Watership Down Characters – Bigwig (Thlayli)


Bigwig, or Thlayli

There are three primary rabbit characters in Richard Adams’ Watership Down. There are the two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. The third primary cunicular hero is Bigwig — his name in the lapine language is Thlayli. He is large — even imposing — and possesses great physical strength. The evening after Fiver pronounces his vision of doom and death for the Sandleford warren, Bigwig approaches Hazel and Fiver and we read this dialogue:

“Hello, Bigwig,” said Hazel. “You’re off duty?”
“Off duty,” said Bigwig, “and likely to remain off duty…The Threarah’s [name of the Chief Rabbit of their warren] rather good at making himself unpleasant when he’s been woken up…I told him that the Owsla’s privileges didn’t mean all that much to me in any case, and that a strong rabbit could always do just as well by leaving the warren…lettuce stealing isn’t my idea of a jolly life.” (p. 15).

Bigwig’s reasoning for leaving is without conviction. It is without true substance, and hints at questionable character and trustworthiness. Hazel observes this. “It crossed his mind that although Bigwig would certainly be a useful rabbit in a tight couner, he would also be a difficult one to get on with” (p. 15). But, as with all the novel’s characters, Bigwig is transformed. He is transformed into a rabbit who possess selflessness, loyalty, and an inner strength that even surpasses his physical strength. His role is that of the king’s champion — champion to Hazel — and a champion he becomes. The process of transformation begins with the first challenge to the fleeing rabbits, and comes at the point of their departure when confronted by Captain Holly who threatens them with arrest:

“You’re under arrest.”
[Bigwig] “Under arrest? What do you mean? What for?”
“Spreading dissension and inciting to mutiny. Silver, you’re under arrest too, for failing to report to Toadflax this evening and causing your duty to devolve on a comrade. You’re both to come with me.”
Immediately Bigwig fell upon him, scratching and kicking (p. 21).

With this initial conflict and confrontation, Bigwig observes Hazel’s own inner strength, resolve, and leadership when Holly is addressed, “Go,” repeated Hazel, “or you will be killed” (p. 21). Holly and his owsla companions retreat. Hazel and his companions begin in earnest their journey of growth and transformation on their way to their yet unknown new home — Watership Down.

Leaving their home warren demanded courage as Hazel’s comrades faced the immediate and intimidating challenges before them. They emerge from them and find respite in a field, but shortly into their relaxation there is a surprise. “Beside a tussock of grass a little way outside the opposite copse, a rabbit was sitting and gazing at them…He had the air of an aristocrat…” (pp. 64 — 65). The stranger’s name was Cowslip, and this sophisticated, well fed rabbit welcomes them into this new warren. Fiver has great misgivings about Cowslip’s warren and its rabbits: “…I know there’s something unnatural and evil twisted all round this place” (p. 90). The other rabbits, though they find a strangeness in the place, ignore Fiver’s continued warnings of death — especially so with Bigwig, “Well, I’m finished with you, I’ll tell you plain. And now I’m going back to the warren to make sure everyone else is finished with you as well” (p. 112). Bigwig does not make it.

202657e9b5be7fdcd6c2f5ca204fc71fHe turned and dashed back through the nearest gap in the hedge. On the instant, a fearful commotion began on the farther side. There were sounds of kicking and plunging. A stick flew into the air. Then a flat, wet clod of dead leaves shot clean through the gap and landed clear of the hedge, close to Hazel…Hazel forced himself forward into the gap, with Fiver following. A terrible sight lay before them…Bigwig was lying on his side, his back legs kicking and struggling. A length of copper wire, gleaming dully in the first sunlight, was looped round his neck and ran taut across one forepaw to the head of a stout peg driven into the ground (p.112).

Bigwig does not die. He is rescued by his fellows. Even the least among them, Pipkin, works ferociously against the peg to free their strong friend: “Bigwig,” he [Hazel] whispered, “we’ve got you out. You’re free” (p.115).

Hazel’s champion survives and lives, and all flee another warren of death and darkness and move on to their still unknown goal. But soon it is discovered, and all ascend Watership Down. Adams writes of the growth and transformation that has taken place in them — even Bigwig.

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder, a tenacious band who understood each other and worked together. There was no quarreling…They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended…For the first time in his life, Bigwig had found himself driven to moderation and prudence (pp. 124 — 125).

The newly moderate and changed Bigwig, as do all the rabbits, continues to do things new for rabbits. These include interactions with other species. The primary interspecies friendship and alliance comes upon the telling of another of a story of El-ahrairah and his enlistment of other animals to come to his aid. Following the story the rabbits come upon a wounded seagull named Kehaar whom they nurse back to health. Bigwig finds a friend in the salty seagull. This friendship and alliance inspires Bigwig to devise a plan to infiltrate the neighboring and equally dark warren of Efrafa to bring does to Watership Down to maintain life in his new home: “And we have no does — not one — and no does means no kittens and in a few years no warren” (p.189).

An embassy to Efrafa fails, and the rabbits learn of its sinister threat to their existence. Plans are made and the time is decided upon. Bigwig will go to Efrafa and bring does out of Efrafa with the help of Kehaar. When the opportune moment is evident, Hazel commissions and blesses Bigwig: “‘There’s nothing more to wait for,’ said Hazel. ‘Go on, Bigwig, straightaway, and may El-ahrairah go with you’” (p. 304). Adams continues his description of Bigwig’s virtuous character,

Afterward, they all remembered how Bigwig had taken his orders. No one could say that he did not practice what he preached. He hesitated a few moments and then looked squarely at Hazel.
“It’s sudden,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it tonight. But that’s all to the good — I hated waiting. See you later.”
He touched his nose to Hazel’s, turned and hopped away into the undergrowth. A few minutes later, guided by Kehaar, he was running up the open pasture north of the river, straight for the brick arch in the overgrown railway embankment and the fields that lay beyond (p. 304)

And El-ahrairah was with the commissioned and blessed champion. In spite of the danger and incredible challenges he found in the dictatorial warren, he wins the trust of Hyzenthlay — one of many does desiring to be free from the suffocating warren — and comes to the moment of escape. Bigwig has to overpower a member of the owsla. In the confusion of an imposing, threatening thunder storm he turns to El-ahrairah: “O Lord with the starlight ears, send me a sign!” (p. 346). It was the storm, for rabbits believe that El-ahrairah controls the weather to aid them in times of need. “A small voice spoke in Bigwig’s mind, “‘Your storm, Thlayli-rah. Use it’” (p. 361).

Bigwig’s hard won victory comes as he, many does, and his friends pile on a raft and float away down the Test River to safety and freedom. But he has one more fearful test and battle to face. The tyrant of Efrafa, General Woundwort, brings members of his owsla to invade Watership Down, kill Bigwig, and bring the newly freed does back into the bondage of Efrafa. Again Bigwig holds Hazel’s orders as champion. The General and his troops are defeated. Peace finally comes to Bigwig, Hazel, and the warren of Watership Down.
In their freedom, Bigwig is captain of a “free-and-easy” owsla. He is the beloved favorite of the young rabbits of the warren. Hazel and Silver observe his coaching of the young bucks:

“They pull his leg, you know,” said Silver, “but they’d do anything for him.” Holly and Groundsel had gone underground and Silver and Hazel moved out once more into the sun.
“I think we all would,” replied Hazel (p. 470).

Again, I can’t resist… “Saint Thlayli-rah, pray for us!”

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

One Comment on “Watership Down Characters – Bigwig (Thlayli)”

  1. Love this! Makes me want to read Watership again for the 57th time!


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