Artemis Fowl: Talking About Codes

I’m really not a fan of the Artemis Fowl books. They’re written in a way that reminds me of a pre-teen trying to use a thesaurus to sound more pompous; it kind of grates on my nerves and makes it harder for me to want to continue reading them. I’m definitely not the target audience.

But I know that a lot of my (usually male) students really like the concepts in the books, so I decided to use it with my class of one boy because he had expressed some interest in reading it.

Which was great! He really enjoyed it, so it definitely helped him get more into reading (and start asking for other books to read). However, there was one thing that really caught the attention of both of us: Artemis translating The Book of the People.

He hit me hard with a lot of questions: How do people translate languages or codes that they’ve never encountered before? How do they decipher symbols? Why was Artemis looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs and comparing them to the language in the book? Is there a point other than simple communication?

This gave us a huge chance to work on an accidental interdisciplinary unit, looking at topics that might fall into a language acquisition, social sciences, or other humanities courses.

I gave him a list of examples of languages that we’ve learned to translate or haven’t yet fully translated: Cuneiform, Meroitic script, writing from the Indus Valley, Linear A, and Cypro-Minoan. The question I led with was: If we could translate these ancient scripts, how could it shape what we know now?

The kid was bright and immediately saw some useful applications:

  • A better understanding of history so we could stop labeling artifacts as for religious ceremony (which I thought was hilarious as an answer, since that’s sometimes a running joke between anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians about an artifact we can’t explain);
  • Regaining lost knowledge, including processes that we could try again to help either the environment or society;
  • Helping to reconnect cultural connections between ancient and modern cultures.

But again he asked: Why are codes useful? Aren’t they only used by silly children trying to avoid adults reading their writing?

To his credit, he was twelve and hadn’t really been introduced to different codes that were used in politics or wars. So I showed him codes that existed during the World Wars: the Enigma Machine, the Playfair cipher, and the Navajo Code Talkers.

As we talked about them, he became really interested in the Navajo Code Talkers. He was really interested in how the code seemed unbreakable. He was interested in how there were other Native American code talkers, such as people from the Cherokee and Choctaw. He was engaged in learning about Native Americans and their contributions to history, which he complained was “entirely neglected by his American school” (and when I told him that I was in university the first time I’d ever heard about the Navajo Code Talkers, he was even more infuriated).

So his project reflected this interest. He made me two separate poster-sized ‘game cards’ (in the tradition of Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, etc.) about both the Navajo Code Talkers and Chester Nez (the last surviving member of the original Navajo Code Talkers).