The Influence of Mythology on Children’s Literature: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

By: Gabriela Rodriguez
percy pic

The purpose of this final project was to explore a topic I found interesting using primary and/or secondary sources.  I knew I wanted to my project to cover an idea related to mythology because it has always been fascinating to me. As I searched through primary and secondary sources to narrow my focus, I found that many scholars were exploring the influence of the classics on children’s literature. I thought back to my own childhood and realized that many of the novels I had read were somehow guided by the classics. I realized that I wanted to investigate how mythology is received in children’s literature. I decided to explore this question through the best-selling series Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Through analyzing the perspectives of different scholars, it is clear that incorporating mythology into children’s literature is important because it gives kids a way to connect to their past, reminds them of the cultural roots they carry with them, and it allows students to draw parallels to the present and ancient past.

Mythology has been a part of children’s literature for a long time. It’s myths and ancient fables have been a source of many texts, and Greek heroes often make their way into youth novels.[1] However, scholars have been asking more questions about the impact of mythology on children’s literature since the rise of books like Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. These questions have emerged because the ancient cultures in the novels are “presented in a way that (consciously or sub-consciously) present ideological viewpoints that the young reader is expected to absorb.”(Ibid) The question I seek to answer is what viewpoint does Riordan present to his readers in this series?

Scholar Joanna Paul in A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology[2] believes that Riordan attempted to give children a way to relate to ancient times. In her article, “The Half-Blood Hero”[3], Joanna points out that Riordan has a special way of “mythological fantasizing.”[4] He brings classical myth into the modern world. Mythological stories, characters, and motifs are incorporated into a setting just like ours.[5] Riordan even modifies classic myths to be more appropriate in the modern setting. An example of this is when “Percy still has to avoid looking at [Medusa] as he attempts to kill her. But instead of using his shield as a reflecting device, as he does in various ancient accounts, it is the shiny chrome backing of his iPod that fulfills that role.”[6] Connections like these make it easier for children to think about and understand the ancient past. Educating kids like this is better than a textbook because “instead of transporting them to a distant, frequently alien, classical past, antiquity is brought to them and made a part of their world,” which ultimately “encourages a sense of familiarity and empathy”[7] in the reader. It is clear that Riordan’s technique of interweaving the classics with today’s world is an effective way of giving children an opportunity to learn about and connect to the ancient past.

Joanna also notes that Riordan makes a point of conveying that the gods are still present in Percy’s world. Percy’s mentor reveals that the gods are present in modern settings like in architecture.[8] This is Riordan’s way of explaining “classical tradition, in which statues of the gods appear in first‐century Rome, or eighteenth‐century England…The images of the gods and their symbols are there because the gods themselves are there.”[9] By doing this, Riordan is conveying to the reader that the ancient gods are always with us, as is the ancient past. With this mindset, children will always remember their roots because they see it all around them. Joanna sums up this idea very eloquently when she explains that Riordan’s technique “encourages us to think about reception in different terms, by positing and expanding upon the idea that our relationship with the past is one of persistence and continuity, rather than the lost and lacunose fragmented image that we often reach for.”[10] In other words, tying together our ancient history and present-day lives allows us to carry a bit of the past with us rather than keeping a distant relationship with it.

Sheila Murnaghan takes on another perspective on Riordan’s series in Classics for Cool Kids.[11] She brings to our attention an interesting model from the National Council of Teacher of English for teachers using the Riordan’s series in class:

 

Teachers are advised “to compare and contrast the Greek myths with the way those myths are referenced, modernized, and reinterpreted in the novel[s];” and “to examine both positive and negative elements of ‘Western Civilization’ as depicted in the novel and personified by the Greek gods”; “[to encourage] students to explore the classical heritage of Greece as it applies to modern civilization; to analyze the elements of the hero’s quest rendered in a modern-day story with a first-person narrator to whom students can easily relate; and to discuss such relevant issues as learning disabilities, the nature of family, and themes of loyalty, friendship, and faith.[12]

 

By bringing mythology to the modern student’s world, he is giving teachers an opportunity to encourage their students to find similarities and difference between their world and the ancient one. Through Riordan’s novel, a child is now able to draw connections to a time that was previously extremely foreign to them. Classical times are now easier to grasp. Riordan not only created connections to a student’s setting but to the student, as well. The main character, Percy, is someone the students can relate to. Percy dislikes school, and he’s an ordinary kid who has his struggles. Riordan believes that by creating “an anti-elitist, low-cultural view of the classics, he can somehow promote the more elitist, high cultural values with which they are also identified; that by agreeing that school is boring, he can make kids want to learn; that by denying that myths are metaphors requiring interpretation, he can get kids to benefit from the fact that they are.”[13] Riordan is brilliantly changing student’s mindset of the classics through his novel. His technique shows us that using mythology in youth literature, specifically in a modern setting, allows the author to effectively bring the children to a better understanding of the ancient world.

Ancient times are in the past, but they are still present today and we carry them with us. They are our roots that we cannot forget, and we can make sure of this by interweaving the past in our children’s literature

[1] Maurice, Lisa. 2015. The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles.

[2] Zajko, Vanda, ed. A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

[3] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.” A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology, 2017, 229-42. doi:10.1002/9781119072034.ch15.

[4] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 233

[5] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 233

[6] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 233.

[7] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 234

[8] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 235-236

[9] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 236

[10] Paul, Joanna. “The Half-Blood Hero.”, 236.

[11] Sheila Murnaghan. “Classics for Cool Kids: Popular and Unpopular Versions of Antiquity for Children.” Classical World104, no. 3 (2011): 339-353. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 29, 2018).

[12] Sheila Murnaghan. “Classics for Cool Kids”, 351

[13] Sheila Murnaghan. “Classics for Cool Kids”, 352

Suggested Readings:

A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology edited by Vanda Zajko

“Classics for Cool Kids: Popular and Unpopular Versions of Antiquity for Children” by Shelia Murnaghan

The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles by Lisa Maurice

 

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