Literature Study GuidesWatership DownPart 1 Chapters 16 17 Summary

Watership Down | Study Guide

Richard Adams

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Watership Down | Part 1, Chapters 16–17 : The Journey | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 16: Silverweed

The epigraph for this chapter is from Sidney Keyes's poem, "Four Postures of Death." It relates the sadness of those waiting for death and the dancing dead themselves. In this chapter Cowslip says the tale Dandelion told is an old-fashioned one, and they don't tell the old tales in this warren anymore. Strawberry notes that one has to actually believe in El-ahrairah to make the tale sound good, but it seems that these rabbits don't believe in the trickster folk hero. Cowslip says they recite poems and songs about their own experiences in the warren. A very young rabbit named Silverweed says, "Rabbits need dignity and, above all, the will to accept their fate." Cowslip says the warren loves his poetry and his ideas. Fiver wants to get closer to observe Silverweed but is afraid and asks Hazel to accompany him. Fiver thinks Silverweed smells like rotting barley.

Silverweed is much too young to be reciting in front of the whole warren, Bigwig thinks. Fiver is paralyzed by fear, listening to Silverweed's poem, which talks about being ready to give one's life up to Frith. When Silverweed is done, Fiver goes from fright to flight, pushing his way to the entrance of the warren, scratching rabbits along the way. Hazel follows him, furious. Fiver knows that even though they heard what he heard they won't do anything about it because they are "thick in that mist" and can't get out of it. Hazel makes Fiver come sleep down in the burrows and tells him to behave.

Part 1, Chapter 17: The Shining Wire

The epigraph for this chapter is from W.H. Auden's eerie poem, "The Witnesses," which relates the approach of a funeral hearse and the instruments of death. Hazel has a nightmare that the roof is made of bones, as Fiver had said, instead of branches. He dreams that Cowslip makes them carry in yew berries, and when he wakes, he is cold because Fiver is gone. Hazel makes Bigwig come with him to look for Fiver, with whom they are both angry. However, Hazel stops being angry when he sees Fiver, cold and huddled under an apple tree, grazing on grass but avoiding the carrots put out by the man. Fiver tells Hazel he is leaving and Hazel is "closer to death" than he is. Hazel decides to go with Fiver for a little while, to talk with him, but Bigwig has an angry outburst and heads back to the warren. Suddenly there is a commotion in the hedge, and Hazel and Fiver go to see what the noise is all about. Bigwig is lying on the ground amidst rotten leaves, struggling, with a copper wire around his neck. He is choking but manages to tell Hazel in chopped phrases that in Owsla he learned that, although you can't bite through the wire, you can dig out a peg to free the wire.

Fiver runs to get Silver and Blackberry, while Hazel begins digging. Dandelion, Hawkbit, Pipkin, and Buckthorn all show up, too, and Blackberry figures out where the peg is. They all take turns digging. Pipkin and Fiver are able to bite through the peg, but it looks as if it is too late, because Bigwig is completely still and doesn't seem to be breathing. Fiver says that Cowslip told him to shut his mouth when he came to get help. Pipkin tells Hazel that Cowslip and Strawberry turned their backs on Fiver, but not before Cowslip hit and scratched Fiver's ear. The voice of Bigwig comes from behind Hazel, "I'll kill him." Bigwig is alive, but can't move his back legs.

The others decide to go back to the warren to kill Cowslip and take the warren, but Fiver comes running to them, saying, "The whole place is one foul elil's larder! It's snared—everywhere, every day!" Fiver tells the story of how the rabbits have been fed by the man, have forgotten El-ahrairah, have no Chief Rabbit because that rabbit has to be El-ahrairah to his warren, and they have learned other "marvelous arts to take the place of tricks and old stories." No one can speak of the wires or they will be killed. Bigwig asks Fiver what they should do, and Fiver says they should leave. Hazel says they should run for the hills that Fiver wanted them to reach. Suddenly, Strawberry runs toward them from the warren, begs them to take him with them, and says, "The wires." They forgive Strawberry, who is terrified, and take him along. Bigwig slips the wire from his neck, and they leave.

Analysis

The stark difference between the poem that Silverweed recites and Dandelion's story reveals to the reader how resigned Cowslip's warren is to their eventual deaths by snare, though they won't say the word out loud. Cowslip's insistence that Silverweed is a great poet and that they like his ideas shows that these rabbits are grasping at anything they can find to distract themselves from the horror they have accepted into their lives.

The shift this warren experienced once they started being fed by the man is a commentary on what a society loses when it cedes control to others. They have given up their folk heroes and old stories. They no longer know their tricks for getting food and keeping themselves safe from harm, and they have been reduced to talking only about themselves and their sadness, with no belief in anything else that would give them strength. Fiver is the only one in Hazel's group who sees how Cowslip's warren has become this way.

Bigwig's blustering personality gets in the way of his good sense. He realizes this when Fiver digs him out and discovers the truth about Cowslip and his warren. The moment when Bigwig regains consciousness and hears that Cowslip tried to hurt Fiver marks a shift in his opinion of Fiver as well as his loyalty to the group. Bigwig is finally ready to listen and trust when someone else knows more than he does. He realizes that Fiver's actions are for the good of the group, not just the whims of a nervous young rabbit.

Hazel and the others are understandably suspicious of Strawberry because he was one of the rabbits who cut them off when they tried to ask questions. His utterance of the phrase "the wires" is the one thing that changes Hazel's mind about taking him along. None of the other rabbits in Cowslip's warren are even allowed to say those words or acknowledge that the snares exist, but Strawberry is desperate to escape. He is devoted to his doe, but he comes alone, knowing that in such dire circumstances, he has no time to gather a group and must act alone if he is to save his own life. His fear overrides everything else.

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