CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
- Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, as quoted in Watership Down
I couldn’t find my copy of Watership Down, so I bought a new one. Mysteriously, it’s twice the size of my old one and it’s not in big print – we must all have had great eyes in the olden days. The point, though, is where I found this copy in the bookshop: on the shelves labelled “Ages 9-12”.
Well, when a book is marketed for 9-year-olds and begins with a quote about death and dripping blood, out of a Greek tragedy, it’s fair to say that we’re in odd territory; and it’s hard to know exactly how to evaluate it. Perhaps the distinction between books for children and books for adults has simply grown over the years: a book must be one thing or the other. Watership Down, however, is a kid’s book with Aeschylus quotations. It has genocide, bloodshed, people ripped apart, and women reabsorbing their own foetuses as a result of the depression induced in them by systematic rape and then singing songs about it. It’s a book that has a reputation for giving children lasting nightmares, for scarring them for life (and the film adaptation is still spoken of with awe and horror).
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a book for children. The thing is, most children’s books today essentially set out to teach children to be… well, children. Doing children things, acting and feeling and speaking childishly. Watership Down comes from an older tradition – a tradition in which the purpose of a book for children is to teach children how to be adults.