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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 750-751
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Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs. By H. B. Nicholson. Mesoamerican Worlds: From the Olmecs to the Danzantes. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2001. Photographs. Plates. Illustrations. Map. Bibliography. Index. lxiv, 360 pp. Cloth, $65.00. Paper, $27.95.
The time lag between filing a dissertation and publishing it as a book varies greatly, but the general consensus is that, after a couple of decades, a vintage doctoral study begins to turn vinegary. In such cases, an aged dissertation needs to be extensively reworked and revisited to fully justify becoming a book. H. B. Nicholson's Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is therefore exceptional in two ways. First, it represents the publication of a dissertation after what may be a record-breaking 44 years. Second, this dissertation has not undergone—nor did it need—extensive reworking. This has, in part, to do with the nature of the study, which exhaustively compiles and discusses all the ethnohistorical (and some archaeological) sources on the part-historical, part-mythical Mesoamerican ruler-deity whose name provides the book its title. But it is also possible due to Nicholson's solid scholarship and clear and often elegant style. Since Nicholson's sources were written or drawn in the colonial period, and because he writes without recourse to jargon, the work has a timeless quality to it.
For the core group of specialists who have cited Nicholson's dissertation for decades, its unadorned reproduction in print would probably have been sufficient. The book's larger potential audience, however, may wonder why the dissertation became legendary and what makes it such an exception. The book contains new front matter: added to the author's original two-page introduction are a similarly brief editors' note by Davíd Carrasco and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, a foreword by Gordon Willey, and a prologue by Alfredo López Austin, which together justify the book's existence and instill a certain anticipation. The book also features a new preface and introduction by Nicholson himself, totaling 35 pages, in which he effectively summarizes the body of the book while updating its colonial-era sources with discussion of post-1957 editions in Spanish and English. This introduction is itself a bibliographical tour-de-force. As a by-product of the new introduction, the bibliography is updated to 2001. There are also 26 illustrations and an index, none of which were in the original dissertation.
Interestingly, Nicholson does not update or revise his original, brief conclusion, the heart of which is a one-page summary of nine "hypotheses" concerning Quetzalcoatl (p. 291). This summary remains as useful as ever, although the hypothetical nature of the nine points needs to be emphasized; indeed, one could argue that the only weak aspect of Nicholson's approach is his willingness to take his sources too literally as evidence of Quetzalcoatl's historicity (for example, his putative biography), including his supposed resurrection in the form of Cortés, a myth (my term, not Nicholson's) promoted most fully and famously in Sahagún's Florentine [End Page 750] Codex. In fairness, Nicholson consistently maintains a careful and measured language of analysis, stopping short of credulity and largely leaving the reader to speculate on Quetzalcoatl's historicity. Furthermore, he concedes in the new introduction "that while a certain degree of historicity is probably conveyed by the earliest and ostensibly most authentic versions of the Basic Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan Tale, today I more clearly recognize—without invoking the ghost of Lord Raglan and other hyper-skeptical students of all traditional 'hero tales'—the hazards in pushing this view too rigorously" (p. lx).
This is a carefully argued and engaging classic, justifiably published for the first time almost a half century after conception. The book's status among scholars of Mesoamerican religion is already assured, but it should also be of interest to a wider audience of anthropologists and historians of pre- and postconquest Mesoamerica.
Pennsylvania State University