Review of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
by PAUL D. MILLER
The Lightning Thief (2005) is a perfectly serviceable young adult fantasy novel. It is the sort of book you read without much concentration for a few hours’ or days’ pleasant diversion, one that makes few demands of you. As brain candy, I quite liked it because it was blissfully free of the sort of weighty distractions that seem obligatory to the genre. It has less violence than The Hunger Games, less sex than Twilight, and less apocalypticism than Harry Potter.
That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of themes worthy of thought. Percy Jackson is a troubled kid. He has dyslexia, ADHD, and no father. He gets kicked out of boarding schools and never seems to fit in. One day his algebra teacher turns into a bat-winged hag and tries to kill him; just in time his Latin teacher throws him a pen, which morphs into a broadsword, with which he hacks the hag back to Hades. Surprise: the legends are true!
Percy inhabits a world in which the gods of ancient Greece are real, immortal, tremendously powerful, physical beings. The author, Rick Riordan, neatly side-steps the question of the God of the Bible when Percy asks about “God” with a capital “G.” “Well,” a character replies, “let’s not get metaphysical.” Whether or not there is an infinite personal spirit that created and governs all things is beside the point. There are, in the meantime, finite personal beings with immense power, some of whom want to kill you, and one of which [spoiler — although, really, you ought to know] is your father!
Percy is thus a demigod, or hero in the mold of Heracles; semi-divine, imbued with superhuman-but-not-omnipotent powers. He and his fellow demigods are most akin to comic-book superheros: they have powers themed according to their lineage–combat, for children of Ares (god of war); agriculture, for children of Dionysus (god of the vine); hydrokinesis, for children of Poseidon (god of the sea). Percy and friends go questing to recover the titular stolen lightning-bolt of Zeus.
Rick Riordan has built a pleasant fictional world with some wit. The gods, in his telling, move, and the heart of western civilization moves with them. Greece, Rome, Britain, and now America have all had their turn housing the gods. Riordan doesn’t use the gods’ presence in America to sanctify it, but rather occasionally to hold it up for mockery. In Percy’s day Olympus is anchored above the Empire State Building; Medusa hides in New Jersey; Las Vegas is the hideout of the Sirens; and the entrance to Hades is, naturally, Hollywood. Ares confesses to loving America–because of its militarism and because it’s so easy to get hold of good weaponry. The attention of the gods does not always have pleasant consequences.
The most poignant aspect of this otherwise featherweight book is Percy’s relationship with his absent father. He grew up believing his father was dead, but learns that he is, in fact, the son of [spoiler] Poseidon, who broke a pact with his brothers, Zeus and Hades, not to father any more human children. The previous sons of the Big Three caused too much trouble with their powers (World War II being a fight between the sons of Zeus and Poseidon on one side, and Hades on the other. Clever.).
Percy vacillates between a desire to meet his father, make him proud, and earn his approval; and a bitter resolution to ignore him out of resentment for being abandoned. Any kid can relate. When we are young, our dads are invincible super heroes who can do no wrong. As we grow and realize they are human, their flaws and weaknesses are magnified with the same lens through which we once saw their virtues. Admiration can turn to disrespect and resentment. My son is almost four and still in the admiration stage. I am painfully aware that one day all too soon, he’ll see me as just another human, sins and all.
Percy is a pre-teen when the story closes, so we cannot expect him to move beyond admiration and resentment. But there is another, more mature way. The Bible tells us to “honor your father and mother, that your days may be long.” To honor someone is, according to dictionary.com, “to show a courteous regard for” them. And the Bible doesn’t put any qualifications on the command. We are to honor our fathers and mothers whether we think they deserve it or not. In other words, our fathers do not have to be gods for us to love and honor them. And, in fact, honoring your father whom you recognize as a flawed and fallible human being is a far more profound and mature respect than the delightful but childish admiration of a preschooler.
That makes it easier, in turn, to appreciate our fathers for the most important thing they are: they are the closest image to the Heavenly Father that we get in this life. Once we recognize our earthly father’s sins, we can filter them out of the picture and see, in what remains, a picture of how God the Father loves his people. Percy is, like us, the child of a god. In the denouement, he gets to confront his father face-to-face, and they have words. We don’t get that privilege in this life; but when we finally do, it will not be with hurt and resentment, but with eternal worship.