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In the great burrow, Dandelion tells the story of a time when El-ahrairah and his people were down on their luck and living in marshland where there was little food. El-ahrairah convinced Prince Rainbow, whom Frith had placed in charge of the world, to let his people out of the marshes if he could steal King Darzin's lettuces. King Darzin had a great animal kingdom and his lettuce garden was heavily guarded, but along with his friend Rabscuttle, the Captain of his Owsla, El-ahrairah pulled off the trick. And from that day on, rabbits could not be kept out of vegetable gardens, as they always had a trick for the occasion.
Hazel and his gang are sure that Dandelion has made a favorable impression because he has told a classic rabbit story and told it very well. However, they soon realize that the reception they have received is not very enthusiastic. They learn that these rabbits do not tell the traditional stories and that they believe that rabbits need dignity, not tricks. One of the new rabbits, Silverweed, a young poet, recites a beautiful poem about movement and life, and it affects Fiver greatly. He writhes in agony, insulting the other rabbits, and Hazel has trouble getting him up out of the burrow, along with Bigwig. Fiver thinks they have come out with him because they also sense the danger in the warren, but he is startled to learn that they are only upset because he may have endangered their relationship with Cowslip and the other rabbits. They go back underground to sleep.
Hazel wakes up, realizes that Fiver is not there, and goes with Bigwig to find him. Fiver tells them he is leaving. Hazel tells Bigwig he must go with Fiver a little way to hear what he has to say and to try to convince him to come back. Bigwig yells at Fiver because he believes that Fiver just wants everyone to follow him.
Bigwig turns to go back to the warren and gets caught in a snare. He struggles furiously until Hazel tells him he is in a snare and Bigwig mouths that they need to get the peg out. Fiver runs for help and brings the others. Blackberry finds the peg and they get it out, but Bigwig does not move. They learn that Cowslip and all the others would not come help and that they ignored Fiver when he went for help. Suddenly Bigwig gets up, claiming that he will go kill Cowslip.
The rabbits become enraged and go to kill the others, but Fiver silences them all and tells them the story he has pieced together. The snares are there for the rabbits, set out by the farmer who feeds them. The rabbits know about the snares, but they pretend everything is all right and come up with art and poetry to pass their time. Fiver convinces them the warren is a death trap, and they are about to leave when Strawberry comes running up and begs them to take him with them. Hazel agrees and they leave.
It turns out that Fiver has been right all along: the new warren is too good to be true. What is interesting is that the warren is unnatural not because the rabbits themselves are evil, but because they force themselves to live an existence that rabbits should not live. Although they have no enemies, they are surrounded by death, and they live knowing that they might die at any moment, caught in a snare that they know is there. Bigwig is lucky to survive the snare, as most rabbits are surely killed by the farmer once caught. The man feeds them only to fatten them up before killing them, and he only kills a few at a time because he does not need any more. The rabbits of this warren are not interested in the stories of El-ahrairah or the adventures that Hazel's band have been through because they do not live like normal rabbits live. Any mention of the cunning and craft that rabbits use in their everyday lives only points out to them the contrast between the way they live and the way other rabbits live. They pride themselves on dignity because their deaths are already hovering over them.
It is a strange life indeed that the rabbits of the warren are living, for although they are larger and better fed than any other rabbits, their numbers are continually cut down by an enemy upon whom they depend. They do not know how to fend for themselves, and their fear of traveling off into the wilderness is so great that they prefer to live and die by the snares than to be free. Staying in such a warren means living a completely solitary life, as any rabbit or his friend might suddenly be killed at any time. Normal rabbit existence is somewhat similar except that number of deaths is fewer and the danger is neither as certain nor as calculated. But the rabbits in this warren know no other existence, and their fear of the unknown is greater even than their fear of death. It is easier for them to pretend that the man throws out the food than to face the truth and be forced to live on their own.
The rabbits of the warren are very similar to domesticated animals in that they no longer know how to live as wild rabbits live. The unnatural quality of their lives is very simple—they are no longer a part of what we consider the natural world; in fact, they might as well be living in cages. Although they have the illusion of freedom, they all know deep down that the snares are ever- present, and they doom themselves the moment they make the decision to live off of food the farmer gives them rather than food they find themselves. The rabbits who are born in the warren never really have a chance to live any other way; much like domesticated animals, they are provided for all their lives.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Watership Down!