Watership Down
by Richard Adams

These are stories about the legendary hero of rabbits, El-ahrairah, and his trusty companion, Rabscuttle — as told by Dandelion to his friends Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Pipkin, and others. Important Lapine (rabbit) words: owsla = guards; fighters, silflay = to graze for food, elil = all natural enemies of rabbits, Frith = the lord Sun, hrududu = any motor vehicle.


31. The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé

The power of the night, the press of the storm,

The post of the foe;

Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,

Yet the strong man must go.

Robert Browning Prospice

‘Sooner or later, everything leaks out and animals get to hear what others think about them. Some say that it was Hufsa who told King Darzin the truth about the trick with the lettuces. Others say that Yona the hedgehog went gossiping in the copses. But however it was, King Darzin got to know that he had been made a fool when he delivered his lettuces to the marshes of Kelfazin. He did not call his soldiers out to fight – not yet. But he made up his mind that he would find an opportunity to get his own back on El-ahrairah. El-ahrairah knew this and he warned all his people to be careful, especially when they went about alone.

‘Now late one afternoon in February, Rabscuttle led some of the rabbits out to a rubbish heap on the edge of a garden, some way away from the warren. The evening came on cold and misty and well before twilight a fog came down thick. They set off for home but they got lost: and then they had trouble with an owl and became confused over their direction. Anyway, Rabscuttle got separated from the others and after wandering about for some time, he strayed into the guards’ quarters outside King Darzin’s city: and they caught him and took him up to the king.

‘King Darzin saw his chance to spite El-ahrairah. He put Rabscuttle into a special prison-hole and every day he was brought out and made to work, sometimes in the frost, digging and tunnelling. But El-ahrairah swore he would get him out somehow. And so he did, for he and two of his does spent four days digging a tunnel from the wood into the back of the bank where Rabscuttle had been set to work. And in the end this tunnel came near to the hole in the bank down which Rabscuttle had been sent. He was supposed to be digging to turn the hole into a store-room and the guards were watching outside while he worked. But El-ahrairah reached him, for he could hear him scratching in the dark: and they all slipped away down the tunnel and escaped through the wood.

‘When the news reached King Darzin, he became very angry indeed: and he determined that this time he would start a war and finish El-ahrairah once and for all. His soldiers set out in the night and went to the meadows of Fenlo; but they couldn’t get down the rabbit-holes. Some tried, to be sure, but they soon came out again, because they met El-ahrairah and the other rabbits. They were not used to fighting in narrow places in the dark and they got bitten and scratched until they were glad to come out tail-first.

‘But they didn’t go away: they sat outside and waited. Whenever any of the rabbits tried to silflay they found their enemies ready to jump on them. King Darzin and his soldiers couldn’t watch all the holes – there were too many – but they were quick enough to dash off wherever they saw a rabbit show his nose. Very soon El-ahrairah’s people found that it was all they could do to snatch a mouthful or two of grass – just enought to keep alive – before they had to bolt underground again. El-ahrairah tried every trick he could think of, but he couldn’t be rid of King Darzin or get his own people away. The rabbits began to become thin and miserable underground and some of them fell ill.

‘At last El-ahrairah felt quite desperate and one night, when he had been risking his life again and again to bring down a few mouthfuls of grass for a doe and her family whose father had been killed the day before, he called out, “Lord Frith! I would do anything to save my people! I would drive a bargain with a stoat or a fox – yes, or with the Black Rabbit of Inlé!”

‘Now as soon as he had said this, El-ahrairah realized in his heart that if there was one creature anywhere who might have the will and certainly had the power to destroy his enemies, it was the Black Rabbit of Inlé. For he was a rabbit and yet more powerful than King Darzin a thousand times over. But the thought made El-ahrairah sweat and shudder, so that he had to crouch down where he was in the run. After a time he went to his own burrow and began to think of what he had said and what it meant.

‘Now as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun. The Black Rabbit brings sickness too. Or again, he will come in the night and call a rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him, even though he may be young and strong to save himself from any other danger. He goes with the Black Rabbit and leaves no trace behind. Some say that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is – or so they taught me – that he too serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task – to bring about what must be. We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another. If that were so, we would all be destroyed in a day. We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inlé and only by his will. And though that will seems hard and bitter to us all, yet in his way he is our protector, for he knows Frith’s promise to the rabbits and he will revenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself. Anyone who has seen a game-keeper’s gibbet knows what the Black Rabbit can bring down on elil who think they will do what they will.

‘El-ahrairah spent the night alone in his burrow and his thoughts were terrible. As far as he knew, no rabbit had ever tried to do what he had in mind. But the more he thought about it – as well as he could for hunger and fear and the trance that comes upon rabbits face-to-face with death – the more it seemed to him that there was at least a chance of success. He would seek out the Black Rabbit and offer him his own life in return for the safety of his people. But if, when he offered his life, he did not mean the offer to be accepted, it would be better not to go near the Black Rabbit at all. The Black Rabbit might not accept his life: yet still, perhaps, he might get a chance to try something else. Only, there could be no cheating the Black Rabbit. If his people’s safety were to be had, by whatever means, the price would be his life. So unless he failed, he would not return. He would therefore need a companion to bring back whatever it was that was going to overthrow King Darzin and save the warren.

‘In the morning, El-ahrairah went to find Rabscuttle and they talked far into the day. Then he called his Owsla together and told them what he meant to do.

‘Later that evening, in the last of the twilight, the rabbits came out and attacked King Darzin’s soldiers. They fought very bravely and some of them were killed. The enemy thought they were trying to break out of the warren and did everything they could to surround them and force them back into their holes. But the truth was that all the fighting was simply to distract King Darzin’s attention and keep his soldiers busy. As darkness set in, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle slipped out from the other end of the warren and made off down the ditch, while the Owsla fell back and King Darzin’s soldiers jeered at them down the holes. As for King Darzin, he sent a message to say that he was ready to talk to El-ahrairah about terms of surrender.

‘El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle set out on their dark journey. What way they went I don’t know and no rabbit knows. But I always remember what old Feverfew – d’you remember him? – used to say when he told this story. “They didn’t take long,” he said. “They took no time at all. No. They limped and stumbled through a bad dream to that terrible place they were bound for. Where they were travelling, the sun and moon mean nothing and winter and summer less. But you will never know” – and then he used to look all round at us – “you will never know and neither do I, how far El-ahrairah went on his journey into the dark. You see the top of a great stone sticking out of the ground. How far is it to the middle? Split the stone. Then you’ll know.”

‘At last they came to a high place where there was no grass. They scrambled upwards, over splinters of slate, among grey rocks bigger than sheep. Mist and icy rain swirled about them and there was no sound but the trickling of water and sometimes, from far above, the cry of some great, evil bird on the wing. And these sounds echoed, for they were between black cliffs of stone, taller than the tallest trees. The snow lay in patches all about, for the sun never shone to melt it. The moss was slippery and whenever they pushed out a pebble, it rattled down and down behind them in the gullies. But El-ahrairah knew the way and on he went, until the mist grew so thick that they could see nothing. Then they kept close to the cliff and little by little, as they went, it overhung them until it made a dark roof above their backs. Where the cliff ended was the mouth of a tunnel, like a huge rabbit hole. In the freezing cold and silence, El-ahrairah stamped and flashed his tail to Rabscuttle. And then, as they were about to go into the tunnel, they realized that what they had thought, in the gloom, to be a part of the rock was not rock. It was the Black Rabbit of Inlé, close beside them, still as lichen and cold as the stone.’

‘Go on,’ said Bigwig, ‘and don’t leave anything out.’

‘I think many things are left out, if only the truth could be known (said Dandelion), for no one can say what happens in that country where El-ahrairah went of his own accord and we do not. But as I was told, when they first became aware of the Black Rabbit, they fled down the tunnel – as needs they must, for there was nowhere else to run. And this they did although they had come on purpose to encounter him and all depended on their doing so. They did no differently from all of us; and the end too, was no different, for when they had done slipping and tripping and falling along the tunnel, they found themselves in a vast, stone burrow. All was of stone: the Black Rabbit had dug it out of the mountain with his claws. And there they found, waiting for them, him from whom they had fled. There were others in that burrow also – shadows without sound or smell. The Black Rabbit has his Owsla too, you know. I would not care to meet them.

‘The Black Rabbit spoke with the voice of water that falls into pools in echoing places in the dark.

‘ “El-ahrairah, why have you come here?”

‘ “I have come for my people,” whispered El-ahrairah.

‘The Black Rabbit smelt as clean as last year’s bones and in the dark El-ahrairah could see his eyes, for they were red with a light that gave no light.

‘ “You are a stranger here, El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit. “You are alive.”

‘ “My lord,” replied El-ahrairah, “I have come to give you my life. My life for my people.”

‘The Black Rabbit drew his claws along the floor.

‘ “Bargains, bargains, El-ahrairah,” he said. “There is not a day or a night but a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his Chief Rabbit’s. Sometimes it is taken, sometimes it is not. But there is no bargain, for here, what is, is what must be.”

‘El-ahrairah was silent. But he thought, “Perhaps I can trick him into taking my life. He would keep a promise, as Prince Rainbow kept his.”

‘ “You are my guest, El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit. “Stay in my burrow as long as you wish. You may sleep here. And you may eat here, and they are few indeed who can do as much. Let him eat,” he said to the Owsla.

‘ “We will not eat, my lord,” said El-ahrairah, for he knew that if he ate the food which they gave him in that burrow, his secret thoughts would become plain and there would be an end of tricks.

‘ “Then at least we must entertain you,’ said the Black Rabbit. ‘You must feel at home, El-ahrairah, and make yourself comfortable. Come, let us play bob-stones.”*

‘ “Very well,” said El-ahrairah, “and if I win, my lord, perhaps you will be so good as to accept my life in return for my people’s safety.’

‘ “I will,” said the Black Rabbit. “But if I win, El-ahrairah, you shall give me both your tail and your whiskers.”

‘The stones were brought and El-ahrairah sat down in the cold and the echoes to play against the Black Rabbit of Inlé. Now as you may suppose, El-ahrairah knew how to play bob-stones. He could play as well as any rabbit that ever covered a cast. But there – in that dreadful place, with the Black Rabbit’s eyes upon him and the Owsla who made no sound – try as he would, his wits deserted him and even before he cast, he felt that the Black Rabbit knew what was down. The Black Rabbit showed never the least haste. He played as the snow falls, without sound or change, until at last El-ahrairah’s spirit failed him and he knew that he could not win.

‘ “You can pay your stakes to the Owsla, El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit, “and they will show you a burrow to sleep in. I shall return tomorrow and if you are still here I will see you. But you are free to leave whenever you wish.”

‘Then the Owsla took El-ahrairah away and cut off his tail and pulled out his whiskers: and when he came to himself, he was alone with Rabscuttle in a hollow stone burrow, with an opening to the mountain outside.

‘ “Oh, master,” said Rabscuttle, “what will you do now? For Frith’s sake let us go away. I can feel for both of us in the dark.”

‘ “Certainly not,” said El-ahrairah. He still hoped to get what he wanted from the Black Rabbit somehow and he felt sure that they had been put into this burrow so that they would be tempted to steal away. “Certainly not. I can make do very well with some willow-herb and clematis. Go out and get some, Rabscuttle, but make sure you come back before tomorrow evening. You had better try to bring some food, too, if you can.”

‘Rabscuttle went out as he was told and El-ahrairah was left alone. He slept very little, partly for the pain and partly for the fear that never left him; but chiefly because he was still searching for some trick that would serve his turn. The next day Rabscuttle returned with some pieces of turnip and after El-ahrairah had eaten them, Rabscuttle helped him to patch himself up with a grey tail and whiskers, made from the winter drift of clematis and ragwort. In the evening he went to meet the Black Rabbit as though nothing had happened.

‘ “Well, El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit – and he did not wrinkle his nose up and down when he sniffed, but thrust it forward, as a dog does – “my burrow cannot be what you are used to: but perhaps you have done your best to make yourself comfortable?”

‘ “I have, my lord,” said El-ahrairah. “I am glad that you allow me to stay.”

‘ “Perhaps we will not play bob-stones tonight,” said the Black Rabbit. “You must understand, El-ahrairah, that I have no wish to make you suffer. I am not one of the Thousand. I repeat, you may stay or leave as you please. But if you are going to remain, perhaps you would care to hear a story; and to tell one yourself, if you like.”

‘ “Certainly, my lord,” said El-ahrairah, “And if I can tell a story as good as yours, perhaps you will accept my life and grant the safety of my people.”

‘ “I will,” said the Black Rabbit. “But if not, El-ahrairah, you will have to forfeit your ears.” He waited to see whether El-ahrairah would refuse the wager, but he did not.

‘Then the Black Rabbit told such a tale of fear and darkness as froze the hearts of Rabscuttle and El-ahrairah where they crouched on the rock, for they knew that every word was true. Their wits turned. They seemed to be plunged in icy clouds that numbed their senses; and the Black Rabbit’s story crept into their hearts like a worm into a nut, leaving them shrivelled and empty. When at last that terrible story was ended, El-ahrairah tried to speak. But he could not collect his thoughts and he stammered and ran about the floor, like a mouse when the hawk glides low. The Black Rabbit waited silently, with no sign of impatience. At last it was clear that there would be no story from El-ahrairah, and the Owsla took him and put him into a deep sleep: and when he woke, his ears were gone and only Rabscuttle was beside him in the stone burrow, crying like a kitten.

‘ “Oh, master,” said Rabscuttle, “what good can this suffering bring? For the sake of Lord Frith and the green grass, let me take you home.”

‘ “Nonsense,” said El-ahrairah. “Go out and get me two good, big dock-leaves. They will do very well for ears.”

‘ “They will wither, master,” said Rabscuttle, “and I am withered now.”

‘ “They will last long enough,” said El-ahrairah grimly, “for what I have to do. But I cannot find the way.”

‘When Rabscuttle was gone, El-ahrairah forced himself to think clearly. The Black Rabbit would not accept his life. Also, it was plain that he himself would never be able to win any sort of wager against him: he might as well try to run a race across a sheet of ice. But if the Black Rabbit did not hate him, why did he inflict these sufferings upon him? To destroy his courage and make him give up and go away. But why not simply send him away? And why wait, before hurting him, till he himself proposed a wager and lost it? The answer came to him suddenly. These shadows had no power either to send him away or to hurt him, except with his own consent. They would not help him, no. They would seek possession of his will and break it if they could. But supposing that he could find among them something that would save his people, could they stop him from taking it away?

‘When Rabscuttle came back, he helped El-ahrairah to disguise his horrible, maimed head with two dock-leaves in place of ears and after a while they slept. But El-ahrairah kept dreaming of his starving rabbits waiting in the runs to push back King Darzin’s soldiers and placing all their hopes on him: and at last he woke, cold and cramped, and wandered out into the runs of the stone warren. As he limped along, trailing the dock-leaves on either side of his head – for he could not raise or move them like the ears he had lost – he came to a place from which several narrow runs led down deeper into the ground: and here he found two of the ghastly, shadowy Owsla moving about some dark business of their own. They turned and stared, to make him afraid, but El-ahrairah was past being afraid and he stared back at them, wondering what they had in mind to persuade him to lose.

‘ “Turn back, El-ahrairah,” said one at last. “You have no business here, in the pit. You are alive; and have suffered much already.”

‘ “Not as much as my people,” replied El-ahrairah.

‘ “There is enough suffering here for a thousand warrens,” said the shadow. “Do not be stubborn, El-ahrairah. In these holes lie all the plagues and diseases that come to rabbits – fever and mange and the sickness of the bowels. And here, too, in this nearest hole, lies the white blindness, that sends creatures hobbling out to die in the fields, where even the elil will not touch their rotting bodies. This is our task, to see that all these are ready for the use of Inlé-rah. For what is, is what must be.”

‘Then El-ahrairah knew that he must give himself no time to think. He pretended to go back, but suddenly turned, rushed upon the shadows and plunged into the nearest hole faster than a raindrop into the ground. And there he lay, while the shadows flickered and gibbered about the entrance, for they had no power to move him, except by fear. After a time they went away and El-ahrairah was left alone, wondering whether he would be able to reach King Darzin’s army in time without the use of whiskers or ears.

‘At last, when he was sure that he must have stayed in the hole long enough to be infected, El-ahrairah came out and began to make his way back along the run. He did not know how soon the disease would appear or how long he would take to die, but plainly he ought to return as quickly as he could – if possible, before there was any sign of illness on him. Without going near Rabscuttle, he must tell him to hurry ahead, reach the rabbits in the warren and warn them to block all the holes and stay inside until King Darzin’s army was destroyed.

‘He blundered into a stone in the dark, for he was shivering and feverish and in any case he could feel little or nothing without his whiskers. At that moment a quiet voice said, “El-ahrairah, where are you going?” He had heard nothing, but he knew that the Black Rabbit was beside him.

‘ “I am going home, my lord,” he replied. “You said that I might go when I wished.”

‘ “You have some purpose, El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit. “What is it?”

‘ “I have been in the pit, my lord,” answered El-ahrairah. “I am infected with the white blindness and I am going to save my people by destroying the enemy.”

‘ “El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit, “do you know how the white blindness is carried?”

‘A sudden misgiving seized upon El-ahrairah. He said nothing.

‘ “It is carried by the fleas in rabbits’ ears,” said the Black Rabbit. “They pass from the ears of a sick rabbit to those of his companions. But El-ahrairah, you have no ears and fleas will not go to dock-leaves. You can neither catch nor carry the white blindness.”

‘Then at last El-ahrairah felt that his strength and courage were gone. He fell to the ground. He tried to move, but his back legs dragged along the rock and he could not get up. He scuffled and then lay still in the silence.

‘ “El-ahrairah,” said the Black Rabbit at last, “this is a cold warren: a bad place for the living and no place at all for warm hearts and brave spirits. You are a nuisance to me. Go home. I myself will save your people. Do not have the impertinence to ask me when. There is no time here. They are already saved.”

‘In that moment, while King Darzin and his soldiers were still jeering down the holes of the warren, confusion and terror came upon them in the falling darkness. The fields seemed full of huge rabbits with red eyes, stalking among the thistles. They turned and fled. They vanished in the night; and that is why no rabbit who tells the tales of El-ahrairah can say what kind of creatures they were or what they looked like. Not one of them has ever been seen, from that day to this.

‘When at last El-ahrairah was able to rise to his feet, the Black Rabbit was gone and Rabscuttle was coming down the run, looking for him. Together they went out to the mountainside and made their way down the stone-rattling gully in the mist. They did not know where they were going, except that they were going away from the Black Rabbit’s warren. But after a time it became plain that El-ahrairah was ill from shock and exhaustion. Rabscuttle dug a scrape and there they stayed for several days.

‘Later, when El-ahrairah began to get better, they wandered on, but they could not find their way back. They were confused in their wits and had to beg help and shelter of other animals whom they met. Their journey home lasted three months and many adventures they had. Some of these, as you know, are stories in themselves. Once they lived with a lendri and found pheasants’ eggs for him in the wood. And once they barely escaped from the middle of a hay-field when the hay was cutting. All the time, Rabscuttle looked after El-ahrairah, brought him fresh dock-leaves and kept the flies from his wounds until they healed.

‘At last, one day, they came back to the warren. It was evening, and as the sun stretched out all the hills, they could see any number of rabbits at silflay, nibbling in the grass and playing over the ant-heaps. They stopped at the top of the field, sniffing the gorse and herb-robert on the wind.

‘ “Well, they look all right,” said El-ahrairah. “A healthy lot, really. Let’s just slip in quietly and see whether we can find one or two of the Owsla captains underground. We don’t want a lot of fuss.”

‘They made their way along the hedgerow, but could not altogether get their bearings, because apparently the warren had grown bigger and there were more holes than before, both in the bank and in the field. They stopped to speak to a group of smart young bucks and does sitting under the elder bloom.

‘ “We want to find Loosestrife,” said Rabscuttle. “Can you tell us where his burrow is?”

‘ “I never heard of him,” answered one of the bucks. “Are you sure he’s in this warren?”

‘ “Unless he’s dead,” said Rabscuttle. “But surely you must have heard of Captain Loosestrife? He was an officer of the Owsla in the fighting.”

‘ “What fighting?” asked another buck.

‘ “The fighting against King Darzin,” replied Rabscuttle.

‘ “Here, do me a favour, old fellow, will you?” said the buck. “That fighting – I wasn’t born when it finished.”

‘ “But surely you know the Owsla captains who were?” said Rabscuttle.

‘ “I wouldn’t be seen dead with them,” said the buck. “What, that white-whiskered old bunch? What do we want to know about them?”

‘ “What they did,” said Rabscuttle.

‘ “That war lark, old fellow?” said the first buck. “That’s all finished now. That’s got nothing to do with us.”

‘ “If this Loosestrife fought King What’s-His-Name, that’s his business,” said one of the does. “It’s not our business, is it?”

‘ “It was all a very wicked thing,” said another doe. “Shameful, really. If nobody fought in wars there wouldn’t be any, would there? But you can’t get old rabbits to see that.”

‘ “My father was in it,” said the second buck. “He gets on about it sometimes. I always go out quick. ‘They did this and then we did that’ and all that caper. “Makes you curl up, honest. Poor old geezer, you’d think he’d want to forget about it. I reckon he makes half of it up. And where did it get him, tell me that?”

‘ “If you don’t mind waiting a little while, sir,” said a third buck to El-ahrairah, “I’ll go and see if I can find Captain Loosestrife for you. I don’t actually know him myself, but then it’s rather a big warren.”

‘ “That’s good of you,” said El-ahrairah, “but I think I’ve got my bearings now and I can manage by myself.”

‘El-ahrairah went along the hedgerow to the wood and sat alone under a nut-bush, looking out across the fields. As the light began to fail, he suddenly realized that Lord Frith was close beside him, among the leaves.

‘ “Are you angry, El-ahrairah?” asked Lord Frith.

‘ “No, my lord,” replied El-ahrairah, “I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know when a gift has made him safe is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise himself.”

‘ “Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside, El-ahrairah, where none comes to feed, and the stony bank where the rabbit scratches a hole in vain. But speaking of gifts, I have brought a few trifles for you. A pair of ears, a tail and some whiskers. You may find the ears slightly strange at first. I put a little starlight in them, but it is really quite faint: not enough, I am sure, to give away a clever thief like you. Ah, there is Rabscuttle coming back. Good, I have something for him too. Shall we –” ’

‘Hazel! Hazel-rah!’ It was Pipkin’s voice from behind a clumb of burdock on the edge of the little circle of listeners. ‘There’s a fox coming up the combe!’


 

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