UNITED STATES –Since the publication of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief in 2005, Percy Jackson and the Olympians has been the leading pop-culture exposure to the Greek gods in the USA. Over the years, the adventures of this fictional son of Poseidon have received a fair amount of attention from Polytheists and others who worship these Gods.This reaction puzzles Riordan, who isn’t shy about saying that he thinks the very idea of modern worship is “strange.” The debate over the religious merits of the book are ongoing.
While adults may enjoy or detest this young adult fiction, the opinions of the young readers, who have made these books “wildly overrated,” are missing. Children, ages 8-15 years, aren’t as likely to write blog posts about books and are more difficult to identify and interview. Nevertheless, their views matter a great deal when considering the impact of books like these.The Wild Hunt asked four young readers about this series. Because of their ages, the minors interviewed for this article are referred to by pseudonyms.
Jacob, an 11-year-old who has read all of Riordan’s Olympian books, as well as those the Kane Chronicles based on Egyptian mythology, had a simple reason for enjoying them: “I like the action. There is non-stop action.” There might be something more going on, though, because since he completed the series, he’s read the Odyssey adaped by author Mary Pope Osborne, and said, “I have research books, too.” His interest in Greek and Roman mythology were stoked by the Percy Jackson series, and the stories have even inspired a desire to learn ancient Greek, which all young demigods in these books can instinctively read.
Since most of the major characters are children of gods, the next question that was natural to ask was what god he’d be the child of, and why. “Hephaestus,” Jacob replied. “He can make automatons, metal stuff, and lasers. I like to make stuff too.”
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the story, the Olympian books present the gods in a decidedly modern context, and depict their personalities in ways that are, at times, either humorous or disrespectful, depending upon one’s point of view.
According to his mother, “Jacob lives in an eclectic Pagan household. In formal terms, he has only been exposed to Wiccan rituals and community. However, both of us are not Wiccan. His religious life is very diverse with close relatives who are Baptists, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish and Atheist. He is exposed to a variety of beliefs. We foster a creative religious environment that will nurture his unique spirit’s journey.”
When asked whether she thinks these books have influenced his attitudes on religion, she said, “He was interested in and aware of Greek and Roman gods before he read these books. He had already heard about these Gods and others from us, in rituals or in religious talk. However, I think the books have fueled a fire that was already burning. They provide a modern context for an ancient concept. After reading the books, Jacob wanted more. I can see the spark in his eyes when he talks about Greek mythology. I am certain the gods are speaking to him and I know he is in good hands.”
Thirteen-year-old Thadd lives in a decidedly Hellenic household, and it’s not an understatement to say that he was profoundly impacted by reading about Percy Jackson and his encounters with gods and monsters. In somewhat monosyllabic terms, he spoke of how much he enjoyed the stories, which include a second five-book series, Heroes of Olympus containing both Greek and Roman deities. Thadd thought author Riordan created a “pretty good presentation of the gods” in his works. When asked about what divine parentage he’d have were he a character, he named both Poseidon and Hephaestus without hesitation. Asked why, he answered simply, “They’re my patron gods.”
She added, “I know coreligionists hate the series, but I have nothing but love for it simply for this fact alone.”
Jacob’s older brother, Ian, who is 14, said of the books, “They are well-written. And they are very intriguing. They catch your attention well.” On imagining having a divine parent, he said, “I would want to be the son of Poseidon, because I like to swim and be in the water. Poseidon is very friendly with ocean animals, and most of my favorite animals are water-based.” And on how these books have altered his view of the world, Ian said, “Mainly, I use to think quests were about fighting. Now I know they are more about knowledge and using your mind. The books don’t make me think more about religion. But I also would hate to be hit by a lightning bolt while I’m flying in airplane.”
To that, Ian’s mom added, “He has read some non-fiction books on mythology. But he’s more interested and focused on pure fantasy entertainment. For him, this is all fiction and sparks his imagination. For Jacob, it’s definitely real.”
Ariel is a 15-year-old girl who had a lot to say about these books, which have no shortage of strong female characters. She said:
Overall, I liked the Percy Jackson books. I read them a few years ago, and I read the entire series in about a month. I had been into Greek mythology before I read the books, so I was excited to see a cool, popular series about the exact stuff I had been liking since I was little. I read the books as a tween, so I pretty much originally appreciated them just as a cool young adult series, but I also saw the intricate connections between the actual mythology and the books. I understood that it wasn’t totally accurate always, but it was done in a humorous way that wasn’t very offensive in my opinion. It was also obviously set in modern times, so the classic characters were written as if they had adapted along with human society. I understand how some people might think it’s disrespectful or something, but I believe that if the gods were living that closely alongside humans as in the books, they would adopt human personality and style while still being gods, much as they were in Percy Jackson. So, I liked the books, and while they weren’t absolutely true to the mythology, they definitely inspired some people to look further into Greek mythology, and portrayed everything in a humorous and easy to understand way that, I think, worked well for its purpose as a fun young adult series.
According to her father, Ariel and a sibling live primarily with their mother, who is Unitarian Universalist, but are exposed to Pagan concepts at his home. His wife is “part of a coven of women,” and as a solo practitioner, he says, “I create what I need in the moment, with the attendance and assistance of my personal Guides and Gods.” They celebrate 8 Pagan sabbats, which draws people from throughout their rural area.
Ariel declined to speculate on which god might claim her as a daughter, if she lived in that fictional universe.
Percy Jackson is not the first pop-culture portrayal of non-Abrahamic deities, nor is it likely to be the last. In fact, book one of Riordan’s new Norse series, titled Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is due to hit stores October 2015. For those who worship these gods, you may experience both frustration and enjoyment while reading Riordan’s books. However, the true lasting impacts and deeper lessons may only become evident over time. For now, what’s certain is that many children enjoy these books, and some of them actually believe.