Richard Adams (1972) insisted that Watership Down was just a book about rabbits.
Be that as it may, if you take a work of art to be more than its author’s intent I think it is useful to examine the book as a source of political insight, particularly on the nature of leadership*.
Why do we need political authority?
One popular answer, defended by various authors including John Dewey, Plato, al-Farabi, and Confucius, is that political authority is needed for coordinated collective action. For example, al-Farabi argued that good political leadership of a city allows people to be happy. A good leader makes sure that the city is governed by righteous opinions and pursuits, not by base things such as seeking wealth or purely hedonistic pleasures. By contrast, a tyrannical ruler seeks not the common good, but solely the good of the ruler.
Watership Down investigates different styles of leadership, and what it takes to be an ideal ruler. It compares how rabbits live in four different warrens, contrasting the ideal society (Watership Down) with some suboptimal other solutions.
The Sandleford warren is where Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits flee from after Fiver has a disturbing vision that foresees its destruction. It’s important to note that although Hazel believes Fiver (his brother), given that he knows Fiver’s track record of reliable visions, not all the rabbits who flee are so convinced. The reason they leave is that they hope that another place would offer them better opportunities. The Sandleford warren is functional, but suboptimal.
It’s a society where right is might, where the owsla can take the choicest food from any low-status rabbit, just because they’re bigger and stronger. The Sandleford chief rabbit (the Threarah) is sensible. His decisions are very utilitarian, for example, he has managed to conquer a severe epidemic of white blindness). But his utilitarianism fails him when Fiver warns him. Usually, the best decision is to wait things out rather than move. In this case, that decision proves fatal.
Strawberry’s and Cowslip’s warren
The second society we encounter is Strawberry’s and Cowslip’s warren. On the face of it, it looks splendid, with glossy, sleek, large rabbits that engage in unusual hobbies (poetry and sculpture). But here, the book makes clear that physical health and wealth are not sufficient for a well-governed society.
Snares lie everywhere in waiting. These rabbits have chosen to sacrifice their freedom and safety for a steady supply of carrots and lettuce. That’s not their only problem. They’ve turned their backs on rabbit traditions such as the stories of El-ahrairah (classic trickster stories) because they’ve been tricked. They don’t have a chief rabbit because their society is one in which rabbits cannot meaningfully coordinate action. They’ve allowed themselves to be ruled by humans. To uphold their illusions and their comfort, they curtail freedom of expression (you can’t ask where anyone is).
This underscores the importance of the wisdom of the people, a position defended by conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke.
The El-Ahrairah stories contain collective wisdom about how rabbits, given their creaturely makeup, can flourish, and that makes these stories continued sources of insight for the community. Strawberry and Cowslip’s warren has no place for el-Ahrairah’s tricks, nor does it allow for free discussion of the obvious rot in society — an important reminder that a well-functioning society requires a continued discussion of the norms that underlie it; as Dewey said, a democracy cannot perpetuate itself anymore than any machine can have perpetual motion.
Watership Down is an exemplar of the ideal society, which thrives under its exemplary leadership. Its leader is Hazel, not particularly the strongest, most experienced, the cleverest, or the best speaker (these are all different rabbits in the group, notably Bigwig, Holly, Blackberry and Dandelion) but because he is best at making decisions that are in the best interest of the group.
It is useful to look at the features that make Hazel’s leadership successful in the face of difficult circumstances (notably, the war with the nearby warren of Efrafa).
First, Hazel’s not afraid to innovate, he takes the large meeting room structure from Cowslip’s warren, he takes over the concealment strategies of Efrafa (more below), he encourages bucks to dig, because there are no does — a clear breaking of gender norms.
Second, the society is inclusive and values differences in a positive way. The rabbits can do what they are best at: planning (Blackberry), story-telling (Dandelion), fighting (Bigwig)… He even enlists non-rabbit animals such as a seagull and a mouse. This accords with a Deweyan notion of democracy, where democracy is a collective where all its members can fulfill their potential, not only a subset of powerful or wealthy individuals.
Still, Hazel’s leadership is not flawless. The one non-forced error he makes is the rash break-out of hutch rabbits which nearly kills him (and which Fiver warned him about). This was a wrong decision because not informed by the collective good but by personal sense of glory and adventure. Note, though that even there Hazel doesn’t instrumentalize the hutch rabbits. He invites both bucks and does to come (even though they really only need does).
Third, Hazel is always actively looking for non-zero-sum opportunities. He saves a mouse from a kestrel because the mouse might repay the favor later (which the mouse does), his group helps the wounded seagull Kehaar which is crucial for their later strategy against Efrafa.
Efrafa, at first glance, is a highly successful warren. It is safe, populous, and well-organized. Its chief rabbit, Woundwort, is a non-compromising authoritarian who has devised a very elaborate strategy of concealment from humans and predators. As a result, The Efrafan rabbits enjoy exceptional safety, and they usually die of old age (or from their militaristic owsla).
In spite of this, the system is bad because it is so coercive. Concealment comes at too high a price. The rabbits spend too much time underground, which is not good for their wellbeing. The Efrafans, except for the few lucky to have skills and physical abilities to be part of the owsla or council, cannot flourish, and cannot fulfill their potential. Dissidents, such as Blackavar, are oppressed, maimed, and killed.
General Woundwort is a formidable (very interesting) antagonist. The story, which is told in an involved, omniscient voice, frequently shifts into Woundwort’s perspective. Woundwort is a flexible military thinker who has devised a brilliant system that has served his group well, but that now, through overcrowding, is falling apart.
One problem Woundwort has occurs frequently with leaders-turning-into-dictators: he has surrounded himself with very loyal yes-sayers, his council members. They don’t criticize him, because getting into the council requires absolute loyalty. So, he gets no pushback. His decisions go uncontested. With political power comes an increasing need to have guidance by people who might tell you you are wrong.
So, he disregards a more prudent military tactic (starving out the enemy warren) suggested by an intelligent council member, in favor of one that can yield quicker results, but that is riskier. The strategy fails.
Unlike Hazel, Woundwort is a zero-sum thinker. Any gain for the Watership Down warren must be a loss for Efrafa, and vice versa. Given how zero-sum thinking dominates a lot of politics today, it is worth quoting at length the following passage, where Hazel attempts to negotiate with Woundwort a non-military way to settle their dispute:
[Hazel said to Woundwort] “I’ve come to suggest something altogether different and better for us both. A rabbit has two ears; a rabbit has two eyes, two nostrils. Our two warrens ought to be like that. They ought to be together — not fighting. We ought to make other warrens between us — start one between here and Efrafa, with rabbits from both sides. You wouldn’t lose by that, you’d gain. We both would. A lot of your rabbits are unhappy now and it’s all you can do to control them, but with this plan you’d soon see a difference. Rabbits have enough enemies as it is. They ought not to make more among themselves. A mating between free, independent warrens — what do you say?”
At that moment, in the sunset on Watership Down, there was offered to General Woundwort the opportunity to show whether he was really the leader of vision and genius which he believed himself to be, or whether he was no more than a tyrant with the courage and cunning of a pirate. For one beat of his pulse the lame rabbit’s idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him. The sun dipped into the cloud bank and now he could see clearly the track along the ridge, leading to the beech hanger and the bloodshed for which he had prepared with so much energy and care.
Woundwort just can’t grasp it, and this becomes his downfall. In addition, Woundwort seems to think that strength is power, and so he is surprised to learn that Bigwig is not the chief rabbit when they meet in battle.
With Watership Down’s victory, the non-zero sum thinking prevails, and the third warren halfway between Efrafa and Watership Down disappears. In a world that’s dominated by zero-sum thinking this political philosophy seems to me hopeful and encouraging. I hope we will get the political leaders that make non-zero sum collective actions (on such things as climate change, global health, inequalities) possible, in due course.
*I first noted these ideas in a Twitter thread, here, this blogpost is an expanded version of it. I am also indebted to Johan De Smedt for pointing out the political philosophical aspects of Watership Down, which he goes into in this forthcoming book we are co-editing (with Eric Schwitzgebel).