Dusk is falling on Efrafa, and General Woundwort comes above ground to watch the Near Hind Mark at silflay. One of the Mark officers, Captain Chervil, subserviently greets the General—a “singular rabbit” who was born the strongest of a litter of five. Woundwort was raised in the countryside, and after his whole family was killed before his eyes when he was still young, he escaped from the home of a schoolmaster who took him in from the wild and went on to insert himself into a nearby warren. He soon rose to Chief Rabbit after killing the previous chief—Woundwort was, and is, terrifying in combat. He will fight any elil, even puppies, weasels, and stoats.
As Adams provides some background on the novel’s great villain and main antagonist, he is if not humanizing the horrible creature at least giving some context as to the things that made Woundwort who he is. He reveals that Woundwort’s past was marked by terrible violence against his family—in return, he became a violent creature himself, learning that the strength and ability to fight and kill something provided one with ultimate power
Woundwort founded Efrafa not all that long ago, and from the start ran it with an iron fist. No rabbits were allowed to leave the warren, and many were forced to work around the clock digging burrows. Woundwort developed the Mark system to control the other rabbits and devised severe punishment for any who stepped out of line. He created the Council and Wide Patrol to be his eyes and ears throughout the warren and the countryside alike, and used the privileges allotted to those groups and the Owsla to incentivize young rabbits to toe the line in hopes of one day being promoted to one of the forces.
Woundwort has created a closed-circuit system in Efrafa, in which the only way to have any kind of life is to become one of the arbiters of power and perpetrators of violence. In this way, Woundwort teaches countless rabbits that strength and violence are a means to power, and that having power is the only way to go through life.
Now, as he greets Chervil, General Woundwort is feeling “seriously concerned about several things.” The warren is overcrowded, and he fears losing control of his people. Already, a group of does has asked to leave the warren, and the Council has had to take “strong measures” to contain them. A group of four hlessil who’d joined the Right Hind Mark have recently escaped, and Woundwort is short on good officers. Moreover, a Wide Patrol has recently picked up the scent of a large band of rabbits heading towards Efrafa, though their tracks have since been lost—and most concerning of all, a hlessi recently drew a fox onto a patrol, killing an important Captain.
This passage makes it clear that there are already several threats against General Woundwort and his Council’s control of Efrafa at the time of Bigwig’s infiltration. They have suffered several blows recently—including Bigwig’s maneuver with the fox.
Woundwort now tells Chervil that he wants to replace some Council members by drawing on the best sentries from each Mark. Chervil is about to introduce Woundwort to some when Campion approaches to inform Woundwort that the Wide Patrol has picked up a hlessi—who has stated that he has come a long way to join Efrafa. Woundwort is puzzled by the appearance of a rabbit who actually wants to join Efrafa but agrees to meet him.
Woundwort knows something is suspicious about Bigwig’s arrival from the beginning, before he’s even met the rabbit. He knows Efrafa’s reputation in the wild, and is shocked that a free, wild hlessi would actually want to join his regimented warren.
Woundwort arrives at a nearby lane to find his officers with a large rabbit. The rabbit has a strange tuft of hair on his head, and he introduces himself as Thlayli, or Bigwig. Thlayli announces he has come to join Efrafa—when Woundwort asks why, Thlayli inquires if there is anything “odd” about someone wanting to join the warren. Thlayli brags that he can run and fight, and has previously been an officer in an Owsla. Thlayli claims that his warren was destroyed by men, and he has been wandering for a long time. Woundwort considers the rabbit, and then states that he might be able to find some use for him. The next morning, Thlayli is brought before the Council, and made an officer in the Near Hind Mark, under the instruction of Captain Chervil. Thlayli receives his Mark, and, still bleeding, begins his duties.
The Efrafans know Bigwig by his Lapine name, and not a nickname—this symbolizes several things. Bigwig is ignoring the name his friends have given him in order to lessen the pain of leaving them and commit more entirely to his “undercover” identity. Though abandoning his nickname is surely painful, there is no doubt a power in returning to his roots and reminding himself of the wild freedom of the open field and the natural world of rabbits as he prepares to enter the terrifying authoritarian police state that is Efrafa.