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The rabbits set out on their quest for Efrafan does, leaving behind only Buckthorn, Strawberry, Holly, and the hutch rabbits. Hazel wants to find a hiding place close to Efrafa, and Kehaar comes and tells him they can hide on the other side of the nearby river. They ask Dandelion to tell a story, and Bigwig requests El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé.
Dandelion tells the story of a time when King Darzin sent his soldiers to get rid of El-ahrairah once and for all. The soldiers attacked the rabbits as soon as they came out of their holes, and soon all of El-ahrairah's people were miserable. El-ahrairah could not figure out a way to get rid of King Darzin, and he realized he needed special help. He decided to seek out the Black Rabbit of Inlé, an immortal rabbit appointed by Lord Frith to determine the deaths of all rabbits. El-ahrairah wanted to offer the Black Rabbit his own life in exchange for help for his people.
After a long journey with his friend Rabscuttle, El-ahrairah came to the dwelling of the Black Rabbit and tried to bargain with him, but the Black Rabbit would not accept his offer. El-ahrairah tried to trick the Black Rabbit, but he lost his whiskers, his tail, and his ears in the process. Finally, the Black Rabbit told El-ahrairah to leave, and said that he had already gotten rid of King Darzin's soldiers. Rabscuttle and El-ahrairah made their way home, getting lost and having many adventures on the way. When they finally returned, the warren was bigger and the younger rabbits knew nothing about the war with King Darzin. In fact, they thought war itself was foolish. El-ahrairah sat to think, and Lord Frith came to talk to him, telling him that wisdom is not easy, and brought him a tail, whiskers, and a pair of ears with starlight in them. Just then, Pipkin interrupts the story to tell the others that there is a fox approaching.
Hazel gathers everyone to run from the fox, but just at that moment Bigwig rushes past him, draws the fox's attention, and runs into the undergrowth. They hear a rabbit squeal and then, surprisingly, Bigwig comes running back. Hazel is angry with him, but Bigwig says he needed to do something because he was very tense. He tells Hazel that when he went into the brush with the fox behind him, he bumped into three strange rabbits. He told them to run, but they tried to stop him, so he knocked one of them down and then ran off. He figures the fox must have gotten the rabbit that he knocked down.
The rabbits move on through the night. In the morning, Kehaar comes and tells them that there is a patrol nearby that will find them soon if they do not hide. They cross over the iron road—the railroad tracks—that Holly told them about, and Kehaar tells them they are safe. The rabbits go to sleep.
The story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé is interesting because it is the only instance—in the stories we hear, at least—that El-ahrairah is unable to trick someone. He cannot trick the Black Rabbit because it represents immortal death, and it knows when the time has come for all rabbits, including El-ahrairah. The Black Rabbit ends up helping El-ahrairah anyway, but not before he suffers greatly in his attempt to save his people. Although his people are saved, it is not by El-ahrairah's hand but that of the Black Rabbit, and it is clear that the Black Rabbit could have chosen not to help El-ahrairah. The moral of the story appears to be that sometimes a leader may not be able to help his people. There are occasions when a leader is faced with certain defeat, and no trick of his can win the day. Even then, however, it is possible that fate will intervene, in the form of the Black Rabbit of Inlé. However, it is clear that when the Black Rabbit of Inlé comes for someone, there can be no escape. The Black Rabbit represents the one certainty in all of life—death.
The rabbits are on another journey, and this time they are trying to do the most difficult thing that they have ever done. They are more confident in Hazel's ability to lead them then ever before. The fact that there is no questioning of Hazel, even though he has not yet revealed Blackberry's plan, shows that the group has become very loyal. They trust each other with their lives. At this point they are also battle veterans; having been through many tough scrapes together, they are not likely to be easily frightened or to make foolish moves. Nonetheless, there is always danger in the wilderness, and here the fox represents that danger. Hazel wants all the rabbits to simply run away before the fox gets close, but Bigwig runs off on his own. No one would ever question Bigwig's loyalty, but he sometimes acts of his own accord, which that can be both dangerous and advantageous. It is important that someone other than Hazel is able to seize the initiative, as Hazel cannot always be everywhere at once and sometimes needs others to make decisions. However, the downside is that when Hazel plans on doing one thing, Bigwig may do something else and upset the plan. Bigwig is not really ever in danger with the fox, but one of the three strange rabbits is killed because of his actions. Hazel is upset with Bigwig for taking an unnecessary risk, which demonstrates the major difference in their personalities. Hazel thinks of a fox as a risk, and he wants to get the entire group out of the area before anything can go wrong. Bigwig sees the fox as an animal that cannot hurt him if he is careful, so he acts accordingly. Hazel, however, acts with the safety of the group in mind, while Bigwig simply acts on his own. Bigwig would not be as effective a leader as Hazel because of his tendency to take rash actions like play with the fox. However, this also means that Bigwig can go and do things that Hazel himself cannot afford to do.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Watership Down!