Richard Adams's novel Watership Down has a memorable episode in a warren full of big, healthy rabbits ("Cowslip's warren") who are kept in good shape by a man leaving food for them, have many strange un-rabbitty habits (carrying food in their mouths, storing it underground, making pictures, having no Chief Rabbit, not caring about the tales of El-ahrairah, laughing), won't answer any question beginning "Where", and are ultimately revealed to be living one step from death, some of their number constantly being snared and killed by the man, the unspoken truth that they never acknowledge.

In the midst of this peculiar atmosphere, in which Fiver is the only one to be creeped out and see the place for what it is, a poet called Silverweed gives them a song as a reply to Dandelion's storytelling:

The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver.
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
Over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind,
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit.

The stream is running, running over the gravel,
Through the brooklime, the kingcups, the blue and gold of spring.
Where are you going, stream? Far, far away
Beyond the heather, sliding away all night.
Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-stream,
Down through the water, the green water and the rabbit.

In autumn the leaves come blowing, yellow and brown.
They rustle in the ditches, they tug and hang on the hedge.
Where are you going leaves? Far, far away
Into the earth we go, with the rain and the berries.
Take me, leaves, O take me on your dark journey.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-leaves,
In the deep places of the earth, the earth and the rabbit.

Frith lies in the evening sky. The clouds are red about him.
I am here, Lord Frith, I am running through the long grass.
O take me with you, dropping behind the woods,
Far away, to the heart of light, the silence.
For I am ready to give you my breath, my life,
The shining circle of the sun, the sun and the rabbit.

This, like several of their other habits, seems more human-like than rabbit-like. Hazel's band have never heard such a thing as poetry before and are quite mystified - all except Fiver, who seems to feel a sort of kinship with Silverweed. He wants to get closer to the poet-rabbit to get a good sense of him, but then flees in panic when the poem ends. Later he says:

"You felt it, then? And you want to know whether I did? Of course I did. That's the worst part of it. There isn't any trick. He speaks the truth. So as long as he speaks the truth it can't be folly -- that's what you're going to say, isn't it? I'm not blaming you, Hazel. I felt myself moving toward him like one cloud drifting into another. But then at the last moment I drifted wide. Who knows why? It wasn't my own will; it was an accident. There was just some little part of me that carried me wide of him. Did I say the roof of that hall was made of bones? No! It's like a great mist of folly that covers the whole sky: and we shall never see to go by Frith's light any more. Oh, what will become of us? A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel."

Clearly Fiver sees some deep significance in Silverweed's poem, perhaps something that explains the mystery of that warren. To me it's just a poem, and I can't see the connection with the real situation of those rabbits. Maybe Fiver is using his usual psychic instinct and seeing what's in Silverweed's mind more than what's in his song, or maybe there is something to be gleaned from the song, some poetic indirect reference to the snares, which I'm missing.

Does Silverweed's poem have any connection to the situation of the rabbits of his warren? Or is it just a poem and Fiver's talk just the usual apparently-nonsensical-but-later-revealed-to-be-insightful Fiverishness?

1 Answer 1


(tl; dr answer at the bottom)

The plight of the rabbits in Cowslip's warren is one of the things that really hit home with me in the book and the adaptations, and the poem helps especially much. I think that yes, it does have very direct connotations to the life in this warren. Here's why:

As you said yourself, the rabbits in the Warren of Snares have developed a very specific culture. While Frith, the Sun, is still revered, the values that work for wild rabbits and are embodied by El-Ahrairah - such as free-spiritedness and resourcefulness to avoid death - are forsaken. They are replaced with stoicism, fatalism and dignity to accept death, which make more sense for those in-limbo bunnies that are neither domesticated nor really free. That is why the traditional myths are frowned upon and replaced by other habits, such as the creation of shapes, dancing - and poetry. (In one of the adaptations this is explained by the fact that they “have more time to think". Abstract poetry as means of expression is also the only way the taboo can be addressed.

Now for the poem. As mentioned, Frith is still revered and El-Ahrairah - still remembered. The poem is not 100% about seasons/circle of life but it does start with spring, progress into autumn and end with death.

The first three stanzas are all about longing – we can speculate that it’s longing for freedom and leaving the Warren of Snares. The character of the poem speaks to three of the elements – wind, water and earth – asking to be taken with them and become (free as) them. It’s worth noting that all of those dream-escapes are also by death:

  • First stanza: “over the edge of the world”, “high over the sky”;

  • Second stanza: “away in the starlight” “down through the water”;

  • Third stanza: “into the earth we go, with the rain and berries” – this is different from the digging into the ground that living rabbits do; the “dark journey” of the leaves in autumn is the most direct allusion to the rot of a dead body, basically, the poem gets progressively sombre.

    The last stanza, for the last element (fire/Frith), encompasses the whole philosophy of dignified fatalism in Cowslip’s warren, where instead of running away from danger, they choose to “live” with it. They mask it as divine will and tell themselves they are happy to abide by it (“For I am ready to give you my breath, my life”). There is also no more running away or longing for escape (“I am here, I am running through the long grass”). There is just the acceptance and it’s also implied that this stoic stance elevates the rabbit from a “dropping behind the woods” to “the shining circle of the sun", where both become one - "the sun and the rabbit.” To make it even more directly related to the day-to-day life of Cowslip, Silverweed and the rest, we can speculate even further:

  • that “to give you my breath, my life” is about suffocating from a snare;

  • that “running through the long grass” is about accepting death (as the long grass can hide a snare);

  • and, that’s quite far-fetched, but still: that the "shining circle of the sun" can be compared to the shining circle of a wire.

Obviously, this Frith, “lord Frith” with red clouds about him, is quite different from the one that could take a joke and who blessed El-Ahrairah with the means to run away from death.

Hope this makes sense.

The TL; DR answer is: The poem signifies the omnipresent death in the warren and how the rabbits try to view it as a blessing, in order to keep relative sanity. It seems like complete insanity to the outsiders.

  • 1
    I went back to re-read some relevant passages of the novel before commenting here. Great answer, that really makes sense. A couple of extra pieces of evidence: Fiver's explanation of the warren mentions "anyone who asked 'Where?' -- except in a song or a poem -- must be silenced", suggesting songs and poems may be allowed to reveal more of the truth indirectly; and much later (Chapter 28), Fiver says "They'd got him, all right -- the ones in that country [where we go when we die]. They don't give their secrets away for nothing" - suggesting Silverweed was privy to supernatural secrets.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 22, 2021 at 9:47
  • 2
    This brilliant analysis doesn't go far enough. "Silverweed" signifies the snares planted around the warren like silver weeds. "Frith's red clouds" are the rabbit's blood, and the circle of the sun is the circle of the snare. Their Frith is not the sun, but a false god of death and despair.
    – Cyberthal
    Feb 6, 2023 at 4:54
  • @Cyberthal Wow, nice addition!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:25

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