Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"The Lightning Thief"

The ancient Greek gods live among us, continuing their ancient rivalries and pettiness and breeding with mortals. As in the legends, their half-blood offspring have the potential to become heroic figures in the continuing struggles among the various gods, but first they have to come to terms with their unusual identity. That's the premise of Rick Riordan's very popular kids' series about Percy Jackson, full name, Perseus.

In this, the first of these books, Percy, son of Poseidon, goes on a quest with a satyr and another half-blood, the daughter of Athena. They travel from New York to Los Angeles where, among other things, they discover the entrance to Hades. In their heroic adventures they encounter gods, monsters, furies, heroes: the full mythological treatment. They reprise many of the legends about the original Perseus.

I found that the most interesting elements of the characters are those borrowed from Greek mythology -- the arrogance and abrasiveness of Ares, Athena's jealousies, Posidon's son's ability to gain strength from water and even breathe when under the sea, the desire of the satyr to find where Pan may still live, the dedication of a Centuar who has been a teacher for 3,000 years, the brutal strength of the Minotaur, the spookiness of the River Styx. The half-blooded children were often threatened by the other gods; a summer camp in New England offered them a safe haven and place to discover their heritage. But for the most part, they were reliving myths.

The caretakers at camp fed Percy ambrosia and nectar, which tasted like popcorn and chocolate, to help him recover from injuries he suffered in fighting the Minotaur. Corn and chocolate: new-world foods to underscore how the old gods are now embedded in America. Maybe so. For camp meals, the staff served barbecued meat and burned a bit as a sacrifice to the gods. Percy also liked fast food, and often fell for it when offered by someone like the Medusa.

Percy's realization of how his heroic fighting capabilities was dramatic. His diagnosed ADHD makes him a better sword fighter. Campers' lives included other ironies, as well. They weren't able to adjust to life in modern American schools, and most couldn't learn to read English, because they were "programmed" to read ancient Greek (maybe the least plausible of the implausible things of the book). Some details are amusing. But I found the adventures a bit mechanically done.

The Lightning Thief is readable, but Neil Gaiman's American Gods contained many more original ideas and clever characterizations in using more or less the same premise. I'm a fan of young adult and even kids books, but The Lightning Thief isn't quite complex enough for my taste. I prefer the works of Gaiman, Lewis Carroll, or J.K.Rowling. I'm glad Riordan has found a way to get modern kids to learn the myths, though.

Update on the movie of this book: "The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips says that 'this could be the start of something adequate.'" Great movie recommendation, no?

And another update: my discussion questions for book club:
  1. This question is for the parents/grandparents of kids who like the book. What appealed to the kids? Assuming that they have little or no prior knowledge of Greek myths, how did they react to the embedded tales of heroes, gods, and monsters?
  2. Riordan himself refers to "archetypes" or "primal forces" (p. 86). They've been used in Western lit over and over, high and low (example: French playwright Racine is as high as you can imagine, the TV series on the Labors of Hercules was farce, Neil Gaiman's uses are playful, Ovid's retelling of myths was maybe in the middle.) Riordan uses the Greek gods along with Centaurs, the Minotaur, the Fates, the Furies, the Hellhound, Medusa, the Satyr's search for the Great God Pan, the Oracle, etc. What is so powerful about these? How does he borrow their power for telling a good story? What does he do that's original? Does he add more than a few jokes like Hades being in LA or Ares being a biker? Are there any other treatments of mythological themes you want to compare?
  3. The half-blood kids in the special camp in The Lightning Thief believe that their dyslexia, ADHD, and other "disabilities" are caused by their godly nature. They can't read English because they are "hard wired" for ancient Greek. They fidget because they are always ready for battle and always watching out for whatever. Percy the hero feels completely vindicated when he learns this interpretation of his problems. First, how do you react to this claim? Does it ring true? Second, what about kids reading the book?
  4. Aside from the mythology, this book to some extent follows the format of a road book: characters on the road being followed by bad guys and seeking something. Is this successful? How does it merge into the mythology part?
  5. If you could have a Greek god as a parent which one would you pick?

No comments: