The concern for the environment and the focus on leadership combine to form the central theme of the novel, which is the formation of community. In the leporine world of Watership Down, community is achieved when a group of individuals share a common purpose in life, realize that cooperation is essential to survival, and trust the complementary talents of others.
The wandering escapees of Sandleford encounter two other societies. Cowslip warren at first seems delightful; its rabbits are well-fed and uncrowded. Its bounty is deceiving, however; the warren survives only as a farmer’s colony, well-fed in order to provide an occasional, inevitable stew to the man’s table. The Cowslip rabbits understand their plight, but lack the will or the wisdom to combat it.
If Cowslip warren is pampered and imprisoned, Efrafa warren is fiercely independent. To preserve itself, however, Efrafa has developed a militaristic, fascist state under the rule of a ruthless, ever-vigilant leader. Efrafa lets no native rabbit leave and enslaves outsiders who wander into its territory.
When the Sandleford refugees establish their own warren at Nuthanger Farm on Watership Down, they preserve the freedom that Cowslip surrendered in exchange for ease, and they create the solidarity that Efrafa could impose only by force. Adams remarked once that he strives to portray an “animality” which corresponds to “humanity”; i.e. those ground rules which harmonize the competing interests of the individual and the group. Watership Down argues that cooperation, self-control, and self-sacrifice are as crucial to animality as to humanity.
Because the effort by Hazel’s band is a communal one, none of the rabbits emerges as a dominant personality. Together they act as the novel’s protagonist. Each represents a skill, talent, or disposition that makes the community flourish. Hazel is a planner, the one who realizes what tasks must be done and has the courage to face up to danger. Bigwig is physically strong and courageous; he provides brawn and is the group’s fighter. Fiver is the prophet and seer, sensitive to the omens and premonitions that precede conscious decisions. Holly is the loyal subordinate, ready to lend brain or brawn as circumstances demand.
The rabbits are aided by a seagull, Kehaar, whom Hazel had fed and sheltered when it was injured. In return Kehaar aids in the attack on Efrafa. It is a remarkable instance, to the animal Characters, of cooperation between species. Kehaar provides comic relief as well as tactical assistance; he speaks English with an Eastern European accent that must be read aloud to be appreciated.
The one malevolent character is General Woundwort, the tyrant of Efrafa. Having escaped death several times as a young rabbit, Woundwort believes in rule with an iron paw: only constant vigilance, severe discipline, and willingness to inflict pain ensure survival. Woundwort is a terrible antagonist, coming within a hare’s breadth of capturing Hazel’s band. The hare whose breadth Woundwort cannot overcome is Bigwig, who courageously stymies the General’s attack in a dark tunnel.
A final important character appears in the interpolated narratives. Six times the main action pauses while a rabbit tells a tale of El-ahrairah, a legendary rabbit hero. These tales of rabbit heroics against traditional enemies, even against the “gods,” embody in one character the diverse qualities of Hazel’s band. The stories of El-ahrairah form an incremental commentary on the nature of animality: the cunning and courage to face enemies, the wisdom and foresight to flee when cunning is not possible, and the willingness to risk one’s self for others when flight is impossible.