“With adolescent egotism and a lot of money one can pretty much rule the world.” —Glen Duncan, I, Lucifer
In his thousand year old Essay, “On the Cessation of Oracles,” Plutarch tells of a portentous voyage that a mariner named Thamus once took to Italy:
When it was now evening, off the Echinad Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship, carried by the current, was come near Paxi…All of a sudden, a voice was heard from the Isle of Paxi, of some one calling ‘Thamus’ with so loud a cry as to fill him with amazement…Called twice, he kept silence; but on the third summons he replied to the caller, and the latter, raising yet higher his voice, said, ‘When thou comest over against Palodes, announce that the great Pan is dead’…
And now my son, Sam, and I are reading The Titan’s Curse, the “hilarious and action-packed” 3rd book in Rick Riordan’s series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which chronicles the adventures of the half-human children of the Greed gods. I was looking forward to the 1st book, but found something kind of…unsatisfying…about it. By the 2nd, I was reading reluctantly, and now I can no longer ignore the little voice inside me saying there’s something very wrong here.
The usual criticism leveled at The Olympians is that it’s a rehash/rip-off of Harry Potter, and it’s easy to see why. But while J.K. Rowling herself borrows from other sources, such as Celtic folklore and books like Eva Ibbotson’s The Great Ghost Rescue, she nevertheless manages to imbue them with a certain gravity—with a serious, even dangerous, edge. There is pain, torture and death. The stakes are very high.
Olympians, on the other hand, reads like a pilot version of a show for Disney TV. These books treat everything, gods and monsters, with the same élan that infuses the humor of The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, or most other children’s entertainment, for that matter: hip, name-dropping irony, awe turned to awesomeness, fun through derision.
I looked. And I couldn’t believe it. It was my car. Well, the car I wanted anyway. A red convertible Maserati Spyder. It was so awesome it glowed. Then I realized it was glowing because the metal was hot…The driver got out, smiling. He looked about seventeen or eighteen, and for a second, I had the uneasy feeling it was Luke, my old enemy. This guy had the same sandy hair and outdoorsy good looks. But it wasn’t Luke…The Maserati driver wore jeans and loafers and a sleeveless T-shirt.
“Wow,” Thalia muttered. “Apollo is hot.”
I’d been trying not to pay attention to Mr. D, but he was kind of hard to ignore in his neon orange leopard-skin warm-up suit and his purple running shoes. (Like Mr. D had ever run a day in his immortal life.)
We were about to leap off the Chrysler Building when Blackjack whinnied in alarm and almost threw me. Something was curling around my leg like a snake….Vines—grape vines—had sprouted from the cracks between the stones of the building.
“Going somewhere?” Mr. D asked.
He was leaning against the building with his feet levitating in the air, his leopard-skin warm-up suit and black hair whipping around in the wind,
God alert! Blackjack yelled. It’s the wine dude!
Mr. D sighed in exasperation. “The next person, or horse, who calls me the ‘wine dude’ will end up in a bottle of Merlot!”
This is the god who drives people mad, and who had Pentheus torn to shreds at the hands of his own mother. You’d think a little respect would be in order.
In the end, I suppose, these books are for kids, and kids have to learn mythology somewhere. Besides, does anybody still believe in the old gods anymore? And what's the harm? I still remember my mother leaving the room each time we watched Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, aghast at the depths she saw literature sinking to at the hands of cheap entertainment. Now I make my living from the English language, and Dickens is pretty much my favorite author.
Is it too much, though, to ask for a little bit of recognition of the human and natural forces that the gods embody? A little bit of fear? How about a little beauty? Can we have that, at least, please, for the stories we tell our children? It can be done. It has been done, in the writing of authors like E.B. White, who infused even the simplest settings and characters with the quiet expansiveness of actual myth: Stuart Little swinging his hammer at the bathroom faucet, Fern trying to wrest the axe from her father, Charlotte dying alone in the corner of a box. And, unlike the rampant neoteny of our culture, White’s young characters have mature hearts, and face important moral crises.
Mr. Riordan’s books are now in the hands of, you guessed it, Disney, still licking its wounds after not getting hold of Harry Potter. Last week, in the supermarket, I saw his latest, The Red Pyramid, the beginning of a new series called The Kane Chronicles, in which two adolescents discover they are descended from wizards. It seems that the old Egyptian gods have been unleashed, and they’re pissed.
I can’t say I blame them. Since finishing off the Olympians, Mr. Riordan is well on his way to pillaging the rest of the world’s mythology, with Norse, Mayan and Hopi sure to follow. There are enough characters and stories to last him a lifetime of hardcovers. In his books, though, there is something both missing and annoyingly present, hinting at the possibility that Mr. Riordan has never actually seen the lightning flicker in a blue mountain of cloud, or felt the touch of a night-time visitor quicken his heart to bursting. Despite the oodles of research that his books reveal, he is less schooled in the ways of the gods than in the malicious zeitgeist of our modern age, where, as in the last line of Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead,
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Pan, come back—we need you now.