Study Guide

Watership Down Cunning and Cleverness

By Richard Adams

Cunning and Cleverness

Once, so they say, he had to get home by swimming across a river in which there was a large and hungry pike. El-ahrairah combed himself until he had enough fur to cover a clay rabbit, which he pushed into the water. The pike rushed at it, bit it and left it in disgust. After a little, it drifted to the bank and El-ahrairah dragged it out and waited a while before pushing it in again. After an hour of this, the pike left it alone, and when it had done so for the fifth time, El-ahrairah swam across himself and went home. Some rabbits say he controls the weather, because the wind, the damp and the dew are friends and instruments to rabbits against their enemies.
 (5.11)

This is kind of a funny introduction to El-ahrairah. First, we hear this long story about how he cleverly tricked a fish, which sounds totally reasonable, like a Brer Rabbit or Bugs Bunny story (though Bugs Bunny would probably put on a dress). And then we hear that some rabbits think El-ahrairah also controls the weather, which is more like something out of X-Men than Brer Rabbit. You can be really clever, but unless you're a mad scientist, you're not controlling the weather.

Now, at the sight of the river, Bigwig's assurance was leaking again and unless he, Hazel, could restore it in some way, they were likely to be in for trouble. He thought of the Threarah and his wily courtesy.

"I don't know what we should have done without you just now, Bigwig," he said. "What was that animal? Would it have killed us?" (7.7-8)

Bunny cleverness isn't just about avoiding predators, but about dealing with other rabbits. As Hazel realizes, he's going to have to be clever and political if he wants to lead this group. And that means being more like the Threarah, who was good at manipulating rabbits (usually).

"Hazel," he said quickly, "that's a piece of flat wood—like that piece that closed the gap by the Green Loose above the warren—you remember? It must have drifted down the river. So it floats. We could put Fiver and Pipkin on it and make it float again. It might go across the river. Can you understand?"

Hazel had no idea what he meant. Blackberry's flood of apparent nonsense only seemed to draw tighter the mesh of danger and bewilderment. (8.35-6)

Blackberry has just invented the raft and he seems to explain it pretty clearly to us, but notice that almost all the other rabbits are totally mystified by this. Even Hazel is lost here. Which is an interesting situation: why isn't the cleverest rabbit (Blackberry) leading the group and inventing his way out of problems like a bunny MacGyver?

Most of them had not understood Blackberry's discovery of the raft and at once forgot it. Fiver, however, came over to where Blackberry was lying against the stem of a blackthorn in the hedge.
"You saved Pipkin and me, didn't you?" he said. "I don't think Pipkin's got any idea what really happened; but I have."

"I admit it was a good idea," replied Blackberry. "Let's remember it. It might come in handy again sometime." (8.50-2)

The only two rabbits who really understand the raft are Blackberry and Fiver. And these are the only two rabbits who seem to have memory. The extra bonus comes when Blackberry tells Fiver that floating might come in handy later—which it does when they escape from Efrafa. It's kind of a test of how clever readers are. (It's also what we call foreshadowing.)

It so happened that Hazel had never seen a crow. It did not occur to him that it was following the track of a mole, in the hope of killing it with a blow of its beak and then pulling it out of its shallow run. If he had realized this, he might not have classed it light-heartedly as a "Not-hawk"—that is, anything from a wren to a pheasant—and continued on his way up the slope. (9.3)

We spend so much of our time in this book hearing about how clever rabbits are that we might miss those moments when they really aren't all that smart. Usually rabbits are afraid of the new, even when they shouldn't be. But here, we see Hazel not be afraid of something new, when maybe he should be. Here's a question that might be worth extra credit: When does Hazel act dumb (aside from this moment)?

"Why do the men come, do you suppose?" asked Fiver.

"Who knows why men do anything? They may drive cows or sheep in the fields, or cut wood in the copses. What does it matter? I'd rather dodge a man than a stoat or a fox." (12.16-7)

Fiver is nervous and curious about why men come to the field. (The answer we find out later is that the man comes to trap and kill rabbits.) But Bigwig is all like "whatever, dude, humans are weird, let's eat." Bigwig isn't the cleverest rabbit in the bunch (though he'll have to be clever later to get out of Efrafa). Bigwig doesn't really care about new things, but Fiver is clever enough to worry about those new things.

He now realized with astonishment that there was apparently a part of the warren underground which was big enough to contain them all together. He felt so curious to visit it that he did not stop to make any detailed arrangements about the order in which they should go down. However, he put Pipkin immediately behind him. "It'll warm his little heart for once," he thought, "and if the leaders do get attacked, I suppose we can spare him easier than some." Bigwig he asked to bring up the rear. "If there's any trouble, get out of it," he said, "and take as many as you can with you." (13.12)

Sheesh, how hard is it to be a rabbit? Here Hazel's just going to meet another group of rabbits and he's got to worry about a possible attack. Even though he's distracted by the idea of a large underground room, he still makes a pretty solid plan here—except that in the next paragraph he realizes he's made a mistake. See, it's hard to be so clever all the time, even if you are a rabbit.

"El-ahrairah is a trickster," said Buckthorn, "and rabbits will always need tricks."

"No," said a new voice from the further end of the hall, beyond Cowslip. "Rabbits need dignity and, above all, the will to accept their fate." (16.11-2)

We've stumbled on the big distinction between Hazel's rabbits and Cowslip's rabbits: Hazel's rabbits recognize that cleverness is a useful rabbit trait, as modeled by that ideal rabbit, El-ahrairah. But Cowslip's rabbits use their cleverness for lots of weird, unnatural things, like making visual art (instead of telling stories) and dancing. Cleverness is best used to survive, but Cowslip's rabbits just use their cleverness to pass the time before death—oops, we mean the farmer—comes knocking.

"It can't be done by fighting or fair words, no. So it will have to be done by means of a trick." (28.68)

This could be said about almost anything rabbit-related. They can't fight as well as other animals and they can't give a speech to a fox about why that fox shouldn't kill them. Really, the things rabbits do best are run away and come up with tricks. But those aren't the qualities we always associate with our heroes. So how does that affect your reading experience?

His father, a happy-go-lucky and reckless buck, had thought nothing of living close to human beings except that he would be able to forage in their garden in the early morning. He had paid dearly for his rashness. (34.3)

One great thing about dumb bunnies is that other rabbits can learn from their experience. So Bigwig doesn't listen to Fiver and gets caught in a trap, and all of Hazel's crew gets to learn the all-important lesson: listen to Fiver. Here, Woundwort's dad is dumb about people, so Woundwort learns a lesson, too: stay away from people. It's not a bad lesson—and it's the same lesson Hazel's rabbits learn. So why does Woundwort become the villain?