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“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like…in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western Civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years.”

I grew up on Robert Graves‘ translations of Greek mythology. Heracles was a pre-modern superhero, Theseus a tragic hero whose cleverness and bravery could only get him so far, Odysseus proof that intelligence could give a hero the edge when faced with a physically stronger opponent. I enjoyed the morals these stories seemed to contain, alongside fantastical descriptions of minotaurs, gorgons and cyclopses.

Of course later, when I returned to these texts, or read different translations, I realized something – those ancient Greeks were jerks!

Unfortunately Percy Jackson has yet to learn this lesson. An ordinary boy growing up in New York with an unusual habit of getting expelled from schools – he swears that it is never his fault – as well as suffering from dyslexia and ADHD, life has dealt him a pretty poor hand. When he discovers he is also the illegitimate son of the god Poseidon and targeted for assasination by both Hades and Zeus, as part of a growing Olympian civil war, well, it is just not fair really.

Being the son of a god has some advantages though. He gets to escape to the safety of Camp Half-Blood for one, where the marauding furies and minotaurs on his trail are held at bay. What’s more he discovers he has several abilities related to the control of water, which could even help him survive a frontal attack by a monster.

He’ll need every trick to stay alive when he and two friends leave the camp on a quest to discover who has stolen the thunder bolt of Zeus and framed him for it to boot. So it is time for a road trip to the Land of the Dead – Los Angeles.

While Rick Riordan is said to have completed the manuscript in 1994, but it was not actually published until 2005. It  therefore does seem likely that segments of the book were rewritten to suit the Pottermania fad. Camp Half-Blood is a Hogwarts filled with the abandoned off-spring of gods and yes Percy is yet another child of destiny.

Where I found the story sticking in my craw a bit was the translation of Greek myth to American culture. I accept that this is the conceit of the book – as the quote featured above states, America is now the ‘seat’, of Western civilization – but it leads to some uncomfortable moments. For example Medusa is described disguised as a Middle Eastern woman. Hades is said to resemble “the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers.”

Really Riordan? You went there huh? What’s more, much like the tarnished Greek heroes of my youth, Percy is actually quite a bloodthirsty little punk. I get that his life is at stake, but after the second, or third decapitation I started checking the book for a parental advisory sticker. Through in spouse abuse – his mother has endured a horrible relationship for years, in order to keep Percy hidden – and this becomes an uncomfortable, sickly feeling cynical package.

This is one fantasy series I will not be continuing with.

Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto,” said Proserpina, kissing her mother. “He has some very good qualities; and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace, if he will only let me spend the other six with you. He certainly did very wrong to carry me off; but then, as he says, it was but a dismal sort of life for him, to live in that great gloomy place, all alone; and it has made a wonderful change in his spirits to have a little girl to run up stairs and down. There is some comfort in making him so happy; and so, upon the whole, dearest mother, let us be thankful that he is not to keep me the whole year round.”

I grew up fascinated with ancient mythology. The Nordic cycle, the Greco-Roman legends, but most especially Celtic myths, I devoured the lot. Robert Graves was a great help in supplying my addiction, his translations of Greek mythology in particular managing to present the adventures of various demi-gods, heroes and tricksters in an easily digestible form.

Of course, I read Graves’s translations as the literal truth of these myths. I did not realize they were reinterpretations of the original stories, or that the written versions of these tales represented dozens of differing accounts transcribed from ancient oral histories of same. Then we come to the Irish myths. I started to notice that the Christian religion was routinely inserted into stories featuring pagan heroes. This struck me as profoundly wrong. To reinterpret the story spoiled the original meaning. Mythology itself is the kind of subject you need to go to college to get access to the ‘real’ stuff, or perhaps more accurately a frank discussion.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had previously written a book titled A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys wherein the bawdy adventures of heroes was rewritten to become more suitable fare for children. Tanglewood Tales is a sequel of sorts to that book, with the narrator meeting up again with his young friend Eustace Bright, after having enjoyed a measure of commercial success thanks to the publication of the previous title. Hawthorne revisits another selection of Greco-Roman adventures, including the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules’ battle with Antaeus, the kidnapping of Europa and the visit of Ulysses to Circe.

Each of the tales is retold in a more folksy, humourous manner. Hawthorne, as part of the framing device, sees fit to correct the consensus view of certain mythological accounts. So for example Ariadne is not abandoned by Theseus, but stays on Crete to care for her aging father. The Minotaur itself, though monstrousness, is shown to be a figure deserving of pity. The encounter of Hercules with the Pygmies has the great hero be shamed into retreating from their passionate defence of their land, instead of turning the humble creatures into playthings for a child.

The book also contains a number of illustrations, depicting pivotal moments from these stories. Overall this is a sweet and entertaining revisiting of the Greek myths. I cannot take issue with the tone, or differing interpretations of the original stories, as they are, after all, simply one more among a multitude.

Sweet, witty and perfect introduction for children.

It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.

Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.

‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.

Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.

The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow(a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.

Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing:I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’

Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.

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