Wateship Down Characters: General WoundwortPosted: August 18, 2016
Every novel needs a villain or two. Watership Down is no different — Richard Adams gives his readers General Woundwort, the dictatorial Chief Rabbit of the Efrafan Warren. Adams provides the General’s “bio” in chapter 34.
General Woundwort was a singular rabbit. Some three years before, he had been born — the strongest of a litter of five — in a burrow outside a cottage garden near Cole Henley. His father, a happy-go-lucky and reckless buck, had thought nothing of living close to human beings except that he would be able to forage in their garden in the early morning.
Things go poorly for this buck, his doe, and the litter. All perish but Woundwort who is rescued by a “kind old schoolmaster.” In spite of his rescue, “…Woundwort grew up very wild…would bite when he could. In a month he was big and strong and had become savage.” He escaped and forced his acceptance upon a warren, then soon became its Chief Rabbit after killing the previous Chief and a rival. Adams further comments on Woundwort:
When he had explored the limits of his own strength, he set to work to satisfy his longing for still more power in the only possible way — by increasing the power of the rabbits about him. He needed a bigger kingdom…He left the small warren, taking his followers with him, and set out to look for a place suited to his purpose, where the existence of rabbits could be concealed and extermination [by men] made very difficult.
This above quote holds out a surprise. One normally expects one hungry for power to want to exert power and control over others, but Woundwort wants to increase the “power of the rabbits around him.” Woundwort despises weakness and those rabbits who are filled with fear. Woundwort will fight all comers — except a fox — and expected the strong bucks of the warren to have the same fierce tenacity: “He knew how to encourage other rabbits and to fill them with a spirit of emulation.” But to prove a rabbit worthy of respect and fierce in battle, he had to bring about control — a zealous, absolute control of both the rabbits of the warren and the warren’s surroundings. Soon fear, not admiration, became the dominant method to maintain power and control. The General set up a Council of Advisors, and his Owsla became his secret police and security force. Any rabbit who attempted escape would be severely punished, even with maiming (as with Blackavar) and death. Any rabbit unfortunate to wander into Efrafa was made prisoner. (This was the fate of Captain Holly and his companions when they innocently approached Efrafa seeking does to return with them to Watership Down. By their wits they escaped.)
Into this cunicular dictatorship enters Bigwig to infiltrate and liberate does with the help of Kehaar. Bigwig prevails by the help and presence of El-ahrairah. The defeated Woundwort devises a plan of revenge: he and officers of his Owsla will invade Watership Down, bring back the does, kill Bigwig and any who resist them.
Woundwort and his officers approach Watership Down, but Hazel comes to Woundwort and offers terms which would bring peace, and a win-win scenario for both Chief Rabbits.
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 [Hazel’s] idea shone clearly before him. He grasped it and realized what it meant. The next, he had pushed it away from him…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.
Hence, we have to starkly contrasting characters: General Woundwort and Hazel. Both are Chief Rabbits to their respective warrens, and as Chief Rabbits they both embody Lord El-ahrairah to their warrens.
We learned of General Woundwort’s motivation to lead. Initially, it was to empower rabbits to be far more than scared bunnies who freeze and bolt at the first threat of danger. Woundwort’s vision was to become fierce before all creatures, and then lead others in his way of force and physical power. Hazel’s motives were far different because he experienced power and privilege far differently. He observed how lesser rabbits — primarily his brother Fiver — were treated by those who occupied a higher social rank. Hazel comments, “I’m sick and tired of it,’ he said, It’s the same all the time. ‘These are my claws, so this is my cowslip.’ ‘These are my teeth, so this is my burrow.’ I’ll tell you, if ever I get into the Owsla, I’ll treat outskirters with a bit of decency.” Even upon the initial flight from the Sandleford Warren, when the Owsla member Bigwig joins them, Hazel is aware that Bigwig cannot take charge and keep rabbit life bound within the hierarchy and oligarchy of the strong: “Or why bother to go?”
Woundwort and Hazel become far more than their beginnings held forth. Their endings though, are quite divergent. First, Woundwort. We read of the close of the battle at Watership Down. Hazel, Blackberry, and Dandelion (by the word of El-ahrairah) free a dog. They lead it to Watership Down where it kills a number of the invaders, then encounters Woundwort: “Then it sprang forward; and even as they ran, his Owsla could hear the General’s raging, squealing cry, ‘Come back, you fools! Dogs aren’t dangerous! Come back and fight!” Woundwort’s end is unknown. Did the dog kill him and take his body with him? Or, as his former officer Groundsel opined, “He hasn’t stopped running.” Either way, the memory of General Woundwort became that of a character does told their litters to keep them still (and frightened?) at night.
Hazel is held in esteem without fear and dread, He is loved and serves his warren in peace
And what happened in the end?…Hazel and his comrades in all their adventures…returned to the warren where Fiver brought them from the fields of Sandleford…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 of about some other rabbit hero of days gone by.
In the end, who and what we became, and how we are remembered (and by Whom) is all that matters.