“Watership Down” (Post 1/3)


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2/3

Post 3/3

Richard Adams’ much-loved first novel, published in 1972. I read a first American edition hardcover from the library. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

The Plot:

A group of rabbits (including intelligent Hazel, brave Bigwig and seer Fiver) leave their warren in rural England when Fiver warns of impending doom. The rabbits search for a new, safe home and more rabbits to join their group.

I tried to read this as a kid and found the length too daunting. I tried to read it as a young adult and dismissed it as a kid’s book. My thirties was apparently the right time.

I’m not the first to say Watership Down is an incredible adventure tale, but maybe I’ll raise some eyebrows claiming that it has more heart, excitement and satisfying mythology than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The scope of this world, though contained to a relatively small physical area is incredible. And Adams pulls it off with no visible strain, effortlessly weaving the adventures of the rabbits with their fables. I can’t believe this was the work of a first-time author. It’s one of those stories that feels like it was given to the author in a complete piece.



He was small, with wide, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension.


[2] Reference:

He had coolly – some even said coldly – stood firm during the terrible onslaught of the myxomatosis, ruthlessly driving out every rabbit who seemed to be sickening.



Myxomatosis (sometimes shortened to “myxo” or “myxy”) is a disease that affects rabbits and is caused by the myxoma virus. It was first observed in Uruguay in laboratory rabbits in the late 19th century. Affected rabbits develop skin tumors, and in some cases blindness, followed by fatigue and fever; they usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease. The disease is spread by direct contact with an affected animal or by being bitten by fleas or mosquitoes that have fed on an infected rabbit. There is no treatment for rabbits suffering from myxomatosis, other than palliative care. The first outbreak in the UK to be officially confirmed was in 1953. People placed sick rabbits into burrows (though it was illegal) and killed more than 99% of rabbits in the UK. The population has since rebounded, with increased genetic resistance.

Also, a pretty good Radiohead song.

[3] Every chapter begins with a quote; many of which were unfamiliar to me or in foreign languages (see also notes [5], [6], [13], [14]; Post 2, notes [26], [29], [35], [41], [45], [46], [48]; Post 3, notes [59], [66], [70], [74], [79], [82], [85]).

What am I lying here for? … We are lying here as though we had a chance of enjoying a quiet time…. Am I waiting until I become a little older?

Xenophon, The Anabasis



Xenophon of Athens (~430 – 354 B.C.) was an ancient Greek philosopher, historian, soldier and mercenary, and a student of Socrates. His most notable history, Anabasis (An Ascent), recounts the failed campaign of Cyrus the Younger.

[4] An example of the level of sentence construction Adams can deftly handle; so surprising coming from a first-time author. I was never confused while parsing the thoughts of this book, which is one of the highest compliments I can give a writer. This is technically a single sentence (with a Reference):

Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines above the yellowing verges of the lanes – the hundreds of individual birds merging and blending, in a mounting excitement, into swarms, and these swarms coming loosely and untidily together to create a great, unorganized flock, thick at the center and ragged at the edges, which breaks and re-forms continually like clouds or waves – until that moment when the greater part (but not all) of them know that the time has come: they are off, and have begun once more that great southward flight which many will not survive; anyone seeing this has seen at work the current that flows (among creatures who think of themselves primarily as part of a group and only secondarily, if at all, as individuals) to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will: has seen at work the angel which drove the First Crusade into Antioch and drives the lemmings into the sea.



The Siege of Antioch took place during the First Crusade in 1097 and 1098. Antioch was an ancient Greco-Roman city. Its ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. Antioch was called “the cradle of Christianity” as a result of its longevity and the pivotal role that it played in the emergence of both Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity.

I can’t find references to an “angel” driving the First Crusade into Antioch.

Also, let’s clear something up: lemmings don’t commit mass suicide by running into the sea (unless they’re being chased by cameramen). They are able to swim and do so to migrate.

[5] This work is reference several times throughout the book and quoted outright at the beginning of Chapter 5:

R.M. Lockley, The Private Life of the Rabbit



Ronald Mathias Lockley (1903 – 2000) was a Welsh ornithologist and naturalist. He wrote over fifty books on natural history, including a major study of shearwaters, and many articles. He is perhaps best known for his book The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964). He and Richard Adams were friends. With Lockley’s permission, Adams introduced him as a character in his later novel The Plague Dogs.

[6] Translate:

Quant au courage moral, il avait trouve fort rare, disait-il, celui de deux heures apres minuit; c’est-a-dire le courage de l’improviste.

Napoleon Bonaparte


Another blogger (Zeroslash) was looking to translate this same quotation. In a message from Ernst Jacquitte, a French teacher, on a March 4, 2011 blog post:

This quote can be put in the context of what we can call a moral imperative versus action occurring on the spur of the moment. Remember Emmanuel Kant’s moral imperative: it is a philosophical concept based on principles, regardless of any consideration or situation that moral. Napoleon considers that the moral component is rare when it comes to courage. It might be impromptu, meaning that it can be an ad hoc (improvised or impromptu) act of courage.

Someone might act courageously for a variety of reasons that are not from any moral inclination of courage. For example, someone might act courageously to impress another person, to self-fulfill his ego, ect [sic]. However, the act of courage does not ipso facto (by the fact itself) equate to being morally courageous. Napoleon rightly makes a distinction between the moral imperative and other factors that might influence an act of courage. Remember, Napoleon was a great general, although his army in route to take the southern part of the U.S. was decimated in Haiti by a slave rebellion. He remains, however, a general who believes that courage shall be put in par as a moral imperative for men.

He also put an act of courage within the context of a time period, two hours after midnight (it is a little time period) when someone might act in a decisive and courageous manner, and acts differently when the circumstances change, hence without moral [imperative]. Therefore, for him, acting courageously once or twice does not equate to sentiment of courage or any courageous moral inclining.

Typing the quote into a translator gives me:

As for moral courage, he had found it very rare, he said, that of two hours after midnight; That is to say, the courage of the unexpected.

I can’t find where or when this quote was attributed to Bonaparte; all threads lead back to its use in Watership Down.

UPDATE: A comment left on 3/19/2018 on this post (by user Adam) gives a much better translation and interpretation of the quote (see bottom of post).

UPDATE 2!: A comment left on 9/17/2019 on this post (by user Doug) gives excellent background on where this quote comes from and a concise translation (see bottom of post).


Hazel realized wearily that Bigwig was probably going to be troublesome. He was certainly no coward, but he was likely to remain steady only as long as he could see his way clear and be sure of what do to. To him, perplexity was worse than danger; and when he was perplexed he usually grew angry.


[8] References:

Between them and stream itself stood half-grown clumps of purple loosestrife and fleabane.



Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) is a flowering plant. The stems are reddish-purple or red to purple and square in cross-section. The flowers are reddish purple.

Erigeron is a large genus of plants in the daisy family. Its English name, fleabane, appears to be derived from a belief that the dried plants repelled fleas or that the plants were poisonous to fleas.

[9] Reference:

The earth was soft and crumbling, with a scattering of the weeds that are found in cultivated fields – fumitory, charlock, pimpernel and mayweed.



Fumaria officinalis (common fumitory, drug fumitory or earth smoke) is a herbaceous annual flowering plant in the poppy family. It is an herbaceous annual plant, which grows weakly erect and scrambling. The flowers are pink. The “smoky” or “fumy” origin of its name comes from the translucent color of its flowers, giving them the appearance of smoke or of hanging in smoke, and the slightly gray-blue haze color of its foliage, also resembling smoke coming from the ground, especially after morning dew.

Sinapis arvensis is an annual or winter annual plant. It is commonly known as charlock mustard, field mustard, wild mustard or charlock.


“Look here,” said Hazel, “suppose you tell me what you want to do and I’ll tell you what I think about it.”



There is nothing like bad weather to reveal the shortcomings of a dwelling, particularly if it is too small. You are, as they say, stuck with it and have leisure to feel all its peculiar irritations and discomforts.



They were not out of the weather. They were waiting, uncomfortably, for the weather to change.


[13] Translate/Reference:

Don Alfonso: “Eccovi il medico, signore belle.”

Ferrando and Guglielmo: “Despina in maschera, che triste pelle!

Lorenzo da Ponte, Cosi fan Tutte


Italian: “Here’s the doctor, beautiful ladies.

Despina masked, that sad skin!

Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 – 1838) was an Italian (later American) opera librettist, poet and Roman Catholic priest. He wrote the libretti for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart’s greatest operas, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte.

Cosi fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (Italian: Thus Do They All, or The School for Lovers) is an Italian-language opera buffa in two acts by Mozart first performed in 1790.

[14] Reference:

He said, “Dance for me” and he said,

“You are too beautiful for the wind

To pick at, or the sun to burn.” He said,

“I’m a poor tattered thing, but not unkind

To the sad dancer and the dancing dead.”

Sidney Keyes Four Postures of Death



Sidney Keyes (1922 – 1943) was an English poet of World War II. He started writing poetry at a very young age and had written and books and poetry before dying in combat in Tunisia. According to the blog The Stone and the Star, the lines in Watership Down are from “Death and the Maiden,” the first poem in Keyes’s Four Postures of Death sequence.


“A thing can be true and still be desperate folly.”



It was cold, it was cold and the roof was made of bones.



“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running,” he said to Blackberry, quoting a rabbit proverb.


Post 2/3


13 thoughts on ““Watership Down” (Post 1/3)

  1. A family member reading Watership Down just sent me the Napoleon quote to translate. I thought I’d put my take here since this post comes up at the top of a Google search for the quote. The actual source of the quote has proven impossible for me to locate — which is a shame since I would love to have more context.

    I would translate it as: “As for moral courage, he had found extremely rare, he said, the two-hours-after-midnight kind; that is to say, the kind of courage that comes spontaneously.”

    The quotation seems to be taken from the middle of an anecdote about courage that some unidentified person is telling Napoleon — it seems like the gist of it is that it’s a very rare person whose courage comes so naturally that he is able to summon it at two in the morning (the night before a battle, one would imagine). I should note that the adjective “moral” in French can refer to morality or to spirits/mood (as in morale), and I’m guessing it’s meant to be the second meaning here. “À l’improviste,” which I’m translating as “spontaneously” in this context, literally mean improvisationaly — unexpectedly or without warning.

    Considering that Richard Adams included this epigraph in French and without its full context, he probably intended its meaning to be enigmatic.


  2. “Quant au courage moral, il avait trouvé fort rare, disait-il, celiu de deux heures après minuit; c’est-à-dire le courage de l’improviste.”

    This is a quote from page 217 of Memorial de Sainte Hèléne par le Comte de Las Cases, Volume 1, by Ernest Bourdin, 1842, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=ezwIeFYe2lMC&pg=PA217 .

    My concise translation: “He had found moral courage quite rare; that is, at two hours after midnight, it’s improvised courage.”

    Liked by 1 person

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