The success of Watership Down results from several stylistic features. The first technique is the use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. These epigraphs, drawn from the Bible, classical literature, English poetry, science, and folklore, serve the narrative function of indicating the direction the action will take. They also serve the thematic function of suggesting the seriousness of the action. If passages from Shakespeare, Blake, and Saint Paul illuminate the tale, then surely it is more than an entertaining story about rabbits. The epigraphs also place Watership Down in the tradition of the 19th-century English novel, which frequently used such epigraphs as a sign of seriousness.
In plot structure Watership Down has suggestive parallels to the Roman epic, the Aeneid. The rabbits’ escape from doomed Sandleford, their temporary sojourn at Cowslip, and the battle with Efrafa warren recall Aeneas’s flight from besieged Troy, his dalliance with Dido at Carthage, and his warfare against Turnus in Latium to establish a city for the surviving Trojans. Like the epigraphs, the epic suggestiveness establishes Watership Down as a serious literary work.
Animal stories are as old as human imagination. Fables use animals to represent human behavior, and fairy tales often employ animals with magic powers to change human destiny. Other animal stories, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903), relate the animal’s interactions with human beings, often in sentimental language. Watership Down is distinguished by the remoteness of the human world and by Adams’s ability to have his animals’ dialogue in human speech, yet remain rabbits in their behavior, instincts, and knowledge. Adams also avoids the didactic tendency of animal fiction; that is, the explicit teaching of human ethics or morals.