Greek gods, demigods and quests in modern America: The Percy Jackson series (Column: Bookends XXXIX)

By Vikas Datta (16:14)

Be it the exploits of Hercules, Perseus or Odysseus or their ilk, the warrior kings of the Indian mytho-religious ethos, the knights of King Arthur, Persian princes, Arabian chieftains (Hatim Tai) and merchants (Sindbad), Russian bogatyrs Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets, the old Spanish gentleman (of magnificent imagination but a tenuous grip on reality) of La Mancha, or the expeditions of a whole raft of European sailors and explorers, quests — and more importantly, the accounts of the quest — never stop fascinating us.

Not only are quest-based fables or epics precursors of modern literature, they are also a rich resource for portraying the human condition as new writers recount and re-interpret them, including in contemporary idiom and sensitivity, as well as serving as a mirror of changing mores when re-told from another perspective, even of those usually originally tarred as the villains.

Due to various historical and cultural reasons, the Greek pantheon occupies a predominant position – at least for English-language readers – and even after nearly 25 centuries, is still vibrantly alive across a variety of media and language. This has been dwelt on here earlier, including a brief overview of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and its subsequent cycle, the Heroes of Olympus series, but both deserves a relook as the latter came to a rousing conclusion last month.

Both the series are not only a modern look at the old myths, but also a unique take on the coming of age genre and also a wry, ironic look at modern life, especially American, through what we may term a “pagan prism”. The premise is that the Greek gods are now in America with Mount Olympus now high above the UN building in New York as the deities move to a place that is the spiritual hub of Western civilisation.

The first “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” (2005) introduces the hero narrating his adventures. He is dyslexic and has ADHD, so is unable to stick in schools and at home, has to contend with an uncouth, abusive stepfather. But all changes in a school trip to a museum and his destiny catches up with him one stormy night.

He reaches Camp Half Blood where learns he is the son of Poseidon, the sea god. Soon, he and fellow camper Annabeth Chase, a daughter of wisdom goddess Athena, and satyr Grover Underwood have to travel across the US (including down to the Underworld) to foil an insidious conspiracy that could pit the Olympian high trinity – Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades – against each other. This is revealed to be the opening gambit in an effort by the Titans, the earlier gods, led by Kronos (or Saturn), to upstage their children and regain power.

The other books – “The Sea of Monsters” (2006), “The Titan’s Curse” (2007), “The Battle of the Labyrinth” (2008) and “the Last Olympian” (2009) – carry on this plot which culminates in a final battle against the Titans through the streets of New York, where the young demigods take on the foes while the gods have been lured away by a diversionary attack. The arrival of some unexpected allies however saves the day.

But, scarcely is this menace contained and the heroes rewarded, then a new challenge rises as detailed in “The Lost Hero” (2010),”The Son of Neptune” (2011), “The Mark of Athena” (2012), “The House of Hades” (2013) and “The Blood of Olympus” (2014).

An older primordial force – Zeus’ grandmother Gaia or Mother Earth, assembles an array of giants – specially created as antithesis to the various gods – to dethrone the Olympian pantheon. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the giants can only be defeated by gods and demigods acting in unison but Zeus has forbidden any god to contact or help the demigods. Adding to the woes, the gods are split between their Greek and Roman aspects.

A camp of Roman demigods is revealed on the Western Coast, but the historic distrust between the two prevents a joint effort, and in fact, a combination of circumstances leads to them nearly going to war against each other.

It is left to seven demigods – Percy, Annabeth, Jason Grace (son of Jupiter), Piper McLean (daughter of Aphrodite), Frank Zhang (son of Mars), Hazel Levesque (daughter of Pluto) and Leo Valdez (son of Hepahestus) – to travel across the Atlantic to Rome and its catacombs, across Italy (and for two, down to the depths of Tartarus and its horrors), to Greece and back to Camp Half Blood in their desperate fight. Contributing their bit are Nico De Angelis (son of Hades/Pluto) and Reyna Avila Ramirez-Arrelano (daughter of Bellona) – two key but comparatively over-shadowed characters.

With his descriptions of the gods in a contemporary aspect, the memorably-drawn demigods – significantly from various American ethnicities, the banter and crisp dialogue, the humour and the heart-stopping action, Riordan has spun an epic which gives the old myths a fresh life. For the more contemplative, it also serves as a tool to understand how these beliefs arose. We search for gods not to find them, but to discover ourselves.

(09.11.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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