The Real Watership Down Header

The Discovery, by Chris Boyce,

in October 1983.


Sorry, this should be a misty October day from the Efrafan track.
A misty October day from one of the Efrafan tracks.
High-res
I took this photograph in October 1983. My university days were over and I was beginning my working life. I was returning from a job interview and so I dropped by Efrafa, it was late on a misty October morning. I took this shot looking north from the track that leads west from Efrafa. I have a few more photos from that morning.

We all know who El-ahairah is, but
who is Prince Rainbow? I’ll let you in on a secret – we rabbits don’t know either! Some say, though I am not sure they can be right, that he’s you – man. Some Native American tribes know El-ahrairah better than most – he’s
very similar to a rabbit trickster who appears
in many traditional tales. Look out for the
books “How Rabbit Stole The Fire”
and “How Rabbit Tricked Otter”.

Blackberry knows all sorts of interesting facts about Watership Down.
A while later I wondered what the Efrafans would have thought about such a morning...

As it happens I didn't get the job.

Since the release of the film in the late autumn of 1978 I had been dabbling with some writing and this scene inspired a new chapter. I wrote the following piece in the days following the return of this slide from Kodak. It's what is now called fan-fiction, though at the time the term hardly existed. I had certainly never heard it.

I've since learnt a lot about writing and looking back I don't think much of this. I was trying to write like Richard Adams. I have since learnt to write like me.

The Discovery

        Avens sat under the shelter of the hedge. He was cold, damp and as miserable as ever a rabbit could be. The dawn was up; although he could hardly have seen much of it for the field was smothered by a thick, impenetrable haze of mist. He looked out, away from the dawn, over what he thought was the field below the Near Hind.
        "Is that the Ash tree?" He thought, or was it just a fold in the veiling curtain of mist. The rounded, heavy, almost solid air had penetrated deep into his fur, leaving behind only the moisture which it carried on its insubstantial existence. All he could do was sit, cold and wretched. To venture onto the featureless field would be stupid he thought. Surely he would wander, helplessly lost, onto the iron road and be cut down by a thousand enormous monsters of Inle-rah.
        As he sat he began to feel hungry but there was no grass anywhere near, nothing to eat even if he could see it. No one to talk to, he was alone with nothing but the hedge to tell him that anything else existed in all of Frith's world. So there he sat, get colder and damper as around him the blue light of an October dawn slowly changed to the diffused greyness of an October morning. Soon the fire-beings would beat the iron road once more. Soon the men might come....
        "Strange," he thought, "why don't they go anywhere except along the way of the iron road? Perhaps they need the man-things to show them which way to go - and if that's right then... then they go that way because men want them to. I can't think why they would want to do that though. Where's Sainfoin got to? He should have been here by now. Trust him not to turn up." Avens thought for a while longer, "Perhaps he's lost in this dawn mist?"
        "I think I'm lost." Thought Sainfoin, not fifty yards away from where Avens was hunched below the hedge. Sainfoin had decided to take the quick route from the Near Fore by cutting across the field instead of going by the track. A wise move, perhaps, on a clear, lonely day. This avoided coming too close to where any men might be, this was after all what he had been sent to check up on. But on a day like the one that lay out all around him it was, to say the least, a rash idea. He stopped and sat back on his hind legs for a moment and then sat up, ears erect and nose to the almost non-existent breeze. He could hear only the growing sounds of dawn and a strange kind of, well, a kind of burbling,
        "Not unlike a rabbit talking to himself only -Well not quite - whatever." Sainfoin thought. It was strange indeed. "Perhaps," he thought as he looked towards the sound, "I should check it and report back - as soon as I can find the way back that is...."
        "Oh! Where is he?" Avens said out loud. "He's always - " he stopped as he realized that for some time he had been talking aloud to the mist. In the silence that followed he turned around listening for anything that would tell him that anyone had been listening. "No, surely," he thought, "there's no one here except me. Even Sainfoin's lost - I think." He listened on, out of self-doubt, for the rustle of leaves or the crack of a twig that might betray a lurking listener - no sound came. Eventually, tired of keeping his ears up to get wet, he dropped back onto his front and laid back his ears, feeling a few almost frozen drops of water trickle down inside. As he dropped a leaf turned a few yards to his right followed by the emergence from the white curtain of a sodden rabbit. Sainfoin had finally arrived.
         "Hello, no problems getting here I see." said Avens sarcastically, barely hiding his dampened annoyance. "Nothing's happening here I'm afraid. You'll have to sit around getting wet."
        "Right." Said Sainfoin decisively. "Before you go - I was told to remind you to check the west junction." The Crixa is the junction of two tracks, barely navigable by anything other than animate transport. The council had, since the demise of the General, split the paths logically into four: the north, south, east and west tracks. For patrol purposes these marked the boundaries of four sectors corresponding to the Hear Hind, Off Hind, Near and Off Fore marks ground. The other marks lying between these and one or other of the tracks. Normally small patrols would be active at the outer edge of each of these sectors with a fifth operating closer in to pick up anything and anyone that might have slipped past the others. This inner patrol was derived from that which Campion had often led in Woundwort's time and, generally operated in plain sight of the warren. Beyond all these was the preserve of the rue wide patrols, of which Campion still kept two in the field for most of the time. They kept to no fixed route (unlike the sector patrols) and were in effect autonomous units out of range of control for days at a time. It was common for these patrols to come back with tales of excitement and danger, they sometimes came back with fewer rabbits than had left. Campion had pruned and reorganised the patrol system which he had first developed under Woundwort, creating this new and seemingly more functional system which was more in line with Efrafa's new found openness. The General had sometimes had four or five wide patrols out at once just looking for '...anything unusual. Anything unusual must be reported.' Campion, although the best wide patrol leader - something which had earned him more than a little respect from Woundwort, had decided that the old system was an expensive luxury. The losses had always been heavy, suiting the General's purposes - sorting the very best from the merely mediocre. The core that was left behind by the wide patrols ended up as the officers and captains of the Owsla and the entire Owslafa. This lead of course to the situation in which a stranger, thlayli, had infiltrated the warren. Losses of officers in the patrols lead to gaps that could not be filled quickly. The Efrafan Owsla was divided into those who had survived the wide patrols and those who we going to try. Obviously this has had it's problems. Campion's solution was to reduce the level of patrolling, perhaps lowering the standard of his best officers but increasing the quality of the rest as the good, but not great, rabbits were not lost way beyond the borders of the warren. This gave a more balanced Owsla. In time it did have the effect of improving the overall standard but did not deprive the Owsla of prime officer material; indeed with the disbandment of the Owslafa there were now more than enough rabbits capable of officer duties. The rank and file now felt much more enthusiasm for the Owsla and this filtered up into the Owsla itself, they now responded to the new sense of purpose and responsibility, showing the patrols were not the only place in which an Efrafan rabbit could show his skills. Nonetheless holes had appeared in the defensive curtain around the warren, mainly along the four tracks where the sectors joined. To plug these gaps Campion had initiated the 'path watches'. This morning, due to the thick fog which men seemed to dislike, only the south path watch was operating continuously as it was the most likely direction for men to come from - from the river and the iron road which was the limit of the south inner patrol. The other watches were checked regularly. Avens had been volunteered for this duty and he was trying to carry it out. Having already been somewhat delayed by Sainfoin he risked going direct to the junction; in fact a tee formed by the east-west path that ran through Efrafa and s second track, used by th e farmer for access to the fields north of the warren. It was normally a quiet enough spot, even though both tracks led to nearby roads. The most likely direction from which trouble might come was the south; the railway and the river; both of which seemed to the Efrafans to be strange man-places. So strange that no Efrafan had ventured beyond the river and come back to tell of what he had found. Not that many had ever actually tried.
        Luckily Avens did not suffer the same fate as Sainfoin had as he cut across the Near Hind sector; the mist had begun to lift and the sun, now well above the tree line, was drying and burning away the dense greyness. He passed under the fence at the edge of the thin strip of woodland through which the track ran. The light, though improving steadily, could not yet penetrate the tree curtain. Avens paused, using the sounds of morning to warn him of any danger. As he sat listening he heard at first only the expected and smelt only the familiar. He assumed that all was well and got up and started off through the leafless trees to the junction which lay some ten yards to his right.
        "Well perhaps," he thought, "I was a little lost." He hopped down from cover onto the track at the junction. he looked around: there seemed little out of the ordinary - all was still and calm. Nevertheless he felt something was amiss, and that whatever it was he would soon find it. He looked ahead, the ground rose sharply into a long ridge barely three inches high. "From there," he thought, "I could get a better view of the track." He tensed, ready to move forwards to the summit but he did not move; instead he sat upright, ears erect and looked up the length of the shallow trench. It had not been there before. The earth beneath his hind paws sank slightly as its wet surface gave way. "A hrududu." He thought. "Big too, by the look of these tracks." But still there was one more question to be answered. Why had no one reported it earlier? Surely a hrududu of the size required to make tracks such as these must have made enough noise to be heard for miles? Avens moved forwards to the crown of the bottom of the track and looked across to the opposite band of undergrowth. He did not look for long. He felt a sudden wrench inside him and bolted back into the trees.
        Avens was by no means what one might call squeamish, after all he was an Owsla officer, trained on the old wide patrols. he had seen it all. Once, while out beyond the road that crossed the downs from south-west to north-east along Caesar's belt, his patrol officer had been shot as he stood barely a foot away. The shot had hit the side of his head leaving little behind. Avens had bolted into cover only to find the young Groundsel, on one of his first patrols, and a bright rabbit beside him. The man waited in the distance and picked off any of the patrol who showed so much as a whisker. Eventually the remnants had crawled away luck to have escaped the guns grim death. Later, Avens and that bright rabbit, Valerian, had grown to become good friends. Valerian's way of always having a suitable retort or a witty remark had earned him the liking of most of Efrafa. He was a charmer whom most does would have given a lot to get to know better. Frith always seemed to shine on Valerian. So for Avens to find his mutilated body beside the tracks that fog laden morning was a great shock. Some animal had evidently killed him but had been disturbed whilst disposing of the body for most of it seemed to be still beside the track.
         Avens ran back to the warren sick at the thought of the half-eaten body of Valerian, it flowed through his troubled mind, it seemed to multiply and shift through the mists all around; thousands haunting and hunting him no matter what he did of where he ran. Avens tried to strike and the misty rabbit that still dripped with warm blood but all he hit was the empty mist. Still he ran on blindly to the Crixa, where Campion sat alone where, when returning from wide patrols, he had met the General many times. He thought and remembered the day when, here under the elders, he had brought a ruggedly built hlessil before Woundwort. Little did he realise, but that stranger was to turn out to be the downfall of the General. The words that were said that fine July evening rang through his normally uncluttered mind, perhaps it was the mist....
        "...Thlayli, sir."
        "The Patrol brought you in I'm told. What were you doing?"
        "I've come to join Efrafa." The stranger had replied. Campion realised now what the stranger had really meant and in a strange way admired him for it. Campion was a straight-forward no-nonsense character and he had seen this too in the strange rabbit from the warren destroyed by men from which, it had seemed, only he had survived.
        "Are you alone?"
        "I am now." The stranger had said. There was no denying it, it had been true. In fact for every question ha had had a truthful answer, he had not lied. The General and Campion himself had simply not asked the right questions. All Woundwort had needed to ask was:
       "How long have you been alone?" and all would have become clear. But such a question had not come easily to Woundwort.
        Suddenly Campion saw something moving through the folds of mist. He thought that whatever it could be, and it could not be very big, he was safest staying where he was - in the shelter of the fence. In the blue presence of a morning hardly anything was stirring. Most of the warren was below ground; only a few hardy souls trying to create an impression of nonchalance were nibbling what scarce little of the grass was available of the Off Fore's ground. But Campion, looking down towards the west junction did not see their wasted effort, instead he looked on as the shape mysteriously disappeared into the mist...
        Avens stopped as he approached Campion so as to give himself time to pull all the bits of himself together out of the mist. He dashed into the undergrowth and considered, as best he could, his situation. Something, probably a large hrududu, had passed along the west track. Almost definitely that something had killed Valerian, leaving what was left of him lying beside the the path to be ravaged by whatever elil might have been passing. No, that evidently wouldn't do, firstly how could any hrududu that big have arrived without him hearing it down the south path? And secondly, how come elil had got so close to Efrafa? Try as he might, Avens could not tie up the ends of the problem into a plausible solution simply. He would just have to give the whole thing to Campion and retire to consider the matter further. Having regained his composure a little he made his way through the remaining thin strip of wood, and morning mist, to the Crixa.
          "...And so I came back to report it." Finished a flustered Avens. Campion, ever the careful strategist, considered what Avens had said with great care. Valerian, whom he had sent to the junction earlier that morning, long before dawn in fact, had indeed not reported back. It was now evident that something odd had been, or indeed still was, happening on Efrafa's doorstep (obviously Campion did not actually think of the concept of a doorstep, it is the closest approximation to the to the idea which formed in his mind which was the somewhat more cumbersome lapine equivalent of 'the warren's visible local ground'; that area of land which a rabbit could see from his hole). The distance of two thirds of a mile from the junction to the Crixa was a mere short hop, anything that close was bound to affect the warren, possibly detrimentally. That however was the least of Campion's worries. Whatever it was had occurred without Efrafa (well, it's chief rabbit at least) knowing about it for possibly hours and so it represented a serious breakdown in security.
        "I see, most distressing. You had better get below ground and get some rest." Campion said at length. Avens, obviously much troubled, moved off without a word. Campion called after him: "The Near Hind is that way." He indicated the direction by turning his head and stepping forward a pace. The still bemused officer stopped but made no move. Campion repeated the gesture, bringing him close to the woody brush that covered the bank. This time Avens moved off on a more accurate course. The Efrafan Chief Rabbit watched his officer until he had slipped through the hedge bordering the Near Hind's ground. "The General," he reflected, "may have been right after all...."
         The council were called into session hurriedly. Some, such as Chervil, complained at being woken so soon after dawn silflay. It was to be a long day. when eventually all the council had been assembled, Campion addressed them at length on the night's events. A long discussion broke out with accusations, counter accusations, prophesies of doom and suggestions being hurled around intermittently. Soon Campion realised that they were making no appreciable headway towards a coherent plan of action. Woundwort, had he ever allowed such an unruly event to occur, would have taken decisive and possibly violent action to bring the meeting to abrupt order. Campion had no need, the patrols had taught him that when faced with disorder and dissension he merely needed to stop commanding; to take, as it were, a back seat and watch events take their natural course. This he did in the closeness of the council chamber. One by one, the members stopped and stared at their chief rabbit wondering why he had dropped from his position of leadership, why he had left them alone in the dangerous and lonely world of the inexperienced wide patrol.
         At length Campion took to the offensive and gave the council a proposal for their approval, which they gave after a few murmurs of 'too clever by half' from the rear of the burrow. A patrol, four strong, would be posted at the junction continuously, reporting back twice a day; at fu-frith and fu-inle. A second patrol, lead by Campion himself, would go out in the probably direction of whatever it was would have gone: i.e. straight along the track past the west junction. The north leading track was obviously a non-starter - being blocked by a farm some half a mile away. Nothing the size suggested by Aven's description could get past the gate there and so it would have had to stop, in full view of the junction. Of course if it were to have come down from the farm, then it would mean a change of plan requiring a great deal of further, closer and complex investigation, but that was, so Campion thought, unlikely.
        By ni-frith, with the sun having chased the dawn blanket away leaving as clear and as pleasant an October morning as could be imagined, the patrol was on watch at the junction; Campion and his group disappearing into the fields beyond visible only to the high flying birds such as the sea birds forced inland from the coasts by the occasional gales and storms of the seas.

Chris Boyce, October 1983.

Sorry, this should be a mobile plate vibrator on the Efrafan track.
The great hrududu that killed Valerian. It didn't do me much good either!
High-res
As I have said, that misty photograph was one inspiration for this chapter, but I also had another, and here it is. I took this photograph close to the same spot on the track to Efrafa, but a year or so earlier. This is what killed Valerian. In case you are wondering, it's a mobile plate vibrator, used in seismic survey, which means that someone was looking for oil under Efrafa! They didn't find it...
ReturnClick Bigwig here to return to select another location. It might be best to avoid his ears, his fleas live there!