Back at Watership Down, in the Honeycomb, Bigwig and Holly call the other rabbits to a meeting. The mood in the room is solemn—all are mourning the death of Hazel. Nevertheless, Holly begins to share the tale of his frightful journey. He remembers that the day they set off was uneventful. They never ran into any predators, and soon reached a thick wood where they sheltered for the night. The next day, they spotted a lone hare and asked whether they were on the right path to a warren nearby. The hare asked if they meant Efrafa, and Holly answered that they must; the hare asked if they knew the warren, and when Holly answered that they did not, the hare told them to “run, and quickly.”
In the world of the rabbits, every journey they set out on is in some way an “epic” one—the rabbits are small and vulnerable, and even traversing a small amount of land requires enormous physical, psychological, and emotional stamina.
Three large rabbits approached and asked to see the group’s “marks.” When Holly expressed confusion, the rabbits asked if they were from Efrafa. Holly replied that they weren’t but were seeking to go there. The rabbits took Holly and the others to Efrafa—a big warren where a pervasive fear of a disease called the white blindness has resulted in extreme security measures which control every aspect of the rabbits’ lives. To the rabbits within Efrafa, “you can’t call your life your own [but] in return you have safety.”
Adams shows how the Efrafans use a likely fake, strawman excuse—securing the warren against “white blindness”—to show how authoritarian regimes often use not just physical violence, but psychological violence, to control their subjects.
In Efrafa, in addition to the Owsla, there is a governing body called a Council. Each rabbit on the Council has one special thing he looks after: one is in charge of feeding, one is in charge of breeding, and so on. Only a certain number of ordinary rabbits can be above ground at one time, and the Efrafans keep track of their rabbits by marking them at birth with a deep bite on various parts of their body.
Though most large, established warrens have some system of organization and control, Efrafa is an all-out military regime, with violence as a means to power being employed at every level of authority.
When Bigwig asks how the Owsla keeps control over the other rabbits, Holly replies that “you can’t imagine it unless you’ve been there.” According to him the Chief Rabbit, General Woundwort, has under him several captains, each in charge of a Mark and several officers of their own. Efrafan rabbits must bury their hraka and often go days at a time underground, without sight of the sun.
Efrafan rabbits are not free in any sense—in burying their hraka and spending most of their time underground, they are defying nature. Adams uses the contrast between the natural way Hazel’s warren lives and the strict, unnatural way the Efrafans live to symbolize how unnatural systems of totalitarianism and fascism are.
Dandelion asks if living in such a way has “alter[ed]” the Efrafan rabbits, and Holly says that it has. Most Efrafans can’t do anything but what they’re told. The Efrafans’ only goal in life is often to get into the Owsla, because of the privileges afforded to its members, and everyone in the Owsla longs to be in the Council. The Owsla also, Holly adds, employ a “wide patrol” which is both meant to toughen up new members and scout for hlessil. When the Efrafan Owsla comes upon a lone rabbit, they give him a choice: he can either come back to Efrafa, or be killed, for fear he will draw the attention of men or elil to the warren.
The strict, authoritarian atmosphere within Efrafa is like nothing the rabbits have ever heard of. The Sandleford Owsla, though strict and occasionally bullying, ultimately acted in the interest of the warren’s prosperity and peace. In Efrafa, though, the strict rules and violence seem arbitrary and meant only to intimidate and control.
One of the rabbits who took Holly and the others in, Captain Campion, led them down to the burrow and told to make themselves at home. By talking to some of the other rabbits—one of whom was a doe called Hyzenthlay—they learned more about Efrafa, and how General Woundwort, when he seized power, was responsible for making it so regimented. Hyzenthlay also revealed that the warren is overcrowded and that many does can’t produce litters due to the conditions—yet no one is allowed to leave. Though the system is “breaking down,” Hyzenthlay said, one cannot be overheard saying such things.
Though the rabbits are frightened, their conversation with Hyzenthlay actually gives them confidence that their plan might not be so off-base. At the same time, Hyzenthlay’s description of the terrible conditions in Efrafa adds to the sense that accomplishing their mission is going to be harder than they thought.
A short while later, Holly and the others were brought to a Council meeting. While waiting, they saw another rabbit who seemed “mad with fear” go in. The rabbit, Blackavar, had been caught trying to run away. When he came out of his Council meeting, his ears had been ripped to shreds.
The Efrafan guards, captains, and Owsla use terrible violence in order to exert power over the rabbits who live in the warren and to keep the authoritarian regime in place running.
At their own Council meeting, Holly and the others met with General Woundwort, who explained the rules of the warren to them. Holly spoke up to ask if they could take some does back to their own warren, but Woundwort replied that such a proposal was “out of the question.” Holly realized, in that moment, that they were not guests in Efrafa, but prisoners.
The rabbits believed, up until this point, that they were merely passing through Efrafa, and were exempt from its violence and authoritarian hierarchy. Now, though, they realize that they are not.
That night at silflay, Holly and the others realized there was no way to escape—there were sentries stationed everywhere. Over the next several days, the rabbits were forced to live by the Efrafan rules, coming up to the ground only to eat and then immediately heading back down to their overcrowded burrow. One night, inspired by memories of the tale of El-ahrairah and King Darzin’s lettuce, Holly approached one of the Captains at silflay and attempted to deceive him by telling him that he was wanted by the Council at once—Holly told the captain that General Woundwort had put Holly in charge. Though skeptical, the captain was so afraid of disobeying an order from Woundwort that he listened.
This passage shows how the tales of El-ahrairah that the rabbits have been sharing periodically throughout the books are not just pleasant diversions—they are real sources of both information and inspiration. Having a folk hero to draw strength from can even embolden the rabbits to rise up against oppression and change their fates.
Holly and the others took their chance to escape and plowed through the sentries that tried to stop them, scrapping and fighting their way to freedom. As they ran through the fields and woods, they realized they were being pursued by the Owsla. They ran up a slope and found themselves on a strange “road” made of stones, wood, and iron—train tracks. As the Owsla closed in on them, Holly says, they were saved by one of Lord Frith’s messengers—something the size of “a thousand hrududil” came rushing through the night and wiped out the Efrafan rabbits.
In this passage, the rabbits describe a scene beyond their wildest imaginations—something they don’t even understand has transpired right before their eyes. Readers understand that a train hit the unlucky Efrafans, but to the rabbits, the appearance of the “messenger” seems like a blessing or a sign.
After regaining their wits, Holly and the others resumed their journey, and the next day made it home. As he concludes his tale, Holly states that he feels “dry and empty as an autumn puffball […] as though the wind could blow [his] fur away.”
Holly and the others have been forever changed by the terrible things they have seen in Efrafra.