Teaching Teens to Challenge the Gods: What We Can All Learn From Classical Mythology (and Percy Jackson)

Ask a fifth-grader who the Titans or Giants are and there's a good chance they won't tell you about a football team, but rather about monstrous beings out to overthrow the Olympian gods and destroy the beacon of Western civilization, the United States.

They'll also tell you that author Rick Riordan is out with his latest Percy Jackson book this month. The Mark of Athena is the eighth novel in this series that mashes together ancient Greek and Roman mythology in a modern setting, describing the adventures of teenage demigods.

The myths of the Titans and Giants seem to have found their moment. This year also saw the release of the $300 million grossing film Wrath of the Titans, sequel to the even more successful Clash of the Titans, with a third installment -- critics be damned -- apparently on its way. In their quest for ever grander conflicts and more potent villains, today's writers have struck a rich seam in the epic struggles of classical mythology.

This isn't just a matter of entertainment, however. As a professional classicist and educator, I too have a stake in the success of books and films on mythological themes. Like Harry Potter's bastardized Latin, they plant a seed in the minds of students that can develop into an interest of real significance.

What Riordan's and the films' target audience probably doesn't realize, however, is that the cartoonish villains -- the Titans and Giants -- were a much more powerful symbol for ancient writers, which even today can tap into some of our most profound anxieties.

The modern retellings of the myths follow the standard ancient tradition in casting the Titans and Giants -- often viewed as much the same thing -- as monstrous threats to order and civilization. But that's not the whole story. The ancients also realized that these struggles raised serious questions about rival claims to authority and legitimacy.

The Roman writer Seneca turns the violence of the Giants into a political quandary. In his tragedy on the madness of Hercules, the hero goes from subduing beasts and punishing the wicked to resembling a Giant and murdering his family. The familiar dichotomy between good and evil is collapsed within one individual.

The Giant-like Hercules resonates for past and present audiences alike, whether we think of Seneca's own time and the extraordinary power of the Roman emperor, or the frequent double standard in our contemporary attitudes to foreign dictators, or even our ambivalent relationship to military force. Seneca brings home to us the compromises we all make with power -- dependent on its benefices but beholden to its excesses.

The Giants represented more than a challenge to political authority; they challenged received wisdom too. The Roman poet Lucretius could depict his hero, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, as a Giant fighting against superstition. One needn't be a pagan, however, to see the relevance of the image to our own debates. In 2006, at the height of Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion, an essay in the London Times online edition was titled 'Dawkins v God -- Stop the Fight.'

Scientists ancient and modern aren't the only ones elevating humans. The modern retellings of the myths appear to do much the same. Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Perseus of the Titans films may have divine ancestry, but it's their mortal side that's frequently emphasized as they save civilization and vanquish the Titans and Giants. In the Titans films, in particular, the Olympian gods play an increasingly secondary role to the merely semidivine hero.

This secular message nevertheless comes as a bit of a disappointment after the unsettling provocations of Lucretius and Seneca. Somewhere between ancient Rome and Hollywood, a genuine intellectual challenge -- represented by the Giants -- ends up as a confirmation of the status quo.

We may find it easy enough to rest content with a version of the myth in which order is restored and humans are the measure of all things. But even the most conservative of ancient treatments feels quite different by comparison.

Mythical tradition, for instance, explained the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes of Etna as the result of a Giant's attempt to break free of his mountain prison. The very landscape and its terrors drive home the fact that, despite their failure, the Giants still influence and threaten our lives, just as the political and philosophical questions raised by their rebellion continue to seethe and incite.

Rick Riordan and the writers of the Titans franchise are a boon to publishers and movie studios, but, in their own way, they're also a boon to educators and parents. Next time you catch your child reading about Titans or Giants, tell them there's more to the monstrous than meets the eye.