There is one universal truth about reading selections for an English class: No matter what book you select, somebody will object. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have a rationale prepared for any novel that might cause controversy. If you choose to use Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, here is a rationale you are welcome to share with parents, principals, curriculum gurus, etc. Feel free to modify it to fit your needs.
A Rationale for Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief
Grade Level and Audience
The Lightning Thief is a light-hearted fantasy about a modern 12-year-old boy who learns that his true father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Percy sets out to become a hero by undertaking a quest across the United States to find the entrance to the Underworld and stop a war between the gods. The novel provides a high-interest, humorous introduction to the Greek myths. It works well if taught in conjunction with mythology, which is a core component of most English state curriculum frameworks. The novel can also be taught at any time after the introduction of Greek mythology, to draw on students’ prior experience as per standard three of the Standards for English Language Arts of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Rick Riordan, the author, has fifteen years experience as an English/language arts teacher at the middle school level. He designed The Lightning Thief to be appropriate reading for ages nine through fourteen.
The novel offers an excellent chance for 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.
Spoiler warning! Do not read this if you don’t want to know the ending of the book!
Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson has been labeled a troubled youth. Diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia, Percy is attending Yancy Academy, a boarding school for problem teens in upstate New York. This is Percy’s “sixth school in six years.” Wherever he goes, he seems to get in trouble unintentionally. Strange, sometimes dangerous things happen to him.
As the novel opens, Percy begins to suspect that his life is not what it seems. During a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his math teacher transforms into a Fury and attacks him. Percy’s Latin teacher comes to the rescue, throwing Percy a ballpoint pen which turns into a bronze sword. Percy’s sword stroke causes the monster to disintegrate, but afterwards the incident seems to have been a hallucination. Everyone, including Percy’s Latin teacher, claims that the math teacher who attacked him never existed.
At the end of the school year, Percy’s best friend Grover insists on escorting him home, but Grover’s nervousness and cryptic comments about Percy being in danger make Percy uneasy, so he slips away from Grover at the first opportunity and goes home by himself.
Percy’s home life is far from perfect. His mother Sally Jackson is a kind woman, but never had any luck in life. She dreams of being a writer, but works at a candy shop to make ends meet and is married to “Smelly” Gabe Ugliano, Percy’s abusive stepfather who expects Percy to provide him with poker-playing money in exchange for room and board during the summer. Their small Upper East Side apartment is a cheerless place. Percy struggles to understand why his mother, who obviously loves him, takes such pains to send him away every year to a different boarding school.
When Percy and his mother go for a weekend retreat to the beach, their time together is interrupted by a storm and a horrible wailing in the middle of the night, as if a monster is hunting for them. Percy’s friend Grover appears at their door and reveals himself as a satyr. He has been keeping an eye on Percy until Percy is old enough to attend Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for training demigods. Grover tells Percy that monstrous forces are now after him in earnest, and they have no choice but to flee to Camp Half Blood.
On the way to camp, they are attacked by the Minotaur. Percy manages to defeat the monster, but only after it knocks out Grover and squeezes Percy’s mother until she disappears in a shower of gold. Heartbroken, assuming his mother is dead, Percy pulls Grover to safety over the property line of Camp Half Blood.
Once at camp, Percy is reunited with his Latin teacher, who in his true form is Chiron, the immortal centaur and trainer of heroes. Percy learns that the Greek gods are alive and well – an integral part of the collective consciousness called Western Civilization. Olympus, the home of the gods, moves with the heart of the civilization, and now hovers invisibly over the Empire State Building, since America is currently the great power of the West. Percy learns that the gods still have children with mortals, and that monsters naturally seek out these young demigods. Camp Half Blood serves as a safe haven where these powerful, endangered young heroes can train to defend themselves. For the past sixty years, the “big three” (Zeus, Poseidon and Hades) have kept an oath not to have mortal children because their powerful nature can cause great trouble in the world, but the other Olympians still have enough children to fill the camp. Percy meets Annabeth, a daughter of Athena, and Luke, a son of Hermes. He also makes a new enemy in Clarisse, a daughter of Ares. Percy’s own parentage remains undetermined until a swirling trident appears above him during a Greek-battle-style game of capture the flag. To the astonishment of the other campers, Percy is recognized as a son of Poseidon – the first in three generations.
Soon after this revelation, Percy learns that there is trouble in Olympus. Zeus’ master bolt – the weapon upon which all other lightning bolts are modeled – has been stolen, and Zeus has accused Poseidon of instigating the theft. The Lord of the Sky believes that Poseidon used Percy, a human hero, to steal the bolt in a plot to overthrow Zeus. Zeus has given Poseidon until summer solstice – only ten days – to return the weapon. Poseidon is offended, but he also dreads the thought of war with Zeus. He needs Percy’s help to find out what really happened to the bolt. Chiron believes that Hades, Lord of the Underworld, stole the bolt to set his two brothers at each other’s throats. Chiron tells Percy that he must travel to the entrance of the Underworld in Los Angeles (by land, since Zeus would blast him out of the sky if he tried to fly), confront Hades, and return the master bolt to Olympus before the solstice passes in order to prevent a war between the gods.
As is customary, Percy consults the Oracle before leaving. He is warned that he will fail to save what matters most in the end, and will be betrayed by a friend. Deeply troubled, but believing that the quest to the Underworld is the only way to see his mother again, Percy sets out with two companions, Annabeth and Grover.
Along the way, the three friends learn to trust one another. Annabeth, whose mother Athena is an old rival of Poseidon, must overcome her doubts about Percy. Grover the satyr must overcome his fear of monsters and underground places. Only by showing courage can he convince the Council of Cloven Elders to grant him his life-long goal of a “searcher’s license,” giving him the right to quest for the missing god of the wilderness, Pan. Percy comes to terms with his anger for his father, who has suddenly declared himself after ignoring Percy for twelve years. In his travels west, Percy encounters Medusa, the Chimera, Procrustes the Stretcher, and the Lotus Hotel and Casino (the Land of the Lotus Eaters). He also meets the war god Ares, who gives Percy a mysterious backpack in exchange for doing the god a favor, and a Nereid, who gives Percy three magic pearls from Poseidon – each of which will return one person to the sea from wherever they may be, even the land of the dead.
The friends finally arrive in the Underworld only to discover that they have been tricked. The culprit is not Hades, but the defeated titan Kronos, who is trapped in the depths of Tartarus but is still able to manipulate the dreams of gods and men. Hoping to start a three-way war amongst his Olympian sons, Kronos caused the master bolt and also Hades’ helm of darkness to be stolen by a human hero whose identity Percy does not yet know. Kronos’ human thief was unexpectedly captured by Ares. The war god meant to keep the magic items for himself, but Kronos bent his will, and caused the god to give the master bolt to Percy, hidden within the magic backpack, so that the young hero might bring it to the Underworld for Kronos.
Hades is sure Percy is the thief who stole the bolt and his helm. The god of the dead is holding Percy’s mother — who is only frozen in a shower of gold, not dead – and demands Percy give up the magic helm before she is released. As armies of the dead surround him, Percy brings out his magic pearls. With only three, he realizes he must choose between the lives of his two friends and saving his mother. In the end, he can’t abandon his friends. Promising his mother that he will return for her, Percy and his friends escape to the surface, where Percy battles the god Ares for possession of the bolt and the helm. Percy wins, gives the helm to the Furies to return to the Underworld, and travels back to New York with the bolt in time to prevent a war.
At Olympus, Percy meets his father face to face. Poseidon seems distant and sad, but says he is proud of his son. He says he fears Percy has been born for a hero’s tragic fate. Poseidon tells Percy that his mother is back – returned as a peace offering by Hades – and that when Percy returns home, he will have to make an important choice. Percy rushes back to his family’s apartment, where he finds Medusa’s head waiting for him, a trophy he had forgotten mailing home earlier in his quest. He realizes he has the chance to petrify his stepfather and save his mother from a miserable marriage. His mother implores him not to do it, however. She must break away from Gabe herself. Percy respects her wishes, and thus breaks the mold of what the tragic hero might have done. The prophecy thus comes true in an unexpected way: Percy fails to save what matters most by allowing his mother to save herself.
Upon returning to Camp Half Blood, Percy is betrayed by his friend Luke, son of Hermes, who turns out to be the human hero whom Kronos used for the theft. Luke poisons Percy, and tells him before leaving that Kronos will rise and destroy the age of the gods. Western Civilization is unraveling.
Percy recovers from the poison with Chiron’s help, and realizes his adventures are not yet over. He is a hero now, and must fight the rise of the titans.
The novel is ultimately about Percy coming of age, learning to trust his friends and his own abilities, accepting his parents for who they are, and choosing love and loyalty over resentment and despair.
Theoretical Support and Redeeming Values
While told in a humorous tone and cast as a fantasy adventure, The Lightning Thief explores serious issues that are highly relevant to the young reader. Percy is a young man whose learning disabilities and family problems have given him a negative self-image. He is self-conscious and needs acceptance. At the same time, he is fiercely loyal to his friends and his mother, and has a strong sense of justice and fair play. When he finds out his father’s true identity, Percy must redefine who he is. He must decide whether to take Luke’s path of bitterness and disillusionment, or set aside his resentment of his absent father Poseidon and try to accept his heritage. In this struggle, his new friend Annabeth acts as his foil. Rejected by her mortal father, who has married a “normal” wife and wants a normal life with their two new children, Annabeth has lived like an orphan at Camp Half Blood since she was seven. As Percy sees how unhappy Annabeth is, he reevaluates his own anger toward Poseidon and helps Annabeth find ways to reconnect with her father.
Grover the satyr, who can read emotions, acts as Percy’s conscience, putting words to the feelings that Percy, as an adolescent boy, has trouble expressing. Grover also serves as the moral center of the book. He speaks up against the imprisoned animals on the truck to Las Vegas. He is the first to offer his life to help rescue Percy’s mother. He rails against mankind for polluting the earth, but keeps an unshakeable optimism that the Great God Pan can still be found – a metaphor for restoring harmony between man and the environment. Grover believes he will be the first satyr in two-thousand years to successfully find the god.
Among the important questions posed by the novel:
- What can one individual do to benefit an entire civilization?
- What is “Western Civilization” and have its central precepts changed since its origins in Classical Greece?
- What is the nature of a family, and what are the duties and responsibilities of a parent and a child?
- What is the definition of a hero?
- Is one’s destiny preordained, or can one overcome environment and heritage?
- What qualities make a true friend?
- Does Classical mythology still have a role to serve in modern society?
Havighurst’s Developmental Tasks for Pre-Adolescence And Adolescence delineate the following issues which are paramount for ages 12-18:
- Achieving new & more mature relations with age-mates of both sexes
- Accepting one’s physique and using the body effectively
- Achieving emotional independence of parents and other adults
- Selecting and preparing for an occupation
- Developing intellectual skills and concepts necessary for civic competence
- Desiring & achieving socially responsible behavior
- Acquiring a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behavior
Percy and Annabeth clearly personify the struggle to achieve these tasks in ways young readers can identify with. Percy and Annabeth vacillate between gender mistrust and mutual fascination so common in boys and girls in early adolescence, eventually forging a more mature friendship based on shared experience. When Percy finds out his heritage, he must struggle to master the physical skills needed to defend himself, but also must discover what it means intellectually, morally, and ethically to be a hero. He evolves, over the course of the book, from an uncertain awkward boy who resents his own differences, to an assertive young man who has begun to think about the moral implications of his newfound powers and understands the value of relying on others. The need for emotional independence from parents, balanced with the need to maintain an emotional connection, is central to Percy and Annabeth’s motivation in pursuing their quest to the Underworld.
Piaget (1962) theorizes that children of Percy and Annabeth’s age group construct theories and make logical deductions about their consequences without any previous direct experience with a given subject. They can deal with abstractions and mentally explore similarities and differences, thinking their way through new problems and taking into account as many or as few qualities as seem relevant from past experiences. Percy and Annabeth clearly embody this experience in The Lightning Thief, as they must compare their own different and yet strikingly similar backgrounds to understand their role in the Underworld quest, and more generally in the world of mortals. They must also constantly compare and contrast the archetypes and story elements of Greek mythology to their own modern-day quest in order to understand how to overcome the obstacles in their way – both the external threat of monsters, and the internal threats of selfishness, suspicion, fear and insecurity.
Percy and Annabeth also exemplify Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development (1968), making them mirrors for young readers to explore the issues and concerns that are most relevant to them. At age twelve, children are moving from industry vs. inferiority to identity vs. role confusion. They are solidifying the skills needed to achieve a sense of competency, especially at school, in order to avoid a feeling of inadequacy. At the same time, they are beginning to test limits and break ties of dependency, trying to clarify their own identity and life goals. Percy, and to a lesser degree Annabeth, still struggle to develop a sense of industry after being stigmatized in a school environment because of their learning disabilities. The revelation that Percy is a demigod brings him a whole new sense of competence and industry, while at the same time opening a world of questions about who he is and what he will become as a hero. Being forcibly removed from his mother, then rediscovering both her and his father and the end of a rite-of-passage quest, Percy personifies the testing and redefining of parent-child ties which all children must experience.
Objectives, Teaching Methods and Assignments
Suggested Teaching Objectives:
- To trace the changes in Percy’s attitude toward his mother, father, and stepfather.
- To study the development of Percy and Annabeth’s friendship.
- To compare and contrast the Greek myths with the way those myths are referenced, modernized, and reinterpreted in the novel.
- To contrast Luke’s attitude toward his quest with Percy’s.
- To examine Grover’s maturation through the course of the quest.
- To examine both positive and negative elements of “Western Civilization” as depicted in the novel and personified by the Greek gods.
- To compare Annabeth’s evolving attitude toward her family with Percy’s attitude.
- To analyze the elements of the hero’s quest within the novel.
Suggested Student Activities & Essay Questions:
The attached teacher’s guide provides an array of possible activities and essay questions.
Young adult novels did not exist before 1950. In recent years, they have been targeted frequently by censors, either because these novels deal honestly with realistic issues facing teenagers, or because they deal with fantastical subjects such as magic or mythology that some construe as being at variance with strongly held religious beliefs. Some reasons why a censor might object to The Lightning Thief are:
- Fantastical elements such as monsters and magic
- Unconventional families/unmarried parents
Why The Lightning Thief Should Not Be Banned
The uneasy mix of Classical Greek and Roman heritage and Judeo-Christian values is the oldest conflict in Western Civilization. Understanding both strands, which blended to form our modern culture, is critical to becoming an informed member of society. The Lightning Thief explores Greek mythology in a modern setting, but it does so as a humorous work of fantasy, and makes no attempt to subvert or contradict Judeo-Christian teachings. Early in the book, the character Chiron draws a clear distinction between God, capital-G, the creator of the universe, and the Greek gods (lower-case g). Chiron says he does not wish to delve into the metaphysical issue of God, but he has no qualms about discussing the Olympians because they are a “much smaller matter.” The gods of Olympus are depicted as powerful beings who interact with their children and demand respect. They are archetypal forces deeply embedded in and inseparable from Western thought. However there is no suggestion within the book that pagan god worship be revived, or that it replace modern religion. Rather, the whole of Western culture is seen as a tribute to the enduring legacy of Olympus.
Similarly, the fantastical elements in the novel are drawn directly from Greek mythology, and thus operate at a deeply symbolic level. As with all stories based on the hero’s quest, The Lightning Thiefpresents monsters as external manifestations of the internal conflicts Percy must win to achieve his coming of age. The fight with Medusa is symbolic of the tension between Percy and Annabeth. The gorgon is the age-old grudge between their parents which the two children must put behind them. Facing the Chimera in the St. Louis Arch is really about Percy facing his own fears of inadequacy. The trip to the Underworld is central to Percy’s changing world view. When he returns to his family, he realizes he cannot simply petrify his step-father, as much as they loathe each other, because Percy now understands something about mortality and the responsibilities that go with his power. He appreciates the consequences of taking a life. Despite the trappings of fantasy, Percy is no magician. He must rely on his sword skills, his strength, and most of all his wits to think his way out of problems.
Violence in The Lightning Thief is neither graphic nor gratuitous. Percy disintegrates monsters with his sword, but even these are not truly dead, according to the fantastical rules that operate in the world of the novel. Annabeth and Chiron say that monsters are forces that can only be temporarily dispelled. No humans die, except for the implied petrifaction of Gabe Ugliano which happens off-stage at the end of the book. Percy is wounded several times, but even this in not graphically described, nor are the scenes of fighting any more intense than would be needed to create a believable sense of danger in any young adult adventure.
As for the issue of unwed parents, one of the most relevant themes of The Lightning Thief is the way that the well-known affairs between Greek gods and mortals becomes a gentle metaphor for how modern children deal with a broken family. Both Percy and Annabeth must come to terms with distant, seemingly unapproachable parents who they simultaneously resent and admire. They must try to understand how their mothers and fathers show their love, and why their parents’ relationships were, in the end, irreconcilable. In doing so, Percy and Annabeth undertake a struggle that resonates with a vast number of young readers, and encourages discussion about the nature of the family by offering an unthreatening metaphor couched in fantasy.
Censoring any book on grounds such as those discussed above does a disservice to young readers who are learning to become critical thinkers. As Henry Reichman argues (Censorship and Selection, 1988), “by suppressing materials containing ideas and themes with which they do not agree, censors produce a sterile conformity and a lack of intellectual and emotional growth in students.” And as stated in the National Council of Teachers of English’s The Students’ Right to Read (1982): “Censorship leaves students with an inadequate or distorted picture of the ideals, values and problems of their culture.”