Watership Down

by

Richard Adams

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Watership Down: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hazel awakes from a frightening nightmare and is surprised when he looks around the burrow and can’t find Fiver. Hazel wakes Bigwig, who tries to calm Hazel down by suggesting that Fiver probably just went up for some food. They hurry up to the mouth of the warren and, because it is dark out, pause to try to sense any nearby elil. They hear the hoot of an owl, but Hazel wants to go out and look for Fiver anyway. Bigwig helps Hazel follow Fiver’s tracks, and they come upon him nibbling some grass in a nearby clearing. Hazel’s anxiety fades, and he sidles up next to his brother and begins feeding, too.
Hazel’s uncharacteristically violent and undemocratic behavior at the end of the last chapter weighs on him heavily as he sleeps. He knows that he has done wrong by Fiver, and, knowing he’d never forgive himself if something happened to his brother, sets off in search of him hoping to make things right. 
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After a little while, Fiver sadly announces that he has chosen to leave this new warren and seek shelter in the hills. Bigwig warns Fiver he’ll never make it alone, but Fiver retorts that if Bigwig chooses to stay in this warren, he’ll be closer to death than Fiver will be out in the wild. Bigwig begins speaking roughly to Fiver, but Hazel intervenes, and admits that he has been denying the truth all along: he believes that Fiver is right about this place, and that there is something afoot. He tells Bigwig that he’s going to take a walk with Fiver and hear him out in earnest.
Hazel has been vehemently denying Fiver any attention or validation since they arrived in Cowslip’s warren. Now, having realized the error of his ways, he wants to offer his brother the solidarity and empathy he knows their fledgling society is doomed without.
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Bigwig accuses Fiver of being selfish, and of putting his “visions” above the needs of everyone else. Bigwig scampers off in a huff, back towards the warren, but soon Hazel and Fiver hear a commotion. They run after Bigwig and find that he has been caught in a wire snare attached to a wooden peg which has been driven into the ground. Bigwig is struggling, choking, and bleeding. Hazel tries to explain to Bigwig that he needs to hold still. Exhausted and wounded, Bigwig manages to warn Hazel that chewing the wire will be no good—the peg must be dug out of the ground.
The truth of what is going on begins to emerge. The area around the warren is not safe and has been tampered with by a human—likely the same human who has been feeding the rabbits so luxuriously.
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Hazel sends Fiver back to the warren to get help, and within moments Blackberry is at Hazel’s side. Silver, Pipkin, and the others approach and reveal that Cowslip wouldn’t come to help, and in fact told Fiver to stop talking about Bigwig being in need of help. Together, the rabbits take turns digging out the peg, working together in shifts. They finally get the peg out and tell Bigwig that he’s free—but the rabbit lies motionless and not breathing on the ground. 
As Hazel realizes that Cowslip and the others ignored Fiver’s pleas for help, he begins to understand that they knew this would happen—if not to Bigwig, then to someone else—all along, and did nothing to prevent it. 
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The rabbits say a sad prayer over Bigwig’s body and wonder aloud what they’ll do without him. Hazel asks what happened back at the warren, and Pipkin reveals that Cowslip, Strawberry, and the others ignored Fiver’s cry for help, pretending not to hear. Suddenly, Bigwig sits up and threatens to kill Cowslip—the rabbits rejoice that he has lived, but when they look at him and see him covered in blood, vomit, and dirt, they feel fresh terror.
Though Bigwig survives in the end, the other rabbits are horrified when they gaze upon him. His disheveled, dirty state is the physical reflection of the mess they’ve all gotten themselves into.
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Hazel suggests Bigwig rest, but the large rabbit claims he doesn’t want to—he longs to kill Cowslip. Silver agrees and believes they should annihilate the others and take the warren for themselves. All the other rabbits begin chanting in agreement, but Fiver speaks up and calls them all “fools” for even thinking about going back to the warren.
For a moment, Hazel’s band of rabbits seems hell-bent on repaying one kind of violence with another—an outright raid on the warren. Fiver isn’t opposed to the idea of retribution, but warns the others against putting their lives in danger by staying in a place they’ve learned is out to get them.
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Fiver points out that the whole place is snared by the man who lives nearby—this explains why the rabbits are so well-fed, why there are no elil nearby, why the rabbits live in fear of Frith’s will, and why there are so few of them. Fiver explains that the reason the rabbits have no Chief is that a Chief’s role is to protect his warren from death—but no Chief could protect them from the human with the snares. Fiver accuses Cowslip and his fellow rabbits of living in practiced denial, never asking questions or attempting to change their fate.
As Fiver—either through one of his visions or simply his cunning observational skills—reveals the truth of what has been going on all along at Cowslip’s warren, the other rabbits listen in horror. They realize that Cowslip and the others operate through mechanisms of fear as a means to control—they are not a free society and were only ever trying to exploit Hazel and the others’ search for home and safety for their own gain.
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Fiver goes on to state that Cowslip brought their group into the warren to increase the odds that one of his own wouldn’t be taken next—if one of Hazel’s group died, that would mean Cowslip’s clan would live to see another day. Bigwig tenderly nuzzles Fiver, thanking him at last for his warnings, and asks him what he thinks they should do. Fiver says they should all leave and run for the hills.
Bigwig realizes that he should have listened to Fiver all along. In an attempt to repair what he has damaged, Bigwig stops trying to control everyone else, and instead turns the reins over to Fiver.
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A rabbit from Cowslip’s warren approaches their group. Bigwig tells Silver to kill it, but as it gets closer, they see that it is none other than the kindly Strawberry. Strawberry asks if their group is really leaving and begs to be brought along. Silver chastises Strawberry for his role in deceiving them all—but Hazel speaks up and tells Strawberry that he is welcome in their group. Together, they help free Bigwig from the wire and set out once again.
Hazel and his group show Strawberry not just mercy but indeed empathy as well—they are different from other warrens that seek to punish rabbits who have done wrong, and instead want to offer all who join them a chance at a fresh start.
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