A couple of years ago two books showed up in my house – gifts from different family members for my kids. The Shadow Thieves (Anne Ursu) and The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan), beside being similarly titled, also share the premise that the Greek gods are carrying on their immortal existence here and now, complicating the lives of American adolescents. Both books are the first installment of longer series: the Cronus Chronicles for Ursu; Percy Jackson and the Olympians for Riordan. Both are entertaining (my boys, then 12 and 14, enjoyed them) and would make great holiday gifts for the middle-schooler-interested-in-Greek-mythology on your list. But for all the similarities, the two make quite different uses of the ancient material.
Riordan’s Lightning Thief came out first (2005), and seems to have received more attention. Its troubled 12-year-old hero and narrator Percy Jackson discovers that he is a “half-blood”: the son of a god and a mortal. In the company of Annabeth (a daughter of Athena) and Grover (a satyr), Percy undertakes a heroic quest to prevent a brewing war among the Olympians. Along the way he encounters updated versions of various mythological monsters (Procrustes, for instance, shows up as a water-bed salesman called Crusty). Like most heroes, he needs to journey to the Underworld (Charon dresses in expensive Italian suits and controls an elevator in an LA recording studio). And, again like most heroes, he must come to terms with the truth about his parents.
Percy’s coming-of-age story tracks easily onto the many Greek myths that we associate with male initiation rites. Riordan, in the tradition of Joseph Campbell or Joss Whedon, sees the monsters as “ the external manifestations of the internal conflicts Percy must win to achieve his coming of age,” as the elaborate companion website explains. The examples given there are not especially compelling (fighting the Chimera “is really about Percy facing the fears of his own inadequacy”!). But the arc of the story reflects familiar ancient material: separation from the familiar; encounters with dangerous forces; completion of a quest involving confirmation of his paternity; re-integration with new knowledge and wisdom.
The logic of all this is what makes, to me, The Shadow Thieves the more interesting of the two books. Ursu’s central figure is Charlotte Mielswetzski, a red-headed eighth-grader. She, also, must make a journey to the Underworld (here the entrance is in the Mall of America!) as part of her heroic quest. But of course the ancient mythic material available for girls’ coming-of-age narratives is quite a bit more constrained than it is for boys. While boys today still need to separate themselves from their parents and achieve adulthood, girls no longer do this by leaving their family to marry at 14; the girl-narratives we have from the Greek world thus are less easily adapted to our world and experience. Ursu’s use of the apparatus is therefore, perhaps by necessity, much looser and more creative.
The Persephone narrative infuses the storyline to some degree, and Persephone herself (utterly bored by thousands of years’ worth of unwanted goo-goo-eyed attention from her husband) has a subversive role in the proceedings. But the central “mythological” figure in the book is invented: Philonecron, a lower-level functionary in the massive bureaucracy that has developed through the centuries under Hades, launches a plot to take power in the Underworld. Part of the appeal of the book is the way Ursu plays with the premise that the Greek stories have always been true. What sort of population problems would the Underworld be facing after thousands of years? How would one get there from twenty-first century Minnesota?
Anne Ursu* was kind enough to have a conversation with me about her books over the phone. She had loved mythology as a kid, and while the book had started with her sense of the central characters, it was an image of an underworld filled with flickering shadows that formed the seed for the book’s plot. She also had the strong sense that kids were unlikely to be learning about mythology without encountering it through books like hers and Riordan’s. (The Cronus Chronicles website, like that of the Percy Jackson books, contains lots of information on the characters and stories of Greek myth.)
All this (like Harry Potter’s pervasive use of Latin) feels like happy news for classicists. As I said, I enjoyed both books, and I highly recommend that you go right out and buy them for all the kids that age you know. Yet I found myself with complex responses to the phenomenon, if phenomenon it is, of updated mythology in young adult fiction. Back when I used to teach a myth course, many of my students signed up because they had been mythology fans in childhood; their impression of the stories, almost always, was that they were entertaining children’s tales. “Kids’ stories” implied simplicity, lack of sophistication, lack of “seriousness,” for which you would have to turn to more heavy-duty literature like Tolstoy or Henry James. I really had to fight a sense of defensiveness about this, a backlash against the notion that these were really children’s stories at all. Yet clearly part of what gives myth its power is its flexibility, its significance in a wide range of settings. In the ancient world people would have encountered it in ritual contexts, at the theater, in public art, and yes, probably at their grandmother’s knee as well. And while my sense is that the Persephone story (particularly as told in the Hymn to Demeter) is more about a mother coming to terms with the loss of her daughter to marriage than it is about the maturation of a young girl, surely girls did hear their own lives in the story as they contemplated their early and inevitable separation from home.
No such fate awaits middle-school girls (or their mothers!) today, thank goodness, and Charlotte’s encounters with the world of myth punctuate her much more familiar 13-year-old concerns: being embarrassed by her parents; starting to notice boys; worrying about zits. Her stories, and Percy’s, will engage the current crop of middle-schoolers, and perhaps funnel some of them towards classics as they reach high school and college, where they can discover that the stories are not only for children. Perhaps by the time they get there Anne Ursu and Rick Riordan will have written a mythological-themed book for adults!
* Minnesota readers may remember the wonderful baseball blog Batgirl, devoted to the Twins: Ursu wrote this blog until she had a baby and moved to Cleveland. It is much missed.