It isn’t often that I dip the ol’ port-swiller beak into what the gels are reading these days, but due to the persistent enthusiasm of the eldest, I sat down yesterday and read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, the first of a series of books entitled Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

On one level, it’s the usual sort of pre-teen angst story.  Percy is an oddball and a failure and can’t understand why he’s so different from everybody else and can’t get on in the world.   On another, it is pure pre-teen escapist fantasy: it turns out that the problem is that he’s actually a demigod, the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman.  The Olympic gods are still very much alive and kicking, inhabiting our world and interacting with it where necessary.  Percy finds all this out on the fly, so to speak, as he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a desparate attempt to head off a war among Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.

What intrigued me, however, was a larger story arc set down early on.  Percy finds himself at a summer camp on Long Island, a place where other demigods go to train and learn.  There, he is given some Olympic history by his old classics teacher at boarding school, who turns out actually to be Chiron the Centaur:

“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.  The gods are part of it.  You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated.  The fire started in Greece.  Then, as you well know – or as I hope you know, since you passed my course – the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods.  Oh, different names, perhaps – Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on – but the same forces, the same gods.”

“And then they died.”

“Died? No.  Did the West die?  The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while.  Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there.  They spent several centuries in England.  All you need to do is look at the architecture.  People do not forget the gods.  Every place they’ve ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings.  And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States.  Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus.  Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington.  I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not prominently displayed in multiple places.  Like it or not – and believe me, plenty of people weren’t very fond of Rome, either – America is now the heart of the flame.  It is the great power of the West.  And so Olympus is here.  And we are here.”

As the story unfolds, it turns out that Olympus itself is now set on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building.  The entrance to Hades is in a recording studio in Los Angeles.  There is a casino in Vegas equivalent to the Island of the Lotus Eaters.  And so on.

Also as the story unfolds, however – and I presume I’m not going to upset anyone with any plot spoilage here – it becomes clear that the pending civil war among the Olympians is not just the result of the alleged theft of Zeus’s thunderbolt (hence the title) by one of his brothers, but instead is being carefully stage-managed by Kronos, who is slowly gaining power in his prison of Tartarus, and means to break free, wipe out the Olympians and Western civilization, and reinstitute his “Golden Age,” reducing what’s left of Mankind to a renewed state of primitive savagery.  And I gather that young Percy, as a certified hero in the classical sense, is going to be heavily involved in the effort to keep the Olympic flame alive in the face of the onslaught of barbarism.

Now, I don’t know where Riordon is going with this – there are five books in the series – but it struck me that there are some pretty clear parallels here between Kronos’ plan and the vision of both domestic leftist radicals – the “Eco-warriors” and so on- as well as Islamofascist types abroad.  (The book was written in 2005.) And I’m delighted that Riordan is so unabashedly pro-Western Civ in setting up the story.  In fact, I believe I will go ahead and read the other four books, just to see what he does and if the parallels are made more explicit. 

Of course, the gel has probably not picked up on this Why We Fight theme yet, at least not consciously.  She’s more delighted at this stage simply with spotting the classical characters and allusions and enjoying the adventures (which come fast and furious).  But I’m hoping that somewhere or other, the seed of the idea is being planted in her brain.