Modern-day Pagans: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

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).

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 8-10

Maturity Level: 3 (ages 8-10) and up

One-line Summary: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson stories are an entertaining way to introduce middle-graders to mythology, but the pagan worldview presented therein deserves some thought.

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. (The second is the Bartimaeus series.)

At the beginning of Vol. 1, 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.”

“What is?”

“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 doubt this is 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?

Also reviewed on our website: The Mark of Athena, The House of Hades (#3 and #4 of Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series).  And thoughts about the Lightning Thief movie.

Cautions: Violence (not graphic), Worldview (neo-pagan, though not taken seriously)

Overall value: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/Moral value: 3
  • Artistic value:3.75

Categories: Middle Grades, Mythology, Fantasy, Ancient History, Popular

 

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7 Responses to Modern-day Pagans: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

  1. Leslie August 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    I viewed the newest movie in the series tonight. While it was based upon Greek mythology, there were many items that symbolized Christian themes. The “fleece” revived things that were dead. Fleece come from sheep and Jesus is the Lamb of God. Chronos who was an obvious depiction of the devil was defeated by Percy’s sword (Sword of the Spirit) which was given to him by his father. Tyson was a Cyclops which means that he had one eye. Spiritually speaking the one eye located in the center of the head is to be used for us to discern spiritual things. Tyson encouraged Percy to have faith early on in the movie. He demonstrated his faith in his relationship with his father by being patient and waiting for his Father’s response to his request. He also had a child like quality and the Bible tells us that we must have child like faith. There are so many other things that I could point out but just thought that I would hit some of the most obvious.

  2. Janie January 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Michael: It’s either sidestepping or he hasn’t any particular ax to to grind. I suspect the latter. God himself won’t be shoved into the metaphysical warehouse, of course.

  3. Michael D. January 6, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    Interestingly, Riordan tries to sidestep the issue a bit; perhaps trying to reach a wider audience?

    The Lightning Thief, pg 67:

    “Wait,” I told Chiron. “You’re telling me there’s such a thing as God.”

    “Well now,” Chiron said. “God—capital G, God. That’s a different matter altogether. We shan’t deal with the metaphysical.”

    “Metaphysical? But you were just talking about—”

    “Ah, gods, plural, as in great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus. That’s a smaller matter.”

  4. Leslie Wyatt March 21, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    Appreciate your thoughts on this series, Janie, and on paganism in children’s lit as a whole. Thanks for doing this!

  5. Kristina J. March 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    Thank you for a very thoughtful review! After a neighbor and good friend recommended these for my voracious reader of a 9-year-old son (who consequently loves Greek mythology), I decided to read them first. I finished the series within the past year. There were some disturbing elements, but honestly, I couldn’t put them down. Your point about cancelling out Christ is a good one, and I had not connected the idea of “western civilization” in the books to the history of Christianity, so thank you. Definitely something I want to bring up in discussion with my son if he ever reads these. However, you could think of it in terms of knowing the worldview of many people at the time Jesus came. That made it meaningful for me.

    Thanks again for your work of reviewing and providing valuable help for Christian parents!

  6. Janie March 16, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    Emily,
    a multiplicity of gods or spirits is a good indication of a pagan worldview–unless there’s a clear sense of an ultimate spirit who’s directing things. That’s a Christian concept. Paganism, in spite of a hierarchy of gods, has no unifying diety. Atheistic fantasy tends to locate spiritual (supernatural) capacity in inanimate matter, like Philip Pullman does in “dust.”

    There are other characteristics of paganism that I’ll talk about in the next installment. Stay tuned!

  7. emily March 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    Thanks, Janie. I appreciate your approach to the subject-matter. D. A. Carson said in one lecture (can’t remember the title, but maybe Postmodernism?) that to be an atheist used to mean being anti-God-of-the-Bible. But now, he said, he could mean disbelieving in any number of religious deities. I think it’s a good distinction, and I agree with you that it shows up in fiction for kids today.

    I’m curious about the differences you see in the worlds Lewis and Tolkien created and those in which the history of Christ and salvation had been canceled out. Are they that noticeable at first blush?

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