Watership Down Characters – the Black Rabbit of InlePosted: May 26, 2016
Richard Adams’ Watership Down is perhaps my favorite work of fiction, and 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).
Shortly after the rabbits of Watership Down reach their new home (Watership Down), there is a frightening encounter experienced by Hazel, Speedwell, Dandelion, and Bigwig in the chapter “Fear in the Dark.” “There’s something coming up the line of the hedge,” replied Speedwell. “An animal. Making a lot of noise, too.” They discuss the possibilities of the source of threat. Then things become intense.
“A cat?” said Speedwell, wide-eyed.
“That’s no cat!” said Bigwig, his lips drawn back in a stiffened, unnatural grimace. “That’s no cat! Don’t you know what it is? Your mother —“ He broke off. Then he said, very low, “Your mother told you, didn’t she?”
“No!” cried Dandelion. “No! It’s some bird — some rat — wounded.”
Bigwig stood up. His back was arched and his head nodded on his stiffened neck.
“The Black Rabbit of Inle,” he whispered. “What else — in a place like this?”
Adams informs his readers of this source of cunicular terror. “Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle 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” (p. 272).
The author continues, and explains why Bigwig and the others froze with fear, but brings about a far deeper illumination — one that could even bring hope to those gripped by horror:
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…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 Inle and only by his will. And though that will seem 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 avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself (p. 272).
Stouter and far grander rabbits than Bigwig feared him. El-ahrairah dreaded him, yet hoped in things the Black Rabbit may possess — pity, mercy and deliverance. “He would seek out the Black Rabbit and offer him his own life in return for the safety of his people…only there could be no cheating the Black Rabbit” (p. 272).
The Black Rabbit of Inle is a semi-divine character. Perhaps he is like the Angel of Death of the Book of Exodus. Others interpret him differently. In fact, some art depicting the Black Rabbit shows him to be robed in black and carrying a scythe reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. In any case, Adams shows the Black Rabbit to be capable of relationship and give aid to the supplicant:
You must understand, El-ahrairah, that I have no wish to make you suffer. I am not one of the Thousand…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 (pp. 277, 281).
Perhaps this is one of several of Adams spiritual messages to his readers: things unknown are not necessarily to be feared, and that goodness can be found in the most unlikely source, and that good can come from even a dreaded source. As he declares in the extended quote above, the Black Rabbit can be a source of protection and mercy as he acts to bring about Frith’s saving will.
So, Bigwig’s fears were ultimately unfounded because he forgot the mercy that could be brought about by the Black Rabbit. The creature in question turned out to be his friend from the old warren, and was spared by the one Bigwig feared: “It was Captain Holly of the Sandleford Owsla” (p. 140).