A keeper? Thoroughly undecided
A Forest of Kings promises to let you in on the recently deciphered history of the ancient Maya in what’s now Mexico and Guatemala. And it is packed solid with information. (Including some insight on whether we really ought to expect the world to end in seven months.*)
At this point, I should probably add a short warning about how to apply my opinion of this book to your own interests. Once upon a time, I was an archaeology major. In other words, I think things that happened a long time ago are interesting, and I think using the crumbling, grimy remnants of Back Then to understand what people who have been dead a long time were up to is interesting. Your Mileage May, as usual, Vary.
A Forest of Kings is a hybrid (about a four-way hybrid, actually). On one hand, it does offer us Mayan history – which turns out to be a lot more dramatic and human than the old version that thought the Maya were peaceful astronomer-priests obsessed with the calendar. Uh-uh. No. It’s true that they were kind of obsessed by the meaning of various dates and time periods – and they were obsessed because they meant to use the information to their own advantage to get rich and win wars and become powerful. They were very rich indeed – probably some of the most prosperous people of their time, the 600s and 700s and 800s, when Europe was in the poverty-stricken depths of the Dark Ages.
There are many, many line drawings of Mayan art – which is astonishing and hard to “read”. A lot of the images show Maya kings and queens wearing clothes that are so elaborate you have to search for the human being hidden in them, and so elaborate you wonder how they could have moved around without falling over, or at least having their huge headdresses tip down across their faces.
The book also goes into lots and lots and lots of detail about excavations and tombs and inscriptions, probably too much detail for many people. And the history tends to get lost among the excavations and the painstakingly literal translations of reproduced inscriptions – for example, “18 days, 7 uinals” [a uinal is a 20-day time period] “22.214.171.124.18 11 Etz’nab 11 Ch’en” [the date] “hubi (it was brought down) the flint-shield of Jaguar-Paw of Calakmul captive of the ahau”. The quote here means, more or less, “On 11 Etz’nab 11 Ch’en (August 8, 695), King Jaguar-Paw of Calakmul was captured by our king Ah-Cacaw of Tikal.”
And finally, there are little scenes scattered through the book – not connected enough for a historical novel, but maybe we can call them historical short stories. They try to show us how various events looked to the people involved, and many of them are effective.
Will I keep A Forest of Kings or get rid of it? It’s a rich-as-fruitcake introduction, as complex as Mayan art, to what has been learned about the ancient Maya over the last few decades. But it tries to be too many different books all at once. I’ll keep it for now, but it may have to go later when I make final decisions about just how much we have room for.
* Okay. Is the world going to end this December??
The Maya had a lot of interests besides keeping track of the date, but they did develop one of the most complicated calendars ever, with a couple of different ways of figuring out where they were in the “real” solar year combined with a system for counting how many days had passed since their beginning of time, August 11, 3114 B.C. When they used this beginning-of-time system, they normally settled for writing “only” the first five digits of the date – and that cycle will reset to zero in December 2012.
But there are larger units in the Mayan calendar – one king of Palenque had an inscription made that predicted the anniversary of his reign will be celebrated in October, 4772. What happens this winter is more or less the same as what happened twelve years ago, when we started a new millenium.