‘The Lightning Thief’ Is a True Testament of a Hero’s Journey

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Lighting Thief

Tales of heroes are found throughout the world in various forms and they appeal to every individual on different levels. Perhaps one reason for their appeal comes from such tales as seen in Rick Riordan’s novel The Lightning Thief. This story tells the story of Percy Jackson, who is blamed by Zeus for stealing his master’s lightning bolt. Percy must travel to do all that is possible to prove his innocence. One thing that can be said about this journey is that it’s the quintessential hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell, a well-known American scholar of mythology, describes the hero’s journey as, “the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.” There are several steps of the journey, which is what I’ll go into more detail on. Rather than doing a simple book review, I wanted to tackle Percy and his evolution into a hero. 

The first component of a hero’s journey begins with the call to action. This is when the hero is introduced to the dilemma, and it’s up to the hero to prevent whatever disaster may come. In The Lightning Thief, his call to action comes from two instances in The Lightning Thief. First, without his own realization, he was blamed for a crime that he didn’t commit. Zeus, the god of Olympus, blames Percy Jackson for stealing his lightning bolt. Percy’s father, Poseidon (god of the sea), tells him that his son has no knowledge of who he is or anything about their existence. Zeus promises him an all-out war if Percy does not bring him back his master lightning bolt before the summer solstice. Right around the same time, Percy has his second moment. While he’s on a field trip, is attacked by his math teacher, who has secretly been taking a human form to hide her monster form. He is saved by his best friend, who is assigned to be his protector, and his Latin teacher, who is actually a centaur named Chiron. These two instances set up his journey perfectly. He must prove his innocence and save the world from an all-out god war.

The refusal of this call is the next component of a hero’s journey. It may be caused by many factors but it is usually an inner struggle within the hero. In The Lightning Thief, Percy is first presented with the quest to retrieve the lightning bolt, he refuses. However, Percy changes his mind after he makes an interesting discovery about his mother’s life choices. We learn that Percy’s mother Sally Jackson married an abusive man, it is revealed that Percy’s safety was the reason she stayed. Chiron tells Percy “Your mom stayed with him to protect you. She was a smart lady. She must’ve loved you a lot to put up with that guy- if that makes you feel any better.”  It must be a harsh realization for Percy, knowing his mother did all of this for him. It may be possible that Percy would have much rather be chased by monsters that have her mother suffer. It shows what type of person his mother was to do something of such caliber.

Percy uses this as momentum to accept and accomplish this quest. Moreover, Percy gains proper motivation after he learns the truth about his mother’s fate from Hades. Hades tells Percy that he is in fact took his mother’s soul and is keeping it hidden away. Hades will give it back once Percy gives him the lightning bolt so he can overtake Olympus and destroy his brothers. Just like most other children, he would do anything to save his mother from danger. This provides the proper motivation for Percy, to go look for the lightning bolt. Not only that, but this demonstrates personal growth. As a reader, watcher we now know that he would be willing to do whatever it takes to save anyone he cared about from danger.

The hero’s journey involves our hero having to enter the unknown. This unknown can refer to any environment of mental space that the hero is in. In this instance, the major unknown happens twice. The first would be the place where all demigods go for training during the summer, Camp Half-Blood. With Percy not knowing anything about his relationship with the Greek Gods, he must grow accustomed to this new place. He now has to make this place his new home, since monsters will stop at nothing to kill him for who his father is. This means that Percy must learn all of the rules that the camp has. He must undergo all the training and learn to fight. However, this is not the only unknown that Percy must encounter. Since he is a demigod, Percy has special abilities and connections with the ocean that were passed down by his father. These special abilities are important since they will determine whether or not Percy will survive. Having a complete mastery of this unknown will make Percy much stronger, which reinforces the notion of personal growth that is developed throughout any journey.

Receiving support from different forces throughout the book is an important component of the hero’s journey. They will make the hero feel less alone, provide the motivation that may be helpful. Along his journey, he receives help from many supernatural forces (the gods and goddesses of Olympus). For instance, after the battle that Percy has with Echidna and Chimera, his father’s powers cure his wounds. In addition, Percy receives a talisman from Chiron named Anaklusmos – which translates to Riptide. This talisman takes the form of a pen, but once clicked, it transforms into a full-length sword. These two gifts will provide protection and defense, however, one cannot forget one of the greatest forms of aid. His friends. He is accompanied by his best friend, Grover, and Annabeth Chase, a girl that he had met at camp. Since Grover is not only his best friend but also a satyr, he has the ability to track objects. Annabeth is the best fighter and strategist at camp, which proves to be very helpful with the obstacles that they face throughout their journey.

The journey itself is filled with many challenges and obstacles. For Percy, there are four essential challenges that make the greatest impact on his story. Percy’s mother sacrifices herself to the minotaur so the Percy and Grover could cross the boundary line and get to the safety of Camp Half-Blood. Watching his mother die, Percy finds the inner strength to take on the beast. During this fight, readers can see the development of his battle reflexes. Up to this moment, Percy seemed to doubt everything about the supernatural. After this, it seems as if he realized that he knew how to take on the best without being fully aware.

The second event in The Lightning Thief takes place when Percy, Annabeth, and Grover encounter Medusa. They discover that Medusa has been tricking people into her plant emporium and turning them into stone. Percy realizes that the only way to defeat her is by merely looking at her reflection through a mirror. This demonstrates his strategic development, further advancing in his warrior skills. At this point, it seems as if Percy has realized that those battle skills were always there, and is now able to take advantage of them.

The third challenge comes when Percy takes on Echidna, the mother of all monsters, and her son, Chimera. Percy, outmatched, jumps into the Mississippi River, hoping to gain support from the sea. This, as discussed above, shows how Percy is gaining control of his powers, which in this case heal the bite that he got during the battle. This also demonstrates that Percy’s father protects him, regardless of how their relationship is.

The fourth obstacle proves to be the hardest in The Lightning Thief during their stay at the Lotus Hotel Casino. After their drive to Las Vegas, Percy and his friends are stopped at the hotel by a doorman, inviting them in. Once they’re inside, the trio is mesmerized by the hotel and easily forget about their quest. However, Percy realizes something is wrong when he meets someone who told him that the year was 1977. He quickly escaped the trance he was put in and rescues his friends from the hotel. This hotel seemed to be added as a test of self-control. If they had not escaped the spell, they would have missed their deadline for retrieving the bolt. Percy was able to pass this test, proving his growth and discovering that the superficial things in life no longer mattered in the world he was a part of.

The Abyss in fact proves to be the most dangerous and greatest of all the previous challenges. Percy and his friends have finally reached the underworld to confront Hades. Percy focuses on his main objectives, rescuing his mother and retrieving the lightning bolt. Angrily, Hades accuses them of stealing the bolt and his Helmet of Darkness. Percy opens his bag, given to him by Ares, to prove that he doesn’t have the bolt. However, he finds both things in his bag and things begin to spiral out of control. He grabs the three orbs that were given to him by Luke and smashes them, out of a sudden attempt of bravery.

Revelation, transformation, and atonement are the most essential factors of the hero’s journey. The revelation is a sudden realization the hero has about himself and his view of the world. Transformation deals with life and death, the moment a part of the hero dies so another part can be born. Atonement is essential since it describes when a hero is at one with himself/herself. Once Percy realizes that Ares has tricked him by giving him the bag which had the bolt, he is transformed. He challenged him to a battle and used all of the strength he acquired throughout his journey. He gained mastery of the abilities given to him by his father and managed to defeat a god, which definitely wasn’t an easy task. At the moment of Percy meeting his father after the battle, Percy realized just what it means to be a half-blood, and accepted who he really was. He embraced his own identity and didn’t doubt any of it.

The last piece of a hero’s journey is the return. This is when the hero realizes what has been accomplished and acknowledges the development of their skills. Percy went on to Mount Olympus and returned the bolt to Zeus. Zeus spared Percy’s life and congratulated him. Percy met his father, and both were able to share a connection that had never been established. Upon his return back home, he is welcomed with a party and such great recognition. However, he discovers that it was Luke who stole the bolt. They had a battle, but Luke escaped. He knew this wasn’t the last time he would see Luke. Upon Percy’s return home, he found his mother alive, having been returned after Hades discovered the truth about Ares. Percy had saved the world and felt happy that he has now discovered who he really is.

Percy’s transformation into a hero perfectly embodies Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” With all of the literature that used the hero’s journey as a through-line, this one holds a special place in my life. The Lightning Thief inspired my love for Greek mythology and I became an instant fan of Mr. Riordan’s work. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. The Lightning Thief evolves into something spectacular that you’ll never get tired of reading.

Be on the lookout for Rick Riordan’s future works and books that will be part of his “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint. You can find more information HERE.