is a dystopian society ruled by General Woundwort
Bigwig returns with the does. But the Efrafans, led by General Woundwort come to attack the warren. Hazel goes to free a dog they had previously encountered to attack the Efrafans. Meanwhile, Bigwig and Woundwort are battling at Hazel’s warren.
Bigwig defeats Woundwort and the dog drives off the rest of the Efrafans. They are rewarded with the comfort of being safe from Efrafans.
The Road Back
The rabbits do not venture back to their old warren but make plans to live in their warren in peace and safety like their old warren.
The Efrafans then realize that Hazel is missing. He was attacked by a cat but a young girl saved him and took him inside. She soon released Hazel and he wandered back to his warren.
Return With the Elixir
When Hazel returns to the warren everybody is extremely joyful. They can now live safely with the does and they have their great ruler back to solve all their problems. In this way Hazel can be thought of as the elixir himself.
Watership down is therefore so much more than simply a story about rabbits!