“We can at least try to save something of the goods of which we are the common trustees; the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout 2,000 years. In a world which has seen such material devastation as ours, these spiritual possessions are also in imminent peril.” – TS Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture
I am a Christian who appreciates Greek and Roman mythology. Not because it is true, but because as Chesterton points out in The Everlasting Man, mankind was hardwired for Truth and has been seeking God since the very first caves. In all known early cultures, and in all times, man has left evidence of his search for and worship of something outside of himself, something that had to be God. In the Greco-Roman Tradition, we see men of classical antiquity turning toward the heavens and begging God to make Himself knowable to His creation. Chesterton argues that only a creature whom God has loved and called into relationship with Himself would think to look up when all other beasts perpetually look down. With that in mind, I agree with Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, and other great students of the classics, that mythology has much to offer us.
Despite the richness of storytelling that is present in classical mythology, these stories are not entirely suitable for children. Because these ancient myths often contain sexual escapades, bloody battles, and complex moral questions, prudent parents have to be on their guard when discerning how to present these stories to their children. Further, the strangeness of the ancient beliefs and the weirdness of their monsters can be off-putting to our modern sensibilities and repellent to young children. Understandably, parents turn to trusted book lists in the hopes of finding the “right” re-tellers and the right re-imaginings to share with young readers.
As I have read through many book lists, I have noticed a trend toward the inclusion of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. Honestly, that perplexes me. I have read all of the first two Percy Jackson series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Heroes of Olympus. At first, I loved the books. As the series progressed, however, I began to realize that it was fraught with problems. If you are a family who loves Percy, feel free to disagree with me and stop reading here. If you are a family trying to discern whether or not to include Percy in your family diet, I would like to share some of my concerns.
First, the short answer. I think that the concept is genius. That said, the execution is lacking in quality and substance. The research is really great but the writing is subpar and laced with adrenaline and emotion. Further, as the series progresses, traditional virtues which are initially expressed in the early books degrade into morally relative values. Some virtues remain unblemished (selflessness, self-sacrifice, love, and loyalty), but as the cast grows and the challenges increase, the morals become grossly secular.
In the early books, the reader is reminded of Harry Potter. A small band of supernatural friends are thrust into a world-redefining crisis. The characters are young enough that things remain relatively innocent and the story is grounded in some really interesting mythological ideas. But, Percy and each of his friends is the offspring of a mortal parent and a remote, cold, calculating, and unavailable Greek god. In nearly all cases this means that the children are living in broken, dysfunctional, and often abusive, families. It also makes it impossible to see a single traditional and well-balanced family. Further, it defies the institution of marriage, as not one of these children was born inside of wedlock. Each of them has an eternal parent who has sired many children throughout time and this begs the question as to what parenting really is. At best, this presents a confusing message to our children.
As the stories evolve, the characters continue to be mostly one-dimensional. The sheer volume of characters, however, requires that Riordan create more and more “unique” situations. Because everything traditional is off the table, each new character’s story is increasingly disordered. It gets harder and harder to care about characters whose entire existence has been a battle between life and death while also being cursed with some bizarre “gifts” from their godly parent. Reading these stories ends up being emotionally exhausting.
Because the godly parents are just as they were in the ancient Greek and Roman myths, they are highly manipulative, powerful, reckless, selfish, and destructive. Like a nasty divorce proceeding, the main characters are caught up in what amounts to a bitter and painful custody battle. The kids are watching deistic adults wreak havoc on the world while they settle old scores, maneuver the kids into dangerous positions, and treat human life as entirely disposable. The story line is complicated because these children are not mere mortals who are being tossed around. They are demi-gods in training. These are their parents. So the children are wrestling with a crisis of identity. How how much do they or should they resemble their godly parent? What a terrible predicament to put a whole cast of characters into.
Since this new mythology is predicated on a disordered view of the universe, the values are, as I said above, deeply secular. In the second series, Heroes of Olympus, a homosexual love interest is a central current through many of the books. In the first series, it is clear that Percy and Annabeth have a young love, but by the end of the second series, they are more or less engaged.
In the first series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the story deals with the Greek mythology. The characters are all progeny of Greek gods and the war between the parents is basically focused on the Greek incarnations of the gods. The story evolves linearly.
The second series, The Heroes of Olympus is quite complex. Percy Jackson and the Olympians discover that there is a Roman version of their community. In this series we realize that the immortals can switch between the Greek or Roman incarnation of themselves, and when they do, they exhibit substantially different expressions of themselves. Most of the Roman gods are meaner and more calculating than their Greek version. This takes a simple and linear story and turns it on its head. Not only are there two sets of demi-god communities in existence, many of these demi-gods in training have half-siblings from a totally different version of their parent. In some cases this means that the Greek and Roman children can be friends. In others, it means that they are at odds with each other.
Given the target age range of these books, I expected the epic violence to be toned down. Not the case. Riordan seems quite comfortable inflicting aggressive violence on young readers in The Heroes of Olympus. In this second series the characters are in life and death situations every single second of the series. It is exhausting. Additionally, because their lives are in peril, they live in adult ways with no hope of something better. Absent the Gospel, they have nothing to really put their faith in. Instead, they are thinking of things in mature ways and living with a Greek stoicism that isn’t good for young people.
As an example, in the final books, Percy and Annabeth are in Hades for the majority of the story. They are in an awful, hellish, demonic place, and they assume they are going to die. They are there to die. They make choices again and again to try to save the life of the other, but they count their own lives as lost. This is great. A wonderful current of self-sacrifice and true love. Except that it is written poorly, is pumped up with adrenaline-producing ideas, and is far too easily consumed.
Instead of being like the Odyssey where Odysseus is tried and Homer gives us the context and nuance, we just get the plot points and then electrified emotion. It is saturating without being sustaining. It is so much emotion to process and I felt emotionally bloated by the end.
“The Beauty of great literature resided in its being an expression of a common culture, which was itself the fruit of the preservation of learning, the pursuit of truth, and the attainment of wisdom. The highest function of art, therefore, was to express the highest common factors of human life and not the lowest common denominators – life’s loves and not its lusts. This was the mindset at the very core of the literary revival of which Chesterton (and Eliot) was part.” – Joseph Pearce, GK Chesterton: Champion of Orthodoxy
Riordan’s writing is a poor sample of Western literature. In my home, I try very hard to limit my children’s exposure to poor writing because I know that they are learning how to write in large measure through what they read. Said another way, there are so many books worthy of their attention and insufficient time to cover them all, that it seems poor stewardship of our time and reading to let them consume vast amounts of subpar writing.