“Watership Down” (Post 3/3)


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/3

Post 2/3



“There’s another place – another country, isn’t there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die.”


[50] Vocabulary:

The insects hummed around the dense white cymes hanging low above the grass.



A flower cluster with a central stem bearing a single terminal flower that develops first, the other flowers in the cluster developing as terminal buds of lateral stems.

[51] References:

The rabbits (…) peered round spotted hairy-stemmed clumps of viper’s bugloss, blooming red and blue above their heads; pushed between towering stalks of yellow mullein.



Echium vulgare (known as viper’s bugloss and blueweed) is a species of flowering plant. The flowers start pink and turn vivid blue. They grow in a branched spike, with all the stamens protruding.

Verbascum, common name mullein (also known as velvet plant) is a genus of about 360 species of flowering plants in the figwort family Scrophulariaceae. The five-petal flowers are most commonly yellow but can be orange, red-brown, purple, blue, or white.

[52] Reference:

They had come to the line of the Portway (…) on across the downs and so to Tadley and at last to Silchester – the Romans’ Calleva Atrebatum.



Calleva Atrebatum was a large fortified settlement (and subsequently a town) in the Roman province of Britannia (in present-day county of Hampshire, England). Walls still stand, along with a tiny medieval church and an amphitheater.

[53] Vocabulary/Reference:

Less than half a mile to the west, they came upon a spinney adjoining the southern edge of Caesar’s Belt.




noun – (British) – a small area of trees and bushes.


Caesar’s Belt is a narrow stretch of ancient woodland in Hampshire, England.

[54] Reference:

“When the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off.”


There are several references in Watership Down to weasels and ferrets attacking rabbits. What’s the story?

The weasel war dance is a colloquial term for a behavior of excited ferrets and weasels. In wild animals, it is speculated that this dance is used to confuse or disorient prey. The stoat (also known as the ermine or the short-tailed weasel) often employs a “war dance” when attacking rabbits.

[55] Vocabulary:

“Anyone who has seen a gameskeeper’s gibbet knows what the Black Rabbit can bring down on elil who think they will do what they will.”



A gibbet is any instrument of public execution (while gibbeting refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of executed criminals were hanged on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals).


“The Black Rabbit smelled as clean as last year’s bones and in the dark El-ahrairah could see his eyes, for they were red with a light that gave no light.”


[57] Reference:

“Rabscuttle helped him to patch himself up with a gray tail and whiskers made from the winter drift of clematis and ragwort.”



Clematis is a genus of about 300 species within the buttercup family Ranunculaceae.

[58] Reference:

“Here, too, in this nearest hole, lies the white blindness, that sends creatures hobbling out to die in the fields, where even the elil will not touch their rotting bodies.”



White blindness is another term for myxomatosis (Post 1, note [2]).

[59] Translate/Reference:

Esprit de rivalite et de mesintelligence qui preserva

Plus d’une fois l’armee anglaise d’une defaite.

General Jourdan, Memoires Militaires


Putting this into Google translate gives me:

French: A spirit of rivalry and misunderstanding / Which more than once preserved the English army from a defeat.

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan (1762 – 1833) was one of the most successful commanders of the French Revolutionary Army. His writings include Memoires pour server a l’histoire sur la campagne de 1796 (1819) and unpublished personal memoirs.

[60] Reference:

Some of the plants were not yet in bloom, their buds curled in pink, pointed spirals held in the pale green calices.




noun – (Botany) – the sepals of a flower, typically forming a whorl that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud.

[61] References:

Pausing among the comfrey and ground elder, they stared at each other, seeking reassurance.



Comfrey (also comphrey) is a common name for plants in the genus Symphtym. Comfrey species are important herbs in organic gardening. It is used as a fertilizer and as an herbal medicine.

Aegopodium podagraria, commonly called ground elder is a perennial plant in the carrot family that grows in shady places. The name “ground elder” comes from the superficial similarity of its leaves and flowers to those of elder (Sambucus), which is unrelated.

[62] Reference:

Along [the path’s] further side the riparian plants grew thickly.



adjective – (Law) – of, relating to, or situated on the banks of a river.

(Ecology) – of or related to wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams.

[63] Reference:

When Marco Polo came at last to Cathay, seven hundred years ago, did he not feel (…) that this great and splendid capital of an empire had had its being all the years of his life and far longer?



The Anglicized version of “Catai” and an alternative name for China in English.

…and something I already looked up (“The Bridge of San Luis Rey“, note [13])


There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.


[65] This was at least the second time in the book when Bigwig’s death seemed certain or foreshadowed. (See my comments at the end for how I felt about these stakes being set with no consequence…)

Afterward they all remembered how Bigwig had taken his orders. No one could say that he did not practice what he preached.


[66] Reference:

Like an obelisk towards which the principal streets of a town converge,

the strong will of a proud spirit stands prominent and commanding in the

middle of the art of war.

Clausewitz, On War



Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831) was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the “moral” (psychological) and political aspects of war. His most notable work, Vom Kriege (On War), was unfinished at his death. It was written mostly after the Napoleonic wars, between 1816 and 1830. It is one of the most important treatises on political-military analysis and strategy ever written, and remains both controversial and an influence on strategic thinking.

[67] Reference:

He was impervious to the fascination of the mustelidae, and hoped someday to kill a weasel, if not a stoat.



The Mustelidae are a family of carnivorous mammals, including the weasel, badger, otter, marten, ferret, mink, stoat, and wolverine.

[68] Reference:

A patrol leader (…) would come upon the General squatting like a hare under a tussock of darnel.



A Eurasian ryegrass.

[69] References:

The damp grass along the edges of the paths was dotted with spikes of mauve bugle, and the sanicles and yellow archangels flowered thickly.



Ajuga, also known as bugleweed, ground pine, carpet bugle, or just bugle, is a genus of 40 species in the mint family.

Sanicula is a genus of plants in family Apiaceae, the same family to which the carrot and parsnip belong. The common names usually include the terms sanicle or black snakeroot.

Lamium galeobdolon, commonly known as yellow archangel, artillery plant, or aluminum plant, is a widespread wildflower in Europe. The flowers are soft yellow.

[70] Reference:

This world, where much is to be done, and little known…

Dr. Johnson



Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature. The quote used in Watership Down is from Prayers and Meditations, Against Inquisitive and Perplexing Thoughts (1785).


“You can nearly always find someone to punish if you try hard enough.”



Bigwig’s spirit was as tough as his body and quite without sentimentality, but, like most creatures who have experienced hardship and danger, he could recognize and respect suffering when he saw it.


[73] Adams cleverly explains how to pronounce his invented language by telling us a word or phrase with the same stresses:

*The stresses [in El-ahrairah] are the same as in the phrase “Never say die.”



*The first syllable [of Efrafa] is stressed and not the second, as in the word “Majesty.”



*Thethuthinnang: “Movement of Leaves.” The first and last syllables are stressed, as in the phrase “Once in a way.”



[74] Reference:

You k’n hide de fier, but w’at you gwine do wid de smoke?

Joel Chandler Harris, Proverbs of Uncle Remus



Joel Chandler Harris (1848 – 1908) was an American journalist, fiction writer, and folklorist best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories.

[75] Vocabulary:

The hard, ringing noise from under the soffit, so much unlike any sound to be heard in an earth tunnel, was disturbing.



noun – the underside of an architectural structure such as an arch, a balcony, or overhanging eaves.


To watch another in danger can almost be as bad as sharing it.


[77] Vocabulary:

“Her beggar am I, Fairy Wogdog! Her mendicant, her idiot, her-”



adjective – given to begging; of or denoting one of the religious orders that originally relied solely on alms.

noun – a beggar.

[78] Reference/Fact check:

“Some of the does may want to see [the baby rabbits],” said Hazel. “They’re excited, you know. But we don’t want Clover disturbed into eating them or anything miserable like that.”


According to reference.com:

If a new mother rabbit is stressed or fearful, she may respond by eating the litter. Instinct may be telling her that the likelihood of her litter surviving would be better in another time or place.

Given an unstressed birth, eating a whole litter is rare, but eating one or two kits is not uncommon. The mother may have discovered that one of the kits is injured, defective or too runty to survive. In rare cases, a doe may habitually eat her newborns, possibly because she suffers from some nutritional deficiency. In such cases, it is best not to continue breeding the animal.

[79] Reference:

They were subject to “castle-mentality” in its most extreme form.

Robin Fedden, Crusader Castles



Robin Fedden (1908 – 1977) was an English writer, diplomat and mountaineer. Crusader Castles: A Brief Study in the Military Architecture of the Crusades was published in 1950.


Like most warlords, he was never very confident about what was going on behind his back.


[81] References:

The straw had not yet been burned and lay in long pale rows upon the darker stubble, tenting over the bristling stalks and the weeds of harvest – knotgrass and pimpernel, fluellin and speedwell, heartsease and persicary – colorless and still in the old moonlight.



Fluellin appears to be an obsolete word for any of various varieties of Veronica, especially Veronica officinalis; also speedwell. (It sounds like fluellin and speedwell are basically the same thing.)

Viola tricolor, also known as heartsease, is a common European wild flower, growing as an annual or short-lived perennial. It is sometimes called wild pansy. The flowers can be purple, blue, yellow or white.

Persicaria is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the knotweed family, Polygonaceae. Plants of the species are known commonly as knotweeds or smartweeds.

[82] Reference:

Ole bull he comes for me, wi’s head down. But I didn’t flinch… I went for ‘e. ‘Twas him as did th’ flinchin’.

Flora Thompson, Lark Rise



Flora Thompson (1876 – 1947) was an English novelist and poet famous for her semi-autobiographical trilogy about the English countryside, Lark Rise to Candleford. The first part, Lark Rise, was published in 1939. The trilogy was first published together in 1945.


With a sort of weary, dull surprise, Woundwort realized that he was afraid.


[84] A human character named “Dr. Adams” shows up in Chapter 48 (titled “Dea ex Machina”). A cheeky touch for the author to make himself the God from the machine here. (p.411)

[85] Reference:

Well, we’ve been lucky devils both

And there’s no need of pledge or oath

To bind our lovely friendship fast,

By firmer stuff

Close bound enough.-

Robert Graves, Two Fusiliers



Robert Graves (1895 – 1985) was an English poet, novelist, critic and classicist. He produced more than 140 works, including I, Claudius. He was a member in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War and developed a reputation as a war poet. During this time, he was friends with the poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967), a fellow officer in his regiment. Graves’s collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) contained many poems celebrating their friendship, including Two Fusiliers. The full text can be found here.


Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.


Watership Down is recommended to any fan of adventure or fantasy. It does run a bit long and, because of that and some intense scenes, should be read by an adult before being attempted as a read-aloud for kids. (I think adults would get more out of it, anyway.)

With all this high praise, my 4-star rating might seem unfit. Why didn’t I go with 5? Three reasons:

(1) The role (or non-role) of females took away from making this a full world. I don’t know why Adams made the does such passive, absent, generally useless characters when female rabbits are often dominant and rabbits almost always travel in male/female pairs. Why wasn’t there a female or two in Hazel’s original group? Why do none of the rabbits’ fables have female characters?

(2) Adams sets up many high-tension scenes that resolve with no lasting damage to our heroes. The only rabbits to die are the red-shirts; no member of the main crew is ever lost. The emotional resonance could have been so much higher if he’d been willing to go through with some of the threats.

(3) The quotes opening each chapter kept pulling me out of the story. For all of Adams’ work to create a world of his own, he hurt it by introducing so many human thoughts and ideas.

I picked up a paperback of The Plague Dogs and I’m looking forward to giving it a try. I’m curious if Adams was able to maintain the high quality of his first outing.

Next week: Dennis Etchison’s short story collection, The Dark Country.


4 thoughts on ““Watership Down” (Post 3/3)

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