Monday, May 27, 2024

Battle of the Labyrinth and Activism

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We’ve reached the penultimate book of Rick Riordan’s first series, The Battle of the Labyrinth. This 2008 book continues some of the threads that Riordan has been playing with since the beginning and brings them to a close. He also ignores some of those threads, like last time. But this time, he discards threads in the name of discussing activism, as opposed to setting a theme. Join us as Percy and his friends descend into the Labyrinth.

Spoilers for The Battle of the Labyrinth and Riordan’s other works.

So, What Happened?

The Battle of the Labyrinth begins with Percy attending his high school orientation. Predictably, he’s attacked by Greek monsters, this time donkey-legged vampire cheerleaders. He runs into Rachel Dare, who he met at the Hoover Dam, and Annabeth arrives in time to save him. They head back to Camp, and Percy discovers Grover’s close to being put on probation for his claims that Pan spoke to him. A new sword-fighting teacher, Quintus (an adult demigod), appears with a tame hellhound. During capture the flag, Percy and Annabeth fall into a hole that turns out to be an entrance into Dedalus’s Labyrinth. When they emerge, Annabeth explains that Luke’s forces have been exploring and now there’s an invasion route straight into camp. She is given a quest by the Oracle to find Dedalus, and picks Percy, Grover, and Tyson to go with her.

They encounter Janus, god of doorways and decisions, who guides them to Hera, who promises them help on their quest. Percy dreams of Nico DiAngelo, who swore vengeance on someone who cheated death and is being guided by a malevolent ghost that turns out to be King Minos. They go to Alcatraz Island where they meet Kampe, mother of monsters, and rescue Briares, a Hundred-Handed One. Percy also dreams of Dedalus and his son Icarus, then his nephew Perdix, whom Dedalus kills.

After Alcatraz, they stop at Geryon’s ranch where they find Nico. Percy manages to clean out his stables to free them, but Geryon double-crosses them and Nico leaves afterwards. Geryon’s farmhand gives them a mechanical spider that leads them to Hephaestus’s forge to get advice from him. He sends them to Mt. St. Helens where Percy finds a bunch of monsters forging Kronos’s scythe and causes the volcano to explode. He wakes up several days later on Ogygia. After the return, they have a brainwave and realize a clear-sighted mortal can safely navigate the Labyrinth. This leads Rachel back into the quest. She navigates for them and they wind up in an arena with a son of Poseidon and Gaea, allied with Luke, who demands they fight or be killed. Percy challenges him to a duel and kills him.

Upon escaping they find Dedalus and find out he’s Quintus. Minos attacks him, with Nico in tow. Nico throws off Minos’s influence on him and they escape via a pair of perfected metal wings. Dedalus remains behind to hold off Luke’s forces. They return to the Labyrinth and discover the path to Mount Othrys, Kronos’s stronghold. Percy sneaks in and witnesses Kronos’s rebirth in Luke’s body. Rachel throws a hairbrush at Kronos, which enables them to escape. Afterwards they find Pan, who bequeaths protection of the Wild to Grover and the other inhabitants of the world. When they return to camp and fight Kronos’s forces, Dedalus sacrifices himself to destroy the Labyrinth and the summer ends uneasily.


One of the undercurrents of the novel is the conception of family. Hera first delineates this in her appearance in the Labyrinth. She feeds them, and makes nice noises, grants them a wish (that’s very obscurely fulfilled), and tells them about her goals: “To keep my family, the Olympians, together, of course” (p. 105). But there are some deviances in her behavior. She calls Percy, “’One of Poseidon’s … children.’ I got the feeling she was thinking of another word besides children” (p. 104). Hera cares about her family, but that family is restricted to the major gods, not the minor ones or demigods and monsters. She confirms this at the end of the novel, when Annabeth says that their quest wasn’t a success because, “Luke is gone. Dedalus is dead. Pan is dead. How is that –‘ ‘Our family is safe,’ Hera insisted. ‘Those others are better gone,” (p. 349).

Riordan spends the rest of the book talking about family, agreeing with Hera that family is important but disagreeing with her that family should be limited, as Hera does, to those that are physically abled and not strange. Meeting with Hephaestus clarifies that point. “My mother likes families, but she likes a certain kind of family. Perfect families. She took one look at me and … well, I don’t fit the image, do I?” (p. 191). Riordan drives home the idea that Hera’s views are wrong with the family dynamics he shows through the rest of the book.

Look at Bianca and Nico. Both children of Hades, one dead, and one a runaway. But Bianca, even after her death, spends her time looking after Nico despite the fact that they’re not ‘perfect’ families by Hera’s standards. Even though he hates that she left him alone, Bianca still helps Nico and they reconcile at the end.

Tyson and Briares are another example of this. The original three Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed-Ones were siblings, the children of Ouranos and Gaea. Tyson looked up to the legends he heard of Briares, but his cowardice and trauma throw Tyson for a loop. He speaks to Briares and has faith in him nonetheless, and Briares comes through because of Tyson’s pseudo-big-brother worship. At the end, Tyson directs Briares to the Cyclopes forges, because Briares says, “I don’t want to be lonely anymore” (p. 341). This compassion and family feeling from two groups of monsters that were originally thrown out of the Titan family for not being ‘perfect’ seems more like family to me than anything Hera espouses.

The Environment and Environmentalism

Riordan ties up the mystery of Pan’s disappearance and starts the quest for the future of the Wild in one heart-breaking chapter. After fleeing from the reembodied Kronos, they find a tunnel, and Grover faints from the presence of the Wild. They climb from the Labyrinth to an unexplored section of the Carlsbad Caverns, underneath New Mexico, and find a chamber filled with greenery and extinct creatures. Dodo birds, wooly mammoths, thylacines, and the god Pan. He greets Grover and listens to the satyr plead for him to come back to the world, to fix things.

Then Pan explains that he is fading. The voice that the sailor from Ephesos heard was a satyr conscripted to tell the world that Pan was dying from the lack of wild spaces. Pan also says that the satyrs never fully believed and that he cannot save the wild now. Pan then says,

“That is why I need you to carry a message. You must go back to the council. You must tell the satyrs, and the dryads, and the other spirits of nature, that the great god Pan is dead. Tell them of my passing. Because they must stop waiting for me to save them. I cannot. The only salvation you must make yourself. … Each of you must take up my calling” (p. 315).

It’s a call to action for the world that Riordan tells. It fits in with the activism theme of this book. Instead of waiting for the environment to be saved by something greater than you, you must act. “Remake the wild, a little at a time, each in your own corner of the world” (p. 316). It’s a message Riordan intends for the satyrs, the demigods, and for his readers.

People Doing Small Things That Are Important

The activism underlying Battle of the Labyrinth comes through most clearly in the fact that most of the important events that turn the tide in this novel come from people doing the small necessary things in life. Those things carry morals with them and serve as an inspiration to his readers to do the same.

The most humorous event like this is when Rachel throws her blue plastic hairbrush at the Lord of Time. Percy witnessed Kronos’s reembodying and tried to flee, but Kronos manipulated time so that he couldn’t move. “No weapon in the world could stop him. No amount of celestial bronze. He was ten feet away when I heard, ‘PERCY!’ Rachel’s voice. Something flew past me, and a blue plastic hairbrush hit Kronos in the eye” (p. 304). This moment, aside from being amazing, also teaches a lesson.

One of the potential flaws of Riordan’s universe is that it breeds the idea of exceptionalism. It focuses on the lives of extraordinary people, the demigods, and an exceptional demigod who is exceptional because he’s the son of a powerful god. The danger in that is that it breeds apathy. It doesn’t matter what ordinary people do because they’re not exceptional, they can’t save the world, they can’t save the environment, they can’t do anything. But Rachel stops this in its tracks. Because she’s neither a god, a demigod, a satyr, or a monster. She’s a mortal, and she stops Kronos from killing Percy. Because ordinary people can do ordinary things like vote, or recycle, or throw a hairbrush at the right time, and lots of ordinary people doing those ordinary things can have as much impact as what those ‘exceptional’ people can do.

We see that lesson in other examples, like when Tyson asks Briares for help when they rescue him from Kampe. He’s shrunk and weakened from his imprisonment and from being forgotten by everyone. Briares doesn’t believe he can do anything. Tyson asks him for help anyway. It doesn’t come immediately, but during the battle, when Kampe has Percy and Annabeth pinned, things change. “Next to him was someone else—a familiar giant, much taller than the Laistrygonians, with a hundred rippling arms, each holding a huge chunk of rock. ‘Briares!’ Tyson cried in wonder” (p. 330). A few words from someone can help change their mind, help them find their self-worth again. Tyson proves that here.

Finally, we meet Chris again at the beginning, while Annabeth receives her prophecy. A former ally of Luke’s sent to search the Labyrinth and driven insane by it. Dionysus could heal him in a second, but he’s away checking on the loyalties of the minor gods. In the aftermath of the battle, Dionysus returns, agrees with Grover that Pan is dead, and dissolves the Council of Cloven Elders. Afterwards, he walks with Percy, congratulates him for saving camp, and reveals that he cured Chris’s madness. When Percy asks him why he did so, he replies.

“Oh, Hades if I know. But remember, boy, that a kind act can sometimes be as powerful as a sword. … Sometimes small things can become very large indeed.” (p. 346).


In the opening chapters, we re-meet Paul Blofis, Sally’s boyfriend, and a teacher at Goode High School, where Percy is enrolled. We learn that Paul fought the administration to enroll Percy at the school. In this section, and in a later monster encounter, we see the impact Riordan’s career as a teacher had on him. Paul upholds the ideal of a teacher as someone who wants students to succeed.

Riordan challenges the definition of what most public schools mean for their students ‘to succeed’ in an encounter with the Sphinx, who famously asks hard riddles. Annabeth steps up and is given a series of fact based questions and told to, “mark your answer clearly on your test sheet with a number 2 pencil. … Make sure you bubble each answer clearly and stay inside the circle,’ the Sphinx said. ‘If you have to erase, erase completely or the machine will not be able to read your answers” (p. 183). This will sound familiar to anyone who has ever taken a standardized test.

Annabeth, like many teachers, speaks her mind about disliking the standardized tests. “It’s just a bunch of dumb, random facts,’ Annabeth insisted. ‘Riddles are supposed to make you think” (p. 184). When she refuses to take the test the Sphinx replies, “If you won’t pass, you fail. And since we can’t allow any children to be held back, you’ll be EATEN!”(p. 184). This leads to a monster fight before they continue on to Hephaestus.

Some people could say that Riordan is just making jokes about how children hate tests. Given his audience, it’s not entirely unreasonable. But the Sphinx’s comment about children being held back is a thinly veiled reference to the federal mandate No Child Left Behind, instituted by President Bush, who had just left office in the year of Battle of the Labyrinth’s publication. Teachers then, and more recently, objected to the idea that standardized tests should be the sole measure of the student’s worthiness. As Annabeth points out, they don’t teach you to think, they teach you to cram and forget. Riordan makes his objections clear to this practice here.

Gender and Relationships

To people who read my other articles, the following soapbox will be somewhat familiar. To people who are less familiar, I’m not the world’s greatest fan of relationships in media, where I find them to be mostly unrealistic. I’m not exactly a fan of them in real life either, which means I have a lower tolerance for them in media. So the fact that absolutely every single female character in this book that appears for longer than thirty seconds winds up in a romantic relationship or has a crush on Percy irks me.

From the first pages, we see this pattern. Sally and Paul are dating. This is fine, and nice, and I actually ship them quite a bit, but it’s part of the pattern. Then we meet Tammi and Kelli, empousi, who are ancient Greek monsters akin to vampires who work by leveraging their target’s attraction to them. I skip this part of the chapter whenever I re-read the book because it makes me want to hurl it across the room.

We find out once we arrive at camp that Grover now has a girlfriend, the dryad Jupiter, who worries about him while on the quest. Then we have Rachel and Calypso, two women who are introduced (for the most part for Rachel), and who develop crushes on Percy. Rachel gives him her phone number, seems possessive, and often quarrels with Annabeth for reasons that seem motivated solely by jealousy. Calypso, on the other hand, is a person who admits to being cursed by the gods. They send visitors who can never stay and with whom she can’t help falling in love with. Hence Percy being blasted there after Mount St. Helens.

As for Percy and Annabeth, we learn they intended to go on a Not-Date to the movies after orientation that got derailed by the Not-Vampires. Then, she kisses him before the explosion at Mount St. Helens and reacts jealously when she intuits the exile on Ogygia and when he asks Rachel to join the quest.

Clarisse even gets a love interest, Chris, the halfblood who went crazy in the Labyrinth. Percy sees the pair holding hands at the campfire after Dionysus cures him. Admittedly, I lowkey ship this, as well as highkey shipping Percy and Annabeth, but the only girl who does not enter a romantic relationship or have a crush on anyone is Bianca, who is both a Hunter and dead.

This is not to say that women in relationships are worth any less than women who are single, and the ones who interact with the plot are all in character. Annabeth and Rachel manage to put their jealousy aside at several points, and Calypso’s tragedy is heartbreaking. The reunion of Chris and Clarisse, as well as the easy relationship between Paul and Sally are all cathartic and satisfying. But the subliminal message here is that all women should desire to be in relationships and make it their goal. It’s heteronormative and, given that we have yet to meet a single non-heterosexual or asexual character, it offers no alternatives to said heteronormative teachings. (Except the Hunters, and I already talked about how some factions of fandom dislike them in my discussion of The Titan’s Curse). The nigh-universal pattern is the problem, not the crushes or the relationships.

Loss and How to Deal With It

If The Titan’s Curse was about preparing for war, here is when the losses associated with war start to appear. One that leads directly from the end of The Titan’s Curse is Nico DiAngelo’s grief over the loss of his sister, Bianca. He spends the first half of the novel desperate to get her back. When Minos tells him he could trade a soul for a soul, Nico offers his own soul in exchange for Bianca’s, but Minos directs him towards Dedalus’s instead, someone who had cheated death for thousands of years.

At Eurytion’s farm, Nico succeeds in summoning Bianca with Percy’s help. She warns him off his attempt to bring her back from the dead, “Holding grudges is dangerous for a child of Hades. It is our fatal flaw” (p. 167). She also makes Nico aware that he’s angry at her for leaving him, rather than being mad at Percy not being able to save her. Afterwards, Nico spends time at Eurytion’s farm and heals from his hurt. The next time he appears, he helps Percy and the rest. Finally at the end, Bianca appears again, and they say a proper goodbye, with Nico still hurt but healing.

When Annabeth finally receives a prophecy, she refuses to tell anyone the last line. She continues to defend Luke to some extent and hopes he can come back to their side, saying that Percy wants Luke to be evil after Luke is possessed by Kronos. Annabeth also brings four questers on her quest, despite three being the safe number. We learn the last line at the end of the novel, before Hera appears again. “And lose a love to worse than death.’ Annabeth had tears in her eyes. ‘That was the last line, Percy. Are you happy now?’ … ‘I didn’t know who the prophecy was talking about. I—I didn’t know if…’ She faltered helplessly” (p. 349). That line about not knowing who the prophecy said she would lose explains her desire to take all the people she cared about on the quest—Percy, Grover, and Tyson—so she could keep an eye on them. It also makes Percy’s disappearance after Mt. St. Helens worse. She spends the rest of the book after Kronos’s arrival silently grieving for Luke.

Finally, we have the direct consequences of the battle. “That night was the first time I actually saw camp burial shrouds used on bodies, and it was not something I wanted to see again. … I was ashamed that I’d seen him around camp for three years and never even bothered to learn his name. He’d been seventeen years old” (p. 337). The campers avoid returning to the forest, the scene of the battle. Even Dionysus looks grieved when he returns and finds his son dead, the first time we see Dionysus feeling compassionate emotions. “His eyes were bloodshot as usual, and his pudgy face was flushed, but he looked like he was suffering from grief more than wine-withdrawal” (p. 339). This is the moment where we see the bloody consequences of Kronos’s rise and also the moment we realize the next book will be even worse.

In Conclusion,

Except for the way that I feel Riordan fumbles with gender and romance, I think he does a good job with The Battle of the Labyrinth. While the breadth of diversity in his novels doesn’t expand much outside the commentary about education, and certain things aren’t touched upon that I wish were, the resolution that he gives for the environmental question feels true to me. It would have felt wrong if Pan had returned and fixed everything with a wave of his hand. The satyrs and demigods need to work at it, just like we need to. Riordan also underlies his novel with threads of activism, and acknowledging, as Dionysus does, that small acts of human kindness do more than can be explained.

He manages to set up the conclusion to this first series well, carrying forward threads like Nico’s disappearance and Luke’s desperation to recruit Thalia. Now we know that he wanted Thalia to join Kronos so that he would not have to give up his body to the Titan. Riordan will carry threads from this novel into the next book as well, and we’ll see how that particular adventure goes next month.

Image Courtesy of Hyperion Books for Children

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