Moral Ambiguity in Percy Jackson and the Olympians

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.


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