Literature Study GuidesWatership DownPart 2 Chapters 20 21 Summary

Watership Down | Study Guide

Richard Adams

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Watership Down | Part 2, Chapters 20–21 : On Watership Down | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 20: A Honeycomb and a Mouse

The epigraph is a quote from The Epic of Gilgamesh, about Gilgamesh's face having the look of one who has had a long and rough journey. Captain Holly's presence at the down is remarkable to everyone, considering Holly's reputation as a solid second-in-command, "a stander of no nonsense who knew when duty was done and did it himself." Now Holly is afraid and crying, and he smells like blood, all of which pose a danger to himself in the open country, as well as to the others around him. Hazel sends Speedwell up to the group to inform them what is happening and asks Dandelion to bring Bigwig down to him. When Bigwig arrives, he says, "Holly, this is Thlayli ... you were calling me." Holly is accompanied by Bluebell, one of the rabbits who tried to arrest Bigwig. Bluebell tells jokes, which Hazel tries to stop, but Holly says to let him go on because Bluebell's "chatter" has kept them going.

Bigwig gets Holly and Bluebell into a burrow and tells the others to leave them alone to get better. He also tells Hazel, "You got yourself out of that ditch down there instead of me, didn't you, Hazel? I shan't forget that." The next day, Hazel and Strawberry talk about how to construct the warren among the tree roots, and the central room becomes the "Honeycomb," for its sections divided by roots. Strawberry's design works well, with separate runs coming from the center and other sections with burrows.

A kestrel flies by and all the rabbits run for cover. Hazel notices a small mouse exposed in the field, and tells him to run to the warren's entrance, using a simple language that other animals understand. He saves the mouse's life, but Bigwig thinks it's ridiculous that Hazel is wasting his time helping a mouse. Dandelion comes to tell Hazel Holly cried through the night and that none of them had slept. Holly, after a rest, seems to feel better, and Dandelion thinks they should all sleep in the same place that night and have Holly tell his story to get it off his mind. Strawberry tells Hazel that everyone wants to sleep in the new warren and hear Holly's story, and he calls Hazel "Hazel-rah," meaning that he views Hazel as the Chief Rabbit, their warren's version of El-ahrairah. Holly agrees to speak but says that the story will "strike the frost into the heart of every rabbit that hears it." Holly recognizes that the Threarah should have listened to Fiver and wants everyone in the warren to know that he has not come to challenge their organization or Hazel's authority as their Chief Rabbit. Before he begins his story, the mouse bids Hazel goodbye and promises him that someday he will help Hazel in return for saving his life.

Part 2, Chapter 21: "For El-ahrairah to Cry"

This chapter has two epigraphs, one from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and the other from Auden's poem, "The Ascent of F.6" The first quote refers to loving the animals and leaving them to live their lives, while the second refers to injustices. As Hazel and the others gather around, Captain Holly tells the story of how he came to find Bigwig and the rest of Hazel's group. After Bigwig had run off with Hazel and the others who escaped, men came to poke around the holes in the field as it rained. The next day, they came back and blocked the holes with sod. They put "brambles" into the holes and suddenly the "air became bad." Holly ran down a run called the "slack run," which no one ever used. Others came in and died there, and he had to clamber over them to get out. Bluebell says he could hear the cries of does and kittens, as the does fought to stay and protect their kittens, as well as Owsla members trying to give orders, and rabbits fighting each other to get out. Pimpernel, who was not doing well but was still alive, arrived in the slack run and told Holly he could help him find the way out safely; together they came out the other end of the run, in the woods. Others were there as well, coming out from the ends of other runs the men hadn't found in the woods. The rabbits who came out into the field were shot, and a boy with the men carried the bodies on a stick. The rabbits in the woods watched, horrified, as a hrududu, a bulldozer, came in and tore up the field.

Holly could only think of Bigwig, wanting to find him and tell him he (Holly) had been wrong. He and the other survivors went through the wood to a brook, and followed it to a "big woods," where Toadflax died in the night. When they came to the river the next day, they saw where Hazel and his group must have crossed the river, and they swam over. Holly says that in the fields, "There was a man with a gun who kept walking everywhere." They came to a "bad place" where there was heather everywhere, and at the edge, found a "hlessi," a wandering rabbit, who told them there was another warren nearby. They headed for that warren and rested in a ditch but awoke surrounded by rabbits with "a very odd smell." It was Cowslip and his cohorts. Cowslip asked who they were and what they were doing there; Holly told them they were looking for Hazel and Bigwig. Cowslip shouted, "I knew it! Tear them to pieces!" and only Holly and Bluebell escaped with their lives. Pimpernel was killed, for which Holly feels ashamed, because he thinks that if he had stayed awake, Pimpernel would be alive. Holly turned and attacked Cowslip, who admitted where Bigwig and Hazel had gone, so Holly decided to let him live. Holly and Bluebell then came to the hills where Hazel and Bigwig were supposed to be, and Holly began to hallucinate, seeing rabbits he knew were dead. He began calling for Thlayli—Bigwig—and this is when Hazel found them.


The encounter between Bigwig and Holly when Bigwig first sees him is a tender moment of recognition between two old colleagues, friends, and unintentional enemies. Holly has come through a nearly fatal experience to get to Bigwig, just to tell him he was right about leaving Sandleford warren, and to apologize for trying to arrest him. Bigwig goes from tough guy to protector in one short interchange, keeping the others from bothering Holly and Bluebell as they rest and try to recuperate. Bigwig's emotional growth continues to expand beyond what is in front of him. He notices that Hazel is the one who came out of the ditch to find out who was calling Bigwig by his nickname, Thlayli, when Bigwig thought it might be the Black Rabbit calling him to his death. This effort on Hazel's part makes Bigwig feel even more loyal to Hazel and more determined to be an ally.

Hazel is surprised to hear Strawberry call him "Hazel-rah," but Captain Holly notes that Hazel is ostensibly the Chief Rabbit because "I hardly know him, but he must be good or you'd all be dead." Holly steps down as the one in charge and acquiesces to Hazel's authority with the group. This is an act of loyalty, as well as an action that furthers the survival of the group. It would only harm the group if Holly decided that his former title should override Hazel's new role as the leader.

The report from Holly about men gassing and shooting rabbits at Sandleford and then ripping up the field is violent and chilling. His descriptions of the instruments the men use to kill everyone are based on what he knows, not on what a human being knows. For example, the nozzles inserted into the warren are "brambles." When such an attack happens, it is impossible for the rabbits to try to survive as a group because they all revert to fight or flight instincts. The does know they need to leave to survive, but they won't because they can't leave their kittens and need to protect them. They will do so at the expense of their own lives, and they will fight to the death to stay. The elil, evil, that humans bring to the warren causes more than just the deaths of so many rabbits and the destruction of the field: it also tears apart the rabbit society at its roots.

Holly's last comment, that he is not the rabbit who arrested Bigwig days ago, could also be said of Bigwig, that he is not the rabbit Holly attempted to arrest. They both have undergone crisis after crisis and a realization that their strengths can only go so far. They have to trust other rabbits in order to survive, and they are not always the strongest ones in the group, even though their roles are meant to emphasize their strength. Like Hazel, they have to rely on the particular talents and strengths of the others in order to maintain a safe and healthy warren.

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