How Did Ancient Cultures Experience Reading?

RISE OF THE HALFLING KING
Tales of the Feathered Serpent, Vol. 1
Written by David Bowles
Illustrated by Charlene Bowles

In his afterword to “Rise of the Halfling King,” David Bowles writes about the hieroglyphic script developed centuries ago by Maya kingdoms, noting that “the closest modern equivalent” he can think of for this “highly visual” way of recording stories is the graphic novel. It’s a premise that finds much merit in this first book in a new series, for which the Mexican-American author and translator (with various illustrators) is adapting 10 selections from his award-winning “Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico.”

Set “a thousand years ago” in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, “Rise of the Halfling King” begins with Almah, an apprentice witch (of the healing variety), meeting the aluxes, “mystic elfin beings who wield great magic to protect nature.” They give her two items: the magical stone she is seeking to complete her training and, unexpectedly, a drum that “in the right hands” will announce the rightful king of Uxmal, the biggest city in the lowlands.

Almah keeps the drum a secret as a cruel king, Kinich Kak Ek, rises to power in Uxmal. With him comes a villainous sorcerer, Zaatan Ik, who utters a prophecy: When a “kingmaker” drum sounds, a rival not born of a woman will appear and must be given the opportunity to take the throne by winning three challenges. Uneasy with the prophecy, Kinich Kak Ek rules brutally and expands his kingdom by force, conquering Kabah, where Almah lives, and other nearby cities. The king’s priests outlaw witches, so Almah is shunned. Then one day she finds an unusual egg. She takes it home and puts it near her hearth. Soon a child hatches from it: a boy who is part human, part alux. Our “halfling king” has arrived. Meanwhile, in order to conquer the lowlands’ last defiant city, Kinich Kak Ek orders Zaatan Ik to use his darkest magic. By calling up the serpent of the underworld, the sorcerer unwittingly sets the prophecy in motion.

“Rise of the Halfling King” is a straightforward folk tale, with the usual good and evil archetypes and the expected ending. As with most predictable folk tales, what makes it so satisfying is its telling.

It’s a timeless story told in a timely way: Mayan codex meets superhero comic book. Bowles peppers the dialogue with contemporary phrases and attitudes that echo today’s teenagers.

The illustrator, Charlene Bowles (David’s daughter), draws the characters with a similar blend of ancient and modern. The strong, bold lines recall the ancient drawings, but they are mixed with the visual language of speech balloons and the radiating emotion lines of comics.

By using the graphic novel format, David Bowles is attempting to give young audiences a taste of how Indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica experienced reading. As he puts it, “Blending written words and images, comics and other sorts of graphica allow our brains to process stories more like our ancestors did.”

At the same time, “Rise of the Halfling King” is a fresh story for a new generation of readers.

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