Watership Down Characters — Hazel

Richard Adams’ Watership Down is perhaps my favorite work of fiction, and is among my favorite authors. I find the book profound in its message of courage and transformation, and even salvation. It is far more than a novel about human politics. All quotes come from the Perennial Classics print of the book (2001).

rabbit blackThe outstanding theme of Richard Adams’ Watership Down is transformation — the salvation brought about by transformation from a lesser to a greater person, or rabbit in the case of the novel’s heroes, especially the protagonist Hazel. Transformation can only come through one’s movements through challenge, struggle, hardship, and even suffering. Movement of the person (rabbit) through such situations may not lead to a transformation into a better or greater person, but may lead to the formation of a bitter, violent soul. Thus, as one moves through trials one needs a model — a guide — to imitate. “We become who we imitate.” Hazel had as his model the cunicular exemplar: Lord El-ahrairah. It is this archetypical rabbit’s character and acts that transformed Hazel from a scared, simple “bunny” to the king (Chief Rabbit) of the glorious warren named Watership Down.

Hazel began his life as a commoner, or “outskirter” — a rabbit who would likely never ascend to a better station within a warren. However, in spite of his humble origin his character possessed a sense of adventure and mischief. He shows that he is not to be intimidated when he brings his brother Fiver before the chief rabbit of the Sandleford Warren (their home warren). Though the chief rabbit will not listen to Fiver’s prophetic warning, Hazel knows and trusts his brother and determines to leave the doomed warren. He opens their flight to any rabbit who would hear of the plan heeding Fiver’s words: “Fiver and I will be leaving the warren tonight,” he said deliberately. “I don’t know exactly where we shall go, but we’ll take anyone who’s ready to come with us” (p. 15). The only rabbit of standing within their company that night was Thlayli, or Bigwig, a junior member of the warren’s owsla (guardians of a warren). Hazel would not be put off by the large and bold Bigwig who would outrank him in any normal warren:

The last thing Hazel had expected was the immediate support of a member of the Owsla. It crossed his mind that although Bigwig would certainly be a useful rabbit in a tight corner, he would also be a difficult one to get on with. He certainly would not want to do what he was told— or even asked— by an outskirter. “I don’t care if he is in the Owsla,” thought Hazel. “If we get away from the warren, I’m not going to let Bigwig run everything, or why bother to go?” (pp 15 — 16).

“Or why bother to go?” These words of Hazel declare his ultimate desire: to create a new type of warren for rabbits free to create a new cunicular culture where freedom and equality could be experienced by all. It is this desire that drives the story. Care for the weak and faint-hearted is part of Hazel’s vision. We read of this when Hazel stands in solidarity with the weak and once wounded Pipkin (or Hlao-roo). “Hazel rubbed his nose behind Pipkin’s ear. ‘No one’s going to leave anyone else behind,’ he said. ‘If you had to stay, I’d stay with you’” (p. 48). The transformations that come about in Hazel and all that flee the ordinary Sandleford warren are to serve this end. There must be “people” worthy to populate a “shining city (warren) on a hill.”

The transformations that come to all the rabbits begin with Hazel, as he meets head on challenges that are demanded of their flight and journey. Hazel moves himself to take chances for the other’s safety and well being. He overcomes fear and enters into behaviors previously unknown to him and them. All these actions stretch him and lead him on to even more growth and development that he might become a complete and whole rabbit — that he becomes like El-ahrairah himself. The beginning of this transformation is recognized by Dandelion very shortly after their departure from the old Sandleford warren: “Well done,” whispered Dandelion. “Running our risks for us, are you — like El-ahrairah?” (p. 25). This courage and selflessness of Hazel is later recognized by Bigwig himself: “You got yourself out of that ditch down there instead of me, didn’t you, Hazel? I shan’t forget that: (p. 144).

But it isn’t only Hazel who is transformed. By the time they reach what will become their new warren on Watership Down wonderful changes come to all who have followed Hazel’s leading role:

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no more quarreling. The truth about the warren [of the snares] had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities…There was no more questioning Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s insight, Blackberry’s wits or Hazel’s authority (pp. 124 — 125).

These transformations come from the inspiration of Lord El-ahrairah and his unseen presence and work among the rabbits, and lead Hazel to be called Hazel-rah. For El-ahrairah was recognized now in Hazel — he had become what he was to be as their chief rabbit, an alter-El-ahrairah. Self-recognition of who he had become and his role becomes evident to Hazel on his adventure to Nuthanger Farm. He addresses domesticated rabbits living confined lives in a hutch: “I am Hazel-rah,” he said. “I have come to talk to you” (p. 203).

Hazel expresses his proper self understanding and awareness in that quote. Yet, his fullest expression of being “rah” (meaning prince) is found in his blessing of Bigwig as his champion is about to depart to infiltrate the Efrafan warren. Hazel speaks to him not only as Chief Rabbit, but as something far beyond that of leader — he now speaks as spiritual leader. Standing fully in the person of El-ahrairah — as alter El-ahrairah — he blesses Bigwig: “There’s nothing more to wait for,” said Hazel. “Go on, Bigwig, straightaway, and may El-ahrairah go with you” (p. 304).

Other tests, dangers and adventures would lay ahead — chiefly all the conflict and battles with General Woundwort and the Efrafan warren’s owsla. Hazel and his comrades prevail, and the utopian Watership Down warren — the cunicular “city shining on a hill” becomes his and their reality.

The warren prospered and so, in the fullness of time, did the new warren on the Belt, half Watership and half Efrafan — the warren that Hazel had first envisaged on that terrible evening when he set out alone to face General Woundwort and try to save his friends against all odds (pp. 474 — 475).

That quote comes from the Adams’ wonderful and glorious concluding epilogue. Adams informs us that Hazel lived a much longer life than most rabbits in the wild. He continues:

He lived a tidy few summers — as they say in that part of the world…He saw more young rabbits than he could remember. And sometimes, when they told tales on a sunny evening by the beech trees, he could not clearly recall whether they were about himself or about some other rabbit hero of old (p. 474).

Even heroes and saints pass from this life. Hazel-rah is no different, yet there is more for Hazel-rah as Fiver-rah informs his brother: “Well, there’s another place — another country, isn’t there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants…” (p. 249). And so Hazel-rah ends his natural life and comes to the point of entry to the next life:

images-12One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow…when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him…[Hazel] raised his head and, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
…Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said. “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go now” (pp. 475 — 476).

Hazel-rah’s faithful, daring and courageous imitation of his lord El-ahrairah conformed him into his lord’s image. Hazel participated in El-ahrairah. He lived as his lord lived. Like recognizes like, and El-ahrairah recognizes himself in Hazel and comes to his side to call him into his company — the company of his owsla — company in eternal relationship with El-ahrairah. This is the parallel for the Christian: a faithful imitatio Christi by the Christian forms Christ in him or her. Christ, in like turn, welcomes the faithful into his eternal company.

I cannot resist..Saint Hazel-rah, pray for us!

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

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