Thursday, September 21, 2023

Diversity in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief

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Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief launched one of the most popular middle-grade book authors of today. Although the book universe began in 2005, Riordan’s efforts at including diversity build over time, making it beloved by readers. For another book series like this see the Discworld. This series of articles will track the evolution of Riordan’s universe. Join us on this odyssey through Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology as it grows more and more diverse.

Spoilers for Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief

So, What Happened in The Lightning Thief?

Percy Jackson, a troubled sixth grader with ADHD and dyslexia, starts off on a field trip to a museum with a Greek and Roman section. His monstrous math teacher attacks him, and that troubles him the rest of the year. He heads home from the boarding school with his best friend Grover. Percy reunites with his mother Sally and with his horrible stepfather. Then he and his mom go to a cabin at Montauk where Sally Jackson met Percy’s father. Grover shows up, reveals himself as a satyr, and they flee from the Minotaur.

The Minotaur catches Sally, and she dissolves into golden mist. Percy kills the Minotaur. Percy meets Mr. D, his Latin teacher, who reveals himself as Chiron. Chiron introduces him to Annabeth, daughter of Athena. They tell him that this camp is for demi-gods. Percy adjusts to life at camp, befriending Luke Castellan. Then Poseidon claims him. Someone stole Zeus’s lightning bolt, and Zeus thinks Percy stole it. Chiron gives Percy a quest to recover the bolt from Hades, and Grover and Annabeth accompany him.

They travel west. They fight Medusa, Echidna, and more. Luke and Ares give them gifts. The three enter the underworld, and Luke’s flying shoes almost drag Grover into Tartarus. They meet Hades who reveals his helm of darkness was stolen at the same time as Zeus’s bolt. The thunderbolt shows up in the backpack Ares gave them. He threatens Percy with his captured mother, but they use the pearls Poseidon sent him to escape. Percy fights Ares and reclaims the helm. They fly back to New York, and Percy returns the thunderbolt to Zeus. Back at camp, Luke reveals that Kronos subverted him, he stole the bolt and helm and that they want to destroy Olympus. Luke leaves camp, and Percy returns home, waiting for next summer.

Diversity in Race and Gender

Conversations around diversity often center on issues of race and gender. The Lightning Thief addresses these topics only tangentially, doing good things and concerning things through this lack of focus. Race comes up when Charon, the ferryman across the River Styx appears. “He was tall and elegant, with chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair shaved military style” (284). The problems with this are obvious. The fact that this is the only sentence that clarifies Charon’s ethnicity, and the use of a food metaphor to describe it makes me cringe. Beyond this, the fact that he is the only explicit character of color and that he is greedy and associated with death reinforces some negatives stereotypes. However, it provides a platform for him to improve his representation.

Women fare slightly better than people of color in this novel. When we look at ratios of female allies to female enemies, it skews heavily towards the latter. Sally and Annabeth are the positive female characters. Compared with the Three Furies, Medusa, Echidna, Nancy Bobifit, and Clarisse, we see a lot more portrayals of women in a negative light than seen positively. However, unlike with race, Riordan accepts diversity in how Annabeth shoots down Percy’s immediate gender bias when learning about the demi-gods. “’Then who’s you’re dad?’ … ‘My dad is a professor at West Point’ … ‘He’s human.’ ‘What? You assume it has to be a male god who finds a human female attractive? How sexist is that?’” (95). In a similar way, this moment, along with Annabeth’s impeccable problem solving through the book sets up women and girls as characters to be respected.

Diversity in Portrayal of ADHD and Dyslexia

One of the stories that everyone that reads Riordan’s work knows is the story of how his son has ADHD and dyslexia. Everyone knows how that inspired the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. As would be expected, that neurodiversity shows up a good deal in The Lightning Thief. It is one of the most impressive and lasting elements of diversity that Riordan includes in his debut novel, because of his familial experience.

Percy’s ADHD and dyslexia impact his personality; not just in the hyperactivity he exhibits, but in his lack of self-esteem. Because of Percy’s learning disorders, his teachers sometimes treat him unfairly, and he has trouble believing that he can succeed. This impacts how he thinks his father would think of him. “I wondered how she could say that. What was so great about me? A dyslexic, hyperactive boy with a D+ report card, kicked out of school for the sixth time in six years” (38). It also makes him more sensitive to Mr. Brunner’s perceived rejection earlier. The concern about his father also relates to how he rejects Grover’s theory that he’s trying to impress Poseidon when he sends Medusa’s head to Olympus. It also makes Poseidon’s comment, that Percy is the result of his “wrongdoing” (341), have that much of a greater negative impact.

But beyond that, the inclusion of ADHD/dyslexia is also empowering for the readers with similar learning disorders. Riordan includes moments where Percy’s dyslexia prevents him from reading signs. Medusa’s lair becomes, “ATNYU MES GDERAN GOMEN MEPROUIM” (171), and Procrustes’s shop is, “CRSTUY’S WATRE BDE ALPACE” (277). It makes neurotypical readers understand a little of what having dyslexia is like. Annabeth’s speech about how demigods are dyslexic and ADHD because of their divine heritage helps make people with those learning disabilities feel accepted.

Diversity in Abuse Portrayal

The most important recurring villains in The Lightning Thief is Smelly Gabe, Percy’s stepfather. He is an abusive figure while Percy and Sally are at home, but he also makes cameos on television, offering rewards for Percy’s capture and milking the situation for fame.

In Gabe’s apartment, Percy lives under the threat of violence and expulsion. Gabe constantly intrudes on his space, excluding him from his own room.

“During the school months [my room] was Gabe’s ‘study’. He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill,” (32).

He also threatens to hit Percy if he doesn’t provide gambling funds for his perennial games. After he returns from the quest he only gives Percy five minutes to pack his things and leave, despite being only twelve.

Gabe actually does physically abuse Sally, even if Percy doesn’t realize that until the end of the novel. “He raised his hand, and my mother flinched. For the first time, I realized something Gabe had hit my mother. I didn’t know when or how much. But I was sure he’d done it” (348). He also restricts her budget and forces her back to work after her return from the dead, despite the fact that she doesn’t know where her son is. In short, he behaves as a classic abuser, and in return Sally turns him into a statue with Medusa’s head.

Percy offers to turn Gabe to stone for Sally, but Sally turns him down, and does it herself. This makes sense because Sally was the one who was abused to a greater extent. Not to say that Percy wasn’t also affected by living with Gabe’s abuse, but Sally has more to gain from being free of him.

In Conclusion

The Lightning Thief marks a strong beginning to a lasting book universe. It starts with many of the threads that it will carry through the entire series, though not always as sensitively. Beyond what I covered above, this novel also features an environmentalist message, which will expand in later books. Riordan handles ADHD/dyslexia very well, abuse similarly well. There are some problems with his portrayal of gender and race, but they are problems that he will eventually surpass. Thank you for joining me on the beginning of this Odyssey through mythology and diversity. I look forward to seeing where we’ll wind up going.


  • Angela

    Angela is a full-time fantasy nerd. She is either reading a novel or talking about one. Or is watching Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time. Character archetypes and cultural context always fascinate her.

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