Lady of Palenque Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Author Anna Kirwan has enjoyed a lifetime fascination with Mesoamerican archeology. She says, "I think I remember reading picture captions about the Mayan pyramids in Science Newsletter when my family still lived in Peoria, Illinois, when I was in second grade-1957, and after that, I always read everything on the subject that I could find (rarely, children's books). So, that's, let's see- yikes! Forty-seven years.
I visited Palenque for the first time in the early 1980's. All this time, I was reading everything I could about Mesoamerican cultures and languages, going to museums and lectures, keeping card files and clipping files and weird old out-of-print travel books with pictures of what pyramids full of jade and crystal and noble bones looked like, un-restored and still half-hidden by rainforest. Most of what is now known about Classic Mayan history and glyphic writing has only been translated in the last 30 years, so it's been my lifelong hobby to witness that progress."
Lady of Palenque: Flower of Bacal, Mesoamerica, A.D. 749 is the product of Kirwan's research into and love for Mayan history. Her readers travel with thirteen-year-old Princess Green Jay as she leaves her beloved home and family to enter into an arranged marriage with a king she has never met. Through her diary entries, the Princess describes life in 749 A.D.: warring tribes, political intrigue, fashion, food, and Mayan culture.
Like any fine piece of historical fiction for young readers, the carefully researched history serves as the backdrop while the young princess's life is played out on center stage in the novel. While hundreds of years separate Princess Green Jay from today's readers, they are alike in their shared hopes and dreams. The diary entries are about love for family, anticipation and apprehension about the new life she is about to begin, the importance of friends, and the excitement of living life everyday.
"Let my writing be intelligent, let me name the gods and all their gifts gracefully. Let my husband admire my writing. Let him admire me." These are the words of the Lady of Palenque, Princess Green Jay as she prepares to leave her home and travel to meet her husband-to-be, a man she has never seen. It is 749 A.D. in Mesoamerica, and Princess Green Jay is only thirteen years old. Her mother is dead, and her father, King Hanaab Pacal, has arranged her marriage to thirty-three-year-old King Fire Keeper, ruler of a distant kingdom, Xukpi, near the sea. Princess Green Jay has mixed feelings about leaving her home and possibly never returning. She writes, "Now that I leave Lakamha, I may never return. I may never see my family again. I will never forget Lakamha, even if Lakamha forgets me."
Great preparations begin for a journey that will take many months. Many soldiers, servants, and slaves will accompany Princess Green Jay as she travels by boat, on foot, and is carried in a litter. As her family gives her many gifts and bids her farewell, she worries, "It will be strange to have no brother, no sister to take with me. How shall I stand up to this?"
The journey is long and arduous. "One does not understand the size of the world until one leaves home." The travelers encounter strange animals and exotic birds. They are bitten by insects, must hide from enemy war boats, and are caught in a terrible storm. Princess Green Jay thinks, "I feel that my husband, when I reach him, had better be worth all my troubles." To pass the time, the Princess and her entourage are entertained by storytelling, puppet plays, and a ball game.
They reach the ocean, and the Princess sees her first xoc-fish. A hurricane blows in, and the group must seek immediate refuge. Huge waves engulf their boats and Ah Tz'ib, Princess Green Jay's beloved teacher and the godfather of her husband to be, is swept overboard and drowns. Overcome with sadness, the Princess writes, "I was so homesick, I could not bear the weight of my heart. All this distance--all these bitter losses-and I do not even know if I will be welcome in Xukpi!"
Finally, almost six months after starting out, they arrive at their destination, and Princess Green Jay finally meets her husband-to-be. It is a satisfactory meeting and the Princess writes, "I believe my New Lord is pleased with me, and I am pleased with him well enough." She presents him with her writings, he stays up all night reading them, and he responds kindly to her. She recalls, "My mind and heart warmed toward him," and she looks forward to their future together.
Thinking About the Book
Princess Green Jay had other sisters. Why, then, was she chosen to be the wife of the King of Xukpi?
What were some of the farewell gifts her family gave her?
If a friend or family member of yours was leaving on a long journey, what special gift might you give him or her to remember you by? Explain your choice.
When she leaves, what are the things the Princess misses most about Lakamha?
What kind of ballgame did the people of that time play? What was unusual or violent about their game?
Describe the ritual of tongue piercing as mentioned in the Princess's diary.
Why does the Princess Green Jay's companion, Ixnak'ik, tell the story of "Quiet Tup?" What does this story (p. 60-67) tell you about the Princess's people?
What do you think is the most exciting part of the journey?
All through her diary, Princess Green Jay worries about whether or not she will like her future husband. When she finally meets him, she is pleased. What are some of the things she finds to like about him?
Read the Epilogue. Do you think the Princess was happy in her marriage to King Fire Keeper? Explain your answer.
During the month of Yax (August), the Princess writes of the night of falling stars, or "Seed Scattering." To find out more about this annual August event that occurs even today, go to this Perseid Meteor Shower Web site. What interesting information do you learn? Will you be able to see the meteor shower where you live?
In her diary, Princess Green Jay writes some interesting similes about the things she sees:
- p.48 "…we could see a floating net of fireflies, like stars come down to be close to us."
- p.55 "Rain came streaming down tree trunks, steep banks, and my forehead all day--like countless glimmering snakes migrating to their wells."
- p.164 "Yellow and red pods hang on the tree trunks like butterflies ready to hatch."
Try writing three similes about things you have seen in nature and share them with other members of your discussion group.
The weather plays an important part in Princess Green Jay's travels. Toward the end of her travels she observes, "On the night before last night, the sunset was red, a good sign." You might have heard a similar saying, "Red sun at night, sailors' delight." See if you can find some more weather sayings and share them with your group.
If you were the teacher in a class that had just read Lady of Palenque: Flower of Bacal, what is the one question you would ask the class about this book? Why did you choose this question? Compare your question with the ones other members of your group decided on. With each other's help, can you answer each of these questions?
Many unusual animals live in the lands where Princess Green Jay traveled: for example, howlers, coatis, and tapirs. To see these animals go to this Central American Mammals Web site . What did you learn about them? Other animals mentioned include agoutis, pumas, and javelinas. Find pictures of them and share with your discussion group.
An Interview with Anna Kirwan
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: Would you tell us about your research for Lady of Palenque? How long did it take you to research your subject? What was the most interesting fact you learned as part of your research?
Anna Kirwan: I think I remember reading picture captions about the Mayan pyramids in Science Newsletter when my family still lived in Peoria, Illinois, when I was in second grade-1957, and after that, I always read everything on the subject that I could find (rarely, children's books). So, that's, let's see- yikes! Forty-seven years.
I visited Palenque for the first time in the early 80's. Following a list of rulers' birth and death dates I got in the Mayan library at the Na Blom Institute in San Cristobal de Las Casas, I began writing a novel about Palenque's most famous princes, Chan B'alam and Kan Xul. (The first two chapters were published as short stories in the TOR anthologies Xanadu and Tales of the Great Turtle in the early '90's.)
All this time, I was reading everything I could about Mesoamerican cultures and languages, going to museums and lectures, keeping card files and clipping files and weird old out-of-print travel books with pictures of what pyramids full of jade and crystal and noble bones looked like, un-restored and still half-hidden by rainforest. Most of what is now known about Classic Mayan history and glyphic writing has only been translated in the last thirty years, so it's been my lifelong hobby to witness that progress.
Even so, when I first talked with Scholastic about a Mayan Royal Diary, I had to do some (lots of!) catching up with the latest discoveries-so much happens in Mayan Studies every day. My research schedule while I was working on the story that turned into Lady of Palenque was similar to my approach to Victoria: four months of intensive reading and note taking; then, throughout the writing period, four hours of reading, four hours of writing, every day (except when I got pneumonia for a few weeks).
Three discoveries that particularly intrigue me are 1) how stylish and cartoon-like Maya vase paintings are; 2) that many basic Mayan words, backwards, form related words, and the ancient Maya people thought the gods and spirits of the Otherworld read things in mirror-image from the way we do; and 3) that they believed that animals, plants, mountains, and works of art are sometimes inhabited by ancestors or other magically dream-wandering human spirits.
RFA & EST: The Lady of Palenque and her family feasted on some exotic foods: howler, javelina, tapir, and iguana, as well as cocoa and chili. How did you find out about these foods?
AK: Most of the dishes I described are still eaten in Southern Mexico and the Caribbean, although endangered species such as sea turtles and tapirs are somewhat protected now. I've seen photographs of forest-dwelling Lacandon Maya boys with monkeys they hunted for food. Traveling in Mexico, I've seen baskets of pointed tree snails in the mercados (markets), and iguanas offered as fresh game meat. (I had a great meal of chicken cooked the way Princess Green Jay liked her iguana cutlets.)
I had to be careful to research which fruits, vegetables, and spices scientists have identified in pre-Hispanic paintings and found preserved in tomb offerings and pollen samples. One list I used is in John Henderson's enormously useful The World of the Ancient Maya.
RFA & EST: Did you travel to the locations of Lady of Palenque as part of your research? If one wanted to see the best examples of Mayan art and architecture, where would you recommend s/he go?
AK: I didn't travel while actually working on the book, but in the past I have visited Mexico three times and Belize once. Most lovely of all, to me, is to roam around the exquisite, orange-blossom scented ruins of Lakamha (Palenque). From the palace tower, you can look out across the rolling countryside around Pacal-Na toward the (Matawil) marsh country of Tabasco and the Gulf of Mexico.
But I have also stood as a pilgrim before the prisoners' cells on the Lightning Mountain (Tonina) where Princess Green Jay's Grandfather Kan Xul was captive for ten years, and in the ball court where he played his last holy ball game against the Lords of Death.
The goddess IxChel's lagoon at Xel-Ha is connected to the sea by an underground channel; I've seen butterflies dancing on its surface.
At Xunantunich and Cahal Pech, two sites I drew on for my descriptions of "Cahal Sastun," I climbed a pyramid as breath-taking as it is different from the severe, but much-visited, Chichen Itza; and in an excellent small museum there, I saw a real "jeweled skull" encrusted in crystals by its centuries in a cave shrine-not javelina, like the one Lord Xixin Kuxu presents to the princess, but a real, human skull.
The less well-known sites (Edzna, Kabah, and Labna come to mind) are less crowded than the famous ones, and your imagination will take over! I have not been to Tikal or Copan yet, but they are places I love, and I will get there, sooner or later.
It's not necessary, though, to visit Mayan lands to see the beauty the people have created. There are fantastic collections of Mayan sculpture, painting, ceramics and jade in many museums: the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Museum, Museum of the American Indian, Peabody Museums at both Yale and Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, New Orleans Museum of Art, Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Cleveland Museum of Art-and many others. Photo credits in illustrated books may tell you where to visit your favorite works of Mayan Art.
RFA & EST: You mention that you had to make up many characters in writing Lady of Palenque? What other challenges did you face in writing this book?
AK: There are still big gaps in the historical record of the politics of the Classic Maya era: no one knows all the details of specific alliances, wars, and trade. (Fortunately, novelists can take their best guesses and then make up things that fit into what is known.)
It was difficult to figure out how long it would take to make the journey I described; and I wanted the events to fit with the omens symbolized by the Mayan names of the days during which the story took place. I found a translation of an ancient inscription that said one traveler had made a certain journey in 180 days; another book, about modern-day archaeologists canoeing on the Usumacinta ("Traders'")River with native paddlers, described several stretches of rapids and portages, and how long it took to negotiate them. I used those accounts as the basis for my imagined trip.
RFA & EST: You have included several interesting legends in your story. Are these authentic Mayan legends? If so, what was the source of these stories?
AK: Most of the legends are actual Mayan stories. First Lord/ First Father and Blood Woman, their sons, the Hero Twins First Hunter Lord and Green Young Jaguar, and their re-born father, Precious First Cornstalk, figure in the Popol Vuh, the Guatemalan Quiche Maya creation scripture. (My copy of Dennis Tedlock's translation is so worn; I'll have to get another soon!) "Tup and the Ants" is an old story from folklore; this is my adaptation. (Another version is in John Bierhorst's The Monkey's Haircut and Other Stories Told by the Maya.)
I drew on many folklore collections to get "a feel for" themes, motifs and storytelling style. I particularly like Victor Montejo's The Bird Who Cleans the World, James D. Sexton's translations in Mayan Folktales, and Anne Labastille Bowes' retellings of Mayan bird and animal fables. Also, I was fascinated by The People of the Bat--Mayan Tales and Dreams from Zinacantan, collected and translated by Robert Laughlin and edited by Carol Karasik. Using authentic material from these and other sources, I burned some copal incense in honor of Itzamna and the First Monkey Scribes, and made up the stories of First Fisherman's Little Dog and First Flower Petal.
RFA & EST: The Mayan ballgame is both unique and potentially deadly. What was this game called? Were human skulls actually used as balls and were the defeated players usually executed?
AK: No one knows for certain the name of the specific ballgame played by Classic Maya athletes, or the exact rules. A number of different games were played for amusement by Mesoamerican people at the time of the Europeans' historic arrival on the American continents. Pitzi is apparently a general term for a ballgame. Based on a number of sources, the ethnologist Frans Blom suggested it was perhaps called pok-ol-pok or pok-ta-pok.
The mythological symbolism connected with the game equates the ball both with planetary movements and with the head of the sacrificed ballplayer god, Hunahpo (First Lord). In many artistic images of this and other stories, a skull appears to be painted on the ball, or inside it. It is known that ritual beheading was, at least sometimes, the outcome of a game, and that many skulls were displayed, not entombed. Early Spanish writers described the ball as solid rubber; but they might have been prevented from knowing the most sacred traditions, so their testimony is not conclusive. Curiously enough, the ball used by the Lords of Death was often referred to as "the white dagger." (That might just be the mirror-opposite of a black sphere. Or, it might refer to shards of a skull-perhaps used as a rounded mold for dipping into liquid latex, which might enhance a ball's bounciness by providing a hollow core-working their way out of the rubber during vigorous play.) No one knows the answer for certain. Most games, though, were probably for fun.
RFA & EST: The word for divine wind, Hurakan, sounds much like our modern word for a deadly tropical storm. Is "hurricane" derived from this Mayan word? Are there other words we've borrowed from this culture?
AK: Yes, Hurakan is the personification of the great wind we learned from native people to call a hurricane. (We personify such winds, too, by naming each one with a different human name.)
The word "xoc," used throughout Lady of Palenque, is thought to be the source of the English word "shark." "Jaguar," "javelina," and many other terms and place names might be derived from Mayan by way of Spanish. "Palenque," for example, is Spanish for "palisade" and this is frequently cited as the source of the name. But "pa" also means "wall" in Mayan; and "Xbalanque," Green Young Jaguar, is one of the chief patron gods worshipped by Pacal and his people, so, who knows? In Belize, people will tell you the country's name derives from the mispronounced name of the buccaneer Wallace, but I have called the Belize River the "Jaguar Wizard"-"Bal[am]-Itz"-because I think it so much more likely. This loose approach is called "exercising poetic license."
RFA & EST: Why was urine used to tan leather?
AK: Actually, this is a bit more of poetic license. I don't know how leather was tanned by the Classic Maya, but in medieval Europe and other places, urine was used as an inexpensive source of minerals to preserve hides against decay and to fix dye colors. I bought a pair of handcrafted deer hide shoes in a rural Mexican mercado that revealed themselves, the first time it rained, to have been produced that way.
RFA & EST: Would you explain the role of masks in Mayan society?
AK: Masks were used in religious ritual, drama, and dance. They are still widely enjoyed in Mexican and Central American festival celebrations. Many early Mayan temples had ceremonial "mask"-style faces sculpted onto the buildings themselves, as if "putting on the mask" made or marked the structure as sacred, just as "tying on the headdress," or crown, gave a king a special identity as a divine spiritual leader.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of this Royal Diary one question, what would that question be?
AK: What do you think the ancient Maya people loved that you love, too?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Houston, Texas.