I admit, these past few months have been hell for me, but things are finally starting to look up! Long story short, I’m on break from school until next semester and, boy, did I need this! I can dedicate more time to reading for pleasure and writing. I’m so happy!
One of the first things I decided to do with this little break is reread Watership Down. Why? Well, Adams’ story has this way of always putting a smile on my face and convincing me that everything will be okay. Every once in a while, we need a respite from the stresses of life and that’s true of me lately with what’s been going on with school.
So I was reading a couple nights ago, and something occurred to me that I hadn’t fully thought about in all the years I’ve loved this story. Putting aside the amazement that I can still learn from it (because I feel that that is obvious given how often I’ve written about this book on here), the thing that dawned on me was the horrifying nature of Cowslip’s warren, and just what exactly makes it so terrifying.
Of course, as I’m about to go in-depth with this story, there will be unmarked spoilers from here on out. You’ve been warned!
When the Watership rabbits first encounter Cowslip’s warren, everything seems fine. While Cowslip comes off as a bit eccentric and rather formal, the group ultimately decides to trust him and the inhabitants of his warren. The only character that does not trust him is Fiver, who feels that they should not get involved with the warren.
This early intuition of Fiver’s is what drives a wedge between him and the rest of the Watership rabbits because, while he feels that Cowslip is not to be trusted, he cannot explain why because he himself doesn’t know what is behind this belief or understand it. He just knows that going to the warren is not a good move.
The early practices executed by Cowslip and his followers appear strange upon first reading about them. It took me quite a few readings before I understood exactly what is so horrifying about the concept driving the actions of Cowslip’s warren, and it only occurred to me when I was reading about some of the activities they engage in. Anyway, that concept can be summed up thusly:
Cowslip’s warren is a fatalistic, cult-like place whose members are prisoners to a controlling, omnipotent being who forces them to give up their natural ways and conform to a more human lifestyle at the expense of their personal freedom.
Now admittedly, the fatal secret Cowslip’s warren harbors has been acknowledged multiple times. However, the full horror of it has not really been explored in detail. The physical presence of death all around the warren (as terrifying as that is) is not the worst thing about this warren. The really scary part runs deeper than that, and to explore it we need to talk about how the members of the warren go about day-to-day life.
Once Hazel and his rabbits are settled in the warren, they are immediately separated from each other and taken on personal tours. Hazel goes with a buck named Strawberry, and during said tour we see the warren’s odd practices put on full display.
Cowslip’s rabbits don’t answer any question beginning with the word “where” and anyone who asks such a question is immediately cut off. Hazel eventually stops asking these types of questions, not realizing the full significance of this type of practice until much later on. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
They also “sing like the birds” and carry food in their mouths back to the warren’s burrows like dogs. In terms of story, these odd routines serve the purpose of engaging the reader with a sense of unease about the warren, even when all seems fine and well. Subconsciously, the reader picks up on what Fiver feels about the warren, which only adds to the impact of the final reveal of the snares.
However, that only makes the horror of the warren real – it is not the actual said horror. The most disturbing thing about the warren is what Cowslip’s group has become by living the way they do. But, before we go into that, you may wonder: why exactly have they become this way?
The warren’s location plays a subtle (but crucial) role in the secret Cowslip and the others are keeping from the Watership rabbits. It is located on a man’s property, and the man uses it as part of his farm. He has set snares under cover of shrubbery and lures the rabbits out using luxurious food. He also shoots all enemies that may come and threaten the warren, and only snares as many rabbits as he needs at a time.
As I said, the real horror I’m aiming to talk about is how Cowslip’s rabbits react to their situation. The behavior they exhibit is grossly unacknowledged, and it’s just as important as the snares because it enables them to live life by someone else’s rules. Instead of getting the hell out of there, they stay in the warren and have adopted disturbing practices in an effort to pretend that everything is okay when it really isn’t.
Because they don’t have to hunt for their food or worry about enemies, Cowslip’s rabbits have found ways to keep themselves busy in order to ignore what’s happening around them. They create art, relish in listening to poetry, and reject the rabbit folklore, preferring to focus on the present rather than the past or the future.
The rejection of the folklore is the biggest thing, because it enables wild rabbits to live freely and equips them with the tools they need to deal with dangerous and/or life-threatening situations present in the novel. With the snares around and the acceptance of the situation, Cowslip and his rabbits have no need for the tricks the stories aim to teach.
This rejection of the mythos is part of what is so unnerving about the warren. In rejecting the rabbit ways and living the way the farmer wants them to, Cowslip and his rabbits lose (and accept the loss of) their rabbit nature. They come off as more human than anything in their practices, but because the warren’s secret involves the snares, this humanity is presented as a dangerous coping mechanism in their situation, because they use it to run away from the truth.
And believe it or not, it actually gets even worse, because the practices employed after a rabbit has been snared are just as horrifying as the willful denial of the snares themselves. Once a rabbit has died by the snare, the members of Cowslip’s warren refuse to acknowledge that the deceased ever existed! Suddenly, the victim is wiped from their minds and their vocabularies and it’s as if nothing ever happened. That’s why any question beginning with the word “where” is always cut off, because it can lead to talking about the deceased.
Worse yet, this willful rejection of the memories of the victims drives Cowslip’s rabbits to violence! If the wires are openly talked about, or a past victim is brought up, the warren members will viciously attack and kill whomever dared to speak.
In Part II of the novel, Captain Holly (a rabbit from Sandleford who survived the warren’s destruction and set out to find Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig after the fact) recounts coming across Cowslip on the way to Watership Down and being attacked by the warren members. At one point during the conflict, Holly has Cowslip at his mercy, but he doesn’t kill him.
This refusal to kill the supposed leader of the warren may seem like an injustice at first, given how Cowslip is part of the farmer’s scheme to snare the rabbits and doesn’t do anything to stop it, but the truth is that the better justice in this case would be to allow nature to run its course and let him die by the very thing he is ignoring.
We already know by this point in the story that being ensnared is a brutal way for rabbits to die. When Bigwig gets caught in the snare (a situation that compels the Watership rabbits to leave the warren for good), he convulses, vomits up blood, and he struggles to breathe as he tries to break the wire’s hold on him. We as readers hope Cowslip will die by the wire, but Holly only knows about the farmer and most likely felt in the moment that it would be better if the farmer just shot Cowslip, because he had seen him armed with a gun upon arrival to the warren.
The scene where Cowslip’s rabbits attack Holly and his comrades is one of the biggest indicators of the warren’s fatalistic tendencies. While Cowslip has mostly shed his animalistic instincts and determined to live as the man wants him to live, his attack on Holly, Bluebell, and Pimpernel shows that he still has them and just ignores them most of the time.
That being said, when he uses them, those instincts are all he has. When the Watership rabbits are staying with Cowslip’s group, Pipkin comments that he doesn’t think the warren members can fight. This is later confirmed by Captain Holly (as mentioned earlier), proving that living under the farmer’s control has stripped Cowslip’s group of their survival tactics. They are instead complacent and apathetic toward their situation and only jump back to their natural instincts when they perceive someone trying to break that cycle, but because they otherwise have no reason to fight, their combat abilities are severely lacking.
Their unnatural behavior is what makes this concept truly scary. By showing in earlier chapters how rabbits usually behave, Richard Adams is giving the reader a basis off of which to judge Cowslip’s group. However, not all of the rabbits in the warren of the snares are willful deniers of the truth.
When the Watership rabbits make up their minds to leave the warren, Strawberry catches up to the group and begs to be allowed to go along with them. At first, Hazel and the others are too angry to allow him to come, seeing as he also worked to deceive them.
However, Strawberry proves in one simple sentence that he has rejected the dangerous denial of the snares. When Silver tells him to go back to his mate, he manages to choke out, “The wires.”
This outright acknowledgement shows that Strawberry no longer wants to live a lie and enables Hazel to trust that he has truly changed for the better. This refusal to accept what happened to his mate shows that Strawberry will not allow himself to live a life of deceit anymore.
This also shows that Strawberry has finally allowed himself to mourn loss. When he was showing Hazel around the warren, at one point he called for a rabbit named Kingcup and didn’t get a reply, which didn’t concern him at all. This is an inappropriate response given the situation, because it is implied that Kingcup is dead. The acknowledgement of loss and willingness to move on instead of being complacent shows tremendous strength of character in Strawberry that the other warren members do not have.
Cowslip himself is too much of a coward to take the initiative required to break free of the farmer, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the warren. When Holly attacks him, it is important to note that he does not fight back. Instead, he immediately blurts out where the Watership rabbits went and doesn’t even try to get out of Holly’s grip. As small as it is, the exchange puts his cowardice on full display and shows just how far gone he is.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Cowslip is not the only one who is in too deep! There is one more warren member who puts the warren’s twisted nature on display, and that is the poet Silverweed. Silverweed is a dark counterpart to Fiver, as he is implied to be a seer as well, but he is shown to be way off the deep end, to the point where it can’t even be confirmed that he’s aware of his immediate surroundings.
When Silverweed comes up to recite a poem to the Watership rabbits, Fiver complains that he smells like a wounded mole that can’t get underground, among other nasty things, hinting that there is a disturbing connection between the two characters and that is what Fiver is sensing.
Silverweed is the one that brings Fiver’s suspicions about the warren to the forefront. He is a young rabbit who is shown to have completely receded into the mystical world Fiver’s visions come from, which is why Fiver immediately feels a terrifying connection to him. Even more unsettling is that the last we hear of him is Fiver saying that he is most likely dead.
Silverweed’s character shows that the snares can drive Cowslip’s rabbits to a disturbing madness that doesn’t just involve complacency. On top of the violence, the denial of the folklore, and the weird practices, we see a young life completely destroyed by the dangerous retreat into the mystical realm.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for the warren of the snares. Cowslip is proven to be in too deep. He is so wrapped up in the farmer’s control and he does not have the courage to break free from it. The Watership rabbits know this – which is why they don’t ever confront him – but their refusal to confront him also means that the warren will continue to unravel as time goes on.
So, yeah, kind of a downer post here, but I do admit that I enjoyed laying out exactly what is so terrible about Cowslip’s group. It’s fun knowing I can still learn from this story and share my thoughts on it. I hope I was able to offer a new perspective that is impactful and meaningful.
All that said, I leave you with the rabbits’ god Frith and the Black Rabbit of Inlé.