Watership Down's Hazel is a glorious but sadly unrealistic nonconformist

The protagonist of Watership Down is a rabbit named Hazel. Undersized and lacking in strength and speed, he nevertheless leads the rabbits from the doomed Sandleford warren to safety and a new life, eventually becoming Chief Rabbit. Under his leadership, the rabbits who escape Sandleford go on to do amazing things.

watership down

How does Hazel accomplish this?

Through nonconformity.

At every turn, Hazel chooses the nonconformist path, and in the beginning of the novel, he is repeatedly questioned for these unorthodox decisions.

“This is not what rabbits do,” is the constant refrain from his comrades.

They are right. In order to survive and thrive, Hazel is willing to look beyond the confines of traditional rabbit culture and tradition and suggest the unthinkable and unknowable.

Again and again, Hazel is proven right.

Despite my affinity for Hazel’s nonconformity, I found the character to be unrealistic. Halfway point of the book, his rabbit brethren have grown to trust Hazel so much that they no longer question his nonconformist positions.  Bigwig, one of the largest rabbits both in size and personality, openly states that he does not understand or agree with Hazel’s thinking but nevertheless obeys him without question because he has proven himself again and again.

This would never happen in the real world.

In the real world, a nonconformist must struggle at every twist and turn, regardless of his track record. Human beings (and rabbits) inherently embrace tradition and find comfort in the norm, even when the norm is utterly illogical, meaningless and lacking any empirical basis.

They are rarely inclined to question methods and beliefs that have been ingrained in them since childhood.

Even when a nonconformist convinces a person or group of people to try something new and divergent, and even when this accepted change results in great success and personal fulfillment, this does not mean that the path of nonconformity is suddenly open to them.

In the end, most human beings will return to the comfort of tradition whenever possible.

Each instance of divergent thinking and action must be bitterly fought over.

For the nonconformist, instituting change is a never-ending struggle.

Sadly, there are no Bigwigs in the world.