Percy Jackson Meets Harry Potter?

The LA Times suggests in an article, Is Percy Jackson’s mythology too close to Harry Potter’s magic?, that Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is necessarily derivative of our favorite boy wizard. That seems likely; I mean, how could anyone living in in the wake of Potter-mania write a coming-of-age story about a boy learning he has mythic parentage previously unknown to him and not make readers and movie goers think of Harry and Hogwarts? When Percy is assigned to Camp Half-Blood, the reading world has associations with “Percy” in mind that are more “Weasley” than
Authurian and with “Half-Blood” that give us Severus Snape (or at least Alan Rickman) as well.

Neck deep in Twilight as I am, I have not read Percy Jackson yet. I hear about him everyday at lunch, however, from my four youngest children, ages nine to sixteen, who love the books and are looking forward to the movie. My youngest two boys have started studying mythology completely on their own and with no small fervor (no, I am not afraid that they will think the gods are real and attempt to join an Olympus coven…). Here are the things I expect Percy Jackson to have in common with Harry Potter:

1. A likable protagonist (Orphans, Others, and Outsiders, please!)
2. Postmodern morality (Speak Truth to Power!)
3. Some dramatic confrontation (Gotta have a Chase in there somewhere for the film..)
4. A victorious hero learning something about himself and resolving at least one interior conflict per adventure.

That would be the kind of great Harry Potter bildungsroman story-echo I could get into, especially if the Greek gods are done well (and I am told by four serious readers at my dining room table that Riordan’s gods and goddesses are great).

I suspect that the reason Potter, Percy, and Bella are so popular, though, is the way they shoot the gap of the story spectrum explained by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism to deliver characters that are simultaneously mythic or supernatural and still sufficiently realistic to be believable and foster identification.

Here is Frye on the differences between myth, romance, and naturalism on a story teller’s sliding scale:

“Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other, and in between lies the whole area of romance, using that term to mean..the tendency… to displace myth in a human direction and yet, in contrast to “realism,” to conventionalize content in an idealized direction. The central principle of displacement is that what can be metaphorically identified in a myth can only be linked in a romance by some form of simile: analogy, significant association, incidental accompanying imagery, and the like. In a myth we can have a sun-god or a tree-god; in a romance we may have a person who is significantly associated with the sun or the trees. In more realistic modes the association becomes less significant and more a matter of incidental, even coincidental or accidental, imagery.”

(Anatomy, pages 136-137)

The “romances” of literary criticism, the idealized stories in which we recognize abstracted and heroic qualities rather than “analogies of our experience,” which is to say “life and people as we know them,” are by nature allegorical. Allegories are those story elements that act as a kind of transparency through which we can see greater realities. Romantic heroes are best for this kind of work because they are still sufficiently human to be believable and engaging however incredible the story events may be. The more incredible, in fact, that these story elements are in a Romance, the easier it is to see or experience in them the virtues, beauty, and principles or truth we miss in mundane reality.

The best type of Romances for experiencing the goal of our most basic longings for ‘other,’ for love, namely God, then, would be those stories that are idealized representations of heroic, allegorical male-female relationships, call them “love stories” or “romances” with a little ‘r.’ In these boy-meets-girl tales, both literary Romances and love-story romances, are the clearest transparencies through which we can imaginatively enter into the Human Seeker-God agape love.

We all know what it is like to love a person. As Socrates teaches in The Symposium, though, this erotic love is only the beginning of or a shadow of the greater loves of friendship, fellowship, and family. These, too, are just shades of Love Itself, love of the Good, divine love, in which there is no ‘other.’

But how can we express that kind of love so everyone can understand it or enter it, whatever their spiritual maturity? By telling love stories. Especially those love stories that are allegorical and offer representations not only of one person fascinated with another person but which also point, however obliquely, to the greatest love relationship, that of Man and God. In scripture, we have this in the Song of Songs. In literature, we see it in Dante’s Romance, The Divine Comedy, in which his idealized love for Beatrice is his means to the Beatific Vision and union with God in Paradise.

What does this have to do with Percy Jackson and Harry Potter? Well, it explains why they’re so popular and why critics dismiss them as kid lit.

Critics dismiss them because in their literary taxonomy only the realist or modern novel, the psychological drama, is “Literature.” Everything else is more or less “genre trash.” Their scale is one of categories and books not in the right genera do not deserve to be taken seriously or treated respectfully. Call it “genre revulsion” or “reject reflex.”

The books are so popular because they work as Romances, capital ‘R’ (Ms. Rowling’s love story sub-plots, alas, are awkwardly done and not her strong suit). They feature idealized characters who are just human enough for us to identify with them and be capable of suspending our disbelief to enter the story. The stories also feature the mythic, paranormal, or supernatural elements that draw us deeply into the imaginative experience of atemporal time, non-local place, and self-transcending ‘action.’ The stories serve the mythic or religious function that Eliade said novels and entertainments serve in a scular culture. Story is the only means many people have to live outside their concerns and fears about personal advantage and disadvantage.

Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and Bella Swan by engaging the reader with anthropomorphic archetypes and alchemical magic after drawing us in with the winsome orphan or loner story formula.

Your thoughts? (H/T to David Gras on the Times article)


  1. schmalchemy says

    I’ve read the Riordan series. Basically, I loved the stories, and learned so much more about Greek mythology than I ever learned in school. The mythology draws a reader in and yes, Percy’s stories (and other characters) drew me in, but alchemical, give it a rest!

    The stories are good, period!

  2. John, another great exegesis with Harry Potter in comparison to a similar work!

    An appropriate and interesting quote form the article struck me immediately on the comparison to HP issue:

    “We found it was a fresh arena,” says Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler, whose division is releasing the film. “It also deals with a lot of issues that kids and young people go through. Self-realization, breaking with the family, becoming more independent, finding out what your parents are, feeling a bit like an outcast and making yourself strong”.

    The only difference in those character descriptions from HP is that Harry was “broken” from his family through their sacrificial deaths rather than his personal choice. All the rest fits Rowling’s HP to a tee.

    Read that quote and tell me Elizabeth Gabler doesn’t have a boy-wizard named “Harry” in the back of her thoughts.

    In fact, after taking a look at the trailer for the movie due to open next Feb., you put a pair of dark round rimmed glasses on actor Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson)and he easily could have been an audition finalist for the role of HP at Leavesden Studios 10 years ago! This along with Chris Columbus being the Director of this movie fits well for this series looking like a run-off behind Harry Potter’s coat tails.

    I have nothing against the fact that Rowling’s work with HP is and has been an inspiration to other writers in the fantasy/mythic genre that have similarities to the internal literary work of HP. The same point has been made in the past to other lesser known works in comparison to Tolkien/ C S Lewis and the rest of the Inkings.

    John, along with your children reading moreand other children being inspired by the courage, bravery and sacrifice of the hero within these works.

    I say to these writers, “write-on”!

  3. I seem to recall the contention that there were only around 30 stories in the world and that all else were mere variations. I do not know if that is a true contention. It is however true that human experience is just human experience and that must be overlap in the telling of stories. That is a far cry from totally derivative. And I do recall reading parts of Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES which makes the point in its title.

    The artistry is the measure of the individual author or storyteller’s ability to rivet us. There is considerable difference there. I have not yet read this series so I cannot comment on that.

  4. I haven’t read the Jackson books so I don’t know if they are alchemical but assume they are not. My focus in this post was in their being Romances; I’m sorry if my closing line, Schmalchemy, distracted you from the point I spent so much time making (obviously to little positive effect!).

  5. schmalchemy says

    The LA Times writer must be unaware of the fact that before Harry Potter there was Greek mythology. Rowling didn’t invent magic or mythology, but she wrote a darn good story (why we all are hooked into Harry Potter). She used some mythologic creatures in her novels, but perhaps the LA Times writer is not aware of the mythology in Harry Potter.

    Riordan’s books follow Greek mythology to a T, which is one of the reasons why they are successful in the Romance genre. Myths get into the reader; there is a truth to mythology that is hard to dispute. If kids and young adults learn a bit of Greek mythology, well, that’s a good thing, in my opinion!

  6. Arabella Figg says

    schmalchemy, I agree! I loved the Greek myths when I was a young teen, and knew all the Greek/Latin names. The stories were gripping and imaginative, and revealed all the aspects of human nature (hardly divine nature). I fondly remember that period of my life and am glad for it, because I catch references right off.

  7. John,

    I had been meaning to tell you about the Percy Jackson books because I recently read them with my son.

    As you can tell from my screen name, I adore Greek mythology. In fact, I hesitated reading the series because I have been disappointed with poorly done adaptations of Greek myths in the past. I could not finish watching Disney’s movie Hercules nor did I care for Clash of the Titans.

    Using the drama inherent in Greek mythology is enough to work with, you should not invent cutesie creatures to dress up the set and make up new sideline stories. That was my complaint with Hercules.

    In reading the Percy Jackson series, I was delighted to discover Rick Riordan’s deep knowledge of his source material as well as his personal twists to the legends. There are many aspects to the series that are enjoyable, but for me it was recognizing the figures from Greek mythology before they were positively identified in the text. It was like a guessing game of sorts. I didn’t always figure it out ahead of time, but I did get to shout out “Echidna” a full page before it was mentioned in the story.

    The humor is great and deftly done.

    The characterizations for the gods and goddesses for the most part follows my own affinities toward them. Rick Riordan shows a preference for Athena over Aphrodite, does not particularly care for Hera. Those biases mirror my own.

    I loved his characterizations of Hermes and Apollo, but I thought his characterization of Dionysus was a tad strange. It was funny, but I thought it was “off” of what I perceived Dionysus to be like.

    Hades was funny. Hysterically funny.

    I howled when Hades finally made his appearance.

    Overall, I inhaled the series as if it were bowls of buttered popcorn.

    I am definitely looking forward to seeing the movie. However, I disagree with David’s comments that the actor could have been a finalist for the HP movies. Nah. If anything, he looks like Zac Efron’s little brother.

    The actors playing Percy and Annabeth are much older than the twelve year old characters written by Rick Riordan. Perhaps the studio wanted to appeal to older teens from the very beginning of the series. That is, if they wind up filming all five books.

    And, well, as for the idea of alchemy in the series…there might be. I am no expert on the matter, and can really only recognize it once the elements have been pointed out to me. There are journeys underground in all of the books. Some of them are into the depths of the Underworld or the realm of Hades. Perhaps once John gets some free time he can read them and see whether or not he thinks Riordan followed some similar alchemical pattern in his storytelling.


  8. I read all the Percy Jackson books at my daughter’s insistence. She proclaimed, as she read them, that they were clearly better than Harry Potter!

    They were fun. And I think they’ll make great movies. But you know what? I didn’t really care what happened to most of the characters, and I can’t for the life of me remember what incidents happened in which book. They all run together.

    Of course Fox has HP in the back of their mind as they release their first movie — Believe me, every single kids’ fantasy book series has been snapped up by the studios, all with HP in mind…. Most of them will never make it to the screen. Percy Jackson deserves to make it to the screen, and I think it will make a very strong movie series (certainly more cinematic than Narnia)…

    But my daughter has shown no interest whatsoever in re-reading them…. even though last week she picked up HP again to start reading it over from the beginning….

  9. I, too, just recently finished the Riordan series and was immediately struck with the similarities to HP. I just finished blogging about it but here is my ultimate opinion/summation of my experience:

    As a literature teacher who appreciates the period of antiquity and the early Greek and Roman mythology, I see value in a series that introduces young readers to these myths. I teach Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid in tenth grade, and I would love for my students to come in with prior knowledge that goes beyond The Children’s Homer. Riordan refreshed my own memory about some of the stories I allude to in my classes. While as a huge fan of Harry Potter, I think my son may have some issues with Percy Jackson, I will encourage him to read the series just to get a handle on the mythology. I’m not suggesting we adopt polytheism here, but these myths permeate much of literature throughout the ages and they are important to out understanding of some of the greatest novels and epics of our time. For this reason I say read Percy and enjoy a little “mind candy.” Don’t expect it to be more than it is, but take the good and let your children (or yourself) run with it.

  10. My eight-year-old and I are reading LT now. This is a first–reading aloud to him a book I’ve never read. With HP, I was ready for the all the gasps and laughs, but now we see them for the first time together. So far, I find Percy less engaging than Harry; perhaps his smart mouth is less charming because it’s American 🙂 But it’s funny, and my traveling companion is enchanted; today we had a very enlightening conversation on satyrs vs. fauns vis-a-vis Mr. Tumnus and Grover 🙂

  11. I’ve started reading these books. I’m not finished with the first one yet, but I’m sure I’ll want to keep reading at least for a while. They’re fun and interesting, with some twists and turns and unexpected things. I don’t know that much about Greek mythology – whatever I didn know, I’ve really forgotten.

    They do seem similar to Harry Potter, but Percy Jackson didn’t get into his adventures in the same way. And one of the main differences is that the books are all Greek mythology, not a blending of all sorts of myths and fables and other stories. I think one of the things that I liked so much about HP was that it included so many different things.

    Yes, Percy Jackson has a smart mouth, but it’s funny. Might not be if it came out of my own child’s mouth, but since they’re grown, that’s not an issue for me.

    Alchemy? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m missing something. And somehow I can’t see myself rereading these books like I have with Harry Potter.

  12. Does anyone remember Dianne Dunne’s “So You Want to Be a Wizard” and its sequels?

  13. I finished the first book. I liked it. One more comment about alchemy. Earlier I said I didn’t think so. But now I’m not so sure. There were some things that fit, but not in the same way Rowling used it in Harry Potter. It felt more like the alchemical things you see in a movie – put there because the imagery works, not because it’s part of the story.

  14. I started the second book a while ago and still haven’t finished. It’s OK, but just doesn’t grab me the way Harry Potter did and still does. I’m not sure what is missing. Maybe it’s character development. I don’t feel like I really know much about the characters and how they think and who they really are. It’s more of an action oriented tale, and that’s not what holds my interest for very long. In fact, since I put the book aside for more than a week when I was about two-thirds finished, I have had trouble remembering who some of the characters are. But I’m not bothered enough to go back to the beginning of the book to find out.

    Maybe it just is more intriguing to kids than to adults. Or maybe it would be more interesting to me if I had kids in the house who were into the books. That’s probably it.

  15. I’ve read some of the Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson books and they are all fantastic, excellent and brilliant! I absouletly love both magic and mythology. J.K Rowling and Rick Riordan are both wonderful and inquisitive authors. I love all the monsters that appear in the books. I hope Harry and Percy do meet each other soon.

  16. I am reading the book series with my son who is in the fifth grade. He is eating them up and has been researching mythology like crazy. At the very least these books make mythology come alive for him.

    While I am enjoying them, they don’t capture me the way Harry Potter or other books have. The books really do try to hit the humour of a middle school boy and some of the emotions. I imagine that adds to my sons enjoyment of them.

    One thing that does drive me a little crazy is how with every new book series it is immediately compared and then described as being clones of other works. I think what is more likely in many cases is that the inspiration for the stories came from similar stories or places. Like it was posted, there are only so many “stories” out there. I just like the ones that are well done and the author makes them their own. People should read each story for itself without trying to make immediate comparisons to other works.

  17. revgeorge says

    Lynn, the last paragraph of your comment is a great quote! So great in fact that I’m quoting it in a post I’m doing over at I think it’s that good!

  18. I’ll head over to take a look!

  19. Chris Columbus has done very well turning Harry Potter and Percy Jackson into films. Except there’s only one problem…….

    WHICH ONE IS THE BEST! I like Harry, but I like also Percy. Ohhh, which one is better?

  20. Stuart…Until a Percy Jackson series is accomplished/in the can/on the screen in all of its multi-installments glory, how can you compare???

    The LT movie was good, perhaps bordering on “great” when you consider the CG artistry and all. However…and I must include my 13-yr old grandson’s evaluation at this juncture…the movie wasn’t “all that.” He and I read the series together last summer, anticipated a fabulous screen interpretation from Chris Columbus, and were ultimately disheartened in the end (the exception being the last clip during credits when Percy’s step-dad gets his just rewards!).

    Alas, we diehard Potter-purists will forever seek the “great translation” from book to screen! And from what I’ve read on in the last week, DH will provide us THREE comparative opportunities, not two. How can we stand the wait???

  21. maggiemay says

    My 12 year-old 6th grader says everyone in his middle school is reading the series. His Latin teacher recommended it to her entire class. but his evaluation of the film is that it was “suckish.” Why? The actors were too old to play middle-schoolers, so they won’t be able to use the same people for all the films; they changed Grover from a shy, innocent character into a lustful, ghetto-talking dude; and they changed Percy from a hilariously funny protagonist into a dumb hunk.

  22. Elizabeth says

    And Persephone is in the Underworld in the summer (though I did like the touch of playing “Highway to Hell” as they journeyed to the Underworld; only the adults in the theater laughed.)

  23. jennifer says

    i love both the percy jackson series and the harry potter. they both have action romance tradigy and a terrible war at the end. the only difference is harry has to face lord v and percy thinks he has to face luke. however i absulutely hate twilight. i just never saw what was great about it. the host however…

  24. I absoulutley love the hp series!! i heard that pj was just like hp, so i tried it. i fell in love immediatley! then i started to notice the similiaities between the two. Percy is the hero like harry, gover percys best friend replaces harry’s best friend, the loyeal sidekick ron. and annabeth replaces hermione both r know-it-alls. Chiron the wise centaur replaces the headmaster of hogwats, albus dumbeledore. The titan lord kronos is the same as lord voldermort. luke castellan and draco malfoy r both enemies with the hero and serve the ultimate bad guys. the stoll twins are also likethe funny mishcevous wesley twins. Finally magic is replaced by greek mythology. Both r fantastic books and u should definetly read them.

  25. I was reading the Harry Potter books in school and finished but when I heard kids in my class say Percy Jackson was good I started reading that after Harry Potter. Now i’m on the fourth book The Battle Of The Labyrinth in Percy Jackson. I like both Harry Potter And Percy Jackson the same amount but I will read a lot of other books and love them too. So if you love to read I will tell you something i’m doing and that is getting a big note book and writing down the name of that book so I can read those books and the other thing i’m doing with it is putting down an L for like and an N for no

  26. Elizabeth says

    And Nick, don’t be afraid to come back to those N books later on. Sometimes we aren’t ready for a book when we first meet it! Are you noting what you do and don’t like about the books?
    Keeping that list may also be handy later on. I had a student who, on her college application for a school to which she was transferring,, was expected to list all the books she’d read in the last 5 years!

  27. Percy Jackson was written in 1992(5 years before HP.)Why is everyone sticking up for Rowlings.Almost or all of her characters are mythically named.The dementors are wraiths.Aragon the spider is Aragon the hero and the spider(whats her name.)Argus,Minerva,Remus,Hermione,so so.Then theirs Fenrir out of Norse.
    I think Rowlings was unoriginal.All of her ideas are myths or egends she turned around.
    Theres one book i want to see,Aaron Greyhound.Its based on Norse mythology.

  28. Kate,

    According to Wikipedia (not always reliable), Percy Jackson was written in 1994 but not published until 2005. If Wikipedia is correct, any similarities are not from either author influencing the other. They just drew from a lot of the same sources.

    I disagree about the originality of J.K. Rowling. I agree that she drew her ideas from numerous other sources. However, I don’t see that as a sign of lack of originality. She deftly combined her numerous sources to create a story that is fresh and imaginitive. There are few authors that don’t pull many of their ideas from other sources. If J.K. Rowling is unoriginal because of her use of other sources, then Shakespeare is just as unoriginal.

  29. Your point is well taken and I have made it myself previously. I’d note, though, that the reason Percy Jackson was published in the aughts but not the nineties is Potter-mania, cut and dried. And the thought that his book series wasn’t re-packaged by author, agent, and/or editors in light of that historic event is not credible.

  30. I read both harry potter and percy jackson and i have to say percy jackson is better. One is that outside of camp half-blood Percy has real problems that childern can relate to. He’s dilexic and ADHD and gets bad grades because of it. Not only that but the plot was so original Olympus on the 600th floor of the empire state building and the underworld under L.A. Harry always have come across me as a nerd who needs the acptences of teachers unlike Percy who’s rejected by defending people who can’t defend themselves. Percy’s humor and personality just makes him even more likable. Plus the kids got some real daddy issues and needs to prove to Posedion that he can be proud of Percy. Harry did nothing to earn that gorly whereas Percy needed to cross the country several times and complete various quests to earn his. I think hermione is kinda a cry baby and annabeth is BA. Percy’s heart is always in the right place and never loses hope Harry became a little emo in the fifth book. And finally Rick made it so descitive its like an graphic novel in words plus the series dosn’t completely focous on romance and has a killer back-story between Thalia, Luke, and Annabeth. Potter’s deaths are bathed in darkness and grieve but Jackson’s deaths (there are a lot more) are bathed in life, honor, and celebration.
    Daugther of Apollo, out.

  31. The movie adaptation absolutely sucked. A quick summary of it = diversity quota + political correctness gone crazy. The Greek goddess Persephone played by multi-racial Rosia Dawson!?! A black satyr! This is supposed to be Greek mythology, for crying out loud! Greek gods, goddesses, and mythological creatures were (gasp and drum roll) WHITE! Does no one have any respect for European culture anymore?

    I remember people were screaming racism because “Memoirs of a Geisha” had too many Chinese actors instead of Japanese. I’m curious how these people would have reacted if some of the characters had been played by white and black actors to “diversify” things up. I really, really wonder. *eye roll*

  32. @ Christina: No, the plot was anything but original. You don’t seem to understand what a plot is. Plot refers to the interactions between characters and events. The locations of Olympus and the Underworld are story elements.

  33. I just finished watching the movie adaptation the other day, and, while I wasn’t expecting it to win any Oscars, I thought it was a pretty enjoyable story. I confess, at the age of 20 I tried to read the books and put the first one down somewhere around the Medusa chapter. Some juvenile fiction is just too…juvenile. I respected the mythology and Riordan’s use of it in the modern-day story though.

    I agree that Riordan is coming from a very Potter-influenced place, but like John said, what young adult fantasy author (post 1997) isn’t? Publishers are buying these books because they hit the “Potter Points,” and so authors are trying to sell those points. However, I think that some people are making too close of a connection. I believe that Percy Jackson resembles Harry Potter in the same way that Odysseus resembles Luke Skywalker: it’s a story built around the established narrative framework of the Hero’s Journey, complete with Immaculate Birth, Departure, Initiation, Trial, “Death” and “Rebirth,” Master of Two Worlds, etc. etc. We might think that Riordan was sitting with his Potter books, studying protagonists and such, but I think it much more likely that he was studying Homer…or perhaps Lucas…

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