My first encounter with mythology was, so far as I can remember, via an older brother’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942). In retrospect the title is presumptuous, as it covers only only the Greek, Roman and Norse mythoi, but at the time I didn’t know how many cultures around the world had traditional stories about gods, monsters, and, sometimes, human heroes encountering them. Moreover, as I later came to understand, her sources for these most familiar versions of the Greek stories (other than Homer) were often the Roman retellings dating to the pomo Imperium–were what we might now call fantastic literature rather than genuine myth. Be that as it may, these were my first myths, and I read all I could get my hands on in the children’s section of our library.
So when I opened Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, it was with a sense of coming home, in the best possible way. The central premise of the hugely entertaining book and its nearly as enjoyable sequels (titled collectively Percy Jackson and the Olympians) is that the Greek gods, and all the monsters of Greek myth as well, are as active today as in antiquity. Since Olympus follows Western civilization around, it currently occupies the six-hundred-and-sometieth floor of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. The Greek gods are still as, er, prone to falling in love with mortal women as ever, with all the resulting demigod heroes/troublemakers you might expect. However, because demigods have such a poor prospect of reaching adulthood, the Olympians have set up a summer camp on Long Island, called Camp Half-Blood, where prospective heroes can learn survival skills and train for heroic quests. Now, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades took a vow after World War II to abstain from unions with mortal women, because their offspring had come so close to destroying civilization entirely. Think they succeeded in their vow? Meanwhile, there’s a prophecy around regarding a child of one of the Big Three, as they are known, such that every monster and minion of Kronos (who is scheming to reassemble himself and escape Tartarus) is out hunting for such a child in order to destroy him or her.
The first person narrator of the books, Percy Jackson, has been kicked out of one school for troubled kids after another, most often for highly destructive incidents involving water. Chapter One, “I Accidentally Vaporize My Algebra Teacher,” tells of the events that eventually lead to his discovery that he is the half-blood son of Poseidon. Chiron (disguised as his classics teacher) and his buddy Grover Underwood (a satyr, also in disguise) manage to get him safely to Camp Half-Blood, where he meets other sixth-grade demi-gods, including Annabeth, brainy offspring of Athena, and Clarissa, mean-tempered and aggressive daughter of Ares, along with Chiron in his true form and Mr. D (Dionysus, played by Jack Nicholson), who runs the camp as part of a punishment inflicted by Zeus. There Percy learns that all demigods are, like him, dyslexic (Ancient Greek is the only language that they can read without difficulty) and suffer ADHD (it’s because of their divinely heightened reflexes). And there he hears about the theft of Zeus’ Master Lightning Bolt. Naturally, it falls to him, Annabeth and Grover to retrieve it and uncover the thief.
Percy’s voice is one of the great pleasures of the books. Another is the way Riordan inserts the Greek gods and monsters into the present-day US. The entrance to the Underworld is in an LA recording studio; Poseidon dresses like a beach bum. Guess which monster of classical antiquity runs a garden statuary shop in suburban Connecticut? One of my favorite scenes takes place in a later book, when Percy is rescued from yet another sticky situation by a cab driven by the Graiae, who, of course, possess only one eyeball between them, which they pass back and forth as they careen through Manhattan traffic. For this reader, the humor in it nearly always succeeds, in spades–the bit about the two argumentative snakes, George and Martha, who are wrapped around Hermes’ cell phone didn’t quite work for me, but my son loved it. Did I mention the books are action-packed?
He swung the baseball bat off his shoulder. “How would you like to get smashed, ancient or modern?”
I showed him my sword.
“That’s cool, dead boy,” he said. “Classic it is.” The baseball bat changed into a huge, two-handed sword. The hilt was a large silver skull with a ruby in its mouth.
“Percy,” Annabeth said. “Don’t do this. He’s a god.”
… Ares came toward me, his black leather duster trailing behind him, his sword glinting like fire in the sunrise. “I’ve been fighting for eternity, kid. My strength is unlimited and I cannot die. What have you got?”
A smaller ego, I thought, but I said nothing. I kept my feet in the surf, backing into the water up to my ankles…
Riordan has published five in the series so far, and I get the feeling he’s running out of creative energy; he’s also used up a lot of the best myths and monsters, although in his universe, monsters never die permanently. The more recent ones are still entertaining, though, and it’s hard for me to imagine an adult who loves fantasy who wouldn’t enjoy the books. Kids have made them bestsellers. This last summer, my son was reading the latest as we queued at the post-office passport window. A family with two sons waited behind us. The older boy saw what my child held in his hands and started reading over his shoulder, shifting position every time he moved to keep his eyes on the page. Soon all three were seated on the floor by the wall, reading the book together and energetically discussing their favorite scenes from the series. Who says kids won’t read?