Saturday, August 28, 2010

riordan: the percy jackson series, books 1-5

#77 Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
#78 Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters
#79 Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse
#80 Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth
#81 Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian
Rick Riordan


Because lay readers like me assume an understanding of the characters of the Homeric epics and the Attic plays, and because we have some measure of their audiences, we also presume to understand the anthropomorphised gods, who directed the morality of these texts and in whose honour they were created and performed, as literary phenomena. The Iliad becomes a living, breathing equivalent (or superior) to the ruins of the Parthenon in that sense. But as with the architecture of the Hellenic age, so much of the cultural plunder carried out with impunity by the British Empire in the last 250 years incorporated these texts into one narrow view of the linearity of Western civilisation, that it is also made available to us largely through that particular context. Although the Empire's relationship with Greek and Latin history is somewhat complicated - for reasons which uber-fantasist of Leithien, JRR Tolkien, knew very well - it was not enough to prevent the appropriation of a crucial chunk of historic culture, not as a philosophical inheritance, already disseminated by the Renaissance (itself famously made possible only through long centuries of Islamic/Judaic salvagepunk in North Africa and West Asia), but in a continuum of dominance. If Christian social justice was a formative element of the Empire's self-justification, then the Hellenic spirit, as understood in the prep rooms of Eton, was its elegant, secular ego.

The Percy Jackson books may render this history arcane through sheer innocuousness, but their fundamental premise threw me off precisely because it is another reiteration of how this appropriation continues to influence the self-image of the Anglo-American West, and the construction of its history as essentially imperial or militarist. The ghosts of ancient Rome have long dogged the USA's footsteps, so maybe it was just a matter of time before someone once again vaporised the oppositions between Rome and Athens and did it. The time came: someone was Rick Riordan. Rick Riordan relocates the Greek pantheon in the only place where they can truly belong in the unipolar world: at the top of the Empire State Building. The gods are the keepers of the flame of Western civilisation - where its centre goes, so they go: from Greece to Rome, to Britain, to the USA. (I won't ask uncomfortable questions about where they went during Byzantium's magnificent stint as the cultural capital of the 'West,' or how they felt about Jerusalem - but I wonder if this means they had a bad case of whiplash during the first few centuries of Modern Europe? France! Venice! Spain! Holland! Austro-Hungary - no, France again! Damnit, Western civilisation, HOLD STILL!) They meddle in the lives of human beings, like always, and this results in the production of a veritable army of demigods, born of part-human, part-godly parentage. The complication is that after World War II, an escalation of a conflict of the children of Hades versus the offspring of the other two elder siblings of the pantheon, Zeus and Poseidon, the Big Three shake on a pact to produce no more mortal offspring, as they are clearly detrimental to Western civilisation, and prophesied to bring further destruction. Alas! As flies are to small boys, so promises to the gods, etc. There are some slip-ups, and demigods occur. Of particular interest to us is Perseus Jackson, the product of a summer fling on a beach vacation between the smart, lovely Sally Jackson and the god of the sea. Percy is not just evidence of that post-war breach of promise, but also the possible subject of that oracular warning of destruction. Who are the others who might fulfil this prophecy? Who will side with Percy in the oncoming celestial war? And just what are the Titans getting up to, stirring in the pits of the world?

A hero Percy becomes, and remains. Riordan is meticulous about building a narrative to scale up, within individual books as well as the series arc, and its pays off in a consistently arresting way. The final battle takes place in a New York City - Percy's hometown and a place of great warmth and attachment for him - frozen in time, spread out over much of the last book. Saving New York, and protecting his family, becomes the focus of Percy's war. It is a war of belonging, and an acknowledgment of the continual sacrifices demanded of the condition of belonging. It is the loneliness of not attaining your rightful place that decays proud individualism into outright villainny, after all. Even the gods are paranoid about it; how can an antagonist, whether he is a disaffected teen demigod, or (to make the most obvious comparison) Voldemort, be any different?

The series is most like trend rajah Harry Potter in the character of Percy himself: in him we see all the early promise of Harry, the socially shunned, 'different' kid (among other things, Percy struggles with dyslexia and ADHD, which we later discover to be symptoms of demigod DNA) who half-inherits, half-earns the mantle of Saviour of A Way Of Life. He too is remarkably suited to heroism because of his personal bravery and loyalty. (Alas, we know those very qualities earn Harry the right to be insufferable somewhere midway through the Potter series and continue in that vein all the way to the end. Percy's development is also unhelpfully self-aggrandising, but I will say it for him and Riordan - he is never a lost cause. His world is uniquely American in its resemblance to 'verses like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: wisecracking, playfully bathetic, individualistic, and even tender, in a very unclassical way.

What is truly interesting is how well this elides, in Riordan's stories, with the violent, un-Romantic, individual -independent mythology of the Greek pantheon. Homer does not survive among us simply because of academic conspiracies, after all; there is something we thrill to, in era after era, about what he has to say about the violatory nature of power, its abiding capacity to self-perpetuate in cycles of randomness and cruelty, and its shameless and joyous corruption. It is a truth we hold to be self-evident, and that no amount of New Testament hegemony can reverse or erase. In a deadpan way, Percy chronicles just how random, violatory, etc. the divine will can be, and how ill-equipped human beings are to behave any differently. Percy and the Olympians are nominally on the same side, fighting for Western civilisation - Olympian civilisation - against the destructive reawakening of the Titans, but Percy is pretty open-eyed about the dubious good in it for the mortal world. The Olympians are forgetful, neglectful parents, after all, and cruel, favouritist, selfish creatures - in fact, in these very qualities are the seeds of their downfall. But their love for their children, when it does manifest, makes them in the human image more successfully than anything else they could possibly do, and as Percy could do much worse than Poseidon, so also the world.

The revolutionary potential of these ideas deserves a moment of consideration. If a battle need not be between Good and Evil - then need it be a battle at all? If a hero's brief is to survive and preserve, rather than destroy and perish, then does he have to be a warrior at all? In its final pages, The Last Olympian provides such a thoughtful and, yes, tender reversal of the heroic trajectory that you see the series' potential for reverse-engineering a great deal of the conventions of the heroic narrative itself. Alas, aside from the last book's dramatic denouement, no imaginative reconfiguring of Homeric regret seems possible. Uncap his sword - otherwise concealed in his pocket as a ballpoint pen - Percy must; rally the forces of demigods at Camp Half-Blood (Hogwarts as summer camp, divided into twelve houses on the basis of parentage) he must; rely on the wits of his Athene-born friend Annabeth, the bloodthirstiness of the Ares camp, the healing abilities and crack shots of the Apollo house, etc etc he must. After all, the pantheon is not a prescriptive body. They cannot teach the human race how to live: they can only oblige us to be heroes, and extract the price continually.

eta. Neglected at first writing to compare it with the small industry of Classics retellings in literature -- pointless because it is not a retelling or engagement with Classical texts, but rather classic YA fantasy narrative, where Greek gods take the place of wizards/vampires/other worldview-altering supernatural beings. But if you are looking to compare it with retakes of Homer or the dramatists in any form, you must brace yourself for a comfortingly hackneyed spin on Greek mythology, one for which a familiarity with the Wikipedia article rather than the primary texts is more than enough. I suppose the whole 'Olympus on Empire State Building' bit is as good an indication as any of what to expect.

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