Course Hero. "Watership Down Study Guide." Course Hero. 15 Nov. 2017. Web. 20 Sep. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Watership-Down/>.
Course Hero. (2017, November 15). Watership Down Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Watership-Down/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "Watership Down Study Guide." November 15, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Watership-Down/.
Course Hero, "Watership Down Study Guide," November 15, 2017, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Watership-Down/.
The epigraph, from R.M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, describes how rabbits will wander in search of a safe place. The rabbit group continues on their journey through the woods, frightened of everything they can't see. Hazel thumps his feet whenever he thinks there might be danger nearby, and Dandelion rushes to his side, even though Dandelion is also scared. Dandelion compares Hazel to El-ahrairah, the folk-hero rabbit who has a wide range of tricks he uses to deceive his enemies. Hazel is boosted by this compliment, because El-ahrairah is like the Robin Hood of rabbits. Bigwig tells Hazel that they have to stop because the smaller rabbits are much too tired to keep going. Because the rabbits have tried to travel together, which they don't normally do, and they have been upset to the point of "tharn," a zombie-like state of fear, they are exhausted from the emotional strain. They hide in the ferns from the owls and other night creatures, and Hazel asks Dandelion to tell them a story.
The epigraph is from Irish poet W.B. Yeats's poem, "A Woman Young and Old," and is about loving what was in existence before the world came to be. Dandelion tells the story of El-ahrairah's being blessed by Frith. El-ahrairah and his wives have bred so many rabbits that the grass is getting too thin, having been grazed by them all. Frith decides he has to control the rabbits, but El-ahrairah tells Frith that his people are the strongest of all the creatures and should be left alone. Frith decides to play a trick on El-ahrairah by giving each animal who comes to him a gift. The gift he gives to the fox, the stoat, and other predators is to hunger after rabbits for food. When he goes to bless El-ahrairah, he can't find him. El-ahrairah has been warned by other animals that the fox and the other predators are out to get him and his family. He digs a hole, and Frith sees his bottom sticking out of the hole. El-ahrairah says he is too busy to come out and be blessed, for he is digging shelter from his enemies, so Frith is going to have to bless his bottom. Frith is impressed, and he blesses El-ahrairah with a white tail and powerful legs. Frith tells El-ahrairah that while his people can't rule the world and will have a "Thousand Enemies," those enemies will have to catch El-ahrairah first. Frith says, "Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed."
The description of "tharn" and the emotional strain from fear that exhausts rabbits comes from the author's studies of the lives of rabbits, using a work by R.M. Lockley, a naturalist with whom he was friends and with whom he collaborated on a book about the natural world. Rabbits do not travel for long distances in groups, but Hazel has to keep the group together to keep them safe. Bigwig also looks out for the smaller, younger rabbits and makes sure that Hazel is aware of their exhaustion. For Bigwig and Hazel the survival of the group is their most important goal. Rabbits also don't spend a lot of time out in the open at night because their predators are out, so the danger for the group is real. Hazel's instinct to have them rest in hiding and listen to a story to refresh their spirits shows that he is a good leader.
The El-ahrairah story is much like folk tales and tales of heroes told in many cultures, with a god who creates the world and all the creatures in it, blessing the creatures with different talents. Most cultures have a creation myth, and the rabbits are no different in that respect. El-ahrairah is a hero who is impudent with Frith, but Frith loves him too much to punish him in a way that will ruin his life. El-ahrairah gains enemies thanks to his impudence, but he also gains the strength, speed, and cunning for which rabbits are known.
These tales of the rabbit hero serve to keep the rabbits from losing their ability to protect themselves and to help them feel better when they are scared. There is always a little bit of humor in the stories, and the fact that Frith has to bless El-ahrairah's bottom is quite funny. It is a clever explanation for why the rabbit has a white tail that when raised, alerts other rabbits nearby to danger. It also explains why rabbits have such powerful back legs, and why they dig holes to keep themselves safe from predators.