With Camp Half-Blood in serious danger, Annabeth soon realises that the Golden Fleece is the only entity that can save the poisoned tree of Thalia and protect the demi-gods’ homeland. As the daughter of Athena, goddess of Wisdom, Annabeth’s forethought comes as no surprise, but Percy Jackson’s wits are not nearly as sharp: “you do know the story of Jason and the Argonauts?”, Annabeth asks cautiously. Percy’s response confirms her doubts: “‘Yeah,’ [he] said, ‘that old movie with the clay skeletons’” (SOM, 82).
Percy, perhaps unwittingly, offers a mark of respect to Ray Harryhausen, the American visual effects creator whose models have long been part of contemporary classical imagination: the skeletons that fight at the climax of his 1963 epic film Jason and the Argonauts are among his most memorable creations. Not only does a ‘cool’ teenage boy of the 21st century immediately recall a film over 40 years older than him, but he also captures, in a way that many contemporary readers can appreciate, the defining cinematic moment of that film.
But Annabeth is not at all impressed by this response: “Annabeth rolled her eyes. ‘Oh my gods, Percy! You are so hopeless.’” (SOM, 82). She then proceeds to recall the ‘proper’ myth of the Golden Fleece for Percy, starting from Zeus.
This is more than just a playful bout of one-upmanship between school friends. In Percy Jackson’s world, mythical knowledge is power, and ignorance can result in a swift death for a demi-god. The ‘source’ on which Percy has been basing his information is (dangerously) inadequate, as he has failed to distinguish between very different ‘authorities’ on the ancient world: his school tuition in the classics, delivered by his teacher Chiron, has become merged with his own film-viewing experience. Percy’s knowledge needs to be ‘corrected’ here if he is going to be successful in the mission to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
In many respects, Percy here takes on the role of the reader, struggling to uncover the world of ancient myth from a variety of (often discordant) sources. Annabeth in this instance stands in for the author – Ray Riordan, a former teacher of English and history – as she corrects Percy’s misunderstandings with an earnestly delivered and detailed mythography which recalls the style of Robert Graves’ seminal publication, The Greek Myths (a book recommended by Riordan on his official website).
Although most clearly detectable in this scene, it is a predominant strategy of Riordan’s in the Percy Jackson series to communicate through his narrative and characters a lesson in classically grounded ancient myth, against a backdrop of popular but more recent imaginings, typically inspired by Harryhausen. Indeed, while it is true that, in the context of the 21st century life of Percy Jackson, classical mythological names and scenarios can crop up unexpectedly – or, to put it another way, can find themselves creatively deployed by the author – traditional ancient testimonies of the classical myths are usually carefully observed, and more recent flights of fancy, such as those of Harryhausen, are ‘corrected’ by a variety of surrogate teacher figures.
Let us now observe some of the strategies used by Riordan to offer creative, classically inspired storylines while respecting the ancient mythical testimonies.
Eternal characters can, of course, ‘realistically’ crop up in any era, and Riordan delights in showing us how immortal gods can reappear in new guises or with new, modernised roles to fit 21st century American society. The three prophetic sisters with the shared eye (the Graiai) have now become taxi drivers, a move which plays subtly on the popular conceits that taxi owners are bad drivers and always seem to know everything (SOM, 24-35). Circe has upgraded her island to a spa resort, but still keeps animals in the form of a guinea pig business (SOM, 158-77, esp. 169). In similar fashion, a more commercially driven Medusa has now turned her dubious talents towards a garden statuary business (LT, 168-87). Immortal lovers Ares and Aphrodite are still trying to sneak some quality time together, but Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus has adapted his traps to suit the contemporary environment – this time, a tunnel of love ride at a theme park (LT, 230-41). And, of course, no modern story would be complete without a hapless alcoholic (Dionysus) who is now in rehab (SOM, e.g. 54-55). For good measure, the film version of SOM responds creatively to this tactic by making the divine messenger Hermes director of a major packaging and shipping company: OPS, a play on UPS (United Parcel Service), has classical flavour as the name of Saturn’s wife.
But in cases such as these, the reader is not permitted to confuse modern with former ancient guises for the deities. Circe is careful to remind Percy of her former pig-rearing activities (SOM, 169), just as Annabeth is keen to make sure that Percy recalls properly the original trap set by Ares against the divine lovers (LT, 232) – both events are most famously recorded in Homer’s Odyssey. In the midst of an otherwise hair-raising taxi ride, the three prophetic women take time to inform their passengers that they once lost their eye in a lake (SOM, 33) – it was thrown into the Tritonian lake by Perseus – as well as to make it clear that “back then”, in the time of Jason, they did not own a taxi (SOM, 31). We start to see enthusiastic Classics teachers everywhere: Annabeth recalls that Jason made use of the Clashing Rocks (SOM, 150), and explains the history behind the ‘Nobody’ joke employed against the Cyclops (SOM, 202-3); Clarisse drops her enmity towards Percy for just a moment in order to instruct him about Scylla and Charybdis (SOM, 150-51).
I come back now more specifically to what I said at the start, namely Riordan’s combination of respect for and correction of the Harryhausen imaginings of classical myth. In LT (168-87), Percy and his friends find themselves in Aunty M.’s (aka Medusa’s) garden gnome emporium. Percy kills Medusa in a live confrontation, chopping off her head while protecting himself from her direct gaze by observing her from the safety of a reflection in a glass ball. This recalls in general terms Perseus’ live fight with the Gorgon in the 1981 Harryhausen film Clash of the Titans. But this is not how the battle occurred according to the ancient tradition: rather, Perseus is recorded to have attacked Medusa while she was sleeping, a point that young Percy remembers and makes sure to share with the reader (LT, 180). In so doing, Harryhausen’s popular and recent variations to the myth are subtly corrected by Riordan: while Harryhausen’s motifs are respectfully recalled in the adventures of the 21st century Percy, the ancient myths themselves are faithfully restored to their original details. Perhaps the best example of this tactic comes from the beginning of the LT film. The LT film is, to be sure, only very loosely connected to the book, and thus takes as much license as Riordan in reimagining the classical myth for the 21st century. But the film producers have retained Riordan’s central concern for teaching classically grounded myth and correcting misapprehensions caused by the popularized recent imaginings of Harryhausen. When Percy visits a museum and sees a statue of Perseus, his demi-god brain enables him to translate the inscribed ancient Greek as “Perseus defeats Cetus”. It is really Riordan who is speaking to us here: he is telling us that Cetus was the name of Perseus’ marine adversary, not the ‘Kraken’ of Harryhausen’s 1981 film Clash of the Titans. We, like Percy, have been duly taught, and the lesson has been delivered in the appropriate forum of an educational school trip. But correction of Harryhausen is mixed with respect, as his inventions are acknowledged but reassigned to the modern era: so Luke’s luxury ship, Princess Andromeda, is equipped with a ‘Kraken lounge’ (SOM, 112).
For the reader no less than Percy, then, there is a message here about the importance of distinguishing between classical and modern sources for ancient mythology. It is not that one is ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’ – myth and storytelling are creative processes that are always evolving. But it is fair to say that some versions are more grounded in ancient classical sources than others. When we read Percy Jackson, we are being instructed to be wary of the accuracy of mythical detail in contemporary media -- even if, unlike Percy, our life does not depend on it …
Steven Green is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London and Yale-NUS.
1. This piece is based on the first two books in the Percy Jackson series – R. Riordan (2005), Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (London: Penguin) and R. Riordan (2006), Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters (London: Penguin) – and the accompanying blockbuster films of 2010 and 2013 respectively. I shall refer to these titles shorthand as LT and SOM respectively.
2. The continuing presence of Medusa – a woman who really did die in mythical times – is one divergence from classical myth that Riordan allows himself: Medusa proves to be too exciting a creature not to kill twice …