by Richard Adams
El-ahrairah and other Mythic Figures
This novel features several short rabbit folktales, almost all featuring El-ahrairah tricking some antagonist, whether that's god's annoying helper (Prince Rainbow) or the war-mongering king (King Darzin). We're going to look at them as characters, but we should first say that many folktale figures are not very complex. We don't want to overgeneralize, but really: do El-ahrairah and Robin Hood have as many conflicting feelings and motives as Hamlet? Probably not.
And that's not a bad thing—being complex isn't always a good thing. Put it this way: Folktale characters are like characters in music videos—they have as much complexity as they need to get their point across as quickly as possible. Here, that point is usually "rabbits rule." So we might want to look at these characters also as "Symbols."
Depending on your point of view, El-ahrairah is either the rabbit Jesus or the rabbit Batman. (Ever notice how you never see Rabbit Jesus and Rabbit Batman at the same time?) He's the main figure in the rabbit folktales, the trickster hero who leads his rabbits to safety and prosperity.
We talk about him more in the "Symbol" section, where we talk about how clever and how normal he is (oops, we should've given you a spoiler alert). But the thing to note about him as a character is that he's a little snarky towards Frith, but is otherwise a perfect rabbit. He's helpful to other rabbits; he's clever; and he wins by tricking others, not by bullying them. In other words, he's a lot closer to Hazel than to Woundwort.
Lord Frith is God to the rabbits and like many versions of God, he can be both helpful and a little touchy. For instance, the story of "The Blessing of El-ahrairah" (6) tells how Frith punished El-ahrairah by making lots of predators enjoy rabbit meat (don't knock it till you try it). But that story also tells how Frith blessed El-ahrairah with powerful legs to stay one step ahead of the predators.
Frith doesn't show up directly in a lot of other stories, but his name is used as a swearword by a lot of rabbits. Which shows how much we're like rabbits, always cursing (but never in papers).
Prince Rainbow is Frith's helper who deals with the day-to-day stuff—basically, he's God's personal assistant. Unfortunately for El-ahrairah, Prince Rainbow doesn't seem to like him very much. For example, in "The King's Lettuce" (15), Rainbow confines the rabbits in an unhealthy swamp. And in "The Trial of El-ahrairah" (22), Rainbow is the major antagonist, trying to remove El-ahrairah from power. Though he may not like El-ahrairah, Rainbow keeps his deals—which makes him the perfect sort of enemy for a trickster like El-ahrairah.
Rabscuttle is El-ahrairah's co-conspirator, the rabbit who helps in all El-ahrairah's tricks. He's basically the perfect sidekick, since he does everything he's told to do, even when he doesn't want to. For instance, in "El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé" (31), Rabscuttle would like to get El-ahrairah out from the scary warren of doom, but he obeys El-ahrairah anyway.
Darzin is a king (hence the name), ruling over a big city of animals. Like Prince Rainbow, Darzin is often the antagonist to El-ahrairah. In "The King's Lettuce," El-ahrairah has to trick Darzin out of his lettuce, and in "El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé," Darzin actually goes to war against El-ahrairah's rabbits. That's how you know he's Bad, because who else would go to war against rabbits? (Well, Woundwort would… but that's a whole other story.)
The Black Rabbit of Inlé
The Black Rabbit of Inlé is the Grim Reaper of Rabbits, the personification of death. And, as El-ahrairah learns, he's also very good at playing bob-stones (a rabbit game) and telling stories. But as we hear in the story "El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé," the Black Rabbit's main job is keeping track of rabbit deaths: "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" (31.8). He's like the census-taker of death.
Like many spirits of death, the Black Rabbit causes a mix of feelings. He's not evil but he causes a lot of fear. On one hand, some rabbits say the Black Rabbit hates rabbits, but on the other hand, he's just doing a necessary, natural job and he leaves many rabbits alive, which is awfully nice of him. In one story especially, the Black Rabbit causes a lot of pain to El-ahrairah by taking his ears and tail when El-ahrairah loses bets; but he also eventually decides to help out the rabbits and kill off Darzin's army.
So that's the Black Rabbit: he's dangerous and scary, but he's just part of natural life. So at the end of the book, when Hazel dies, it's not a totally sad event because it's his time to die and leave the world for other rabbits to explore.
Hufsa spies for Prince Rainbow in "The Trial of El-ahrairah." But El-ahrairah tricks Hufsa into looking like a mad fool during the trial. Which just goes to show that it's hard to trick a trickster like El-ahrairah.
Rowsby Woof is the major antagonist of "The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog" (41). But he's not like the other antagonists that El-ahrairah faces. Rowsby is a typical dog—loves his master, hates rabbits, guards the garden and house, loves video games. So Rowsby is on the wrong side (i.e., against El-ahrairah), but he's not a terrible monster.
The pup's not mean in the same way that Prince Rainbow and King Darzin are mean. That is, Rowsby works against the rabbits for a clear goal: to protect his master's stuff. If you put it this way, Rowsby Woof kind of reminds us of Campion and Strawberry and Holly. He's an okay guy who just happens to be on the wrong side of things. Maybe that's why the story ends with both El-ahrairah and Rowsby Woof satisfied: the rabbit got the lettuce and the dog got to feel useful to his master.
Domesticated Rabbits of Nuthanger Farm
Even we have to look up the names of these rabbits because they are not really that interesting as characters: Clover and Haystack (female), Boxwood and Laurel (male). Of the four, only three make it out in the jailbreak that Hazel organizes (and gets shot for) because the humans (boo) recapture Laurel.
Besides providing a reason for Hazel to raid Nuthanger Farm, these rabbits don't play a huge role in the story. Clover does have the first litter in Watership Down, which is exciting news. But again, that mostly gives Hazel and the other rabbits something to fight for when Woundwort brings his army.
Clover "seemed more robust and less timid than Boxwood and Haystack and was evidently doing her best to adapt herself to warren life" (28.5). But that doesn't mean there's a lot for her to do even if she's the most exciting of the domesticated rabbits. (And that's about the only characterization that Clover gets—that she's more like a wild rabbit than the other two domesticated rabbits.)
Still, these domesticated rabbits aren't good for nothing. In fact, they're plenty good for exploring the issues of freedom and nature (see "Themes"). Much like the Efrafan rabbits, these domesticated rabbits have been kept from the natural rhythms of life. Everything on the outside is new to them.
As Hazel realizes about the hutch rabbits, "They did not know how to make up their minds. To him and his companions, sensing and acting was second nature; but these rabbits had never had to act to save their lives or even to find a meal" (24.36). Like the rabbits in Cowslip's warren and like the Efrafans, these domesticated animals tend towards passivity. But out in the wild world of nature, you have to act quickly to survive, as Hazel's rabbits do.