Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan: The Lightning Thief (Hyperion/Miramax,2005), The Sea of Monsters (2006), The Titan’s Curse (2007), The Battle of the Labyrinth (2008), The Last Olympian (2009). Age/interest level: 10-up.
Fantasy implies a religious subtext almost by definition, because the supernatural is its stock in trade. Christianity, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, still occupies such a mass in Western consciousness that it exerts a gravitational force in the fantasy field. A fantasy may be obviously Christian, like The Chronicles of Narnia, or obliquely Christian, like The Lord of the Rings, or contain Christian elements, like Harry Potter is said to (I’m no Potter expert). Likewise, a fantasy may be anti-Christian, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. But what we’re seeing more of lately is a-Christian fantasy, which, probably unconsciously, offers a substitute for the Christian worldview.
That usually means a pagan worldview. In the history of religion, paganism is always the default mode–and if we define paganism as a hierarchy of gods and realms and the option to serve the god most congenial, it suits the modern age just fine. Our sophistication does not rule out our gullibility. Sophistication is all about appearance, not substance; on the surface we wear spandex and listen to fusion rock, while deep down (given the opportunity) we howl at the moon. But here’s the interesting question: is a return to authentic paganism even possible in a post-Christian culture?
This week I’m writing about two popular series for young readers that assume a pagan worldview. The first is Rick Riordan’s 5-volume Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which has sold over twenty million copies and spun off graphic novels and a movie.
At the beginning of The Lightning Thief, Percy Jackson is a Brooklyn pre-teen who suffers from ADHD and dyslexia. During a school field trip to the New York Natural History Museum, he is attacked by his math teacher, who has unaccountably turned into a Fury (he always knew there was something weird about her). Soon after, Percy’s best friend Grover loses his pants and cap to reveal the goatish legs and horns of a satyr. With the assistance of Percy’s mom, Grover helps him escape to Camp Half-Blood, where all the “campers” are Percy’s cousins and half-siblings. This is because they’re the children of gods and goddesses–and Percy himself (see Perseus) is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. Wow: the gods of Mt. Olympus, that he learned about in school, really exist! And Mt. Olympus itself has re-located to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building! But being a demi-god isn’t all fun and games, as Percy is soon launched on a perilous cross-country quest to recover the thunderbolt of Zeus and save the world—a tall order for a twelve-year-old.
The subsequent adventures are a rough approximation of Greek legends: Jason and the Argonauts, the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, etc. Percy remains attractively modest throughout the series, as in this conversation with his friend Annabeth (daughter of Athena):
“Don’t you ever feel that way? [asks Annabeth] Like you could do a better job if you ran the world?”
“Um. . . no. Me running the world would be kind of a nightmare.”
“Then you’re lucky. Hubris isn’t your fatal flaw.”
“I don’t know, Percy, but every hero has one. If you don’t find it and learn to control it . . . well, they don’t call it ‘fatal’ for nothing.”
In order to pull this off, the author must do more than resurrect the gods of Greek antiquity; he must imagine a world in which Yahweh never spoke from Mt. Sinai and a virgin never conceived and bore a son. Riordan is unapologetic in his admiration for the West, which “represents a lot of the best things mankind ever did” (Annabeth again), while begging the question of whether western civilization, with its skyscrapers and charitable institutions and United States of America, would be even possible without a Christian consciousness. Buried in volume two (The Sea of Monsters) is an intriguing hint: Grover asks for permission to go on the traditional satyr quest for the great god Pan, who disappeared approximately 2000 years ago. When Pan is found, in The Battle of the Labrynth, he’s dying a slow death of various wounds that humans have dealt upon the earth from the time of his disappearance.
And what happened 2000 years ago? Something that put the pagan gods out of business.
They appear to be trying to make a comeback now, though I doubt that Riordan’s intentions were any more than to tell a rousing, action-packed story and encourage boys (including his own dyslexic son) to read. But in order to create a pagan setting he has to cancel out Christianity. I haven’t read the whole series, but I doubt it was intentional. But perhaps not totally unintentional either. I do know that it’s unfortunately easy to cancel out Christianity, because western secularism has been engaged in willful amnesia for a long time.
Some readers get a little carried away, according to this New York Times story about Camp Half-Blood (a summer camp based on characters and situations in the books). “There really are demi-gods, and I hope that’s why I’m here,” says Tom, who suspects he might be the son of Apollo. “I’m not here to pretend. I’m here to train.”
Well. At least he’s outside.
That said, kids–even Christian kids–can read The Olympians for a fast ride and a good time with no harm done. Having wrung out the gods of Greece (no, wait—he’s launched another series called The Heroes of Olympus), Riordan has recently published volumes one and two of The Kane Chronicles, which draw on the mythology of Egypt. It’s easy to see why his books are so popular: often laugh-out-loud funny, and somewhat educational (how else are most 21st-century middle-graders going to learn what hubris is?), and so fast-paced they make the movie version of Lord of the Rings look like a Merchant-Ivory film. But readers should be aware, as soon as they are able, what kind of world he’s imagining. What is a pagan culture really like?
Another series of novels, written for slightly older readers, may give us a better picture. And that’s my next installment.
- Moral value/worldview: 3
- Literary value: 4