Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

What are the cool kids reading after Harry Potter? Well, okay, the “cool kids” never read anything, so it is better to ask: What are the future leaders of America reading after Harry Potter? One answer to this question is a series on Olympus starring one Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon and a human mother. The plot is clever, as it assumes a “mist” surrounds most of us muggles—I mean, regular humans—so we cannot see the actions of the gods.

That there is world parallel to our own, unknown to most people, is a fun plot device minded by Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and even Dan Brown. Nothing wrong with an old idea, and author Rick Riordan does the old trick with the energy of an old pro.

The books are tightly, if predictably, plotted, and pleasantly addictive. I challenge anyone to read just one. You should not try, since the sum of the series is greater than the parts. Once started you can easily guess how they will finish (as opposed to Harry), but that takes nothing away from the fun. The nagging problem with the books is the mythology which is either all wrong or incoherent.

Nobody expects fantasy to make perfect sense. I am not one of those people who worry about the physics of Spiderman’s web swings or whether Buffy has the body mass to actually knock over monsters. Why does the Enterprise phaser make noise in space? You accept it works and then you enjoy the fun.

The problem with Percy is he keeps helping gods, like Hades, who are wicked. Saint Paul had Christ harrow Hades, but Percy renews Pluto’s lease. I found it impossible to root for Percy and his goal of saving Olympus, not merely because I am a Christian, but because I am a son of the West. The gods of the Greek pantheon are unworthy of a free man’s worship or a free citizen’s love.

In Percy Jackson and the Olympians we are supposed to care about the gods because they backstop Western civilization. Given that the other option for metaphysical mates are the very evil titans, Olympus looks good by comparison. Missing, however, is the God of Jerusalem.

You can see why Riordan would want to avoid the Jewish and Christian stories, but he must be unaware that such slighting has a miserable history in the West. Classicists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often overlooked Jewish influence, through the New Testament, on the West. Much of this buttressed academic anti-Semitism. In places like Greece, archaeologists of the period would destroy ancient Christian and Islamic sites.

If Olympus fell, would the West really be lost? The idea is offensive when it is not ludicrous. We have to pretend that the idea of Zeus was vital to the development of the West as we know it. Homer’s gods were vital to the development of the West by being the foil for philosophers, Jews, and Christians. But if we had kept going to Delphi, the West would not have been born.

Monotheism was a vital characteristic of the birth of the West.

The first book has demigods and gods ignoring the question of the existence of God as better left to philosophy. That might be convenient to the gods of Delphi, but it ignores the fact that the God of the philosophers came to Earth and effectively ended their monopoly on power. At least Riordan does better than professional atheist Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins suggests that atheism has been progressive. First, culture denied the existence of Zeus, Thor, or other such gods, and now he modestly suggests we eliminate the last one. Even Percy Jackson’s pagan summer camp sees what is wrong with that suggestion. The conflict between paganism and Christianity is different than Richard Dawkins thinks, because the gods are different in kind from God.

God and the gods have nothing much more in common than similar sounding names. The God of the philosophers is all-knowing, all-powerful, and the ground of being. Traditionally He has no physical body. If He exists, then there could only be one. God is the source of all life.

The gods of Olympia often know less than a cagey taxi driver. They can be defeated by a human being, and they came into being and can pass out of being. The gods have a certain kind of physical embodiment, even if that can change. They are “deathless” and not immortal. They don’t possess life as much as avoid death. If they existed, it would not remove the need for a God, if there is a need for a God!

The gods of Olympus are more like Superman than Jehovah, though they are much less likely to be in favor of truth, justice, or the American Way than the Man of Steel. The gods in Homer are petulant, small minded, lustful and less powerful than some men. There is only a superficial likeness to even the earliest stories about Jehovah in the Old Testament, and the elevated ethics of Isaiah or the Gospel of John are entirely missing.

If the gods love you, Homeric people are afraid. If God loves you, there is hope and an end of fear.

Much is made in the penultimate book of the series about the death of Pan. Missing for two thousand years, part of the plot turns on finding him. Pan, as described in the books, is more a Berkeley environmentalist than a servant of the Bacchus that drove men and woman mad the Euripides play, Bacchae. The Pan of Greek mythology wasn’t going to produce or support civilization. Fall under his power and philosophy would end; but in Riordan somehow our modernity, the product of science and reason, is compatible with the god best known for producing panic.

The gods of Riordan’s books are much nicer than they are in classical myth, but they are still not that nice. They reminded me of people who get “saved” on Sunday morning only to fall off the moral wagon by the next Saturday night. They are pretty bad beings.

Riordan’s gods produce bastards they mostly ignore. They torture souls and place as judge of the underworld bad men like Minos. They don’t even try for justice in decision making, though Athena is fond of it. Their decisions are simply self-serving perpetuations of their regime.

What do men get out of their rule? Evidently, we get the gods we create, because the gods need our belief and don’t do much for us. If we are lucky, they will leave us alone. If we are unlucky, they will sire children and then abandon them.

When Ares hits his daughter, we are not given any reason by Riordan to think it is for her good or out of love. He hits her, because Ares is a morally reprehensible being. And yet we are to root for the continuation of his rule over “war.”

The problem for fans of Percy Jackson is simple: if we believed in his world, we would oppose him and his father. I would strive to end the rule of the Olympians in the name of Jerusalem and philosophy. Athens and Jerusalem would unite to destroy the rule of Olympus.

The Biblical book of Job struggles mightily to explain how bad things can happen to good people. At least the Bible is not suggesting that it doesn’t matter if God is unjust. If God is unjust, He is not God and is not worthy of worship. We may not always understand His ways, but the assumption is that His ways are for our good.

There is no such justification of Zeus or any other of the “big three.” They make mistakes and those mistakes kill lots of human beings. They are selfish and their selfish decisions harm thousands. Without spoiling the books, let me simply point out that most of their immorality and caprice is left intact at the end of the series.

A moral man might, might, be able to side with the monstrous Stalin to stop the worse monster Hitler, but he would not be content after defeating Hitler simply to become a Stalinist. Jackson may find the gods better than the titans, and that seems correct, but he never seems to recognize a third way.

Why doesn’t Jackson side with the Olympians to defeat the Titans, but then create a better order of heroes and gods? Has he learned nothing from history? Instead, he accepts things as they are and only attempts to modify them at the edges. He is a Stalinist that moves more victims to Siberia on better heated trains.

Rooting for the Olympians, even these backslidden gods, is rooting for tyranny and slavery. Percy Jackson is an unworthy hero for children of a republic or the monotheistic West.

More on: Literature

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles