PLACE OF THE MISTY SKY: The legend, the new book by T. C. KUHN, and the story behind this important new novel
Below is the complete PREFACE to the new novel by T.C. Kuhn, dealing with the origins of Classic Maya Civilization. This is the first of three novels envisioned to deal with the important and often neglected topic of the rise, spread, and decline of the Classic Maya. This PREFACE details the rationale behind this new novel and the unusual approach the author has chosen to tell the first of these three exciting new stories he has planned. Past readers of the PEOPLE OF THE STONE book series will find this new approach both familiar and also quite different in the way two stories, ancient and modern, have been blended to create a unique look at Maya culture over the last two thousand years.
For more information on the story and to take advantage of an exciting new offer on this forthcoming book, please check out the previous article on this Blog announcing this forthcoming new novel.
PLACE OF THE MISTY SKY
PLACE OF THE MISTY SKY is a work of historical fiction dealing with the origins of the Classic Maya. It is really two concurrent and related stories set in Guatemala nearly two thousand years apart, told with alternating chapters rooted in the present and approximately at the time of Christ—ironically the same period from which our own reckoning of Time is generally recorded as coming either before or after. But much of what follows is presented as history only in the sense of the records the Mayan peoples themselves have left us and in combination with what several generations of dedicated archeologists, linguists, and other scholars have accomplished. In any attempt to piece together some portion of these early people’s amazing achievements—achieved while living in one of the most challenging environments for complex cultural developments anywhere—we must also credit the ability of the living descendants of the Maya in preserving many of the threads which connect them to that mysterious past. Without this long continuity neither the ability to tell even a small element of that story, nor the reason for even doing so, perhaps, would be possible, or seen as useful.
However, any writer who is either ambitious or foolish enough to imagine a series of works taking on the rise, spread, and decline of the civilization we have come to call Mayan almost immediately runs into several challenging obstacles. Any one of these limiting factors can not only be quite daunting in the scope of its apparent difficulty, but also downright disheartening in the very contemplation of how to overcome it. Perhaps this is one good reason why, when compared to other great prehistoric civilizations, there are so few really useful treatments—fictional or non-fictional—of this very important and potentially fertile field for any storyteller. As the author of several books in the genre of what I have chosen to call the “anthropological novel”, and after several years of preparation (and what some might call “waffling”) this writer has chosen to finally take on these obstacles.
The two-part story that follows makes an attempt to reveal at least some aspect of this amazing group of peoples and what were, at least to those of us so far removed from their time and place, their almost incomprehensible accomplishments. That many of these achievements came at a time when much of the world was living in what we have come to call a Dark Age is another factor that has kept the Mayan civilization one of the most hidden and misunderstood of those New World peoples whom we have only begun to comprehend in the fullness of their own light—and our own understanding—in the last one hundred or so years.
Even at the most basic level of our comprehension, the Maya are unique in many aspects of their World View and the unusual manner in which they crafted this view of their universe. The fact that they continue to exist and function as a distinct people within much of that same World View also adds to the mystery and allure of their culture. Central to this uniqueness is their ability to view Time and Space in both a fashion and with a precision that few peoples, either before or after them, have either attempted or managed to accomplish. Even with our Twentieth Century tools of technology and ever-expanding abilities to analyze virtually any aspect of a culture’s material or non-material existence we are still quite often baffled by the uniqueness of the Maya presence. Just to enter into their concept of Time and the three-dimensional and cyclical ways in which they viewed and preserved it can seem no less of a mental struggle than one might experience if transported to an alien world in another galaxy. In order to integrate this, and other almost equally alien ideas, into a workable story and narrative designed to both entertain and enlighten a wide-range of potential readers, the writer must almost from the outset make crucial informational and conceptual editing decisions, the outcome of which he or she cannot fully predict at the beginning of the larger project.
Therefore, the decision to integrate the ancient story I wished to tell into a simultaneous modern narrative directly connected to the past events which are also being portrayed has been a difficult but (for this writer at least) a useful, ultimately perhaps even an inevitable, one to move the reader through the complexities of Mayan time and space. Perhaps, this concept will allow the reader to keep one foot in the present while, at the same time, experiencing a little of the Mayan vision of time and past events—one in which such events never quite disappear, but only wait to be “recycled” as it were to be experienced once more in another, later time and setting. At any rate, my decision to tell this story from the direction of the present and the past at the same time will, I hope, lend the reader a useful tool in connecting these ancient people with their modern descendants, who remain far more connected to important aspects of their not-so-lost past than we might often like to acknowledge.
None of these potential decisions, however, would be possible were it not for the many fantastic advances that have been made in the last half century or so in our understanding of how the Maya themselves viewed their world and the manner in which they recorded the events and beliefs that governed their once almost incomprehensible behavior and culture. Chief among these advances is our increasing ability to read and interpret their complex glyph and writing system and the ways in which it was used over a widespread area for nearly fifteen hundred years. That the Maya left records has been known almost from the beginning of our limited awareness of them, records written in stone and later on folding bark paper books, or Codices—of which only a paltry few have survived the Spanish Conquest in whole or in part. Without this recent knowledge and new understanding I believe it would be little more than an exercise in common fantasy writing with interesting locales to attempt to tell even one comprehensive story of an important phase in the earlier lives of these amazing peoples.
The second great advancement in our understanding of not only the Maya but other prehistoric cultures, particularly in the New World, is the realization of the sophistication with which these early peoples were able to develop their concepts of Time and record keeping based upon the precise observation of specific celestial events over long periods. This ability gave them the means by which they could create and record repeatable, observable myths and other mechanisms to produce a continuity of behaviors and beliefs over generations. This whole idea is something that once seemed beyond our level of understanding of how prehistoric peoples viewed and adapted their visible universe to build their cultural institutions around actual, recordable, celestial events.
This explosion of knowledge has produced a profound re-interpretation of much of the early history of many civilizations and a growing respect for the mathematical—and dare we even say “scientific”—abilities of our ancestors in many parts of the globe. This is especially true in the tropical areas, where celestial movements are more easily observable and predictable over long periods. Much of our understanding of global mythology has come to center on this view that, indeed, even Civilization itself is based upon our ancestors’ abilities to orient their lives to heavenly events observed and recorded over extended, if repeatable, lengths of celestial time. The very idea of mathematics itself has long been known to be an outgrowth of the first astronomers. It’s just that we have come to realize that there were far more of these early astronomers and astrologers—and in far more places—than we had ever imagined until as recently as a short fifty years ago.
There can be no doubt among students of most aspects of ancient culture, from mythologists to archeologists, that the unifying role played by the need for competent astronomical observations was central to the development and operation of every early civilization on the planet. Their myths recorded the events of chaos, struggle, and renewal that their eyes witnessed in the sky and which their minds wished to envelop, preserve, and adapt to their own lives. Likewise, their monuments of earth and stone served as lasting reminders for future generations of what those recorded events meant at the time they occurred in the history of a given group of people. The Maya were certainly foremost among these prehistoric “high civilizations” in their ability to manufacture a complex mythology and then translate and preserve it in massive works of stone and other extensive ‘public works’ over a wide area of geography and across nearly three thousand years.
When one witnesses these marvels of stone and the mysterious symbols and faces carved upon them, they may appear today as incomprehensible mysteries—not merely as exercises in human folly, as do so many of our more modern building projects. In reality, to the ancient peoples who created them they were expressions of the very essence of who they were and of how they wished to maintain an essential connection with their past, as well as their future. It was only when some catastrophic natural or cultural event occurred to break that generational link in an unexpected or unmanageable way that one of these early civilizations suddenly disappeared and became lost; until a future time when some intrepid scholar or explorer “rediscovered the lost world of the ancient…”—well, the reader can fill in any appropriate such civilization name here from the many existing such examples, I suppose. It is at such a point in time, and usually from a position of misinformation, or often even outright ignorance in the past, that the re-invention or interpretation of such a ‘lost civilization’ begins. This oft-repeated process frequently leaves us with generations of wrong-headed ideas and misrepresentations of these ancient people’s lives. These ideas are often based upon our own flawed notions about how early civilizations developed, operated, and then receded into the mists of history.
The Maya are certainly a prime example of how this flawed system has worked. Archeologists and others have for years debated about the “Fall” of Mayan Civilization, as if it disappeared almost as abruptly as it seems to have arisen in the mountains and tropical forests of Central America. But the people who built the great stone cities and other monuments, which the jungles reclaimed hundreds of years ago, never really disappeared themselves. They merely chose to pursue a different survival strategy than the ones of their ancestors—one which preserved those aspects of the past that have continued to serve them into the present and which will continue to do so into an, as it has always been, uncertain future. The Maya are still here, functioning in the same locations as did their more visible ancestors. Yet they are no less vibrant in their cultural institutions, languages, and practices, including many which directly connect them to those nearby ancestors who built the impressive monuments to Time that we still marvel at today. The Maya still honor and maintain their direct connection to their vivid past, often in ways that the casual observer or traveler can never hope to observe or even comprehend, even when they do manage to witness these small connections.
Such a connection may reveal itself in a woman making a pot in a fashion as old as the making of pottery itself in the region; or in a simple hearth of three dark stones in an outdoor kitchen; or in the colors and patterns being woven into a piece of cloth on a loom anchored to a tree on one end and a kneeling woman’s waist on the other; or in the making of “the dark earth”—the tierra prieta—for building up fields by men standing up to their knees in rotting vegetation in a modern-day nursery. Or it may simply be an old man in a small village pulling his old, folding chair outside at dusk to watch Venus rising in the early evening sky while he mouths the words to a mostly forgotten chant. There are any number of such little village or domestic details still practiced across parts of five countries, which taken together shout out to us that the Maya people have not gone anywhere. They are still dwelling among us and often in the same practical and spiritual ways they have for many centuries.
There is one final obstacle to the writing of the story of the Maya that any writer must quickly decide how he or she wishes to take it on—one which will likely determine the success or failure of the entire project. It is the issue which has prevented this writer on more than one occasion from sitting down and beginning that first sentence, the one which will ultimately lead to a complete and meaningful story being told. It is the daunting problem of how to tackle the names of characters and places in a language which does not easily lend itself to simplification of pronunciation, or even the written script.
It is a problem this writer has faced before, however, and was one that I chose to make only minimal compromises to for the ease of the reader in sticking with authentic wording for character names in all cases. In my previous six book series on prehistoric North America, I chose to select generalized root word names to avoid resorting to the loosely translated names that most readers of Native American fiction and popular history have grown accustomed to—names such as Running Horse, Little Beaver, Black Dress, etc. In making this decision, I realized that some readers would see this as a necessary function of my efforts at realism and authenticity, while others would view it as a needless hardship in the reading of an otherwise straightforward narrative.
With the Maya, however, no such easy or “in-between” solution to this basic dilemma has ever presented itself. Therefore, with a few exceptions of specific known site names and words such as Ahau (ah-haw), for example, which have no easy or direct translation equivalent, I have simply chosen to forego the middle ground method I employed in my earlier books and use the easier to read descriptive names for characters and locales we have all grown so accustomed to seeing in Native American writing, and some recent Maya translations of historical personal names. The reader will encounter the easy translated version of such names as, Flint Sky, Curled Rattlesnake, or Clouds the Sky, for example. While this is a difficult choice to make, this author hopes that the decision will be viewed as one taken for the ease of the reader and will not be seen in any way as a gross over-simplification of the Mayan people, or the complex culture that is being portrayed.
However, it has been essential to preserve the ancient names of actual site locations still in use for the ease of the reader in locating specific places referred to in the present-day aspects of the narrative on any map of the Guatemalan region. For the ease of the reader, I have provided a pronunciation guide at the end of the novel for these names matching them to the descriptive form used in the ancient part of the story, as well as a parenthetical phonetic pronunciation the first time each such name is presented in the text. However, I believe that once a couple of very basic pronunciations of certain letter combinations and their positions in words is grasped, these few place names are far less daunting (and even a little fun) to pronounce.
With all that being said, the writer hopes that this initial work on the origins of the Classic Maya will lead to at least two more books to follow and that the larger picture of how such a unique culture rises, excels, and then recedes into the mists of Time will be revealed in some new way for the reader. The ancient legend upon which this story is based—and from which the title of the book is taken—is as real as it is described in the text. The reader will journey with the main characters on the mysterious, two thousand-year old trail of this legend. Like all such difficult journeys, this one will be easier and more enjoyable if it is not taken alone. The author can only hope that the journey for the reader will be as exciting and as enlightening as it has been for him. We will travel across time together to bring to those who will, like he has, find the Maya to be both as interesting and as enigmatic a people as any that could be encountered in any other place—and in any other Time.
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