[Note: This was first published a few years ago on Res Gerendae, the collaborative blog of the Cambridge Faculty of Classics’ graduate students; visit it at resgerendae.blogspot.com]
Like many of my colleagues, my engagement with this century’s pop culture is rather erratic. There are quite a few major crazes that have largely passed me by (wasn’t there something about a boy wizard a few years back?).
That especially applies to the explosion of young adult fiction that followed that boy wizard thing–I was already in my late teens when the first of those came out, so anything afterwards ended up being more or less off the radar.
Nevertheless, it did dimly come to my attention that there was a series of YA novels based on Greek mythology, which I thought I ought at some point to read. When I found the entire series on sale in the Cambridge market for two pounds each, it seemed reasonable to buy them. After all, it was a fair guess that my future students would have read it, so it was clearly a good pedagogical practice, by no means just an excuse to spend several weeks reading teen novels.
Having read them, I didn’t originally have any intention of saying anything publicly–as with the wizard boy, I assumed that this was something everyone but me knew inside out. But after discovering that virtually none of my friends and colleagues had even heard about it, let alone read it, it seemed like it wasn’t quite as well known as the other thing, and might be worth blogging.
So here we go.
The series of five books is called Percy Jackson and the Olympians (which sounds to me like an early-sixties close-harmony group, but oh well), by Rick Riordan. The basic outline is this: the Olympian gods are real. They still control much of the universe, still bicker incessantly, and, crucially for the plot, still father children indiscriminately. Our hero Percy (short for Perseus) is one such child. As the story begins, he’s a mildly troubled kid with dyslexia and ADHD,* who lives with his mother and her abusive boyfriend. After being attacked by a Fury (previously disguised as a maths teacher) he learns from his best friend, who is actually a satyr, and his latin teacher, who is actually a centaur–do keep up, this all happens in the first 30 pages or so–that he is in fact the son of Poseidon. He is then sent to a summer camp for other teenage demigods, to learn how to fight monsters, go on quests and similar demigod things. The series follows Percy through several years of his hero education, against the background of renewed conflict between the Olympian gods and the Titans. Percy, his satyr best friend, and his love-interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena (I know, I know, we’ll get to it) of course play a key role in this battle.
So how actually are they? To begin with the positives. Riordan knows his stuff. Really well. When he makes use of the legend of Daedalus for example, he does so in full–not just the labyrinth and the fall of Icarus, but also Daedalus’ murder of his nephew, his flight to Sicily, and his eventual assassination of Minos. It gives a much more rounder, and much darker picture of Daedalus than the sort of nice absent minded professor my childhood books on myth presented. He is extremely deft at putting mythic characters into modern settings: Medusa runs a lawn-ornament store (surprisingly realistic statues!), Geryon is a redneck rancher, Charon a cranky receptionist at the entrance to Hades (inside a building labelled DOA Record Studios). It’s all quite cute, but done in a way that by and large stays true to the feel of the original characters.
The best aspect of the books, to my mind, are the gods. They are firmly the traditional Olympians, that is to say, utter jerks. Percy, as Poseidon’s son, can never board an airplane, because Zeus would blast him out of the sky for daring to trespass on his domain. At several points, the gods quite calmly and without apparent concern discuss wiping out all of their children, since they seem to be causing more trouble than it’s worth. Again, they are translated seamlessly into a modern context–Ares is a thuggish biker, Hera a psychotic housewife who just wants everyone to be one big happy family (whether they like it or not), and Apollo manifests as a laid-back frat-bro who drives a Maserati and makes up dreadful haikus about how cool he is. Riordan nicely captures the Olympians’ quality of being eternal children, beings for whom the stakes are so infinitely low that their own desires and irritations can become the most important things in the universe.
The human characters, frankly, don’t fare quite as well. They end up being much more generic teenlit figures, without a huge amount of personality. Percy is a nice enough protagonist with all the requisite heroic characteristics and enough self-doubt to keep him from becoming insufferable, but I didn’t find him particularly interesting. Especially given that he’s a first-person narrator, I’d have preferred someone with a bit more to them. His love-interest Annabeth fares even worse–she’s pretty much your generic cute-but-nerdy girl with a fiesty temper but a heart of gold. Nothing I hadn’t seen dozens of times by the time I turned sixteen. Aside from them, one gets the sense that most of the other characters exist to serve plot functions rather than being people in their own right.
The lack of characterization is a bit disappointing, but not entirely surprising in YA books, and none of the characters are actually annoying. Where the series does fall down is in its overarching narrative. The books concern a new battle between the gods and Titans, with our heroes fighting on the side of the Olympians. As this narrative gains momentum, the books become more and more of a generic good-versus-evil fantasy epic, with all the lack of moral subtlety that implies. Kronos, ruler of the Titans, is a generic Dark Lord, speaking with portentous malice and delighting in torturing people; his henchmen are similarly blandly evil. By default, the Olympians, with all their faults, are pushed into the role of the Good Guys, and the more that happens the less we get of the gods’ eccentricity and crankiness.
Moreover, it’s never really articulated WHY the Olympians are worth fighting for. Granted, they’re the heroes’ parents, but given their lack of filial feeling it’s hard to see why the demigods are particularly motivated to fight for them. This lack of positive motivation is especially problematic if you know that the last time Kronos ruled the universe was the Golden Age, when humans were immortal, free from pain or want, and lived blissful, perfect lives. So, that’s what we’re fighting to prevent? Riordan waves this problem away, dismissing the Golden Age as “Titan propaganda”–actually, the era of Kronos was a Hobbesian nightmare of perpetual war. This is not a particularly satisfying solution, especially given how scrupulous Riordan is to remain faithful to the spirit of so much else.
Frankly, I think Riordan missed the opportunity to add a great deal of moral complexity to his work. Had our hero been given the choice between Kronos’ offer of material comfort but lotus-eater like spiritual enervation, and the current, imperfect but full of possibility, it would have made siding with the Olympians a much more meaningful choice. Too dark and complex for a book for 15-year olds, you say? But the tension between security and personal freedom is one of the most defining aspects of a teenager’s life, as they move from childhood into adult autonomy. Had Riordan been brave enough to follow the myths where they led him, the books might have been something more than the admittedly entertaining yarn they are.
I’d lose my secret Academic decoder ring if I didn’t take a moment to point out problematic assumptions. The degree to which the books are American-centric was a constant source of irritation. Not just that they’re set in the US, but that American is more or less seen as making up the entire universe The gods are the embodiment of Western Civilization (in capitals throughout), and Mount Olympus manifests wherever WC has its centre. And so, naturally, these days it floats above the Empire State Building in New York. While we do have some demigods whose names suggest they’re of non-European descent, we’re never told how non-western cultures, or even non-American ones, fit into the Olympians’ universe. It’s of course an occupational hazard when basing a story on one particular culture’s mythology, but Riordan seems utterly unaware that it could even be an issue.
Finally, since I know you’ve been waiting, the Athena thing. Percy’s crush Annabeth is the daughter of Athena. I was prepared to tolerate a great deal of adjustment to the mythology, but this was a step too far. Athena’s identity is so heavily tied up with being a virgin goddess, who “favours the male in all things” and has no interest in sex or reproduction. Riordan attempts to get around this by saying that Athena’s children are born through Athena and mortal men mingling thoughts rather than bodies, but even so the concept of Athena as a mother so blatantly violates everything the ancients believed about her that I simply could not reconcile myself to it.
I’ve ended with a number of criticisms. But these are born largely out of disappointment that works so imaginative in detail failed to show the same creativity in concept and structure. They are not as sophisticated, or as emotionally engaging, as they could be. But they’re still nicely written stories with fun adventures and lots of weird gods and monsters. I may have been disappointed and irritated at times, but I was never bored reading them. And Riordan’s keen knowledge of the myths and his deft adaptation of them make them a really nice entry point for kids into the world of classics. I know of at least one kid who was moved to start learning classical Greek at the age of six after reading some of these books, and that’s hardly something I can complain about.
NB Two of the books have recently been made into films, but I haven’t seen ’em. Riordan has also written several more books after the original series, but I haven’t read those yet either. It took me eight years to get around to reading the original series, give me time.
The 5 original books are: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse, Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth, and Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian.
*Most of the heroes, like Rick Riordan’s own son, have ADHD and dyslexia. The conditions are presented not as disabilities but as markers of their heroic status: they have ADHD because their minds are designed for the pace of hand-to-hand combat, while their dyslexia is explained (less convincingly) by their brains being wired for the Greek alphabet.