Watership Down has been described as an allegory, with the labours of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Silver "mirror[ing] the timeless struggles between tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state." Adams draws on classical heroic and quest themes from Homer and Virgil, creating a story with epic motifs.
It has been suggested that Watership Down contains symbolism of several religions, or that the stories of El-ahrairah were meant to mimic some elements of real-world religion. When asked in a 2007 BBC Radio interview about the religious symbolism in the novel, Adams stated that the story was "nothing like that at all." Adams said that the rabbits in Watership Down did not worship, however, "they believed passionately in El-ahrairah". Adams explained that he meant the book to be, "only a made-up story... in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls". Instead, he explained, the "let-in" religious stories of El-ahrairah were meant more as legendary tales, similar to a rabbit Robin Hood, and that these stories were interspersed throughout the book as humorous interjections to the often "grim" tales of the "real story".
The Hero, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid
The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, leadership, political responsibility, and the "making of a hero and a community". Joan Bridgman's analysis of Adams's works in The Contemporary Review identifies the community and hero motifs: "[T]he hero's journey into a realm of terrors to bring back some boon to save himself and his people" is a powerful element in Adams's tale. This theme derives from the author's exposure to the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and in particular, Campbell's "monomyth" theory, also based on Carl Jung's view of the unconscious mind, that "all the stories in the world are really one story."
The concept of the hero has invited comparisons between Watership Down's characters and those in Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. Hazel's courage, Bigwig's strength, Blackberry's ingenuity and craftiness, and Dandelion's and Bluebell's poetry and storytelling all have parallels in the epic poem Odyssey. Kenneth Kitchell declared, "Hazel stands in the tradition of Odysseus, Aeneas, and others". Tolkien scholar John Rateliff calls Adams's novel an Aeneid "what-if" book: what if the seer Cassandra (Fiver) had been believed and she and a company had fled Troy (Sandleford Warren) before its destruction? What if Hazel and his companions, like Aeneas, encounter a seductive home at Cowslip's Warren (Land of the Lotus Eaters)? Rateliff goes on to compare the rabbits' battle with Woundwort's Efrafans to Aeneas's fight with Turnus's Latins. "By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Virgil told it in 19 BC."