Holly begins his tale. The day after Hazel, Fiver, and the others left, some rumors about Fiver’s visions were swirling through the warren. Some rabbits were distressed, but still the Threarah decided that the best thing to do was to sit tight and “dodge [the] danger underground.” Fiver speaks up and says he’ll never forget his horrible vision, or the “terrible evil in the world” it showed him. Holly responds that all the evil comes from men, who will “never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”
In this passage Adams introduces a kind of environmentalist perspective to the novel: the rabbits are conscious of the destructive effect men have on the natural world, yet are powerless to stop it. Though this thread is not ever fully developed throughout the rest of the novel, he makes it clear that the rabbits live each day in fear of men more than any other elil.
Holly resumes his story. The following day, it was raining, and Holly went up from the Sandleford warren to pass hraka. While above ground, he saw some men coming near the warren. They prodded at the mouths of the warren but did little else. Holly did not mention the sighting to the Threarah and instead went down to sleep. The next morning Holly led an expedition to go fetch some flayrah for the Threarah. When he returned, he spotted more men and some hrududil in the field. Holly hid and watched as the men took up spades and began filling in the holes of the warrens. They left a few open, and into these, put long hoses. Holly heard a hissing noise, and the air began to “turn bad.” The bewildered Holly went tharn—unable to move, he was forced to sit and watch, and to imagine what was happening below.
This passage shows how even at Sandleford, a relatively democratic warren, the fear of being ostracized for speaking out against the Threarah’s decision had devastating consequences for Holly and the rest of the warren. Fiver attempted to warn the others, but when his vision fell on deaf ears, all the other rabbits became afraid to speak up—even powerful rabbits like Holly.
Bluebell picks up the story—he was in the warren when the hoses went in and the air turned bad. He describes unimaginable commotion and horror. The runs, blocked by earth, became clogged with dead bodies, and the live rabbits scrabbling to get out tore them to pieces. Bluebell still has no idea how he managed to get out—he believes Frith guided him and another rabbit, Pimpernel, down an unpopular, deep run and helped them make it through to the other side, which emptied into the woods beyond the warren.
Bluebell’s horrible recollection of what was happening underground during the attack on Sandleford down shows that the rabbits were completely unprepared for such an attack. It also shows the violent self-preservation instincts present in all rabbits, and serves to foreshadow how violence between rabbits will escalate as the novel progresses.
Holly picks the story back up. He reports that any rabbit who made it up into the field was shot, and their bodies were put on sticks. He watched a contraption attached to a hrududu tear the field to bits. After seeing the destruction, Holly turned and ran into the woods, where he found Bluebell, Pimpernel, and Toadflax, a former member of the Owsla. That night, in the woods, Toadflax died—his final words were “They killed us to suit themselves.”
The rabbits crossed the river in the morning, following Hazel’s group’s tracks, and eventually made it to the heather. They encountered a scratched-up hlessi who told them that a large warren was not far off. Holly and the others made their way in the direction of the rumored warren, stopping to sleep in a ditch. When they awoke the next morning—the day before yesterday—they were face to face with “great, big” rabbits who had an odd smell: Cowslip and his friends. When Holly said they were looking for rabbits by the name of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig, Cowslip ordered his fellow rabbits to tear Holly and the others to pieces. Holly and Bluebell escaped, but Pimpernel was killed.
As Holly and the others followed in Hazel’s group’s tracks, they encountered—in different ways—many of the same threats and challenges that Hazel’s band did. They too had to cross the frightening boggy heather, and also had a run-in—though one of a very different sort—with Cowslip and his warren.
Cowslip pursued Holly and Bluebell, but seeing that Cowslip was a poor fighter, Holly chose to engage him. He managed to get Cowslip down and threatened to kill him in order to get Cowslip to tell him where Hazel and the others had gone. Cowslip pointed them in the direction of the hills, and they made their way towards Watership Down in pain and misery. All the way there, Holly says, he was haunted by the ghosts of those he’d seen killed—Toadflax, Pimpernel, and the Threarah. Holly concludes his tale by saying that there is “hardly a living creature” that has been closer to the Black Rabbit—and lived—than himself and Bluebell. Finally, he apologizes to Bigwig and the others for trying to arrest them back at Sandleford, and claims he is a changed rabbit.
Holly has in many ways been just as intrepid and fearless a leader as Hazel, though he lost two rabbits on his journey from Sandleford to Watership Down. His guilt over having ignored Fiver’s warning, having led two rabbits who trusted him with their lives to their deaths, and having stood by while his home was destroyed is intense, and he has learned a lot about the world and himself along the course of his painful journey.