Watership Down

by

Richard Adams

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Watership Down: Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Back at the riverbank, Hazel tries to imagine what is going on in Efrafa. He goes over Bigwig’s report with Kehaar again and again, fretting about how the weather will affect the plan. Silver insists that Efrafans don’t change their schedule according to the weather. Hazel wants to get a head start and set off for the iron road, the meeting-point during the escape, but Blackberry says getting there too early could result in their getting caught by a Wide Patrol. Fiver says that Hazel, with his bad leg, should actually stay behind, and get to work gnawing the rope holding the boat in place so that it’s ready to snap in an instant. Anxious, Hazel replies that if Bigwig doesn’t come tonight, he will go into Efrafa himself and find him.
By providing glimpses of what’s happening back at the river with the other rabbits, Adams creates a more pressurized, compelling sense of anxiety. He shows how deeply Hazel cares for Bigwig, and how committed they both are to pulling off this mission even if it means risking their own lives.
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Bigwig wakes up to Hyzenthlay urgently calling his name—she tells him that Nelthilta has been arrested by Chervil and two other Council members. Bigwig sends her to get Thethuthinnang and the others and bring them to the burrow, then wait quietly for Bigwig to return. Hyzenthlay goes, and Chervil soon approaches from the opposite direction. He says that after his report to the Council member Vervain earlier about Nelthilta’s odd remark, she was arrested, and will soon be made to talk. As Chervil has to go to Council, he says, there will be no silflay, and all holes will be double-guarded.
Two major obstacles to Bigwig’s plan emerge. The arrest of Nelthilta and the increased security—plus the derailment of silflay—threaten to completely quash Bigwig’s last chance at getting everyone out of Efrafa. The “thunder,” the approach of which has mirrored Bigwig’s mounting anxiety and momentum, is indeed about to break.
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Bigwig, thinking fast, asks if Avens has been informed yet. Chervil says he doesn’t have the time and instructs Bigwig to go inform all the sentries himself. Everyone is worried, Chervil says, about a plot to stage a breakout. Bigwig hurries up to the sentries near the entrance and tells them that silflay is to be early tonight on account of the weather, and that they are to get on with it at once. Bigwig orders the sentry to retrieve Blackavar, and then returns to his own burrow, where he retrieves Hyzenthlay, Thethuthinnang, and several other does. He explains the plan and begs them not to go tharn—their lives, he says, depend on it.
The Efrafan officers don’t suspect Bigwig’s role in the breakout plot—yet. He has a few precious minutes to set his plan in motion and begs his co-conspirators to remain sharp and confident as the moment of truth approaches.
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Bigwig returns to the entrance, where the guards have brought up Blackavar. Bigwig apologizes, stating that he’s brought them up for nothing—silflay has been cancelled due to the weather. As the other rabbits go outside to look, Bigwig slips between them and Blackavar, and then gives the signal. He attacks the sentry and they begin fighting. Meanwhile, Blackavar and the does run up and out of the warren. Bigwig knocks the sentry flat and catches sight of Avens in the burrow, looking on in horror. 
Bigwig is lying blatantly to everyone he comes across—he knows it is only a matter of time before the truth of what he’s up to is revealed and decides to take quick action and set the escape in motion rather than try any more trickery.
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Bigwig runs for the edge of the field as thunder sounds in the valley beyond. Bigwig is grateful for the storm—he believes it will help him “defeat Efrafa.” As Bigwig and the others make their way across the field they hear alarms being sounded back at the warren. The rain begins to fall, which Bigwig knows will make tracking their group difficult. He and Blackavar lead the does to a nearby hedge—as they approach the meeting-place, Bigwig prays that Hazel and Kehaar will be waiting.
Bigwig is grateful for the storm, but nervous about everything else falling into place. The breakout has begun, but there is still a lot of ground to cover—and a lot of room for error—before they all arrive safely at the river.
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Back in the warren, Nelthilta is being beaten by Vervain and made to reveal all the details of the breakout plan to Woundwort. She tells them about the plan to use a bird in the attack—Woundwort realizes that Bigwig is behind the attack just as Avens comes rushing into the meeting to declare that the new officer has fled with a crowd of does, and Blackavar as well. Woundwort tells Chervil, Vervain, and Avens to follow him, and together they set out to follow Bigwig’s trail across the field.
Nelthilta ultimately broke and revealed Bigwig’s secrets, just as Hyzenthlay worried she might—but it is not her fault, as the violence and punishments in Efrafa are fearsome things capable of breaking even the strongest.
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Bigwig comes to the iron road but sees no sign of Hazel or Kehaar. He feels troubled and can see that the does—confused that the plan they were informed of has not come to fruition—are getting scared, too. Bigwig orders them to follow him, promising they’ll be safe soon, and begins taking them all down the path which leads to the river. Soon, Campion appears beside him and cuts him off. Bigwig tells Campion to go away—he doesn’t want to have to hurt him.
The plan Bigwig set in motion has not happened the way he thought it would, and he is losing the confidence of the Efrafan does, who are used to strictly regimented routines and following direct orders.
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Campion points out that Bigwig is bleeding badly from an injury he sustained in his fight with the sentry—when the others catch up, he says, Bigwig is done for. Bigwig tells the others to ignore Campion and keep going—he’s only trying to slow them up. Thethuthinnang, though, cries out—she has spotted the general. As Bigwig turns around and spots the giant rabbit, he fees fear in his heart as Woundwort, Chervil, Avens, Groundsel, Vervain, and several more make their approach.
Bigwig and the others are surrounded suddenly by the most powerful rabbits in all Efrafa. Bigwig never envisioned something like this happening and is relatively unprepared to do much other than scrap for his life. 
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Woundwort calls Bigwig a “dirty little beast” and threatens to kill him. Bigwig says he’d like to see the “crack-brained slave-driver” try. Woundwort tells Vervain and Campion to “put [Bigwig] down” and orders the rest of his officers to get the does back to the warren. Bigwig tells Woundwort he’s not fit to be called a rabbit and asks for Frith to curse him and his Owsla. Right at that moment, a huge bolt of lightning comes down from the sky, along with a clap of thunder. The rain begins pouring, and the Efrafans stand immobilized in shock and fear. Bigwig takes advantage of the distraction and urges Blackavar and the does to run. Woundwort, though, advances on Bigwig, announcing that he is going to kill him.
In a callback to the story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, a force beyond any of the rabbits’ comprehension strikes fear into the hearts of those attempting to oppress and harm them. Whether or not the lightning bolt and accompanying thunderclap were truly sent by Frith himself, forces unseen have combined in the rabbits’ favor.
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At that moment, Bigwig hears the sound of Kehaar’s call—within seconds, Kehaar is on Woundwort, striking and wounding him. Bigwig feels dazed and dreamy, and senses all of the commotion happening around him as if it is happening at a great distance. As Bigwig becomes aware of the presence of Silver, Acorn, Dandelion, and the others, he urges them to help get the does to the river. Silver tells Bigwig to go with them—Blackberry and several others have remained at different points along the trail to help the group find their way.
As the violence reaches a fever pitch, Bigwig doesn’t exactly go tharn, but nevertheless has a moment of dissociation in which he can hardly comprehend or keep up with the reality of what is happening around him. The plan has gone south quickly, and a mad dash for the river is the group’s only chance at survival.
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Bigwig dashes for the river, catching up with Blackberry and Bluebell along the way. The Efrafans are hot on their tail and are attempting to head them off before they reach the river. Bigwig tells Kehaar to fly ahead and see if he can spot them—he returns quickly to announce they are hiding under the bridge, waiting to surprise Bigwig and the does. Kehaar points out, though, that the Efrafans do not know about the boat. 
As the rain falls and the rabbits make a mad dash for the river, they are overwhelmed, confused, and desperate to try to stay one step ahead of the Efrafans against all odds.
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Bigwig arrives at the boat but finds that his friends are having trouble getting the does to board it. Bigwig tells the does it’s okay—but when one of them screams in fear, he sees that Campion, Vervain, Chervil, and Groundsel are closing in. The doe runs for cover in the undergrowth, but Woundwort jumps out and strikes her. She runs onto the boat. Bigwig realizes that Woundwort is indeed a skillful general who has been able to retain control of his officers in the midst of a rainstorm, and simultaneously anticipate Bigwig’s every move. In a strange moment of clarity, Bigwig understands why Woundwort’s officers are so devoted to him.
In this passage, Bigwig expresses for the first time a kind of horrified admiration for what Woundwort is able to do. His regime of violent authoritarianism has given him total control over his people, and even if they are loyal to him for the wrong reasons, their willingness to follow his every command is impressive in a twisted way. 
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Bigwig jumps onto the boat, hoping Woundwort doesn’t know what it is and hasn’t realized what they’re going to use it for. Frightened by the appearance of Woundwort, all the nervous does rush onto the boat at once, as do the Watership Down rabbits. The only one missing is Dandelion. Hazel says they’ll have to leave him.
A tense and fraught moment threatens the mission—Woundwort seems ready to attack any second, and Dandelion may have to be left behind.
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Bigwig spots Dandelion crouching in the undergrowth. Woundwort begins giving his men orders. Bigwig distracts them by pretending to catch sight of Kehaar in the sky—when they all look up, Dandelion rushes onto the boat, and Hazel snaps the rope. As the boat flies down the rushing river, Bigwig sees Woundwort’s shocked face staring after them.
Despite all of the failures, missteps, and pitfalls, the rabbits have successfully executed their plan. They drift down the river towards home, having—for now—outwitted and outrun the Efrafans.
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