Title: Percy Jackson and the Olympians (series)
Author: Rick Riordan
For readers who want to spend a lot of time inside the head of a stereotypical twelve-year-old boy, these books will be a fun romp. The stories might inspire kids to go on and read the original myths, and they are fine as light entertainment, but they have plenty of problems, too. If I gave these books to children, I would also have some very serious conversations with them about some of the subtler messages conveyed, and I wouldn’t use these books as a first introduction to the Olympic pantheon.
Potentially the most interesting thing about these stories from a Pagan point of view is that they involve retelling some of the old Hellenic myths in a contemporary setting. But Riordan has simply adopted the myths, not adapted them: ancient Greek language, technology, weapons, monsters, and more have been imported wholesale into the contemporary world, albeit concealed from mere mortals. One of my biggest disappointments was the lack of any world building to explain or investigate how this uneasy state of coexistence works. Any potential problems are simply handwaved away by “The Mist,” which causes nearly all mortal minds to reinterpret anything unusual in terms they can cope with.
Riordan’s characterizations of the deities are slightly adapted to contemporary times — Poseidon tends to appear as a deep-sea fisherman, and Ares has become a dangerous biker with a bulletproof vest — but few of the others have changed at all. There is actually some good nuance in the portrayal of Hades in the first book, but others are simply ridiculous; Demeter is always whining about how everyone should eat cereal, and Aphrodite is a self-obsessed starlet shallower than a Texas puddle in July.
As justification for placing these not-really-updated deities in America, Riordan explains that the Olympians have moved over time with “the heart of the West.” The idea that this heart is now in America has overtones of exceptionalism and triumphalism about it. This too must simply be swallowed whole by the reader, along with the fact that the brief narrative of the last three thousand years completely ignores minor details like the Dark Ages.
One of the things that made Harry Potter a crossover hit with adults rather than another supernatural young adult thriller was Rowling’s engagement with the world she built: one can actually imagine Platform 9 3/4 or the Leaky Cauldron existing. Nothing like similar care has been invested in Riordan’s creation, and that will limit the potential appeal of these novels outside their intended young adult audience. Greek reconstructionists will not find much useful reflection in these novels on what ancient Greek religion might mean in today’s world.
Riordan’s pacing and plots are equally straightforward and simple. They are age-appropriate, especially for the first couple novels, where the protagonists, and presumably intended readers, are twelve and thirteen, but adults are likely to find them lacking. Seemingly large issues are often resolved with simple solutions, sometimes within the same chapter. Even by the end of the series there are no challenging discoveries about divided loyalties or transformational shifts in perspective based on revelations. A few surprises come out, but none that cause Percy or his friends to have to reassess their understanding of the world.
Part of the attraction of these books is that they might get kids interested in the myths, and it’s true that they might, but they might also make new readers as confused as interested. Percy Jackson started out as Riordan’s hero in a new series of bedtime stories he told to his sons after they were hooked on the original myths. That origin shows as Percy’s adventures include a series of romps through the triumphs of most of the original heroes, slightly adjusted in some places and not as much in others.
The settings and relationships are definitely aimed at a stereotypical 12-year-old boy. Camp Half-Blood, where Percy goes to connect with other semi-divine heroes and train for his mission in life, is a pure fantasyland for typical preteen boys: campers spend nearly all their time training to fight monsters. The central event of camp life is a realistically violent game of Capture the Flag. No silly concerns about schoolwork intrude, and chores are seldom mentioned. Arts and Crafts is all about making weapons.
Half-bloods are grouped into cabins based on the identity of their divine parent. The emphasis on combat means that some of the twelve Olympians’ descendants play crucial roles: scions of Ares, Athena, and Hephastios all make frequent appearances. But some of the other cabins are only mentioned off-handedly: Apollo, Demeter, and Aphrodite’s campers get a scant handful of mentions, especially in the first few books, and many of those are disparaging.
The real problem with this youthful instance of male gaze is that goddesses, women, and girls are all marginalized. Goddesses other than Athena play relatively small roles, whether because the skills they bestow on their offspring are less valuable in a fight or because some of the goddesses have chosen not to have half-blood children, like Artemis, Hestia, and Hera. By comparison, when the “Big Three” gods, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades agreed to have no more children with mortal women, they were unable to resist their impulses.
Worse yet, elements of rape culture permeate the books. Artemis allows young women to follow her if they take an oath to “forsake the company of men.” The fact that these girls — their average age is about twelve — are off-limits seems to just make them more attractive to some males; they are constantly pursued and harassed by more than one character, and this is treated by everyone else as amusing, even when their personal space is invaded after they have repeatedly made it clear that the attention is unwanted.
Similarly, the website for the books recounts the story of how when a man tried to spy on Artemis in the bath, she turned him into a deer and her Hunters killed him. The site says that this shows “she doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about Peeping Toms.” Apparently Riordan thinks it’s normal for a man to try to see a pre-teen, prepubescent girl naked against her will, and that if she objects, that shows a lack of “sense of humor.” Actually, testing boundaries like this is one of the ways rapists assess potential victims.
Girls reading these scenes will get the message that it’s okay for men to invade their personal space, even after they’ve said no, and that if they make a fuss about that, they’re being bad sports. That is setting girls up to be easy victims of sexual assault and teaching boys that they can get away with it. I would absolutely discuss these issues with any young adult who reads these books.
There are two girls among the campers with whom Percy interacts regularly, but both of them are basically treated as honorary boys. Clarisse, daughter of Ares, is violent and aggressive, while Annabeth, daughter of Athena, has her mother’s cool, intellectual approach, which makes her seem almost genderless for most of the books.
It turns out that these girls and Percy all have dyslexia and ADHD, and it’s good to see main characters described as having disabilities, even if they are seldom a problem for the protagonists. The books also show two different characters with disabilities that apparently limit their mobility, but both of these turn out to be cover stories for those characters being magical and not purely human. In fact, the ADHD and dyslexia are likewise explained as side-effects of the fact that heroes have to have fast battle reflexes and that their brains are “wired” for ancient Greek.
All of the instances of disabilities in the books are actually what TV Tropes would call “Disability Superpower,” where the fact of having a disability is outweighed by the magical compensations. The characters never really have to cope with problems caused by disability. For readers in the real world, this means that kids with disabilities without magical compensations still don’t really have characters they can relate to, and able-bodied neurotypical kids get distorted ideas about what people with disabilities are like or have to experience.
There is one unexpected theme in these books that contemporary Pagans might enjoy: ecology is treated as important. Pan, the god of the Wild, is a significant symbolic character, and nature spirits such as dryads and naiads play a role. But Riordan seems to have forgotten that in the original myths, the Olympians can be read as the forces of civilization who fight to overcome and subdue the Titans, the power of unrestrained nature. In the books, the Titans are simply forces of chaos, although they can manifest as storms and the like.
Even if the nature spirits who are allied with the Olympians include the god of the Wild, they are mostly very tame, relatively weak, and overall represent the kind of restrained, unthreatening aspects of nature that humans might enjoy in a carefully-tended garden while telling themselves that it is part of the wild. Again, this unresolved contradiction is unlikely to bother young adults, but prevents the stories from rising to a level that would warrant real engagement or interest from older readers.
That’s the single biggest disappointment of the series: Percy never really seems to mature. Sure, he gets older, and he learns a few things and solves some problems along the way, but I’m not convinced that the Percy of the fifth book is really substantially different from the Percy of the first book. The first-person perspective makes it hard to tell whether others’ regard for him changes over time, but his narrative voice is not significantly altered.
Percy rarely faces errors or a situation that he can’t win, so he doesn’t have to change or develop. Even when some of his companions die, that’s sad, but it’s to be expected for heroes, and it doesn’t really affect him in the long run. He is often threatened but seldom challenged. Similarly, readers may find themselves entertained, but the books will not stimulate the kind of reflection that great fiction uses to create opportunities for readers themselves to learn and grow.
Overall, these books are acceptable as young adult fiction, except for the instances of rape culture, and they can be a light escape for older readers, but Pagans who want to see the Greek myths handled well in a contemporary setting will have to look elsewhere.
[Literata is a Wiccan who studies theaology and enjoys developing poetry and rituals. Her work appears in the anthology Anointed from Neos Alexandria, CIRCLE Magazine, the group blog at the Slacktiverse, and in the e-zine Pagan Pages. On her blog, Works of Literata, she reflects on her relationships with nature and divinity and reviews Pagan and Wiccan books. She is also writing her Ph.D. dissertation in history and enjoys travel and spending time with her husband and four cats.]
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