On Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Monster Recognition for Beginners
Lessons from Percy Jackson on Monsters and Heroes
What would you do if you woke up one morning and found a satyr on your front porch, and he explained that he was going to take you to a special camp for people like you: half-god, half-human?
You might be tempted to laugh, thinking it’s a practical joke. Or maybe you’d think it was great. But if you’ve read the Percy Jackson books, you would also be seriously worried. Being a demigod may sound glamorous, but in Percy’s world, the child of a god can look forward to a life full of hardships and danger. Heroes, whether they are on a quest or just trying to live through the school year, must always stay on their toes and on the lookout for monsters.
Imagine you’re living in Percy’s world: Does that donut store on the corner make a shiver run down your spine? Does the popularity of a certain coffee chain have anything to do with the mermaid on its logo? And what about the homeless man under the bridge near your apartment: Does no one think it strange that he wears a muffler and trench coat all year-round?
Or maybe you live in the country, and suddenly a lot of cattle are mysteriously disappearing. Is it a coyote problem, or a wandering monster snacking on your uncle Walt’s best milk cows? What really started those California wildfires: a careless camper or a fire-breathing chimera?
To Percy and his classmates, asking these kinds of questions could mean the difference between life and death. Not to mention the success of a quest. Ignoring their instincts could lead to death . . . or worse, humiliating defeat.
If you suddenly discover you are a demigod like the ones in Percy Jackson’s world, don’t be lured into spending all your time on rock climbing and archery practice. These things are important, but if you really want to survive a monster attack, you need to learn how to recognize them. That way you can make a plan for fighting, or fleeing, whichever seems more prudent. Percy Jackson has had to learn these lessons the hard way. While some of his classmates might consider the constant threats to life and limb opportunities for personal growth, the wise hero should take a page from the children of Athena and fight smarter, not harder.
Fortunately, we have Percy’s triumphs–and mistakes–to learn from. So just in case you do open your door to a satyr one morning, here’s some of what I’ve learned from reading the Percy Jackson books: three easy steps on how to survive in a world full of monsters who want to kill you.
Lesson One: Monsters and You
The first thing to realize in dealing with mythical creatures is the basic nature of the relationship between hero and monster: There is a very good chance that even a random encounter between them will result in death for one or both. Simply stated, heroes kill monsters, and monsters resent that fact.
Let us take some examples from the ancient world: Bellerophon, Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus.1 All of them heroes, all of them slayers of monsters–Chimera, Minotaur, Hydra, and Gorgon. And the monsters never forget it. Youth is no protection, either; monsters have no ethics, so they don’t have an ethical problem with getting rid of their natural enemies while they are still young and vulnerable.
Now, a demigod has certain advantages over monsters. Depending on the type of creature he’s facing, the demigod may be faster or more mobile. His ability to use a weapon may counter the natural advantage of, say, a bulletproof hide, like the Nemean Lion’s, or seven heads that always grow back, like the Hydra’s. The human half makes the hero smarter than the average monster, provided the hero actually uses his brain. The god half doubtlessly adds advantages as well, though of course this would largely depend on the god in question.
The monsters’ biggest advantage–besides the obvious things like claws, teeth, poison, and superior size and strength–is that they never really die. The centaur Chiron tells us monsters are “archetypes.” An archetype is the original, basic idea of something. This means that when similar characters pop up in different books and movies, all of them are based on the original archetype. For instance, the character of “Fluffy,” the three-headed dog who guards the sorcerer’s stone in the first Harry Potter book, comes from the idea of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld.2
So monsters, like ideas, can never be killed, and they have very long memories. If you’re a hero and you encounter a magical creature, it may have been turned to dust many times over the years by heroes just like you. It would be wise to assume that it is holding a grudge and would be happy to help you along to your doom.
Percy Jackson has this harsh reality thrust upon him in no uncertain terms, and it’s an experience we can learn from: Nothing says “your days are numbered” like a Minotaur on your doorstep.
It should be noted that children of the less powerful gods aren’t going to attract as much monstrous attention as those with more powerful parents. You might think it would be “cool” if your Olympian parent was one of the major gods, but that kind of status comes with a big price tag.
Percy is the perfect example of this. Having Poseidon as his father may give him some awesome powers, but it also makes him a very high-profile target. So even if you had skills remarkable for a demigod, this in no way would guarantee you an easy time of it.3
The world of gods and monsters is a harsh one. A hero can’t rely on his immortal parent for help. There are rules against direct interference, and it seems as though the higher in the echelon a god is, the more limited he or she is in stepping in to help. After Annabeth Chase runs away from her father’s house, her mother, Athena, helps her by making sure she meets up with an older, more powerful half-blood. Thalia, daughter of Zeus,4 leads her friends almost to the safety of the camp, but when she is about to be killed by a horde of monsters, all that Zeus can do is turn her into a tree on top of Half-Blood Hill.
Ultimately it is up to young heroes to watch out for themselves. A parent or patron may be some help, but it’s the nature of the hero to have to face the monsters on his or her own.
Lesson Two: Types of Monsters
Monsters could be categorized in many different ways: by habitat, allegiance, intelligence, lethality, and so on. For the purpose of this lesson, I’ll separate them into two main types: those who will kill you on purpose–whether it’s personal, or because you’ve blundered into their lair–and those who will kill you by accident.
For the most part, monsters are very territorial; they tend to stake out a hunting ground and protect it viciously. When Percy’s brother Tyson is attacked by a sphinx in the city, it may have been just because he ventured into its territory. Notice that the fact that Tyson himself is a monster gives him no protection.
Here we see the type of monster who may have nothing against you personally but will not hesitate to kill you anyway. This may be because it is (a) guarding something it thinks you want to steal; (b) hungry; or (c) both.
Young heroes seem to encounter these types of monsters most frequently when they are on a quest, but not always. Monsters can be found just about anywhere, and if you stumble onto a Hydra’s hunting grounds, chances are that one of seven heads would eat youbefore you could explain that you were merely on your way to the corner deli for a pastrami on rye.
Some monsters stay very isolated from the mortal world. Percy has to go to the Sea of Monsters to encounter Polyphemus, the Cyclops shepherd with the carnivorous sheep, and Scylla and Charybdis, who between them destroy (again) the ironclad ship, CSS Birmingham, and its crew. But other creatures rely on humankind for survival. In ancient times, monsters often lived off of humans by stealing their sheep and goats (or sometimes by making off with one of their maidens). In Percy’s modern world, many monsters have moved into retail, making a living off of humans in an entirely different way.
This kind of magical creature doesn’t mean to kill you but is simply going about its business, completely indifferent to your fate. Take, for example, the chain of Monster Donut shops. They spread across the country, each of them connected to the life force of a monster. The stores multiply like Hydra heads, but whether their success actually comes at the expense of their human customers–the modern equivalent of the stolen sheep or maiden, for example–remains to be seen.5
Other retail ventures are more obviously dangerous, like Medusa’s shop, which Percy, Annabeth, and Grover run across in their first quest. In olden days, monsters who preyed on humans could often be found at the intersection of major roads, where there was the most traffic. Now monsters like the Medusa open shops. Mortal society used to center around the crossroads, but it now revolves around retail. Therefore, the smart hero should be careful in stores;no one wants to pay for a cheeseburger by spending eternity as a stone lawn ornament.
Monsters don’t consider death or dismemberment a flaw in their business plan. Take the Graiai, for example. Who would have thought it was a good idea to put three hags who share one eye in control of a taxicab in New York?6 Since the sisters cannot pass the eye between them without a violent argument breaking out, the taxi’s only destination seems to be disaster. Yet getting heroes on their way has been the hags’ job ever since Ancient Greece.
The fact that they don’t care what it does to their half-mortal passengers shows why immortal things should never be dealt with lightly. Even when a magical creature is merely going about its business–even when, like the Gray Sisters, it is technically being helpful–it can be very dangerous.
Now we come to the monster who does in fact take death very personally. In addition to the innate hatred between monster and hero, there is another reason that some fanged, winged, leather-skinned horror might want half-bloods like Percy dead. Many monsters are servants to various gods, who keep the creatures on staff to take care of odd (and sometimes distasteful) jobs, like tracking down heroes, guarding treasure, and torturing demigods who make them angry.
Which means that if you anger one of the gods, he or she is likely to send something really nasty to let you know about it. Percy Jackson angers several gods just by breathing, so he probably feels like the whole world is out to get him. But that’s not actually true. Most of the time, several worlds are out to get him.7
Whether you are dealing with the bull-headed simplicity of the Minotaur or the conniving ferocity of the Furies, if a god has sent a monster after you, there is little you can do to avoid it. So you may be wondering why I bother to mention it in a lesson about avoiding monstrous conflict.
If you are a hero, and a vengeful (or possibly just bored) god has sent a monster after you, you may not be able to steer clear of it, but early recognition of the threat will allow you to control the battlefield; wise tactics can even things out between unmatched opponents.
For instance, if you were a hero with a fire-breathing chimera on your trail, then you’d want to arrange your confrontation near a handy water source–or at least away from combustible materials. By identifying the monster early, you can lead it away from innocent bystanders, troublesome eyewitnesses, and destructible buildings. You should always try to limit collateral injuries and property damage, as it reduces the chance you will become wanted by conventional authorities.
This is a case where Percy’s adventures show us how not to deal with monsters. Think of how much easier his life would be if he didn’t spend so much time wanted by the police for blowing up cars, buses, school gymnasiums, and national monuments. Mortal law enforcement may not seem like much of a threat compared to a phalanx of bronze bulls or a pack of hellhounds, but why add unnecessary inconveniences to an already complicated quest?
Lesson Three: Spotting a Monster
Monster recognition isn’t just about memorizing the names and types of creatures you may encounter, though that doesn’t hurt. If you’re wondering whether your algebra teacher is a Fury or just a mean old lady with a lot of cats, the most important thing is to use your head, starting with your eyes, ears, and nose.
Creatures with a nature spirit in their parentage, like nymphs, satyrs, and Cyclopes, can smell a monster easily. However, it isn’t convenient to keep a nymph or satyr with you at all times. A smart demigod must learn to pay attention to his or her nose. This takes practice, since we spend a lot of our lives trying not to smell things. The drugstore has entire aisles dedicated to soap and deodorant, powders and perfumes and air fresheners, so that we never have to be troubled by an unpleasant scent.8
Fortunately, monsters don’t generally worry about such things, which makes them easier to spot. Man-eating giants do not floss. While no one likes to accuse his or her classmate of having halitosis or b.o., if your new gym partner could knock over a double-decker bus with his breath, this may be a sign you need to lace up your sneakers and get ready for a fight.
Still on the fence over whether your vice principal is a Manticore? Perhaps you could “accidentally” set off the fire sprinklers in class. If he smells like the fur of a wet dog under his suit, you had better skip detention.
In the world of the Olympians, the Mist may obscure your vision, but the wise hero could use that to his advantage. If you can’t remember what your lab partner looks like or have a hard time looking him in the eye, the Mist might be a factor, something that would only happen if you were dealing with a nonhuman.
Also, you can study the way the person dresses. We try to be sensitive to cultural differences in clothing, but a clever monster9 may count on this to disguise its disguise. A head-to-toe veil may be perfectly innocent, or it may hide a face that could stop a clock–literally–by turning it into stone.
You should pay attention, as well, to fashion choices. Since monsters never die, they have trouble staying up-to-date with fads in clothes and hobbies.10 If your new teacher dresses in a tiger-striped Hawaiian shirt every day, or the new kid in school has never heard of a PlayStation, you might not want to turn your back on them.
As long as you keep your eyes and ears open, monsters–with few exceptions–will be pretty easy to spot. Some of them are crafty, but they’re really not very good at pretending to be human. Some can manage it for a little while but will usually give themselves away to a hero who is paying attention. The problem is that most heroes–not Percy and his companions, of course–may be too focused on finding the treasure or finding their quest to pay attention.
While something that is off or odd should put you on guard, no one thing–smelly breath or rude manners or bad fashion–may be conclusive by itself. It would be a shame to get expelled from school (or arrested) for trying to stab the principal with a ballpoint pen just because he doesn’t use enough deodorant.11
This is where Percy gives us a very good example of how to deal with monsters: Look at the whole picture. The most important thing he does when he is dealing with a mythical creature is to use his brain. If nothing else, it might take his opponent off-guard. No one really expects a clever hero; the training tends to focus more on the muscles than the mind.
Remember the cardinal rule when dealing with monsters, sorcerers, and gods: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. An offer of something for nothing should always put a hero on his guard, and no other sense will tell you that other than your common one.
One of the most admirable things about Percy Jackson is that he has learned from his mistakes over the course of his adventures.12 His classical education is almost nonexistent, but he demonstrates that successfully dealing with a monster takes more than memorization of facts and history. A hero has to observe all the fine points that make a monster stand out from what passes for normal in the mortal world. A creature with an unusual number of heads is obvious. More often, what Percy notices are the many small details that add up to two things: a monster, and immediate danger.13
This doesn’t only apply to identifying monsters and killing them but to how he interacts with all nonhumans. In his adventures, Percy uses these many details to decide how to deal with each monster on an individual basis. He rescues monsters, even protects and befriends them. Perhaps this open-mindedness is a result of having a Cyclops for a brother.
Or perhaps this is simply part of his personality and something else that sets him apart among heroes. In his encounters with gods and monsters, Percy Jackson uses not just his muscles and his mind but his heart. It makes him difficult to predict and control, which is why the gods consider him so potentially dangerous while the prophecy remains unfulfilled.
But it also makes him a hero, not just in the classical, demigod sense, but of the human kind too. That’s the most important lesson we can take away from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books. You may never have to deal with Manticores and Gorgons, and the Minotaur may not be waiting to ambush you on the way to school,but we all have to deal with our own monsters: bullies, peer pressure, stranger danger, prejudice, new kids in school . . . an endless list that makes our world challenging even if we aren’t demigods.
But just like Percy Jackson, you too can achieve success in all your quests if you apply these same lessons: Avoid conflict when you can, keep your eyes and ears open, and always look at the whole picture. And like Percy, don’t ever be afraid to ask for help from your friends.
- The original one, not Percy Jackson of The Lightning Thief, etc. The ancient Perseus was the son of Zeus, not Poseidon, so it’s curious that his mother picked that name.
- Chiron wouldn’t use this example, of course, because in his world there are no such things as wizards. That would be just silly.
- Just the opposite, since according to the agreement between the Big Three, you should not even exist, and lots of creatures would be trying to arrange it so you didn’t.
- See previous footnote re: unauthorized offspring.
- If we lived in the world of Percy and the Olympians, I would definitely wonder about that coffee chain with the mermaid on its logo, for no other reason than convincing mortal society that it is reasonable to pay three dollars for a cup of coffee is surely a plot to speed the end of Western Civilization.
- Though this would explain a lot about Manhattan cab drivers.
- By that I mean the mortal world, the immortal world, and the Underworld. Speaking of Hades, he may have a special reason to hate Percy, but all half-bloods should be wary of him. He’s like that kid at your school who never gets invited to play with everyone else, but with superpowers and several thousand years for his temper to come to a boil. Hades is understandably cranky.
- None of which apparently changes the fact that monsters can smell heroes pretty easily.
- This isn’t always an oxymoron, any more than “wise hero” is.
- Or, more likely, they just don’t care.
- Which you wouldn’t, because you can tell the difference between fiction and reality. If you can’t, then you have a bigger problem than mythical monsters.
- At least in his dealings with monsters. In other matters, he still seems pretty clueless. Romance, for example (at least until he and Annabeth get together).
- This is, perhaps, a product of the hero’s natural attention to so many details at a time, i.e., his ADHD.