Young Adult

Is Percy Jackson a Bildungsroman?

My Copy of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I casually mention the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan a lot on this blog, but I’ve yet to dive into real discussion of it! My first encounter with this series was way back in third grade. During our Greek Mythology unit (which I was fully immersed in) my teacher lent me a copy of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Actually, now that I’m looking at my copies of the series, I realize one of them might actually be one I borrowed from my elementary school teacher. Is eleven years too late to return a borrowed book?

These books are so incredibly worn because they are well loved. I consider Percy Jackson (along with a series about a certain boy with a lightning scar) to be the crux of my nerd origin story. There was something so cool about the fact that this secret summer camp could really exist, and kids my age could be out in the world fighting monsters and going on quests.

To me, the Heroes of Olympus series and particularly the first book, is a great middle grade coming of age story. The technical term for the sort of story where a character is in their formative years and goes on a big journey of growth is a bildungsroman.

According to Brittanica, the bildungsroman is “a class of novel that depicts and explores the manner in which the protagonist develops morally and psychologically.” Britannica provides a whole list of popular bildungsromans in this article. I recommend checking it out! So, a bildungsroman is all about that period of formative growth where the protagonist not only begins to form into their own real person, but also their eyes are opened to the world around them in a new way. This can happen though a character going out into the world for the first time, like in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, or, through eye-opening experiences in one’s own hometown, like in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The question is: do we consider Percy Jackson’s story a bildungsroman? Well, the lovely and frustrating thing about discussing literature is that we’re all entitled to our own opinions, so I cannot give a solid mandate answer. But after much thought, I say yes! I wholeheartedly think Percy’s story fits the bill.

Let me tell you why I believe this story is a bildungsroman.

The Lightning Theif opens on a twelve year old protagonist who is super naive in many ways. He’s only twelve, and his view of the world and the way people treat each other is very small. Then, Percy Jackson discovers he is a Demigod, the son of a Greek god, and his life changes forever. But it’s not just the knowledge of his Demigod status that changes him, it is also the incredible hero’s journey that he embarks on.

When we’re thinking of a bildungsroman as a story of formation, it is so easy to see how Percy fits the bill. He rises to the occasion even when he is terrified or when the odds seem impossible. He constantly fights for what he believes is right, and holds incredibly high value on his personal relationships. From the kid who was always getting expelled from school, to the boy who fights for moral goodness in the bleakest moments, Percy Jackson certainly undergoes a transformation into a real leader.

There’s a second part to a bildungsroman: education. What has Percy learned throughout the series? Obviously, he learns that his dad is Posideon and monsters are real. But Percy also learns a lot about how the gods treat the Demigods like game pieces. He learns that perhaps just because a person has power does not mean that they are right and just. Certainly, having kids do all of your petty bidding is not a super mature move on the god’s side.

See, Percy walks away from the Heroes of Olympus series on the verge of adulthood. But his change isn’t just in age. He’s spent years on quests working as a tool for the gods. And over time, he’s grown into the awareness of how used he is.

The formation and education combine to create a kickass changed character. Percy lives in this balance of standing up for himself against the gods and saying that authority is not always right. Yet still, even with the frustration he holds, Percy is able to see that what the gods have the power to maintain—peace—is incredibly important. He is mature enough to fight for what is right, because the gods aren’t willing to do it themselves.

If you’ve read this post and thinking ‘oh my god! I love a good bildungsroman!‘ I have some good news for you. I am, in fact, obsessed with discussing what stories fit the characteristics of a bildungsroman. This will not be the last time you hear the term on this blog.

Stories like Percy’s are incredibly important. A bildungsroman written for a younger audience has a crucial place in literature because it has the opportunity to become a part of somebody’s real life formation and journey to adulthood. Think back to the stories you read at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old. How did they stick with you? Young protagonists are special for young readers because they gives the opportunity for so much discovery both for the character and the reader.

A lot of the lessons Percy learns about the value of friendship are great for kids to see. But also the series teaches young kids about the importance of standing up for themselves, and also that adults aren’t operating with good and just intentions. These kinds of messages create kind and strong readers!

2 thoughts on “Is Percy Jackson a Bildungsroman?”

  1. First, applauding from the rooftops your third grade teacher who recognized your interest in mythology and gave you a book to keep that interest alive.

    Second, I am also a huge fan of bildungsroman writings for young readers. You focused on many of the strong points behind this type of story. I’d like to add that accompanying the character on this journey, the reader also see that challenges (yep, even failures) are part of everyone’s life and can be overcome with perseverance, thought power, and a little help from friends.


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