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Leadership is a subtle quality

Watership Down. In the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, the protagonist character Hazel-Rah matures from an unassuming individual into a great leader.

Leadership is a subtle quality. Those who have been entrusted with the gift of guidance do not necessarily possess sagacious minds or extreme physical strength– they are individuals of courage and persistence who have developed the ability over time and who accomplish goals through peaceful planning and acts of honest bravery rather than unrestrained force or military might. All the same, a good leader must be willing to take dangerous risks, use trickery when necessary, cooperate with others, and sacrifice himself for the entire group. What’s more, a leader must be humble enough to learn from past mistakes, take advice when it is needed, and adapt to change. Suffice it to say, great leaders, are hardly born.

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In the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, the protagonist character Hazel-Rah matures from an unassuming individual into a great leader. Although small in stature, Hazel must overcome obstacles, take various risks, attain a level of self-knowledge, learn from mistakes, and benefit from the help and advice of others in order to successfully lead the rabbits away from danger. Hazel understands that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and he utilizes each rabbit in such a way that benefits the entire group. Most importantly, Hazel learns to inspire hope not only in his fellow rabbits but also within himself as he risks his life to lead them into the promised land of Watership Down.

At the outset of Watership Down, Hazel’s younger brother Fiver has a premonition about the destruction of the home warren at Sandelford; all the rabbits are subsequently faced with a fight or flight decision. Fiver explains to Hazel that something “very bad is closing in on the warren” and that the fields in which they live are “covered with blood” (19). Hazel reacts naturally and tells Fiver, “don’t talk like this, you’re frightening me” (19). His response also communicates a certain amount of denial: if Fiver’s vision is correct then this would interrupt the status quo and disrupt Hazel’s level of comfort both in the warren and in the mind.

Nevertheless, after recognizing the immediacy of Fiver’s conviction, Hazel obeys his brother’s insight and commits himself to leave Sandelford to find a safe warren for all the rabbits who agree to leave. Hazel assumes responsibility for everyone (including those who are older, smarter and stronger) as they journey into the rolling hills of Watership Down. In their journey, Hazel learns quickly that he cannot solve all the problems by himself; he must patiently accept advice from the other rabbits– even when he is unsure that the advice is sound.

In Chapter Eight, the rabbits must cross a river to escape a large dog that is trailing their scent. Hazel is uncertain about the crossing as he knows Fiver and Pipkin (the two youngest rabbits) are not strong swimmers. His hesitation enrages Bigwig who at that moment, Adam writes, was “the very picture of decision”(47). Bigwig is willing to leave Fiver and Pipkin on the riverbank while Hazel is not. In an instant, Blackberry recognizes a piece of wood that has floated down the river and tells Hazel, “we could put Fiver and Pipkin on it and make it float again. It might go across the river. Can you understand?” (48) At that moment, Adam’s writes, “Hazel had no idea what he meant” and “felt close to despair” (48). Fiver is the first to grasp Blackberry’s plan, bringing himself onto the wood while Hazel remains paralyzed by perplexity.

Blackberry then asks Hazel, “now we swim ourselves. Can we start? (49) Hazel “still could not understand what had happened, but at least he realized that Blackberry wanted him to show authority.” (49) Hazel clears his head and commands everyone to swim while he himself plunges into the water. Once Fiver and Pipkin are a few feet out on the river, Bigwig takes it upon himself to push the two animals to the other side. Once across the river, Adam writes that “Hazel had been as near to losing his head as he was ever to come,” (48) which suggests that in this pressured situation his inexperience and nervousness were frustrating his ability to think quickly and comprehend Blackberry’s ingenious plan.

When Hazel’s leadership skills are tested at the river, he remains unresponsive; however, not all was a failure on his part as he was eventually able to do the one thing required from any leader in a dangerous situation-give the command to proceed. Even though Hazel does not understand what Blackberry intends, he is still more than willing to try it, especially since he has no ideas of his own. Hazel cares for the well-being of the entire group, and although he is subject to self-doubt and indecisiveness, he is nevertheless willing to listen to his fellow rabbits and follow their lead when necessary. Hazel realizes that an inaction is no longer an option for a leader like himself because the other rabbits are relying on him to lead by example.

In Chapter Nine, when Pipkin and Fiver are being attacked by a large crow, Hazel proves his maturity as a leader by acting fast to their rescue. Adam writes that as soon as Hazel sees the crow, “he covered the distance down the slope in a few seconds. He had no idea what he was going to do and if the crow had ignored him he would probably have been at a loss. But by dashing up the distracted its attention and it turned on him” (53). Hazel acts fast and is able to distract the crow until Bigwig comes racing in from the opposite side and sends the crow flying.

Although Bigwig does most of the damage, it is Hazel who is the first to run at the enemy. His action shows a certain boldness and initiative that was not present when the rabbits were being chased by the dog at the river. Hazel has learned from his previous inaction, and he has developed a greater sense of duty and responsibility because of it. He now understands that even though he may not have the perfect tactics for a situation, he can nevertheless act out of devotion and responsibility, which ultimately inspires every other member of the group.

The ability to inspire hope in a large group and make the lowly members believe that they must press forward in times of fatigue is characteristic of any great leader. As the rabbits grope towards Watership Down, Hazel proves his leadership skills by coaching Pipkin to the bitter end– even when he himself is dejected and full of doubt. In the Chapter entitled, Hard Going, Richard Adam’s writes the following:

“It was so dark that Hazel seldom knew for certain whether he was leading or whether Bigwig or Silver might not be ahead…All was confusion, ignorance, clambering, and exhaustion…Throughout the bad dream of the journey, Pipkin never left him; and his need for encouragement became at last Hazel’s only support against his own weariness” (66).

Hazel pushes Pipkin forward with encouraging words until he realizes that those words have “become meaningless, a mere refrain. He was not speaking to Pipkin or even to himself. He was talking in his sleep or something very near it” (66). Even if Hazel is talking in his sleep, it is still evident that his thoughts are not far removed from the welfare of the group. Despite the pure intentions, his fatigue eventually gives way to cowardliness and Hazel begins to experience self-doubt:

“Hazel’s feelings were like those that might pass through the mind of a defeated general. Where were his followers exactly? He hoped, not far away. But were they? All of them? Where had he led them? What was he going to do now? What is an enemy that appeared at this moment? He had answers to none of these questions and no spirit left to force himself to think about them.

Hazel is not so special that he is spared from fleeting moments of self-doubt; but it is the way in which he chooses to quiet these doubts and continue to motivate and comfort Pipkin, in spite of himself, that proves his strength of character and speaks to his leadership ability. Most importantly, Hazel is able to subordinate his own personal feelings to the thoughts and feelings of the entire group. This shows his growing humility, and his ability to adapt to change and cooperate with others.

Hazel’s ability to cooperate with and benefit from other animals is one of the main reasons why he is a successful leader. In Chapter Twenty Three, Hazel offers food and shelter to the wounded Kehaar because he knows that if he can make friends with the animal, he might benefit the rabbits sometime in the future. In spite of Kehaar’s initial hostility, Hazel cooperates with him until he is fully recovered. After Kehaar has healed, Hazel suggests sending him to look for does in the warrens far across the Downs (196).

Blackberry, who is the smartest of all the rabbits, praises this idea and says to Hazel, “that bird could find out in a day what we couldn’t discover for ourselves in a thousand” (196). Hazel, therefore, proves his leadership by constantly looking to benefit the group by any means necessary. Soon Hazel is rewarded for his cooperation with the bird when Kehaar returns to tell the rabbits that he has found the Efrafra warren which has many does. Hazel and the other rabbits are pleased with Kehaar’s reciprocity and everyone is in awe of Hazel’s ability to cooperate with and benefit from animals who might otherwise be seen as evil.

Later in the story, Hazel risks his life to help a tiny field mouse escape from a falcon because he feels the mouse might also be of help to the rabbits in the future, like Kehaar. The mouse then promises to help Hazel sometime in return for saving his life. Hazel’s cooperation with these two animals explains why he is a good leader-he is willing to take risks that others are not, and he is able to find new ways to benefit from the help and advice of others.

Part of the difficulty in being a good leader is that Hazel must not only continually take risks for others, but he must also survive those risks. This requires shrewdness and an ability to decipher between those risks that are worthwhile and those that are foolhardy. For the most part, the risks that Hazel takes to prove to be beneficial to the rabbits; however, there are times when Hazel is motivated by pride and impulsiveness, and his risks actually endanger the lives of the rabbits instead.

For example, In Chapter Twenty Four, Hazel brings Pipkin to the farmhouse where he knows there are two caged does. In their excursion to the farm, Hazel and Pipkin are attacked by a cat who chases them off of the property and almost kills Pipkin in the process. Frightened and alone, Hazel and Pipkin spend the night in the forest before they are able to return to the Honeycomb warren (212). Hazel’s decision to go to the farm alone with Pipkin shows a certain pride and arrogance that is a result of his previous accomplishments. Hazel will soon have to rethink the types of risks he takes when he realizes that he is not as indestructible as he may believe.

In Chapter Twenty Five, Hazel and three other rabbits from Honeycomb return to the farmhouse in an attempt to free the does from the hutch. After the farm rabbits are successfully liberated, Hazel and the others become trapped in a ditch as they try to outrun a pair of farmers. In an instant, Hazel turns to Dandelion and says, “I’m going to run across the corner of the field, from this ditch to the other one, so that they see me. They’ll try to shine that light on me for sure. While they’re doing that you and Haystack climb the bank, get into the lane and run down to the swede-shed” (230). Hazel manages to distract the farmers so that the other rabbits can escape from the ditch; however, he is unaware that the farmers are wielding guns and he is shot and wounded in the process.

Hazel takes incredible risks for himself with the entire group in mind, and he inspires tremendous faith in the other rabbits by sacrificing himself for their safety; however, as a designated leader, Hazel must ultimately decide which risks to take and which ones to avoid. In the situation at the farm, Hazel takes a risk on instinct and impulse rather than strategic planning, and he is nearly killed because of it. Hazel will learn from this mistake, however, and as he becomes more self-aware and experienced, he will make better judgements with respect to which risks are worth taking and which ones are not– both for himself and for other members of the warren.

By Chapter Thirty Two, Hazel is becoming increasingly shrewd and he is able to judge situations with more accuracy. As the rabbits make their way to the Efrafra warren, Hazel warns the rest of the rabbits that he will not allow himself or any others to take any unnecessary risks. Then Pipkin spots a fox. Adam’s writes that at once, “Bigwig, in full view, was loping warily downhill, straight towards the fox” (289). Hazel is aghast when he hears an “agonizing squeal of a stricken rabbit” from the Forrest, and he suspects that Bigwig has been killed. Hazel says to the others, “no one is to move. Keep still, all of you” (290). When Bigwig appears to them moments later, unharmed and in high spirits, Hazel is furious at the foolish risk he has taken and says, “you’ve done your best to kill yourself and acted like a complete fool.

Now hold your tongue and sit down” (290). Hazel ensures that the rabbits are clear from any danger before he proceeds with caution. Hazel tells them: “keep close together, because if anyone gets lost in the dark we may not find him again. And remember, if we come upon any strange rabbits, you’re to attack them at once and ask questions afterwards” (291). After the rabbits reach a safe resting place, Hazel takes Bigwig aside and tells him, “I’m angry with you. You’re the one rabbit we’re not going to be able to do without and you have to go and run a silly risk like that.

It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t even clever.” Hazel’s indignation shows genuine care for the welfare of the entire group as well as a certain level of maturity in his thinking. Hazel now understands how vital each rabbit is to the warren and he thereby will not allow anyone to take foolish risks, including himself. As Hazel becomes more aware of his potential as a leader, he simultaneously becomes more aware of the potential of his fellow rabbits.

In Chapter Thirty Three, once the rabbits cross over the great river, Blackberry sees a boat and tells everyone how they will use it in their plan to escape Woundwart and capture the does of Efrafra. Hazel cannot grasp Blackberry’s idea and says, “here, wait a moment, we’re just simple rabbits, Bigwig and I. Do you mind explaining” (308). This situation is reminiscent of the rabbit’s experience in Chapter Eight where Hazel finds himself stupified after Blackberry describes the plan to float Pipkin and Fiver across the river on the wood. In both instances, Fiver and Blackberry grasp the idea immediately, while Hazel and some of the other less intelligent rabbits remain inert and perplexed.

The difference is that Hazel is now the type of leader who can admit his ignorance outright and ask for clarification; in doing so, Hazel is able to turn his perplexity into productivity and continue to move the other rabbits forward in their plan to defeat Woundwart. What’s more, after the rabbits have escaped with the does from Efrafra, they are forced to abandon the ship and Hazel-rah is the first to jump from the boat and swim to the other side of the bank (383). Hazel proves his mettle in this situation because he leads by example. He is able to inspire and motivate the other rabbits only because he has developed the ability to act quickly and effectively in dangerous situations.

Perhaps Hazel’s greatest display of leadership comes in the closing Chapters of Watership Down when he must prepare his comrades for war against Woundwart. Throughout the text Hazel does not use force to accomplish his goals; he shows how cooperation, trickery and bravery are even more effective than the military might. In the final chapters, Woundwart and his Efrafran army are waiting to attack the Honeycomb warren when Hazel meets them halfway to offer them a compromise:

“We ought to make other warrens between us-start one between here and Efrafra, with rabbits from both sides. You wouldn’t lose by that, you’d gain. We both would. A lot of your rabbits are unhappy now, and it’s all you can do to control them, but with this plan, you’d soon see a difference. Rabbits have enough enemies as it is. They ought not to make more among themselves. A mating between free independent warrens-What do you say?” (425)

Hazel proves that he is a more effective leader than Woundwart because he is willing to be diplomatic and tactful; Hazel cares for the advancement of all rabbits, not just his own. Needless to say, Hazel leads his rabbits in a very different manner from that of Woundwort and resolves to win the battle not through direct confrontation but through a trick that would end the fight before it began.

Throughout Watership, Down Hazel proves his mettle and shows himself to be a capable leader. His ability to think for the entire group and sacrifice his own desires for the whole is what sets him apart from Woundwart and even the other rabbits in his warren. Never too hasty with his judgments, Hazel always risks his own life rather than those of the other rabbits. He is brave but not foolhardy, and his every action is geared toward the benefit of the entire group.

He will not leave anyone behind and trusts his fellow rabbits equally. Although he is neither as intuitive as Blackberry nor as spiritually deep as Fiver, he makes decisions rapidly and confidently and in doing so he inspires faith in the rest of the rabbits. Most importantly, Hazel believes in himself and in his comrades. He is willing to listen to their advice and is able to utilize each rabbit’s talent for the greater good-which is reminiscent of the greatest rabbit leader of all, El-Hurairah.

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