“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” –Machiavelli
Fiver the rabbit didn’t know that he would be initiating a new order of things when he set off from home with his brother Hazel and the little band of misfits they took with them. He simply felt a dire need to leave. Hazel had come to trust in Fiver’s foresight, but this time his warnings seemed so farcical that even Hazel was disinclined to believe him. Things at the Sandleford warren were just the same as they had always been; the way Hazel and Fiver had always known it.
Just to convince Hazel of the gravity of their situation took the greatest amount of insistence on Fiver’s part. Naturally, convincing the rest of the warren would prove be harder still. The chief rabbit of the warren thought Fiver mad, the guards scoffed at the brothers, and they were told to forget the whole episode. Fiver wouldn’t be swayed; he was resolved to leave and Hazel would go with him, along with the small group of rabbits Hazel managed to convince of the danger. The rest of the warren spent the brief remainder of their days shaking their collective heads at the perceived foolishness of Fiver and Hazel’s group before they were destroyed just as Fiver foresaw.
We can see from the Sandleford rabbits’ reticence to leave the warren that Machiavelli was correct when he spoke of the difficulty in altering the status quo.
“‘They’ll say you’re out of your wits.’
‘Then they’ll be here when the bad thing comes.’
‘Well, I suppose we’d better go and see the chief rabbit and you can tell him about it. Or I’ll try to. But I don’t expect he’ll like the idea at all.'”
Machiavelli’s remarks on the doubtful success of a venture like Fiver and Hazel’s would also prove true:
The journey from their home through unknown country put an enormous deal of stress on Hazel as the de facto leader, as he tried to protect the other rabbits from real world dangers and defend Fiver’s eccentricity from the criticisms of the others. The way to the “safe place” Fiver sought was constantly complicated and slowed by the rabbits’ doubt and uncertainty. Even Hazel’s belief in Fiver wavered at times.
When the group was welcomed into a new warren by a group of seemingly friendly rabbits, Hazel gratefully accepted, against Fiver’s warnings of danger. Things went well for a time, and it seemed Fiver was mistaken for once. Then one of the rabbits was nearly killed in a wire trap that Hazel’s group would soon find out was a macabre facet of life at the new warren. Hazel’s rabbits escaped, eventually coming to Watership Down, the safe place Fiver had spoken of. They were, however, much worse off than they would otherwise have been had they listened to Fiver.
“As though Bigwig’s angry impatience, Pipkin’s terror and the approaching dog were not enough to contend with, the cleverest rabbit among them had evidently gone out if his mind. [Hazel] felt close to despair.”
The dangers facing Hazel’s rabbits were grave and numerous. They were threatened by men, exposure, predators, and a host of other problems on their quest for a new home. Machiavelli’s words on the danger confronting a new order prove true.
The greatest danger Hazel’s group faced after they established their own warren on Watership Down was undoubtedly the rival warren of Efrafa. The Watership group first encountered Efrafan rabbits on a diplomatic envoy. Hazel’s rabbits had no females, and hoped the overcrowded Efrafan warren would be more than happy to send a group of does to Watership Down. Instead, the envoy was detained within Efrafa at the order of their chief rabbit, General Woundwart. And even though Hazel’s bucks managed to escape, what resulted was a rise in hostilities that would come to threaten the very existence of both warrens.
Without does, the Watership warren would have soon died out. And without the Efrafans’ permission, Hazel’s only course was to steal them. And steal them he did; thanks to a great deal of subterfuge on Bigwig’s part and the assistance of a befriended seagull, the Watership rabbits managed to bring a large group of females home from right under Woundwart’s nose. Enraged and humiliated, General Woundawart led an unsuccessful assault on Hazel’s warren which ended catastrophically for the Efrafans, but also did a significant deal of harm to Watership as well.
Machiavelli, then, was right on all accounts of the hardship facing a new ordering and those who spearhead those orderings. The status quo resists being broken, and individuals resist breaking it. But if not for Fiver’s insistence on a departure from Sandleford and Hazel’s belief in and support of his brother’s convictions, they and their group would have long since died along with any hope of a prospering warren on Watership Down.