"You could say that. The Threarah's rather good at making himself unpleasant when he's been woken up at ni-Frith for what he considers a piece of trivial nonsense. He certainly knows how to get under your skin. I dare say a good many rabbits would have kept quiet and thought about keeping on the right side of the Chief, but I'm afraid I'm not much good at that. 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. He told me not to be impulsive and think it over, but I shan't stay. Lettuce-stealing isn't my idea of a jolly life, nor sentry duty in the burrow. I'm in a fine temper, I can tell you." (3.12)
Bigwig at the beginning is basically a no-nonsense, straight-ahead, my-way-or-the-highway kind of rabbit. You know: a jerk. Well, okay, maybe he's not a jerk, but check out how he defines his freedom here. He straight up doesn't want to be told what to do. Sounds like he might be trouble for Hazel and the group.
"You're under arrest."
"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." (4.21-3)
Sandleford is the first warren we see so we don't really have much to compare it to, except our own lives. So when police-rabbits come to arrest Hazel and the other rabbits for "spreading dissension"—basically, complaining about the Chief Rabbit—we might read that as a little less freedom than we want in our warrens (and suburbs). We like to talk smack about our leaders without being arrested. So sue us.
"He began to shoot all elil—lendri, homba, stoat, owl. He put out food for the rabbits, but not too near the warren. For his purpose they had to become accustomed to going about in the fields and the wood. And then he snared them—not too many: as many as he wanted and not as many as would frighten them all away or destroy the warren. They grew big and strong and healthy, for he saw to it that they had all of the best, particularly in winter, and nothing to fear—except the running knot in the hedge gap and the wood path. So they lived as he wanted them to live and all the time there were a few who disappeared." (17.91)
Fiver tells the rabbits what Cowslip's rabbits have to give up and what they gain in this little situation. They're free from worry about enemies and food and can live perfect lives, except that every once in a while one of them goes missing. (Hint: if a rabbit is missing, check the stewpot, or ask Glenn Close.) Fiver's presentation makes the costs and benefits of this sort of "freedom" pretty clear.
The hutch rabbits seemed at once bewildered and fascinated. Clover, the Angora doe—a strong, active rabbit—was clearly excited by Hazel's description and asked several questions about the warren and the downs. It became plain that they thought of their life in the hutch as dull but safe. They had learned a good deal about elil from some source or other and seemed sure that few wild rabbits survived for long. (24.36)
Like Cowslip's rabbits, the hutch rabbits have all their needs taken care of and they don't get eaten by humans. They're free from all the major worries that rabbits have. The only limit on their freedom is that they're in a tiny cage for their whole lives and are bored out of their minds. Hmm, that suddenly doesn't sound so free.
"The holes are all hidden and the Owsla have every rabbit in the place under orders. You can't call your life your own: and in return you have safety—if it's worth having at the price you pay." (27.25)
If we're giving out awards for least free rabbits, the award would have to go to the Efrafa rabbits. Holly reports that the rabbits there don't have to worry about predators or humans as long as they follow Woundwort absolutely. And how's this for irony? Holly here seems to think that freedom is good—when he was the policerabbit who came to arrest Hazel's rabbits before they left Sandleford. So now he's the one who's all pro-dissent. Three cheers for character growth.
"But surely it alters them very much, living like that?" asked Dandelion.
"Very much indeed," replied Holly. "Most of them can't do anything but what they're told. They've never been out of Efrafa and never smelled an enemy. The one aim of every rabbit in Efrafa is to get into the Owsla, because of the privileges: and the one aim of everyone in the Owsla is to get into the Council. The Council have the best of everything. But the Owsla have to keep very strong and tough." (27.29-30)
When we said that the Efrafans weren't free at all, we should've carved out a little exception for the Efrafan officers. As we'll learn when Bigwig infiltrates Efrafa, rabbits in the Owsla get all sorts of freedoms. (Like—yech—the freedom to mate with whatever female rabbit they choose. What is this, Braveheart?) Those officers have certain freedoms; while the rest of the rabbits have been so beaten down that they follow any order they're given just to survive.
During the afternoon he [Bigwig] had been up and down the runs and crowded burrows with Chervil and Avens, the other Mark officer, and had thought to himself that never in his life had he seen such a cheerless, dispirited lot of rabbits. (35.2)
This is a pretty long sentence for this book, but notice how it ends with a really strong statement: the rabbits aren't just sad, they are "cheerless." And also "dispirited." Think about those words: these rabbits aren't just bummed out, they are without cheer and without spirit. That's the cost of not having freedom.
"Oh, Thlayli! Shall we mate with whom we choose and dig our own burrows and bear our litters alive?"
"You shall: and tell stories in the Honeycomb and silflay whenever you feel like it. It's a fine life, I promise you." (35.147-8)
Both Hazel and Bigwig tell female rabbits all about what it's like to be free. Hazel tempts the rabbits at Nuthanger Farm, while Bigwig tells Hyzenthlay how great it is to be free. What's crazy about the list of freedoms these two discuss is how basic they are: the freedom to choose your mate, to dig burrows, to have kids, to tell stories, to go outside—these are the basic, natural freedoms of rabbits. It'd be like promising the freedom to high-five or eat ice cream or do a jig when you get a red gumball instead of a gross green one.
"Only hutch does," replied Hazel. "I dare say they're fairly tough and fast by now, but all the same they'll never be quite like our own kind. Clover, for instance—she'd never go far from the hole on silflay, because she knew she couldn't run as fast as we can. But these Efrafan does, you see—they've been kept in by sentries all their lives. Yet now there aren't any, they wander about quite happily. Look at those two, right away under the bank there. They feel they can—Oh, great Frith!"
As he spoke a tawny shape, dog-like, sprang out of the overhanging nut bushes as silently as light from behind a cloud. It landed between the two does, grabbed one by the neck and dragged her up the bank in a flash. (40.48-9)
But before we start to pat ourselves on the back for being wild and free rabbits (we are all wild and free rabbits, right?), let's look at how Hazel's rabbits are doing. In the middle of Hazel talking about how the Efrafan does will fit right in with his rabbits, a fox jumps out and grabs one who isn't being careful enough. That's comedy gold (or just bad luck). Now that they're free rabbits, they're going to start facing the problems of free rabbits. Maybe it's time to establish a Department of Homeland Security.
"Oh, no, he wouldn't live shut up in a box. If he couldn't get out he'd soon die. No, I should let the poor chap go—unless you want to eat him." (48.48)
This is Doctor Adams (who, hey, has the same name as the author, whose own father was a doctor). Here Doctor Adams tells Lucy that wild rabbits have to live free lives, far from cellphone contracts. The only wild rabbit who got kept as a pet for a while was General Woundwort and we saw how that turned out. But Doctor Adams has a solution: let wild rabbits be wild and free—or eat them.