Watership Down Characters: El-ahrairahPosted: May 24, 2016
Richard Adams’ Watership Down is perhaps my favorite work of fiction, and he is among my favorite authors. I find the book profound in its message of courage and transformation, and even salvation. It is far more than a novel about human politics. All quotes come from the Perennial Classics print of the book (2001).
Though it is clear that Hazel (who becomes Hazel-rah) is the primary character of Watership Down, Lord El-ahrairah is the primary background character. In fact, the story cannot be understood apart from El-ahrairah. El-ahrairah is a multifaceted character. He is a creature, a creation of Frith. He is the first rabbit. He is an archetype. He is a savior to rabbits, yet he needs salvation. He is daring and he is frail. He is bold and extremely clever, yet he can be afraid. He is mortal yet has a spiritual immortality. This is El-arhrairah.
In Adams’ Lapine language the reader learns the meaning of his name. It is broken down in this manner: El (enemy ) – ahrai (numerous, uncountable) rah (prince), or “Prince of a thousand enemies.” He is archetypical, and stands as a type of Adam and also of Abraham. We read this about El-ahrairah:
Now, El-ahrairah was among the animals in those days [of Frith’s creative acts] and he had many wives. He had so many wives that there was no counting them, and the wives had so many young that even Frith could not count them, and they ate the grass and the dandelions and the lettuces and the clover, and El-ahrairah was the father of them all (p. 27)
The novel’s sixth chapter contains Adams’ creation narrative for his rabbits’ mythology / faith. As in the biblical narrative of creation found in Genesis has an act of rebellion and disobedience, so does Adams’ narrative, and the offending creature is El-ahrairah:
Then Frith said to El-ahrairah, “Prince Rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them. So mark what I say.” But El-ahrairah would not listen and he said to Frith, “My people are the strongest in the world, for they breed faster and eat more than any of the other people. And this shows how much they love Lord Frith, for of all the animals they are the most responsive to his warmth and brightness. You must realize, my lord, how important they are and not hinder them in their beautiful lives…Frith could have killed El-ahrairah at once, but he had a mind to keep him in the world, because he needed him to sport and jest and play tricks (p. 28).
El-ahrairah’s pride and rebellion leads Frith to differentiate the created animals — some to be enemy carnivores. We read of Lord Frith’s punishment:
I would not be you, El-ahrairah. For Frith has given the fox and the weasel cunning hearts and sharp teeth, and to the cat he has given silent feet and eyes that can see in the dark, and they are gone away from Frith’s place to kill and devour all that belongs to El-ahrairah (pp 28 — 29).
The Genesis account following Adam’s rebellion has a phrase of God calling to Adam: “So the Lord God called Adam and said to him, ‘Adam, where are you?’” (Genesis 3: 9). This verse has the background of an Ancient Near Eastern king’s court: God calls Adam to face charge and justice. Watership Down has a parallel. As the Genesis account declares Adam’s punishment, it also holds out promise for him. Thus, Lord Frith calls the rebellious Rabbit to account: “Where is El-ahrairah? For all the others have taken their gifts and gone and I have come to look for him” (p. 29). But Frith has a blessing for the Rabbit. As the chapter moves along El-ahrairah fears Frith, and attempts to evade Frith by digging a hole. Only his bottom is seen. Frith persists and blesses El-ahrairah:
Frith felt himself in friendship with El-ahrairah…”Very well, I will bless your bottom as it sticks out of the hole. Bottom, be strength and warning and speed forever and save the life of your master. Be it so!” And as he spoke, El-ahrairah’s tail grew shining white and flashed like a star: and his back legs grew long and powerful and he thumped the hillside until the beetles fell of the grass stems. He came out of the hole and tore across the hill faster than any creature in the world. And Frith called after him, “El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed (pp 29 — 30).
Not only is El-ahrairah like Adam, he is also like Moses: he desires to deliver his people from captivity, ruin, and death. This characteristic is first seen in the “Story of the King’s Lettuce” as found in chapter 15. In this story the reader is introduced to another divine being, Prince Rainbow who “had the power of the sky and power of the hills and Frith had told him to order the world as he thought best” (p. 95). El-ahrairah’s people are in a dreary and dismal place, driven there by their enemies. El-ahrairah addresses Rainbow Prince in a manner reminiscent of Moses’ addresses to Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus:
Prince Rainbow, my people are cold and cannot get underground because of the wet. Their food is so dull and poor that they will be ill when the bad weather comes. Why do you keep us here against our will? We do no harm (p. 95).
By means of a clever trick, El-ahrairah wins a wager with Prince Rainbow:
Then Prince Rainbow saw that El-ahrairah had been as good as his word, and that he himself must keep his promise, too. He let the rabbits out of the marshes of Kelfazin and they multiplied everywhere. And from that day to this, no power on earth can keep a rabbit out of a vegetable garden, for El-ahrairah prompts them with a thousand tricks, the best in the world.
Again, later in the book, El-ahrairah seeks deliverance for his people in the “Story of the Black Rabbit of Inle”. Here, El-ahrairah prays to Frith: “Lord Frith! I would do anything to save my people! I would drive a bargain with a stoat of a fox — yes, or with the Black Rabbit of Inle” (p. 272). Then we read, “He would seek out the Black Rabbit and offer him his own life in return for the safety of his people” (p. 273). The hero journeys with his companion, Rabscuttle, to the realm of death, where he suffers loss of prized ears, whiskers, and tail. El-ahrairah’s determination and willingness to sacrifice himself for his people leads the Black Rabbit himself to do what El-ahrairah could not do — defeat the enemies of his people,
“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. They are already saved (pp. 280 — 281).
El-ahrairah’s selfless act does not go without another gift from Frith upon the Rabbit’s return to his people:
El-ahrairah went along the hedgerow to the wood and sat alone under a nut bush…As the light began to fail, he suddenly realized that Lord Frith was close beside him, among the leaves…[Frith speaks] “Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside, El-ahrairah, where none comes to feed…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 (p. 283).
For Adams’ rabbits El-ahrairah is as ever-present in their minds as is their Creator, Frith. The stories Dandelion (who serves as the book’s bard) tells of him calm and inspire them. Adams’ fictional rabbits attempt to emulate him and bring to life his cunicular virtues of trickery, cunning, boldness, and leadership. He is part of the rabbits’ “faith”, and his guidance is sought by them, as we see in Hazel’s prayer to him as he and the rabbits he leads are about to enter into Cowslip’s desperate warren, “O El-ahrairah!” thought Hazel. “These are rabbits we’re going to meet. You know them as well as you know us. Let it be the right thing that I’m doing.” Hazel understands El-ahrairah can aid him because it is known among the rabbits that his presence can move among them in their physical existence. Fiver reminds Hazel of this: “Well, there’s another place — another country, isn’t there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants…” (p. 249).
These are the qualities that Adams gives to his mythological cunicular hero. It is these qualities that Hazel and the others value and emulate. In fact, we learn that every chief rabbit of every warren — its leader — is to serve as an alter-El-ahrairah for the rabbits of the warren. This has its parallel the priest of any parish: the priest is to be an alter-Christus (another Christ) for the faithful. Shortly after the rabbits’ flight from the Sandleford warren, Dandelion begins to observe this quality in Hazel: “Well done,” whispered Dandelion. “Running our risks for us, are you — like El-ahrairah?”