Sep 16 2013 5:00pm

Moral Ambiguity in Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians Lightning Thief

If you’ve read a book in the Young Adult section recently, you might have noticed that moral ambiguity is a common theme. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss knows beyond a shadow of the doubt that the Capitol is evil, until faced with the reality of her “saviors.” In Across the Universe by Beth Revis, Amy knows instinctually that the Elder/Eldest system is oppressive, until she unravels the Godspeed’s secrets and finds the rationale behind the system. In YA lit, teens are constantly searching for their destiny and the right path, but discovering that right and wrong aren’t so easily defined. The same generally isn’t true for Middle Grade fiction—the stories aimed at middle school and younger reader. These stories tend to have firmly delineated lines of good and evil.

Sure it’s easy to point to Snape and Draco in Harry Potter and cry, “But look! Morally ambiguous characters in Middle Grade fiction!” I’m not disagreeing. Middle Grade is the first time when stories tend to hint at the shades of gray in the moral spectrum. But in the end, there is no doubt that Voldemort is completely, 100% evil. There is nothing Voldemort stands for that a reader can remotely support in good conscience. And Harry Potter is far from the only example. Does anyone ever doubt who is good or evil in the Redwall books? In Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom, you might question motivations and rationale, but in the end it’s clear that the Morrow Days have broken the Architect’s Will, which is going to result in the destruction of both the House and the Universe. In MG fiction, good and evil are clear-cut and easy to determine.

And then there is Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where Rick Riordan doesn’t shy away from the questionable morals of the Greek gods. Nearly every (human) kid we meet in the series is an illegitimate child from an illicit affair. In the first book, this fact is just sort of there, mentioned but not focused on. But when Percy meets Poseidon’s wife in a later book, there is no getting around it. The goddess hates him, because Percy—as a demigod—represents infidelity on the part of her husband. How many MG books deal with that?

Not to mention, the gods make terrible parents. Poseidon is a typical deadbeat dad, and he’s not even the worst offender! At least he bothered to claim Percy, unlike the dozens of other kids crammed into the overcrowded Hermes cabin, who don’t even know which god sired them and doomed them to a life of being hunted by monsters. That overcrowded cabin, where there aren’t even enough beds to go around for all the demigod campers shoved in there, is where we meet Luke Castellan.

Cabin Leader. A son of Hermes. A college-aged, obviously cool kid that the eleven-year-old Percy can’t help but admire. Luke doesn’t distance himself from the younger kids. He immediately takes Percy under his wing, giving him advice and even gifts for his quest!

Apparently, Percy never heard the saying about Greeks bearing gifts.

By the end of the first book, we learn all of Luke’s gifts were traps—thank goodness those shoes just slip off of Grover’s hooves!—and that Luke actually set Percy up to take the fall as the lightning thief in order to start a war between the gods. Because, as Luke reveals in his James Bond villain monologue to Percy, he wants to overthrow the gods and reinstate Kronos as ruler.

Why would a demigod, a hero, want to overthrow his own father and put a crazy Titan in charge? This is it, the point where the Percy Jackson series departs from nearly every other Middle Grade series on the shelf: although Luke Castellan is our villain, he is not exactly evil. All of his grievances with the gods are legitimate.

Luke grew up not just with a deadbeat dad but also an unhinged mother—a woman driven insane by her attempt to take on the powers of the Oracle. Luke blames Hermes for his mother’s mental state, for not healing her, and for putting her in a situation where she felt this was something she had to do. Though Hermes didn’t force her to do it, it’s clear that without something special like Oracle powers, Hermes would lose interest in Ms. Castellan and go about his way, forgetting about her and Luke.

When his mother’s mental state becomes too much for him to bear, Luke runs away to Camp Halfblood, where his best friend is turned into a tree and he gets stuck in the overcrowded cabin of a lesser god. The only way a camper can distinguish himself and earn favor with his godly parent is by going on quests. Hermes does give Luke a quest. He fails it.

Luke is far from the only demigod with such a tale of woe. Kronos, on the other hand, promises Luke a new future where demigods will be treated better, treated like gods. It’s no wonder that Luke leads halfbloods against their parents. Dozens of campers defect to Luke’s side. Very quickly, Luke has started an all-out war. What starts out as a frame job moves into trying to destroy the camp and then escalates into a battle in the streets of New York City. Let’s be clear. Luke is definitely a villain. He believes the ends justify the means, and he will use whatever means are necessary, including killing middle schoolers.

But this isn’t a story of children and teens fighting against an obviously evil—and usually adult—force like in so many other MG stories. This is a tale of children fighting children over the lesser of two evils, the rule of the gods as opposed to the rule of the Titans. The system the gods created is broken. It doesn’t work. Their self-absorption and lack of regard for their children results in girls getting turned into trees, kids being locked in casinos for decades, and one particular demigod choosing to awaken the head honcho Titan. It’s no wonder in such a morally ambiguous epic that in the end we discover Percy is not the hero of this story, the hero destined by prophecy to either save or destroy Olympus.

Luke is.

And Luke saves everybody by committing suicide.

That’s right. In a book aimed at readers fourteen and younger, the world is saved by the main antagonist committing suicide and thereby destroying Kronos, who by this point has taken over Luke’s body.

Even better? Luke still hasn’t given up his grievances. He kills himself—and Kronos—because he realizes now that things would be even worse under Kronos. But he’s not at peace with the gods and the system they created. His dying wish is that all the gods have a cabin at the camp—minor gods and Hades included. That no kid should ever again be crammed in Hermes cabin. That every kid should have a home.

Such villainy! Wishing kids would have homes. What kind of monster is he?

Percy knows Luke is right. When the gods offer him godhood for saving the world, he declines it and instead requires that the gods swear they will claim all of their children by the time they’re thirteen. Then back at the camp, he helps build more cabins.

That’s the strangest and best part of the Percy Jackson series. In the end, the world is made the sort of place the main villain wished it would be.

It’s not often a Middle Grade novel has the guts to posit that the main villain had a mostly correct viewpoint, he just went about it in the wrong way. Or did he? Because this reader questions whether the gods would ever have changed without such a horrific war to show them the errors of their ways.

Though Luke is a traitor, a killer, and a villain, he is also the hero. And despite his terrible actions, he managed to change the world for the better.

Mandy Pietruszewski spent her childhood idolizing Geordi LaForge, so it’s no surprise she grew up to be an aerospace engineer. When not working on satellites, Mandy can be found buried in books, comics, and movies—with a particular interest in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. She tweets incessantly, blogs intermittently, and is even known to podcast.

Francisco Guimaraes
1. franksands
Congrats on your article here! I never knew Percy Jackson had such nuanced characters. I think I'll have to put the first book on my list now.
Mandy Pietruszewski
2. MandyP12
@franksands, Thanks! I'm glad my post convinced you that Percy Jackson is worthwhile. It's definitely a middle grade book and some adults struggle with getting into the mind of an 11-year-old protaganist, but it's worth the read. This post barely scratched the surface of all the reasons why I love the series. Luke's awesome villainy is just the tip of the iceberg.
Nicole Lowery
3. hestia
I read this series with my kids, and we loved it. There's a part in one of the books where a river guardian stands up to Percy because he has decided to despoil her river to complete a task. Percy has to take a step back and reassess: is he still the good guy here? Nice.

And...Clarisse. The kidlings didn't quite understand why my husband and I liked Clarisse so much. We tried to explain. I think we had to define for them the word "frenemy."
5. ducky
Darn, my first post got eaten! Trying again. I loved the Percy Jackson books when my little sister and I, both adults, decided to read them. Luke might be wrong, but as you said, he had correct reasons. It's simply that his methods to combat them didn't help anything, and would have vastly hurt everyone more. i felt sorry for him, really.

But Annabeth occasionally got on my nerves. I understood why, but I sometimes still wanted to kick her.
Daniel Whyte IV
6. danielwhyteiv
Wow. Great article. It's amazing how we can gloss over these things when reading. Thanks for opening my eyes.
Jeanette Donato
7. Djinn
Thanks for a great article! I love the PJatO series, it's fun, clever and, as you've just shown, much deeper than expected.
Mandy Pietruszewski
8. MandyP12
@hestia, I love Clarisse! The same way MG books tend to be black and white they also tend to lump other characters into "friends" or "enemies," disregarding the fact the world doesn't actually work that way. You're perfectly right that Clarisse is a frenemy. She and Percy rarely get along but they're both on the same side.

@ducky, I first read them as an adult too. I picked them up right after the fifth book came out because it was between college semesters and I figured "why not?" I'm so glad I did! And I've always felt sorry for Luke. Especially since at the time I was a college-aged reader, I totally understood where he was coming from. But things so quickly slipped out of his control and Kronos was even worse than he ever realized.

@danielwhyteiv, thanks! I'm always happy to help someone look deeper into an awesome book.

@Djinn, thanks! "Fun, clever, and deep" pretty much describes Percy Jackson in a nutshell, and why everyone should be reading them!
9. Zylaa
Awesome post! Thanks for putting into words one of the many things I appreciated about the series without fully understanding why. Especially since it takes the route of "even the bad guys can be good" as opposed to "even the good guys can be bad" (There's never any doubt in The Hunger Games that the Capitol is evil, for instance, even after we stop believing in the "good" side).

The Bartimaeus Trilogy is another middle grade series with fantastic moral ambiguity (and fantastic everything else). It takes place in an alternate-universe London run by greedy wizards. Our heroes are a politician, a demon, and a terrorist. I recommend it to everyone.
Mandy Pietruszewski
10. MandyP12
@Zylaa, I LOVE the Bartimaeus Trilogy. It's not just great story; it's so amazingly well written.

Also I completely agree with your "even bad guys can be good" versus "even good guys can be bad" statement. Luke is a bad guy, but at heart, he's good guy trying to do what's best not just for him but for all demigods.
11. KAsiki
While I agree on many of the points, 2 thing. sorry for misspellings.

First, I awlays took the hero in the end to be Anabeth. She stops Lukes Rampage were others couldn't and Convinced him in the end to stop.

Is it suicide or self sacrifice on Luke's part? The only way for Kronos to be defeated is for Luke to die, so when Luke attacks Kronos to protect Anabeth, it shouldn't be seen as a suicide. It just isn't accurate in its conotation to the events.
Mandy Pietruszewski
12. MandyP12
@KAsiki, both excellent points! While I completely agree that Annabeth is a hero, I think Luke is supposed to be the hero, i.e. the hero of prophecy. It was in his power to either save or destroy Olympus. I agree that without Annabeth, it is unlikely that Luke would have turned around, but it was still Luke who had to make the choice and he was the only one who could stop Kronos.

I also completely agree what Luke did was a self-sacrifice. However, going purely off the definition of suicide, it was a suicide. (Suicide by definition is the intentional taking one's own life, which is exactly what Luke did.) I think self-sacrifice is more of the umbrella term and suicide is how he went about it. I do not mean to diminish Luke's actions at all by using the term, just simply underscore an action that is rarely seen in Middle Grade fiction.
Adam S.
13. MDNY
I loved these books, and all ancient greek mythology, and I'm so glad you wrote this article.
I agree that this is a kids' series, aimed at middle-school-aged readers. However, the books seem to get a hair more mature as the series progresses (and Percy ages), until we are left with Percy going on a suicide quest and having girl troubles that blossom into hot underwater kisses and, yes, self-sacrifice. I'm not sure I would categorize Luke Castellan's death as a suicide, however. He did kill himself, but it was more like a kamikaze pilot, dying to destroy an enemy- and I'm not sure you could say kamikaze pilots "commited suicide".
Mandy Pietruszewski
14. MandyP12
@MDNY, the books definitely mature as the series go on, a reflection of Percy's maturation. And though the books share some themes with YA (moral ambiguity being the perfect example) for the most part they stay firmly MG. But the lines between MG and YA definitely get blurry as MG protagonists age into YA situations and problems.
Adam S.
15. MDNY
I read somewhere that Rick Riordan made up the Percy Jackson story for his son, so it makes sense that the maturity of the audience increases as the series progresses, since his son got older between the books (along with the characters).
16. Richard E.D. Jones
I love these books. I accidentally discovered the first book, read the first page and was hooked. I brought the book home to my three boys and we read it together. We've stayed loyal readers all the way through each book, enjoying the discussions and arguments each of these books engenders.

None of my boys are fond of the Gods, even now. They didn't like that the Gods had to be forced to do the right thing about their children.

I worked as a volunteer for an elementary-school book sale for a number of years and this was the book series I always pushed to every single reader who asked. I harranged the mothers and fathers with their children, I forced copies on teachers. And I was always thanked once they'd read the books.

Morally gray or not, these books tell a fantastic story, full of wit and grace and just plain fun. The Harry Potter books only wish they could be this good.
17. ducky
Hey now, The Harry Potter books are a different kind altogether, so I don't think it's fair to compare them. And, IMHO, they're VERY good! :)
18. scentfragrance
FANTASTIC POST!!! I love the Percy Jackson series but never really explicitly recognise the morally ambiguouse and complex characters :( Thank you for highlighting that to us!
Mandy Pietruszewski
19. MandyP12
@Richard E.D. Jones and @ducky, I agree with @ducky that the Harry Potter books are a different kind of story. There is enough room in MG fiction for Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and for them both to be awesome. Neither one's existence diminishes the other. And let's be honest, without Harry Potter there probably wouldn't be Percy Jackson. Not because Rick Riordan wouldn't have thought of them and written them (he may have) but because Harry Potter gave publishers a faith in Middle Grade literature that they didn't have before, and because of the knock out success of Harry Potter, publishers were much more likely to take a risk on our favorite dyslexic hero.

@scentfragrance, Thank you! And you're welcome. :)

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