Percy Jackson and Escapism: Lessons to Live by

To bring summer to a glorious close, I road-tripped up to Alexandria Bay, New York with my roommate, Nikki. As we trekked through Wellesley Island State Park on an absurdly beautiful Monday morning, we discussed some pretty hefty philosophical quandaries such as, “What would you do if you found out you were the last human on Earth?” Our answers were deeply probing, since we considered what we’d really, really do in this situation, as our puny little selves, not as, you know, Katniss Everdeen. I presumed that, after curling up into a ball for a solid week or two, I’d probably head off to a (now abandoned) bookstore and grab all the books I’ve always wanted to read but never had the time. Then, I’d seek out a (now abandoned) mansion, curl up in front of a (probably unlit) fireplace and read, read, read.

I was being facetious—but only a little. Because I realized something about myself over the years: I have a tendency to “stress-read.” When situations—either present or anticipated—make me uncomfortable or anxious, I relieve the tension by…well, forgetting about it. And the best way for me to forget about something is to escape into another world. Since this is not, as far as I know, physically possible (…yet), I can escape mentally merely by opening up a book.

Of course, not just any old book will do. Memoirs are out, most books of historical or realistic fiction are out. Highbrow literature, all out. Basically, anything above an eighth-grade reading level can be shoved off the shelf. You see, when life gets too complicated, I like to simplify things.

On our trip, Nikki and I also went to a drive-in movie theater, and our choice of entertainment was pretty limited. Between Kickass 2 and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, we chose the latter. It was a cute movie with a so-so script, but we had fun. And at the end of a vacation day, isn’t that what’s really important?

For some reason, though, the characters stuck with me even after the movie ended. So, I watched the first movie when I got home and figured that my appetite would be satiated. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. After a brief internal debate about whether or not I should be incurably mortified or just slightly embarrassed over my new obsession, I eagerly gobbled up the third book in the series. And then the fourth. And then the fifth. And then the first and second, even though I had just seen the movies. All in the span of a week.

It was, undoubtedly, the latest manifestation of my “stress-reading” condition, as I vainly attempted to prolong the already-fading summer (or, more significantly, my already-faded childhood) as the hours until my final semester of college ticked closer.

But what was it that really attracted me to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series? Certainly, Riordan’s tale of demigods (those are the children of Greek gods and mortals, for you n00bs) contains almost a ridiculous amount of similarities to Harry Potter, especially when it comes to the characters: You’ve got the impulsive hero whose fate lies in the words of a prophecy, the brainy ladyfriend (who, in this case, is the daughter of Athena), the goofy best friend, the rival, the traitor, the headmaster/mentor figure, etc. There’s the revelation of a magical—or mythical—world that exists right under our noses, but it is one that we muggles mortals aren’t enlightened enough to see or understand it. And there’s Camp Half-Blood instead of Hogwarts… but it’s just six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sometimes, the whole “Harry Potter / Game-Changing Fantasy Series” copycat approach can backfire. Other times—like in this case—it can be sweetly sentimental.

Perhaps I was feeling nostalgic. I’d rather be graduating Hogwarts than Barnard. I miss the extraordinary hype surrounding the release of each Harry Potter book, and I doubt I’ll ever experience something of that magnitude ever again. I miss the complete immersion into J. K. Rowling’s magical universe; I miss forgetting to eat or sleep because there was something going on in Harry’s life that mattered so much more.

So, yes, Percy Jackson reminded me of Harry Potter, and though I read the books over the course of a week instead of a decade, doing so allowed me to relive a tiny sliver of my childhood. I also learned a thing or two about Greek mythology in the process. HUZZAH, education!

However, I also enjoyed the Percy Jackson series on another level. Much like the best of the Pixar classics, Percy Jackson was created primarily for children, but contains nuggets of humor that adults would also appreciate and wise lessons of which people of all ages need to be reminded. And lo, as I head back to the ambitious stress-cooker that is Columbia University, my adventure in simple life lessons began.

The Percy Jackson books are easily enjoyable because Percy is, in a word, charming. His wry, adorably guileless first person account of his (mis)adventures provide for lots of chuckles. His rules of thumb include: “I’d learned to be careful with immortals. They tended to get offended easily. Then, they blew stuff up.” He relates a word of caution on encountering paradise: “You deal with mythological stuff for a few years, you learn that paradises are usually places where you get killed.” And, of course, he warns against shadow travel: “I don’t recommend shadow travel if you’re scared of: a) The dark; b) Cold shivers up your spine; c) Strange noises; d) Going so fast you feel like your face is peeling off. In other words, I thought it was awesome.”

Riordan joins in on the fun from behind the scenes (very Greek god-like of him), setting up an invisible world that reflects to a tee the one in which we live; Mount Olympus is located at the 600th floor of the Empire State Building, in the city we’ve pretty much all come to accept is the center of the universe. (Another friendly jab at New York: “I love New York. You can pop out of the Underworld in Central Park, hail a taxi, head down Fifth Avenue with a giant hellhound loping behind you, and nobody even looks at you funny.” ) The Underworld, of course, can be accessed through a recording studio in Los Angeles (though in the movie it can be found under the Hollywood sign), while the entrance to the actual world of the dead is described by Percy as “a cross between airport security and the Jersey Turnpike”—complete with metal detectors and EZ-DEATH lanes. Meanwhile, Cerberus, the three-headed Rottweiler that guards the gates to the Underworld (and goes by “Fluffy” in Harry Potter), is really just a misunderstood softie who wants to play fetch.

This being Greek mythology, the whole “man was created in the image of God” thing is taken quite literally, and the gods and goddesses are as petty, sardonic, and paradoxically tender as any human. Apollo, the god of the sun, light, music, and poetry, has sandy hair and a cocky grin, and drives his pimped-out chariot around the globe while composing terrible haikus. Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love, and lust, enjoys the funhouse ride because she can gaze at her reflection in every mirror, and she places stumbling blocks in Percy’s love life because the tragic romance of it all amuses her.

But aside from having quite a few laughs at Percy & co.’s expense and learning the difference between Tantalus and Tartarus, I was able to pick up on some more earnest themes as well. Underlying the entire series is the fact that the divine parent of these young demigods (and sometimes the mortal one as well) abandoned their children immediately after conception. It is explained to a frustrated Percy that the gods can’t “play favorites” for their children because they have to look out for all of humankind, but this doesn’t make him feel any better about his complex familial situation, and he no doubt represents the attitudes of many of the other half-bloods, some of whom are “Undetermineds” and haven’t even been claimed by any particular god or goddess.

This begs the question: Do we owe our families anything at all? Discounting objective morality, our intuitions respond in the affirmative. As Riordan drolly puts it: “Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or for worse…and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.” If that doesn’t accurately describe just about every family in the known universe—whether on a metaphysical scale, a historical-religious scale, or a microcosmic scale—I don’t know what does.

Percy also teaches us about the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Tyson, Percy’s half-brother, is a Cyclops, hated by demigods due to his hulking stature and twisted visage—and because of widespread generalizations about the personalities of his kind. But Percy, ever the titular hero, demonstrates that while Tyson may look and act differently, he has merits of his own to contribute (and of course, a heart of gold. Yadda yadda). Another twist implanted by Riordan is the notion that most of the residents of Camp Half-Blood have dyslexia and ADHD. Something that serves as a point of humiliation for Percy in the mortal world ends up feeding into his greatest strengths in the world of monsters and demons; he has trouble making sense of English because his brain is “hard-wired for ancient Greek,” and his ADHD is a result of heightened senses that will save his life in many a battle. Logical, in the context of the story, but also meaningful, in the real-world sense; the differences in each kid should never be a source of embarrassment, but should merely reflect a “different” way of experiencing the world.

Which brings us to another revealing theme that percolates throughout the series: The Mist. How can a world with Scythian Cracanae and Minotaurs and sons and daughters of Greek gods exist right under our noses? Because silly mortals like us only see what we want to see, of course. The Mist, controlled by the goddess Hecate, averts a mortal’s sight from viewing monsters and gods and whatnot. Some mortals can see through the Mist, but these humans are few and far between. As one character notes: “It’s funny how humans can wrap their mind around things and fit them into their version of reality.” Who knows? Maybe my stress-reading wasn’t a form of escapism at all. Maybe this heartfelt, simplified world is really all around us—and all we have to do is open our eyes.

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2 thoughts on “Percy Jackson and Escapism: Lessons to Live by

  1. Thanks for this post! I’m reading The Lightning Thief for the first time, and am trying to look past all of the Harry Potter similarities. The first time I tried reading it (in a children’s lit class in library school) I rolled my eyes and set it aside as soon as I got to “kid with black hair and green eyes goes to boarding school, magical things ensue”.

    I’m trying again now because my library’s kid’s book club has requested the Percy Jackson series, and liking it a whole lot more, and I’m trying my hardest NOT to eyeroll every fourth page or so, haha. I have to remind myself that a lot of the similarities are tropes and archetypes that aren’t even unique to HP (although that’s hard with some of the smaller details. Like unruly black hair and green eyes. But… what can you do.) Anyway, I liked what you had to say on the subject, and I’m going to try my best to keep an open mind as I make my way through the series! 🙂

  2. Definitely hard (if not impossible!) to look past the similarities. Like you said, even JKR herself is guilty of borrowing themes/details from other franchises– Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc. I guess imitation is the highest form of flattery? Or, maybe there is really only a finite selection of fantasy themes to write about?

    So I totally get your frustration, and I’ve almost given up on ever finding a series that will capture my imagination so completely in the way that the Harry Potter books did. But for some reason– and I think it really was because of Percy’s quirky narrative voice– this series just hooked me. I almost felt like I was rolling my eyes *with* Percy rather than at him. Maybe it didn’t hook you the same way. But at least there’s hope that you’ll find something of your own to fill that void!

    At any rate, thanks for reading and commenting!

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