To the Percy Jackson series: a (nuanced) love letter (Part I)

Last Christmas break, one of the most-discussed topics among my friends—nerdy book-lovers that we are—was the long-awaited release of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series on Disney+. While I personally refrained from purchasing a Disney+ membership, I often came across, and enjoyed reading, relevant discourse on the series’ casting, pacing and dialogue while scrolling through Reddit. Even now, watching terms like ‘the Master Bolt’ and ‘Aunty Em’s Garden Emporium’ resurface online brings back memories of heated debates over the superiority of Harry Potter VS Percy Jackson every English class, begging my parents for a baseball cap (ideally with magical invisibility abilities) on World Book Day, and hours spent poring over every Riordanverse book possible, all the way up to Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Ship of the Dead (by the time Trials of Apollo came out, I was busy with middle school). Uncle Rick’s eponymous, green-eyed son of Poseidon was a beloved staple of my earliest teenage years. And, as Disney+ is announcing the series’ return for a Season 2 at the start of my twenties, I thought it would be apt to look back upon the beloved franchise and ponder the factors leading to its enduring appeal, as well as certain aspects of it I have learnt to question or dislike as I grow older. 

Ask anyone who read Percy Jackson as a kid, and at least half of them will probably tell you that Riordan’s books aroused their interest in Greek mythology. This especially holds true for children from non-Western backgrounds, such as myself; growing up in East Asia, I didn’t have access to classical education at school, so stumbling across the ancient world of demigods and monsters that Riordan transposes onto modern-day America was one of the greatest finds of my youth. Setting Mount Olympus upon New York’s Empire State Building and writing with a distinctly sassy, pop-culture-reference-filled style, Riordan is able to channel the knowledge and worldview of a foreign mythology into concrete, familiar environments for his young readers. As a result, both Greek mythology and his characters become approachable and endearing; Percy and friends win our hearts with their complaints about homework and absent (godly) parents alike. Interestingly, this precisely capitalises on one of the major attractions of the Greek pantheon: the resemblance of its deities’ emotions or behaviour to that of humans is oft-lauded within wider modern discourse on classical mythology. Compared to the followers of Abrahamic regions, the Greeks did not elevate their deities into flawless, untouchable figures, instead allowing them to embody a range of relatable, human traits. Riordan’s books perhaps intentionally retain and magnify this strength from his source material, resulting in demigods, gods and satyrs that have been able to stay with us all these years. 

Looking back upon the series with a worldview clarified by age, moreover, it is easy to see that Riordan does not transpose ancient Greek civilisation onto the 21st century purely for accessibility reasons; he also draws important comparisons that shed light on the condition of our modern world. As early as The Lightning Thief, we see the Lotus Eater episode from The Odyssey used to create a commentary on the tranquilising dangers of gambling, pleasure and addiction as Percy, Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase become trapped in a casino—a connection that actually mirrors one made by James Joyce himself. Regardless of what we might think about Percy Jackson’s literary merits as compared to Ulysses’, Riordan’s work clearly goes beyond informing young readers on classical tradition to promote analytical and critical thinking, encouraging his audience to identify issues that have long plagued humanity and reflect upon their own societal environment.  

Yet this movement of ancient Greece into modern America that is Riordan’s greatest strength is also one of the issues his critics most find fault with. Narratives from classical mythology are by nature unstable, being passed down mainly through oral tradition and finding their way onto the pages of our age in many varying versions. Modern renditions and adaptations of these tales, such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, are essentially participating in a greater tradition of constantly breaking, interchanging and retwining threads; each of these authors’ accounts expand the ways in which we can conceptualise and interpret the classical mythos. 

By also participating in this rethreading of mythological narrative, Riordan is not doing something inherently problematic. What I take issue with is his public claiming of Greek mythology as ‘part of [the Western world’s] collective heritage’, as if these myths weren’t specifically created by and didn’t bear specific cultural significance to communities that lived actual, breathing lives in a small part of Southern Europe. I myself am, of course, not Greek, or even Western, for that matter. However, from my perspective, no matter how far and wide a culture’s myths and literature are disseminated, and no matter how much said culture has influenced the overall development of ‘Western civilisation’, those who can lay claim to this heritage are first and foremost the descendants of that culture’s communities, in its country of origin. Even if the genetic continuity between ancient and modern Greeks is heavily debated, it is undeniable that a modern Greek nation, with concrete architecture and artefacts demonstrating its historic-cultural heritage, exists. To engage with, and even reinterpret, their cultural material as citizens of other nations is completely acceptable. But to call their heritage ‘collective’, especially in a society where sculptures from the Parthenon itself are displayed in the British Museum, without ongoing plans for repatriation to Greece, seems to me an incredibly entitled move.  

I am incredibly conscious of the fact that this statement of ‘collective heritage’ is but a small section of the Q&A on his website, and perhaps shouldn’t be magnified so much. However, if we consider the Percy Jackson series itself further, particularly the stories’ focus on modern America, such an attitude might become more evident, or even more problematic. In The Lightning Thief, Chiron makes the claim that America is the current ‘heart of the flame’ of Western power, and therefore the logical, default inheritor of Greek civilisation. While this seemingly innocently justifies the novel’s introduction of Greek elements into America, critics (here, here) have often pointed out how this statement actually reeks of American exceptionalism, or American chauvinisim. As McDaniel points out, by asserting that the vestiges of Greek civilisation have moved around different countries historically, ultimately coming to rest in the United States, Percy Jackson and the Olympians portrays the current ‘entire Greek legacy as a uniquely American possession’—not Western, not shared even with Greece itself, but uniquely and exclusively American. This complicates Riordan’s claim of ‘collective heritage’, then: while he magnifies, on his website, the inherited culture of Greek people into one shared by the entire global West, the actual plots of his novels stake a further claim to this culture as a solely American heritage, and explicitly appropriate the myths of another nation to construct this narrative of supremacy for his own. 

To clarify, I don’t think this is a question of whether America is, in fact, the most powerful country in Western civilisation in the current century at all. You may think of America’s status as a widely accepted fact. I certainly grew up idealising the country, daydreaming constantly about moving to New York from my own hometown and enrolling in an American boarding school. Whether or not this should be the case is another debate entirely. The issue here is that Percy Jackson, along with the plethora of US-centric media most non-US citizens are bombarded with from a young age, plays no small role in creating this kind of venerative daydreaming. And Percy Jackson specifically employs the history, culture and myths of another country to curate its narrative of American supremacy, a narrative in which all readers—local and international—are called to believe. Riordan did not only ‘make Greek mythology cool’, as is commonly parroted; he also made America, through its asserted connection to Greek heritage, undeniably cool, and this is something that should be interrogated more frequently and critically by fans and casual viewers alike.


Featured image: Rhododendrites on Wikimedia Commons

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