Study Guide

Watership Down Art and Culture

By Richard Adams

Art and Culture

What Robin Hood is to the English and John Henry to the American N****es, Elil-Hrair-Rah, or El-ahrairah—The Prince with a Thousand Enemies—is to rabbits. Uncle Remus might well have heard of him, for some of El-ahrairah's adventures are those of Brer Rabbit. For that matter, Odysseus himself might have borrowed a trick or two from the rabbit hero, for he is very old and was never at a loss for a trick to deceive his enemies. (5.11)

El-ahrairah is pretty much the ideal rabbit (and Chief Rabbit), and one of his ideal qualities is his cleverness, which gets him compared to Brer Rabbit and Odysseus. But notice that El-ahrairah also gets linked to Robin Hood (who is tricky, but mostly known for his generosity), and John Henry (who is known for winning a contest against a machine but dying). It's almost as if cleverness isn't the only value rabbits respect.
They also respect kindheartedness and hard work.

All the rabbits had heard the story before: on winter nights, when the cold draft moved down the warren passages and the icy wet lay in the pits of the runs below their burrows; and on summer evenings, in the grass under the red may and the sweet, carrion-scented elder bloom. Dandelion was telling it well, and even Pipkin forgot his weariness and danger and remembered instead the great indestructibility of the rabbits. Each one of them saw himself as El-ahrairah, who could be impudent to Frith and get away with it. (6.7)

Unlike watching the Olympics, which are only good in summer (zing, Winter Olympics), storytelling is a fun activity the whole year round. Not only that, but storytelling is useful for a number of reasons: it makes rabbits forget their problems (as when Pipkin forgets his weariness), and it also inspires the rabbits, since each of them sees himself as El-ahrairah.

"Do you like it?" asked Strawberry.

Hazel puzzled over the stones. They were all the same size, and pushed at regular intervals into the soil. He could make nothing of them.

"What are they for?" he asked again. (13.40-2)

Hazel sounds like a parent whose toddler just gave him some "art"—what is it, what is it for, do I have to put it on the fridge? That might seem rude in some situations, but we've already seen Dandelion's stories do lots of useful things. So maybe this is a fair question: what is this Shape good for? (Or does Adams just hate mosaics?)

There is a rabbit saying, "In the warren, more stories than passages"; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight. Hazel and his friends conferred. After a short time Blackberry announced, "We've asked Hazel to tell you about our adventures: how we made our journey here and had the good luck to join you." (14.103)

There are lots of examples in the book of how storytelling is natural to rabbits, as we hear here, provided we're not distracted by the offensive Irishman line. Also, one great thing about stories—besides the fact that they're easy to pack and carry from warren to warren—is that you can update stories to tell your own history.

"Very nice," said Cowslip. He seemed to be searching for something more to say, but then repeated, "Yes, very nice. An unusual tale."

"But he must know it, surely?" muttered Blackberry to Hazel.

"I always think these traditional stories retain a lot of charm," said another of the rabbits, "especially when they're told in the real, old-fashioned spirit."

"Yes," said Strawberry. "Conviction, that's what it needs. You really have to believe in El-ahrairah and Prince Rainbow, don't you? Then all the rest follows." (16.5-8)

We laugh whenever we read Cowslip's rabbits' reactions to Dandelion's storytelling—they're such jerks trying to find something nice to say. (Somehow, whenever jerks try to be nice, they only ever highlight their jerkiness.) It's clear from their reaction that the El-ahrairah stories don't mean much to these rabbits. So it follows that these rabbits don't share the same values (or the same sense of community), which will be made even clearer later, when Cowslip leaves Bigwig to die in a trap. Stay classy, Cowslip.

"You felt it, then? And you want to know whether I did? Of course I did. That's the worst part of it. There isn't any trick. He speaks the truth. So as long as he speaks the truth it can't be folly—that's what you're going to say, isn't it? I'm not blaming you, Hazel. I felt myself moving toward him like one cloud drifting into another. But then at the last moment I drifted wide. Who knows why?" (16. 29)

Fiver may not make a lot of sense to us when he talks about freaking out over Silverweed's poem, but that's what we've come to expect from Fiver. What's curious about Fiver's freak-out is that he accepts the poem as a sort of truth and still freaks out over it. How do you deal with a truth that freaks you out? Probably by making tracks in the opposite direction.

"They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy's warren and paying his price? They found out other marvelous arts to take the place of tricks and old stories. They danced in ceremonious greeting. They sang songs like the birds and made Shapes on the walls; and though these could help them not at all, yet they passed the time and enabled them to tell themselves that they were splendid fellows, the very flower of Rabbitry, cleverer than magpies." (17.91)

Fiver explains the relationship between art and society very well here. (Fiver knows so much he's probably aware that he's in a book, and that we're writing about him. Hi, Fiver.) According to Fiver, Cowslip's warren didn't need stories to inspire cleverness when they can't clever their way out of the snares of the farmer. So instead, they used art to make themselves feel better about being weak. So art isn't always used to help. Sometimes it's used to make someone feel better about a bad situation instead of doing something about that bad situation.

Hazel and his companions had suffered extremes of grief and horror during the telling of Holly's tale. Pipkin had cried and trembled piteously at the death of Scabious, and Acorn and Speedwell had been seized with convulsive choking as Bluebell told of the poisonous gas that murdered underground. Yet, as with primitive humans, the very strength and vividness of their sympathy brought with it a true release. Their feelings were not false or assumed. While the story was being told, they heard it without any of the reserve or detachment that the kindest of civilized humans retains as he reads his newspaper. To themselves, they seemed to struggle in the poisoned runs and to blaze with rage for poor Pimpernel in the ditch. This was their way of honoring the dead. (22.1)

Even stories that are—shudder—real can have some of the same effects as the myths of El-ahrairah. Just as the rabbits listening to El-ahrairah myths (above) felt like they were experiencing those wonders, so the rabbits listening to Holly's and Bluebell's story of the destroyed warren feel like it's happening to them. In that sense, storytelling also makes everyone feel connected and lets them feel something together.

At once he realized that this was no story. Yet he had heard the like before, somewhere. The rapt air, the rhythmic utterance, the intent listeners—what was it they recalled? Then he remembered the smell of carrots, and Silverweed dominating the crowd in the great burrow. But these verses went to his heart as Silverweed's had not. (35.43)

Back in Cowslip's warren, Bigwig was all like "poetry, whatever" when Silverweed recited his poem about giving up. But now that Bigwig sees rabbits oppressing other rabbits, Hyzenthlay's poem goes to his heart. So either Hyzenthlay is a better poet (possible) or Bigwig has become more sensitive (possible). At the least, we like him more here.

And yet there endured the legend that somewhere out over the down there lived a great and solitary rabbit, a giant who drove the elil like mice and sometimes went to silflay in the sky. If ever great danger arose, he would come back to fight for those who honored his name. And mother rabbits would tell their kittens that if they did not do as they were told, the General would get them—the General who was first cousin to the Black Rabbit himself. Such was Woundwort's monument: and perhaps it would not have displeased him. (Epilogue.3)

When great rabbits die, their stories may get incorporated into the legends of El-ahrairah and other mythical figures. Woundwort wasn't a very nice guy (now please give us our Understatement of the Year Award), but he was so special and different that he gets remembered in art. And maybe this way, the rabbits will remember his good qualities and try to copy them—and forget about his tyrannical, murderous ways.