Thlayli (Bigwig) had made his way up the run and was crouching immediately below. Blood had matted the great thatch of fur on his head, and one ear, half severed, hung down beside his face. His breathing was slow and heavy.
— Chapter 47 ("The Sky Suspended")
An epic Low Fantasy
adventure by Richard Adams
, first published in 1972.
Hazel, our protagonist, has a little brother named Fiver
. Fiver has horrific — and as later events prove, accurate — visions of the destruction of their home warren
at Sandleford, but Hazel can't convince their Chief to pay attention to some loony runt
, so he convinces a few of his friends to join him in leaving their homes to escape. Of note are Bigwig
, one of the community's Owsla (elite, a sort of Royal Guard), and Blackberry
, who is by the standards of their tribe a mechanical genius. Which is to say, he is the only cast member to even come close to understanding basic physics... like, for instance, "floating on water."
Because, see... these are rabbits
. Bear with us for a moment.
They're not humans in rabbit form
. Caution is a way of life because death is a moment-to-moment possibility
. They can't count past four
because they only have four paws (Fiver, the runt of a five-kit litter, gets his name from the colloquial of the Lapine word hrair
, literally meaning "many" or "a thousand"
). They think hrududil
(cars and other large machinery) are some type of animal. They don't understand visual art, or human speech, or any of the strange things humans do.
Only Blackberry, Fiver, and Hazel can really "think outside the hutch," so to speak. Hazel in particular quickly realises that survival as a tribe of hlessil
(nomads) will require atypical problem-solving and teamwork, and thus becomes the de facto
leader of the group, with a particular talent for bringing out the best in his followers and earning their loyalty in return
Their journey is long - for a rabbit (about five miles). And it is punctuated by times of rest, during which they regale each other with tales of their Folk Hero
, the first rabbit: El-ahrairah, the Prince With a Thousand Enemies. El-ahrairah is a Trickster hero
(meet us halfway between Beowulf
and Bugs Bunny
and you've got the idea), and the legends we hear deal with everything from the rabbit's creation myth to El-ahrairah's descent into Inlé to meet the Black Rabbit.
And don't think that the stories are separate from the action, because they build up an intricate belief system that rewards us with major character moments, up to and including the very end of the story.Plot Synopsis
The novel proved so popular that, decades later, Adams wrote a set of sequel stories. Called Tales From Watership Down
, the stories actually take place during
the original novel, though after the resolution of the plot. Two thirds of the book are a mixed bag of new Lapine mythology (ranging from Eldritch Abomination
to Cloud Cuckoolander
tales, including a new one with a Woundwort Expy
). The final third expands the Watership warren's post-battle history, that had previously just been given a brief mention in the original Epilogue
. They include what became of Hyzenthlay
, the formation of the new Watership-Efrafa joint warren (and its salvation from a pack of roving weasels), and what happened to Campion and Efrafa after Woundwort.
Also notable is the animated feature film
based upon the book. It's a very well-done adaptation
, and while it's no excuse at all for not reading the novel, it's well worth watching. As a matter of fact, reading the novel first enhances the film. The insanely detailed animation fits the story perfectly, and real effort is made to respect the seriousness with which the rabbits take their quest. The film is also notable for its voice cast, consisting of some of the best British actors of the day, including John Hurt
as Hazel, Ralph Richardson as the Threarah, Nigel Hawthorne as Campion, Richard Briers as Fiver and Zero Mostel as Kehaar.
The thing is, the film is notorious in Internet culture for one simple reason: the Animation Age Ghetto
affects it like almost no other movie. Certainly, DVD cover art like this
doesn't help, but what gets us here at TV Tropes is that you'd think more people would have heard of the book. Parents of bunny-obsessed children, please do not
subject your four-year-olds to such Nightmare Fuel
as Bigwig's brush with death and his battle with General Woundwort, General Woundwort himself
, the awfully long scene (scored to Bright Eyes
) where Hazel is almost certainly dead and Fiver is lost without him, Blackavar's story, or Holly recounting how he barely escaped the destruction of Sandleford Warren. On the off chance you need further convincing, please note that the latter sequence, faithful to the novel, is a semi-hallucinatory depiction of cute bunnies clawing out the throats of other cute bunnies as they all slowly suffocate.
Oh, this movie is really bloody too. Not For Little Kids
There is also a far more obscure television series. In the first two seasons, it primarily changes aspects of the characters and story to make it appeal better to families
e.g. making Blackberry female
to add more diversity to the predominantly male castspoiler
. Despite this, has some redeeming qualities, but that changes
at the start of season three, perhaps in an attempt
to make it Darker and Edgier
. Some people enjoy even that, though
The cult tabletop role playing game Bunnies & Burrows
was inspired by the book.
Examples of the following tropes:
open/close all folders
- Action Survivor and Almost Dead Guy: Holly, twice.
- Aerith and Bob: The name discrepancies make more sense when you realize that all the names are actually supposed to be Lapine, but that many of them have been "translated" into English equivalents for the reader. Pipkin's actual name is Hlao-roo. This also helps differentiate the hutch rabbits (raised in captivity as pets) from the wild ones: Haystack and Clover versus Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang.
- There is a certain logic to it: most of the females have poetic names like Nildro-hain ("Blackbird Song"), while most of the males are simply named after plants.
- Alone With Prisoner Ploy
- Always Someone Better: Bigwig is the largest and strongest of the rabbits in the story until Woundwort appears.
- Androcles' Lion:
- Hazel encourages the other rabbits to help out non-aggressive animals, in case they ever need help, which starts with a mouse. It pays off with the mouse telling the rabbits about a good feeding place, Kehaar acting as their scout and air support, and the mouse giving them advance warning of the Efrafan attack, which likely saved the warren.
- "The Fox in the Water" has El-ahrairah wandering and offering advice, which pays off when a snake he helped, who had heard of his good deeds, grants him temporary hypnotic power to defeat the foxes plaguing the warren.
- Animal Talk: The rabbits talk in their own Lapine language, of course, but they can also communicate with other animals using "Hedgerow dialect", which gives other animals Funetik Aksents. Naturally, they can't understand human, at least not without extensive contact.
- Angry Guard Dog: And imagine that when you're a fraction of its size.
- Anyone Can Die: A day-to-day reality, although the principal characters actually make it to the end of the story, with Hazel dying of old age in the final pages of the book.
- Arcadia: Watership Down.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: As Hazel dies, El-ahrairah comes to make him one of his Owsla.
- Asskicking Equals Authority: It is generally the case that the Chief Rabbit of a warren is at the very least among its toughest fighters — Woundwort is a particularly vivid case, as he became the Chief Rabbit of Efrafa by killing the previous chief and a rival to take the warren by force. This becomes important late in the novel when Bigwig tells Woundwort that he was not Chief Rabbit, and that his Chief told him to defend the run ... and the Efrafans panic, not understanding that the Watership Down warren is an exception to the rule and Hazel, the limping rabbit they met earlier, is their chief.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Again, a common rule in rabbit warrens that General Woundwort takes to an extreme at Efrafa — it is common for the strongest rabbits to drive their weaker fellows away from the choicest plants, but at Efrafa, rabbits who have not earned a high enough rank in the Owsla may only go out to feed at all on a fixed schedule, and such rank has a fixed association with martial prowess and wilderness skills.
- Badass Army: The Efrafan Owsla.
- Beast Fable: Sometimes thought to be much like Animal Farm with a theme about the dangers of appeasement and fascism, although the story makes it clear that these are fundamentally rabbits, and not people, so it's clearly not a full-on allegory like Animal Farm. The Story Within a Story is a series of Beast Fables that teach the rabbits about death and survival.
- Because Destiny Says So
"There is not a day or night that a doe does not offer her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his chief. But there is no bargain. What is, is what must be."
- This one is actually a subversion; in effect, the Black Rabbit is telling El-Ahrairah (or, in the movie, Frith is telling Hazel) that he cannot interfere because the situation is out of his hands; essentially, the speaker is giving them the chance to create their own destinies. They will live or die, fail or triumph, on their skill and ingenuity alone. There will be no help for them, but neither will there be hindrance.
- Big Bad: General Woundwort.
- Big Brother Instinct: Bigwig may start out the story on the verge of being a Jerkass, but he's very protective of Pipkin right from the beginning, seemingly for no other reason than because Pipkin is the smallest of the group.
- Big Brother Mentor: Hazel to Fiver, usually when he's picked on by the likes of Bigwig. Also a literal big brother, in this case.
- Bolivian Army Ending: The last we see of Woundwort, he's battling a giant hound. The next thing we're told is that they Never Found the Body.
- Bring News Back: The destruction of the Sandleford warren, and also the warning about Efrafa. Holly is the messenger in both cases.
- Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Oddly averted, insofar as most rabbit terms for human inventions are translated, except for cigarettes ("white sticks") and cars ("hrududil"). We actually never learn what the rabbit word for rabbit is, but then again, perhaps there isn't one. Also, Lapine words for other animals are sometimes used ("lendri" for badger, "homba" for fox, "yona" for hedgehog.)
- The Call Knows Where You Live: It turns out Fiver was right; Sandleford is history. There's no chance of going back home.
- Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough:
- While Hazel leads by inspiring rabbits and convincing them of his competence, Bigwig acts as a Sergeant Rock and sometimes as a Drill Sergeant Nasty.
- Their counterparts, Woundwort and Campion, invert the trope: Woundwort is all about courage, brute force, and raw strength; Campion is about intelligence, strategy, and adaptation.
- The Captain: Hazel for the Sandleford outcasts. Plus every warren has a Captain of Owsla.
- Cassandra Truth: Fiver's predicament, at first. In fact, the quote of the first chapter in the book is Cassandra, from the play Agamemnon.
- Cats Are Mean: Tab is at first no meaner than rabbitkind's other countless enemies... until her big scene, where she turns out to be pretty mean even by cat standards. The fact that cats appear to be fluent in rabbit, whereas other animals must resort to a pidgin language for communication just makes the cat seem all the more sadistic.
Can you run? I think not... I think... not.
- Averted in two stories in Tales from Watership Down, where the non-aggressive cats featured come off as much more sympathetic than their rabbit opponents.
- City in a Bottle: Cowslip's warren and, to a lesser extent, Efrafa. Not quite Logans Run, but close.
- Combat Pragmatist: Bigwig normally uses his superior size and strength to overpower his opponents but when he gets ready to go up against Woundwort (who's even bigger and stronger than he is) he realises that he'd be at a disadvantage in a straight confrontation. He buries himself in the floor of a run so he can wait until Woundwort is almost on top of him then attack him by surprise from below.
- Come to Gawk
- Composite Character: The epilogue - in which Watership mothers tell their children the events of the main story, in the form of an El-ahrairah story - subtly implies El-ahrairah to a be a composite of every particularly clever Chief Rabbit who has ever lived.
- Conditioned to Accept Horror: All the rabbits of Cowslip's warren. They even have poets who sing about the nobility and dignity of accepting death.
- Con Lang: The rabbits' Lapine language, of course.
- Crapsaccharine World: Cowslip's warren, where the rabbits are strong, healthy, have plenty to eat, are developing the beginnings of art and music, and anyone can vanish permanently at any moment.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: Averted for the most part with El-ahrairah, as he differs from Jesus in many ways, but the comparison is inevitable. The narrator directly compares him to Robin Hood and John Henry.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The Battle of Watership Down. The Watership rabbits come out without a single loss (in the book) or only a single casualty (in the film). By contrast of the twenty-six or twenty-seven rabbits Woundwort leads from Efrafa, only seven or eight make it back alive. To put this into perspective the very largest warrens (of which Efrafa is said to be one) have a maximum of around a one hundred rabbit population (for contrast the Watership Down warren had around twenty-five rabbits after acquiring the Efrafan does) so the Efrafans probably lost around a quarter of their strength, as well as their leader, in that one disastrous expedition. No wonder they were happy to make peace afterwards.
- Death Trap: Cowslip's warren, indirectly.
- Deer in the Headlights: The rabbits have a term for it: "Tharn."
- Defeat Means Friendship: After the death/disappearance of Woundwort and the heavy casualties taken by the Efrafan force during the attack on Watership Down, Efrafa is taken over by the surviving Campion who makes peace with Watership and eventually a half Efrafan/half Watership warren is established halfway between the two warrens cementing their alliance.
- Defector from Decadence: Strawberry. The does of Efrafa are a subversion — their predator-free warren is meant to be rabbit paradise, but instead it's an oppressive police state that is slowly killing them.
- Determinator: Woundwort will not give up his pursuit of the Watership rabbits — and Bigwig will not give up his defense of them, even after taking damage that ought to kill him.
- Deus ex Machina:
- The farmer's daughter rescuing Hazel from the cat and taking him home. The chapter is even called "Dea ex Machina". Although not especially set-up, plot-wise, beyond a farm-hand's reference to young Lucy as liking rabbits, but the perfect ending to the Humans Are Cthulhu theme running throughout the book.
- During one chase scene, the good guys are saved when their pursuers are killed by a convenient train. Appropriately, they take this for an act of Frith.
- Fiver's vision where he channels Rowsby Woof gives Hazel the idea of siccing the farm dog on the besieging Efrafans, and is implied to have come from El-ahrairah himself.
- Deus Exit Machina: Kehaar, whose aerial support had been essential in the escape from the Efrafans and is big and aggressive enough to deter just about any rabbit except Woundwort* returns to the sea before the final battle.
- Doomed Hometown: Sandleford Warren.
- Don't Fear the Reaper: The Black Rabbit Of Inlé is only doing his appointed duty, after all. One line in Tales from Watership Down makes it clear: "The Black Rabbit... inspired a terrible, indescribable awe... but he is not wicked, evil, or cruel."
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Several of the characters have dreams loaded with foreshadowing, especially Fiver.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: General Woundwort is last seen, already bloodied from fighting Bigwig, going head to head with a Labrador Retriever — and not only is no body ever found, but the dog is wounded badly enough to quickly lose interest in hunting the other rabbits.
- Dystopia: Efrafa, and probably Cowslip's Warren. For those wondering, Cowslip's warren is situated next to a farm, whose owner has been leaving food out to keep the rabbits there while setting traps for them, giving him a steady food source. This has led to many strange habits for the rabbits, including a taboo against wondering about the location of any rabbit, thus putting the concept of the traps out of their heads.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Hazel's death of old age.
- Eldritch Abomination: In-universe, a steam train which saves the first Watership envoy from pursuing Efrafans; Holly and the envoy are nearly driven tharn simply by its passage. However the Efrafans themselves do not see it as this, recognising it for what it is.
"I tell you, I was beyond being afraid...you may think it was a wonderful thing to be saved by Lord Frith in his power. But...it was far more frightening then being chased by the Efrafans. Not one of us will forget lying on their back in the rain while the fire creature went by above our heads. Why did it come on our account? That's more then we shall ever know..."
- Everything Trying to Kill You: Such an integral part of the story that they made Frith's promise into the tagline of the movie: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince With A Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you they will kill you... but first they must catch you." One of the story's best features is that it effectively evokes the mindset of creatures who live with this trope every moment of their lives.
- Evil Genius: Woundwort has an advisor named Snowdrop who pretty much designed Efrafa's police state and the marks system by himself.
- Fantasy Pantheon: The rabbits have a fairly standard pantheon of gods — Frith the creator and sun god, his lieutenant Prince Rainbow (who seems to represent humanity), the Black Rabbit of Inlé as a god of death, and El-ahrairah, the heroic prince of rabbits. It's implied that other animals have their own patrons in the vein of El-ahrairah as well. And at the end, Woundwort is added as the rabbit version of the bogeyman.
- False Utopia: Cowslip's Warren.
- Feathered Fiend: Averted by Kehaar the gull, who is aggressive and disagreeable but is an important ally of the protagonists. Played straight by various other predatory birds, such as hawks and crows.
- Fictionary: One of the most celebrated in literature. You'll be thinking in rabbit language for days afterward.
- Fragile Speedster: All rabbits are. But Dandelion is singled out as the fastest of the rabbits in the book and uses his speed on several occasions.
- Fleeting Demographic Rule: Literally in-universe, due to rabbits' short lifespan. The main events of the novel are the stuff of legend some five years later, and humans are already portrayed as driving cars and smoking cigarettes in what rabbits consider the mythic past.
- Folk Hero: El-ahrairah, the first rabbit and culture hero; eventually, Hazel becomes Shrouded in Myth and his adventures get retold as if they were El-ahrairah's, implying the latter (or at least, his tales) to be a Composite Character.
- Foreshadowing: Fiver, unsurprisingly, gets to do a lot of this.
- General Ripper: Woundwort.
- Genre Popularizer: There are a number of other "epic animal adventure" stories, but it is difficult to read them without comparing them to Watership.
- Ghibli Hills: The Downs.
- Giant Flyer: Compared to the rabbits, Kehaar the gull.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: By the end, pretty much everyone has scars.
- The Grim Reaper: The Black Rabbit of Inlé. A frightening but dutiful Grim Reaper, not a murderous one.
Dandelion: We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inlé and only by his will... he will avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself.
- Hair-Raising Hare: General Woundwort. Also the Black Rabbit.
- Head-in-the-Sand Management: The Sandleford Chief Rabbit, played straight. He insists on ignoring Fiver's warnings that the warren is in danger. In fairness to him, the rabbits do lampshade the logistical nightmare of the whole warren up-and-leaving above ground, concluding it might be safer to stay down and try to dodge whatever's coming where they can't be seen. Unfortunately, what they don't anticipate (because they've never met it before) is the humans' use of poison gas.
- Heel-Face Turn: Campion and various other Efrafan rabbits after the disastrous attack on Watership Down and the death/disappearance of Woundwort either make peace with or surrender to the Watership rabbits. This eventually leads to a full alliance between the two warrens.
- Heroic BSOD: In Lapine, it's called tharn - the state of mind where a rabbit simply breaks and watches blankly as one of The Thousand approaches to take his life.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Hazel's prayer.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Rabscuttle and El-ahrairah are never, ever, apart.
- Honorifics: The Lapine language has its own, though only two are mentioned; -roo is an affectionate diminutive, and -rah means "king" or "lord" (usually used to refer to chief rabbits).
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: A bit of a mixed bag; the rabbits, especially the few refugees from Sandleford, naturally do think humans are bastards, but the human reader can easily sympathise with their POV (see, again, Everything Trying to Kill You). On the other hand, the first story in Tales isn't nearly as subtle.
This is subverted at the end of the novel when a little girl from the farm rescues the wounded Hazel and takes him to a doctor, and later sets him free. This somewhat changes Hazel's opinions of humans. The construction workers bringing along a kid to shoot the rabbits from Sandleford that try to escape, though, definitely is playing this trope straight. (Though it's strongly hinted that, since the shot rabbits were methodically collected and staked, that they were to be used for their meat and skins...thus bringing the trope full circle back to 'elil.')
- Humans Are Cthulhu: Subverted... maybe. They're generally regarded as just one more of the elil, but some of their stories treat them as elil above the other elil, which is also borne out by Cowslip's warren. Still, Hazel does get an excellent demonstration that we aren't Always Chaotic Evil.
- Intellectual Animal: They're about as intellectual as you can get and still be wild animals with an IQ of hrair (5).
- Kill 'em All: The human approach to the Sandleford warren sitting on land slated for development.
- Killer Rabbit: Woundwort is psychotic even by human standards.
- Last-Second Chance: Hazel to Woundwort before the attack on Watership Down, offering his vision of Efrafa and Watership working together. Woundwort considers it briefly, then flatly rejects it, directly leading to the Efrafan defeat. The same offer given later to Campion is accepted wholeheartedly.
- Last Stand:
- Bigwig, against General Woundwort.
- Woundwort himself, against an enormous savage dog. We don't get to see the result.note
- Meaningful Echo: "There's a large dog loose in the wood."
- Meaningful Name: El-ahrairah is derived from three Lapine words - "Elil"-"Hrair"-"Rah" meaning "Enemies"-"Thousand"-"Prince" hence "Prince With A Thousand Enemies".
- Moon Rabbit: The Black Rabbit of Inlé.
- Mythopoeia: The legends of El-ahrairah.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Again, General Woundwort. Note that Woundwort is a kind of flower, like Cowslip. (Since woundwort is a healing herb, the name also has a note of irony.)
- Never Found the Body: Of General Woundwort. Efrafans are convinced that he didn't die, but went away to find a more worthy warren. Eventually, he becomes a legendary bogeyman figure in the rabbit mythology.note
- Never Say "Die": In-universe example: among the rabbits, a dead rabbit is one who has "stopped running." Which emphasizes the rabbit world-view nicely.
- No One Gets Left Behind: As Hazel would have it; see True Companions.
- No Pronunciation Guide: Partially averted. There's a Fictionary, but Adams says names like Thethuthinnang and Thlayli are to be pronounced with a "wuf-fluffy" sound. The pronunciation guide only tells the reader which syllable is stressed (el-a-HRAI-rah, THE-thu-thin-NANG).
- Not Enough to Bury: General Woundwort takes on a dog—and presumably lost and got eaten.
- Not Quite Dead:
- Bigwig, after his battle with Woundwort.
- Hazel, after being shot.
- Oh, Crap: Bigwig has one when he hears his name being called in an unearthly voice in a dark night as he thinks it's the Black Rabbit of Inlé calling him to his death. It's actually Captain Holly of the Sandleford Owsla
- Only You Can Repopulate My Race: A major plot driver for the second half of the story. The group didn't think (or weren't able) to bring any females with them, so they need to find some or the new warren is doomed.
- Pardon My Klingon:
- "Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!" English
- "Embleer Frith", which translates literally to "Stinking God". A "shocking impiety", and everyone shuts up and turns round to see who said it. This effectively sets up the reader to be appropriately shocked themselves when it is later used in a far more casual manner by Woundwort.
- Rascally Rabbit: El-ahrairah, the rabbits' own mythological/folkloric trickster figure. During their journey the rabbits tell several tales of El-ahrairah's trickster abilities. To a lesser extent, all the rabbits, since they have to live by trickery.
- R-Rated Opening: "The field is covered in blood."
- Reasonable Authority Figure: 'The Threarah', the Chief Rabbit of the Sandleford warren, appears to be the classic Obstructive Bureaucrat when he dismisses Fiver's warning out of hand. Holly later reveals that his reasoning was actually quite logical — most prophets are frauds, and even if they're genuine the warren would have lost more rabbits from a mass evacuation than from a flood or hunters. Tragically, the oncoming disaster is more massive than anyone can imagine or Fiver can explain coherently.
- Safe Zone Hope Spot: Cowslip's Warren.
- Scarecrow Solution: Kehaar.
- Scenery Porn: You'd need a reference book to keep up with all the plant names Adams throws at you.
- Sedgwick Speech: Woundwort's Famous Last Words. "Dogs aren't dangerous!"
- Shown Their Work:
- One of the biggest examples is the geography. Every little detail noted in the book was present in the location's real life counterpart.
- Also, the Author himself notes at the beginning of the book that he had done a lot of research, using naturalist Ronald Lockley's book The Private Life of the Rabbit as a basis for a lot of rabbit behavior, instincts, needs, etc. found in the novel.
- Show Within a Show: The tales of El-ahrairah.
- Sliding Scale of Anthropomorphism: Body Type 6, far non-human end of the spectrum (Intellectual Animals).
- Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality: Level 1, in the sense that the female characters are pretty much Living MacGuffins (although Hyzenthlay is an exception). The sequel does attempt to address this.
- The Smart Guy: Blackberry, an innovative-engineer type (who rather unnervingly becomes the Smart Girl in the TV series).
- Spoony Bard: Dandelion (also a Fragile Speedster).
- The Storyteller: Dandelion, although this element was cut from the movie for time.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Cowslip's warren.
- Translation Convention: Rather elaborate, as Adams makes extensive use of terms that rabbits care about that have no English language equivalent; see Animal Talk.
- The Trickster: El-ahrairah, the rabbits' cultural hero.
- True Companions: The eight main rabbits' relationships are based on Adams' WWII unit buddies.
- Truth in Television: People more familiar with cuddly cartoons than wild rabbits are surprised how viciously they can and do attack each other, due to their extreme territoriality. Adams researched most of his protagonists' behaviors in The Private Life of the Rabbit, by naturalist Ronald Lockley.
- Unusual Animal Alliance: The rabbits enlist the aid of field mice and — more significantly — the seagull Kehaar to protect their warren.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: Efrafa. It was designed to be completely and utterly safe from humans. Before that, Cowslip's warren is seen as a perfect utopia for rabbits... provided you never ask where anybody is.
- Waif Prophet: Fiver.
- Wham Line: In-Universe, Bigwig's reveal that he was not the Chief Rabbit acted as this to Woundwort and the other Efrafans — who, given that Bigwig had effectively beaten Woundwort, found the idea of Watership Down containing a stronger rabbit terrifying.
- Wicked Cultured: The doomed rabbits of Cowslip's warren have gotten into poetry, rudimentary cave art, and other human-like mannerisms. And in every dramatization Cowslip speaks with a posh accent.
- X Meets Y: The Aeneid meets The Lord of the Rings with Rabbits.
- Xenofiction: Often the go-to example for explaining the genre.
- You Are Number Six: Fiver, both in Lapine and in translation. A rare case of this trope not being used for dehumanization. Or perhaps, derabbitization.
- You Can't Fight Fate: If you're a rabbit and Fiver says he has a bad feeling about something, not listening to him is basically suicide.
- You No Take Candle: Speakers of Hedgerow combine this with Funetik Aksent.
- In the TV show, Bark the lendri (badger) is an odd case: despite being elil, she wants to befriend the rabbits (particularly Fiver) and to forward that goal, speaks fluent Hedgerow - she lacks the Funetik Aksent.
- You Shall Not Pass: Quoth Bigwig: "My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here."
- Action Girl: In Tales, Flyairth, the former Chief Rabbit of Thinial, tackles a (small) dog to save Hazel. Inspired by her example, Hyzenthlay becomes co-Chief Rabbit with Hazel, and her first major task is rescuing a wounded doe, as detailed in the story "Hyzenthlay in Action".
- And Man Grew Proud: By the end of the novel, the events in the first part are passing into the rabbit canon of legends. It's easy to imagine the story of the Sandleford Warren's destruction going the same way.
- Art Shift: The chapter named "Dea Ex Machina" shifts to the POV of the nearby farm family and thus uses a very different style than the rest of the book, in that human concepts of class and ethnicity suddenly come into play. Most of the dialogue (except the visiting doctor's) is written in a heavy Funetik Aksent.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: A favorite trick of El-ahrairah. Holly and his companions do something similar to escape from Efrafa.
- Berserk Button: Never, ever ask Cowslip where anyone went. Alright, that alone will only cause him to dodge the question; it's reminding him why he does so that provokes a more violent response. Same goes for the rest of his warren.
- Book Ends: The first and last phrases of the book.
- Brief Accent Imitation: "Ees finish Meester Voundvort, ya?"
- Catchphrase: Woundwort's main assurance to his officers who get spooked by different elil is to simply say they "aren't dangerous." He says this multiple times throughout the novel, such as "Stoats aren't dangerous," or "birds aren't dangerous." It goes to show just how badass the general is since he has the muscle to back up what he says. These wind up being the last words we hear from him when he fights a large dog.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- At a certain point the author bothers to inform the reader that a certain dog, guarding the farm in which some rabbits are held in captivity, is tied with a rope, rather than a chain, so there won't be any rattling which could wake up the farmer. Said dog and the rope it's tied to will become quite relevant later on.
- At the end of The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, Lord Frith gives the Prince a new set of ears with 'a little starlight in them'. At the end of the novel, when Hazel dies of old age, a rabbit with faintly shining ears asks him to join his Owsla...
- Chekhov's Skill: Hazel even notes that the "board floating on water" trick might come in handy later.
- *Cough* Snark *Cough*: In Tales from Watership Down, Speedwell tells a story with the stricture that the first rabbit to interrupt or ask a question gets to leave and go stand in the rain. Hawkbit makes it about three-quarters through the story, then has an explosive coughing fit that would have done the Deltas proud.
"Hawkbit was seized with a fit of coughing, through which could be heard the occasional words, "—nonsense—" "—whoever—" "—sky blue horse!". Speedwell waited politely until Hawkbit had finished coughing."
- Elephant in the Living Room: Everyone in Cowslip's warren knows about the snares, but they pretend they don't.
- Epigraphs: Quotes from other epic novels, plays, and poems at the start of every chapter. The first one, naturally:
Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
- Evil Counterpart: Silverweed is the prophet and poet of Cowslip's warren, and thus counterpart to Fiver.
- Famed In-Story: By the end of the book, enough stories are being told about Hazel that he can't even remember which ones are true any more (though admittedly, his encroaching age doesn't help). Meanwhile, Woundwort has become Shrouded in Myth as a superpowered bogeyman with a touch of King in the Mountain mixed in.
- Foreshadowing: While Bigwig is facing off with the General, he can hear one of the does in the burrow behind distracting the others with a story, "The Fox in the Water" in which El-ahrairah pretends to tells a fox his future.
"Swift hounds on the scent, and my enemy fleeing for his life."
- Freudian Excuse: Holly and Silver observe, on separate occasions, that Efrafa's greatest fear is men and that Woundwort felt safer fighting than running. Woundwort's father was killed by a farmer and his mother and siblings were killed running from the farmer and a weasel.
- Funetik Aksent: Kehaar the gull. In the novel this is clearly the result of his having to fall back on a sort of interspecies pidgin to communicate with rabbits (Peeg vater!). Given his species of gull, it's quite likely this was meant to resemble a German accent.
- Mind you, his accent is clearly different from other animals speaking Hedgerow—mice sound a bit stereotypical-Italian for some reason, and the rabbits when speaking Hedgerow have no Funetik Aksent, they just use a more limited vocabulary and grammar.
- Any Human in the book gets heavily phonetic British accents, with the exception of the (presumably better-educated) doctor.
- Funny Foreigner: Kehaar.
- Getting Hraka Past the Radar: See Pardon My Klingon below.
- Hell Is That Noise (In-Universe): Everyone is freaked out by the sound of Fiver snarling and howling like Rowsby Woof. (But it gives Hazel the idea that saves the warren).
- I Was Just Passing Through: In the story "Hyzenthlay in Action", Bigwig objects to newly-appointed Chief Rabbit Hyzenthlay going off on her own to look for some missing does; she pulls rank on him and does so anyway. The next day, he goes out for a stroll and just happens to run into Hyzenthlay and the wounded doe she stayed behind to protect.
- Ironic Echo: "Can you run? I think not."
- Never Say "Die": Cowslip's warren. They do a lot of talking around the subject, though.
- Pardon My Klingon: In one notable example, an entire sentence is left untranslated ("Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!") Careful attention to the Fictionary explains why...
- For those who want the Cliffs Notes version, that's "Eat shit, Prince of [fox/elil/predator] Stench!"
- Given what the oft-mentioned but never explained "chewing pellets" means, this insult is somewhat puzzling. However, "chewing pellets" can be reasonably assumed to mean the necessity for rabbits to eat cecotrophs or "cecals" from the anus, due to a double-digestive system. This substance is not poop, and needs to be eaten. The dry little poops you might see in fields are real poop and should not be eaten - i.e. "shit."
- Plucky Comic Relief: Bluebell, as an intentional tension-breaker, and for the heck of it.
- Proud Warrior Race: It is Woundwort's goal to make rabbits into a Proud Warrior Race. One Efrafan prisoner says that it was a nice change from running from The Thousand and that Woundwort deserved at least that much credit.
- Punch Clock Villain: Campion, Woundwort's second in command. He even shows some lenience with the protagonists, trying to reason with them rather than attack on sight.
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Fiver's not the only one whose dreams turn out to be full of foreshadowing. Pretty much every surreal dream depicted on-page makes a certain kind of sense in retrospect.
- Refuge in Audacity: In "The Trial of El-ahrairah," the rabbit hero discredits a witness by leading him on a journey so bizarre that no one believes him when he testifies against El-ahrairah.
- The Scottish Trope: "The wires...!"
- Sedgwick Speech: "Come back, you fools! Dogs aren't dangerous! Come back and fight!" (Though this only counts if you believe Woundwort actually died.)
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: After a frightening night journey some of the rabbits credit Hazel with their safe arrival and enthusiastically declare him Chief Rabbit. Bigwig responds sarcastically that he'll call Hazel "Chief Rabbit" the day he stops fighting! Later on when Hazel is truly accepted as their Chief Rabbit, Bigwig is the only one who doesn't address him correctly (as "Hazel-rah") until his "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner to the Efrafans ("My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run, and until he says otherwise I shall do so"). After his unexpected survival Bigwig suddenly starts using the correct title, as well as announcing that he's giving up fighting for good.
- Shout-Out: Adams' narration references Br'er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales and comments that the origin of those fables were the adventures of El-ahrairah, which eventually trickled into the story telling of humans.
- Shown Their Work: Understated, but definitely present (in a good way) with the book's geography; essentially every location (down to individual trees and hedgerows) really exists and is accurately described as of the time of writing.
- This also applies to his research in The Private Life of the Rabbit, with one glaring aversion: in Adams' book it's an early plot-point that rabbits love cowslips, but in Private Life of the Rabbit, cowslips were one of the plants the rabbits refused to touch, even under starvation circumstances.
- The Spartan Way: Efrafa.
- Spell My Name with a "The": It's noted that the leader of the Sandleford Warren is almost always referred to as the Thererah ("The Lord Rowan Tree"), either because he's just that awesome or simply because there happened to be only a single rowan tree near the warren.
- The Storyteller: Dandelion is noted as a gifted storyteller, among the rabbits. Bluebell also tells one to keep some of the rabbits calm in a climactic scene.
- Speedwell, too, tells a story in Tales From Watership Down. However, his... style is vastly different from Dandelion's.
- Take Our Word for It: The Black Rabbit's terrifying story, which reduces El-ahrairah to a quivering mess.
- Town with a Dark Secret: Cowslip's warren.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Several. Though what else do you expect when the rabbit hero is El-ahrairah, god of being Genre Savvy?
- When Bigwig infiltrates Efrafa, only a few rabbits know that he's going to pretend to be a loner rabbit wanting to be an officer. Hazel rather sharply cuts Bluebell off when he starts joking about how Bigwig must mean to disguise himself as a hrududu and bring some does out.
- We don't get to hear the details of Hazel's plan to release the dog until it's well underway. And a good thing too.
- Also applies to El-ahrairah's plans, naturally.
- White Bunny: Silver, though his fur is a dilute version of typical brownish-grey rabbit coloring, not a pure white.
- Worthy Opponent: Campion, Woundwort's Captain of Owsla in the original.
- Bigwig wishes to convince Campion to defect along with the other Efrafa runaways, since he would rather not fight a rabbit he holds in such high regard. Even Hazel feels a grudging respect for Campion despite them only meeting once, hastily.
- Action Doe: Hyzenthlay plays a visible role in Holly's and Blackavar's escape attempts, and is one of the runners who lure the dog to the Down.
- Adaptation Distillation: It's only 90 minutes, a tearjerker, and on many best-of-animation lists.
- Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: Many of the rabbits are colors like light blue and pale yellow, so the audience can tell them apart more easily, and so that they fit in with names like "Silver."
- Animals Lack Attributes: Averted with the dog, played straight with the bucks.
- Arc Words / Book Ends: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince With A Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you they will kill you... but first they must catch you."
- Art Shift: The opening myth of El-Ahrairah was animated in the Aboriginesque style of the late John Hubley, the legendary founder of Limited Animation. The main film is ultra-detailed naturalistic animation... and then you have the rabbits' horrific visions and recollections, animated by Martin Rosen in a similarly abstract style, but with gradual transitions from the real.
- Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: Seemingly attempted but ultimately averted. Holds the accolade of being the only film to be granted an U―Certificate from the BBFC to contain the words “piss off” within the dialogue.
- Award Bait Song: "Bright Eyes" was a chart-topper performed by Art Garfunkel. The music, lyrics, and scene in which it is featured make it a Tear Jerker.
- Batman Gambit: Fiver gets Kehaar to help him by keeping him around long enough to shock him that there are no does in the warren. When Kehaar brings this up, Fiver feigns ignorance, frustrating Kehaar into showing them how to get the does, doing all of the warren's work for them.
- Bittersweet Ending: The rabbits managed to live happily on the warren, but Hazel dies of old age. On the other hand, Hazel peacefully crosses over into the afterlife, which is one of the main points of the story, so it's not exactly upsetting.
- Compressed Adaptation: The animated movie had to streamline quite a bit of the story, otherwise it'd be hours long.
- Contemptible Cover: The child-friendly one, not the one you see above.
- As well as including an otherwise-unavailable (at least at the time) commentary, the Australian DVD release, uniquely, provided a reversible cover, allowing one to choose between the child-friendly or dark versions.
- Think that's bad?◊ Even Woundwort is ashamed.
- Death by Adaptation: Blackavar, in all probability. What a senseless waste of rabbit life... Even managing to borderline on an 80s cliché given the name of the character, the fact that his is voiced by Clifton Jones (a Black actor), and the fact that he is the darkest character in the story.
- Decoy Protagonist: Viewers not familiar with the book thought Fiver was the protagonist for much of the film, not Hazel.
- Disney Acid Sequence: "Following the river of death downstream... or is it a dream?"
- Don't Fear the Reaper: In the novel, it was El-ahrairah who came to Hazel and asked him to join his Owsla, but oddly in the film its clearly the Black Rabbit of Inlé who has come to claim Hazel instead, to take him to Frith and the afterlife.
- Add to that, after Hazel is shot, Fiver realizes Hazel is still alive... because the Black Rabbit appears to him and leads him to where Hazel is hiding. Terrifying as he is, the Black Rabbit is clearly a caring spirit.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Violet, Blackavar. Dropped a hawk / bunny on them respectively.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: Lots of it. One of the best examples is when Woundwort tears out Blackavar's throat.
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: It may be a movie about bunnies, but it is not for young children.
- Famous Last Words: "Dogs aren't dangerous!"
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Kehaar. Piss off!!! At several points, rabbits use words from their author-created language to curse: Embleer Frith and Silflay hraka would not have cut it in English, for example ("God damnit" and "Eat shit" respectively).
- Good Colors, Evil Colors: Film only, and they have a fun way of inverting the Red Eyes, Take Warning subtrope. All the heroes have red eyes — they're rabbits after all. And we get so used to this over the course of the film that the minute we see the Efrafan rabbits' blue eyes, we sense something sinister about them.
Though to be fair, the eye colour is strictly limited to the rabbits' origins, and not their positions in the story. As seen by e.g. Blackavar and Hyzenthlay, who are blue-eyed Efrafans but the protagonist's allies. Alternately, Captain Holly and the late chief rabbit of Sandleford Warren, red-eyed, yet menacing antagonists (at least at first).
- Gorn: A shocking amount of it in an animated movie (of the time). Gets particularly egregious when Bigwig is choking to death in the snare and when the dog attacks the Efrafans; those rabbits unfortunate enough to be caught are torn asunder or simply shredded.
- Icy Blue Eyes: All of the Efrafans have these.
- Jump Scare: The rats in the barn abruptly make their presence known (to the audience, anyway), accompanied by an ear-splitting squeak.
- Killed By The Adaptation: Blackavar. Poor Blackavar.
- Little "No": Fiver's reaction to being told about what happened to Hazel is to simply, quietly and calmly state "Hazel's not dead." He's right, of course, being a seer he could probably sense his brother was still alive
- Oh Hraka: The looks on the Efrafans' faces when the dog comes charging onto the down with its first victim dangling bloodily from its jaws. The one that almost got away, especially.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Forgivable in the movie, less so in the subsequent TV series.
- Precision F-Strike: See Getting Crap Past the Radar, above
- Sanity Slippage: Fiver during his visions.
- Stupid Sacrifice: Blackavar at the end of the film. Arguably motivated by Tranquil Fury.
- Stuffed into the Fridge: Violet turns out to be the Mauve Shirt of the group.
- Sugar Apocalypse/Daylight Horror: "The field... the field... It's covered with blood!"
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Fiver goes into a trance, claims to be dying, repeats "There's a dog loose in the wood" a few times... and that's the last we see of him in the film.
- An Aesop: Half of the rabbit folktales teach a lesson to the rabbit audience.
- Animal Jingoism: As seen through rabbit eyes, most of the rest of the animal kingdom is either stupid or evil or both. Slightly subverted in that dogs are presented as mindless, slobbery brutes, while cats — bitchy as they may be — are allowed to speak their mind intelligently.
- Ascended To Carnivorism: In the creation story, all animal species start out as grass-eating herbivores, some of which get transformed into carnivores by Frith to keep rabbits' numbers in check.
- Bag of Holding: El-ahrairah's ears in "King Fur-Rocious."
- Balancing Death's Books: Appears in the story of "El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit."
- Batman Gambit: El-ahrairah's specialty.
- Call Back: The new El-ahrairah story Vilthuril tells her kits at the end of the book (and Hyzenthlay at the end of the movie), indicating that the Watership warren's adventures have already passed into legend.
- Chess with Death: El-ahrairah attempts to maneuver the Black Rabbit into accepting his life in exchange for those of the rabbits in his warren — once in a game of bob-stones (the lapine equivalent of liar's dice) and then in a storytelling competition. El-Ahrairah loses both times.
- Creation Myth: Involves the sun-god Frith blessing each animal with its sapient characteristics; by the time he gets to El-ahrairah, the rabbit prince, fearing those who've been given the instinct to hunt his kind, has dived into a hole with only his bottom sticking out... so Frith blesses his bottom, giving him huge back feet to run away with, and a white cottontail to signal danger.
- Did You Just Have Tea With Cthulhu: El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé.
- A Dog Named Dog: A hedgehog character named Yona shows up a few times; "yona" is Lapine for "hedgehog".
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: The not-too-bright dog Rowsby Woof suffers this when he's tricked into 'saving' his master by causing such a ruckus he's scolded and tied up.
- Eldritch Abomination: Especially in Tales, in the stories "The Hole in the Sky", "The Story of the Comical Field." and "The Three Cows."
- The Hole In the Sky was something only seen by El-ahrairah when an infection reduced him to delirium and insanity; described in more detail in the YMMV section.
- The Story of the Comical Field took place in a hedge maze which concealed something black, gibbering, predatory, and madness-inducing which El-ahrairah refused to describe after he narrowly escaped from it.
- The Third Cow is more an Eldritch Location: she is Time, existing outside the world as the rabbits perceive it and devouring all things, including El-ahrairah's lost youth. El-ahrairah willingly dives down its maw and wanders within, the details of which no storyteller will recall, because nobody understands what he found in there. Finally, however, he discovers a sort of Fountain of Youth - the Milk of Renewal in the cow's udder, through which he gains immortality.
- Enemy Mine: The point of "The Story of King Fur-Rocius."
- Folk Hero: El-ahrairah, a.k.a. (First) Rabbit and "Prince with a Thousand Enemies"
- Food Chains: El-ahrairah knows that eating the Black Rabbit's food will make his secret thoughts transparent.
- The Grim Reaper: The Black Rabbit of Inlé, evidently the Lapine version of Hades.
- Guile Hero: El-ahrairah, and every other rabbit in his footsteps.
- Heroic Sacrifice: How El-ahrairah tried to save his people in The Black Rabbit of Inlé. Failed, however. He ends up getting what he wants from the Black Rabbit simply for his persistence in remaining alive and thus disturbing the place of the dead beyond bearing.
- Hrair-Gambit Pileup: El-ahrairah's schemes often work by playing his several enemies against one another. Noticeable especially in "Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog," "The Trial of El-ahrairah," and "The King's Lettuce."
- Joker Jury: Composed entirely of elil (predators) in "The Trial of El-ahrairah." Neatly subverted when El-ahrairah uses the predators' contempt for rabbits to convince them his accuser is crazy. Though this is to a certain extent a Batman Gambit by El-ahrairah, who knew in advance how important it was to discredit Hufsa, and set things up accordingly.
- Just So Stories: Half of the rabbit folktales.
- The Mole: Hufsa in "The Trial of El-ahrairah" (that is, he's a rabbit doing spy stuff). Used as a metaphor by one of the Watership rabbits to explain the Owslafa, who are essentially Woundwort's Gestapo.
- Of the People: The rabbits are only interested in their own origins, and how other animals relate to them.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Rabscuttle and El-Ahrairah.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "The Story of the Great Marsh"/"The Story of the Terrible Hay-Making" in Tales. El-ahrairah leads a warren across the marsh to keep them from being wiped out... and once they get to the other side, the rabbits make such a nuisance of themselves to humans that they get wiped out anyway.
- Shrouded in Myth: Half the rabbit folktales are half-remembered legends of forgotten rabbit chiefs, now associated with El-ahrairah.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle, finally returning from their adventures after meeting the Black Rabbit of Inlé, find that most of their generation is dead and the young rabbits who make up the warren have little respect for them.
- To Hell and Back: El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé. Echoed a bit in the Tales story of "The Sense of Smell."
- Too Dumb to Live: In keeping with the lapine theme of using your wits to evade your enemies, many of the El-ahrairah myths that appear in the sequel are cautionary tales involving rabbits/warrens like this. The warren in "The Terrible Hay-Making" is an excellent example. Those rabbits were also assholes anyway.
- The Trickster: El-ahrairah repeatedly uses trickery and wits to escape certain death. He's the role model for how rabbits should try to survive.
- Tuckerization: "Rowsby Woof" was also the name of a celebrated violin instructor at the Royal Academy of Music; One of Adams's daughters was having trouble with one of his pieces, so he told her he'd "take care of him" by writing him into a story as a stupid guard dog.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: When the story "The Black Rabbit of Inlé" is told in the novel, it ends with god Frith waiting for El-ahrairah on the road with a bag of gifts. He gives the prince a new nose, tail and star-spangled ears. There's a gift for Rabscuttle too but... We never find out what it was.
- Considering that Fiver takes Rabscuttle's place in the story, it might have been prophetic visions.
- You Don't Want to Catch This: A standard tactic of El-ahrairah in these stories, when trying to avoid a more powerful enemy. Funnily enough, when El-ahrairah attempted to actually catch a fatal disease himself (The White Blindness, also known as Myxomatosis, a real-life disease that kills rabbits), he failed to do so.
As an aside, only Dinotopia
has gotten even close to using as many Animal Tropes
as this novel.