Seeker Of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs, by James Rumford
This book is a pleasant and surprisingly instructive children’s book on the life of Jean-Françios Champollion. To be sure, there is some oversimplification here, as the author focuses on Champollion and not on the context of his life. But seriously, this is a children’s book, and there is going to be some simplification here. In reading a book like this it does not work to be hard on those matters that are not included in this book, which would include the subject’s possible illegitimate birth, his terrible temper, and so on. What this book does cover, it covers well, and it provides the sort of encouraging support when it comes to the creativity and curiosity of young people that it is rather churlish to hold it to the standards of documentary evidence that one would expect of books written to adults with a great deal of history in mind. This book reminds me a lot of the illustrated classics I read as a kid that had a lot of pictures and that helped to inspire my own interest in books that were perhaps a bit higher than my reading level and if this book inspires people to study or develop an interest in ancient languages, that is all the better.
This book is a short one, gorgeously illustrated, that begins with a simple enough premise, that the young Champillion dreamed of going to Egypt and exploring its mysteries, and moreover that this dream (spoiler alert) came true. The book has a fair amount to say about Egypt and about Champillion’s life. We see the youth of Champillion in the age of Napoleon, the encouragement to study Egypt because the language was not understood, as well as some of the difficulty the young man had with authorities in the field who did not take the enfant terrible very seriously. The book discusses the problems Champillion had to deal with after Napoleon’s defeat given his support of the Corsican. The author discusses Champillion’s research as well as a supposed “eureka” moment where he could read one of the names, with its farrago of signs for letters, pictures, syllables, and determinatives. The author even tastefully deals with the poor health of Champillion as well as his eventual trip to Egypt where he was able to fulfill his childhood dream of exploring it and understanding at least some of its mysteries.
Perhaps the most telling part of this book is the way that it includes some of the hieroglyphics within the text as a way of helping the reader to understand at least a little bit about ancient Egyptian. One wonders how it is that the Egyptians came up with such an awkward system of writing as the hieroglyphs, and how it was that logograms, syllabaries, and letters were all confused together. Be that as it may, Champillion was, after numerous false starts and some initially misguided ideas, able to decipher the text and bring Egyptian writings to the light and to contemporary understanding. He was greatly helped through the insights of other researchers as well as through his own knowledge and passionate interest in the Coptic language as well, in a similar fashion to the way that Linear B was deciphered by people who were passionate about ancient Greek and to the richness of ancient history. As someone who wishes that it would be possible to understand Etruscan as well as find some sort of written language for Old Europe, this book is definitely something that I can appreciate for what it is and for what it may be for future generations of curious and linguistically talented young people.