Two young rabbits, Hazel and Fiver, are out feeding. Though they are each only a year old and still under their full weight, it is clear that Hazel will be a large rabbit but that Fiver will never be large. Fiver begins to get a bad feeling about the area. When they stumble upon a sign planted into the ground nearby, he falls into a panic, telling Hazel that something terrible is coming to the warren. The sign that the rabbits could not read describes the housing development that is soon to be built right on top of their warren.
Fiver has a nightmare that something terrible will happen to the warren, and he convinces Hazel that they must go visit the Chief Rabbit. Hazel convinces a member of the Owsla (the leading rabbits who surround the Chief Rabbit) named Bigwig to let them see the Chief Rabbit. Hazel tells him that Fiver is his brother, and Fiver tells the Chief Rabbit, called the Threarah (rah is added to the name of a leader), of his premonition. However, the Threarah ignores the warning and yells at Bigwig for letting them interrupt his sleep.
Hazel, Fiver, and two of their friends, Dandelion and Blackberry, are discussing the conversation with the Chief Rabbit when Bigwig comes up to the group. He has left the Owsla and wants to leave the warren with them. Hazel says that they will leave that evening, at moonrise, and that they should try to convince other rabbits to come.
Hazel, Fiver, and Pipkin (a friend of Fiver's) wait for the other rabbits to arrive. Dandelion gets Hawkbit to come, and Blackberry brings Buckthorn, a large rabbit likely to soon be a member of the Owsla, and two other rabbits Hazel does not know, Acorn and Speedwell. They wait a while, and finally Bigwig comes with Silver, a large rabbit who recently joined the Owsla. Just before they leave, Captain Holly, leader of the Owsla, comes to arrest Bigwig because he believes they want to overthrow the Chief Rabbit. Bigwig attacks Holly and forces him to retreat. The rabbits leave.
The rabbits spend the night crawling through the woods, slowly and cautiously. Hazel leads them forward, going forward himself at times to make sure the way is safe. The rabbits grow exhausted, however, and they decide to rest. Hazel realizes they are tense and nervous, so he asks Dandelion to tell them a story.
Dandelion tells a story about El-ahrairah, the rabbit folk hero. The story goes that when the world was first made, all of the animals were friends and the rabbits populated the entire earth. But then Frith, the sun god who created the world, told El-ahrairah to stop his people from multiplying. Frith decided to trick El-ahrairah, and he told all of the animals to come get a gift. To foxes, stoats, weasels, and many other animals Frith gave gifts of cunning and strength to hunt rabbits. El-ahrairah heard this and decided to hide from Frith. He began to dig a hole, but at that moment Frith came upon him. Frith told the prince of the rabbits that he would have a thousand enemies, but that they would have to catch him, and that if his people were crafty they would survive.