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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chris finally reviews THE DA VINCI CODE novel!

Here it is: The Da Vinci Code book review. Something I had promised myself I'd never do. But with all the interest in the upcoming movie (and the unflagging interest in the book itself ever since it came out three years ago) I owed it to myself and to whoever might read this blog to do this because I couldn't be objective about it without reading it for myself. Otherwise I'd be guilty of the same thing that I accuse those who try to ban the Harry Potter books with doing: attacking without even knowing what it was that was being attacked.

Last week somebody sent me the soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code, the Ron Howard movie starring Tom Hanks based on the mega-selling book, due out May 19th. The score is by Hans Zimmer, who I last heard collaborating with James Newton Howard on the Batman Begins soundtrack (and is next due to score The Simpsons Movie, believe it or not). Zimmer's score is beautiful, no doubt about it, no matter what the movie might be like. Guess that's where the idea of my reviewing the book first started. And I'll try to be as professional about this as is fitting my history degree.

The Da Vinci Code is Holy Blood, Holy Grail as conceived by William Shatner back when he was writing TekWar!

Which I might be seriously injuring myself for admitting to have actually read TekWar (I was seventeen years old, cut me some slack willya?). Yes, that was the book that The Da Vinci Code's plot most reminded me of. And The Da Vinci Code is such a rip-off of Holy Blood, Holy Grail that it is beyond my understanding how this novel made it into print without first being flagged for plagiarism a hundred times over.

I cannot reiterate that nearly enough, folks: The Da Vinci Code is practically every single major point "brought up" by Holy Blood, Holy Grail poured into the mold of a fictional (in every way possible) novel. The parallels between the two are so not funny. I can't understand in the slightest how the recent lawsuit against Dan Brown in London failed, unless it is to suggest that either the writers of Holy Blood, Holy Grail had sloppy legal counsel or the presiding judge just didn't give a hoot one way or the other.

I want to say this from the bottom of my heart though: The Da Vinci Code as a novel isn't half-bad. It isn't half-good either.

This is an "almost" book for me. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't, on some level of guilty pleasure, enjoy reading this book. It was far from perfect enjoyment though. Historical problems aside, it just didn't seem to be that well-paced and plotted a book for my tastes. It's the idea of the story that I got a kick out of, even though I severely disagree with the basic premise.

This is the only book by Dan Brown that I've read so far, so I don't know about whatever else he's done. People I trust a great deal on the matter have told me that Brown is capable of writing a good story though, that some of his other books have been pretty decent. But The Da Vinci Code just didn't seem to be that level of runaway bestseller to me. It was like a mediocre attempt at what could have been – if handled considerately – a ripping-good tale. As it is though, it certainly doesn't seem good enough for a filmmaker like Ron Howard to invest the time and money toward making a movie out of it.

(One thing that I thought could have been handled better was the identity of "the Teacher": I saw that one coming a long way off. But maybe that's just me.)

Okay, well, what I can't get over are all the historical errors in this book. Which I won't begin to go into ALL of them, but I'll tear into the ones that were my biggest beef. And this could all too easily turn into a refuting of Holy Blood, Holy Grail instead of being about The Da Vinci Code, and I don't want to do that. There are massive problems with that book that the past twenty years have revealed and you can find all about those elsewhere. Heck, one of its own writers even now admits that it's not a serious historical book at all but a good "potboiler".

I will bring this point up though: Bérenger Saunière never discovered any "secret documents" about the Merovingians, and the reason he became so wealthy is that he was selling indulgences and favoritism regarding the Catholic mass... something that he got into a lot of trouble about with church authorities later on. He didn't get rich because of some terrible secret that he was able to blackmail the powers-that-be with. The whole story about Saunière supposedly finding the documents in a hollowed-out Gothic column (which was never hollow to begin with) inside his church is where the entire plot of the Priory/Christ-children seems to always start with. Incidentally, it is a character named Saunière (who is a museum curator) whose murder is what starts off the plot of The Da Vinci Code.

Problem #1: The "Priory of Sion"


The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization.

Already, this book is in heap big trouble.

This bold proclamation of a supposed element of nonfiction is found before the actual story even kicks off. And unfortunately it destroys any possibility that this book could be a serious yarn on a level with, say, The Hunt for Red October or The Bourne Identity.

Let's start with two names: Plantard and Saint-Clair. The Da Vinci Code states in a few places that the only surnames that can trace ancestry back to Jesus Christ are Saint Claire and Plantard. The reality of it is, it was a man named Pierre Plantard – a French schemer and plotter of wild stories – who "founded" the Priory in the mid-1950s. Plantard had a crazy notion that France should once again have a monarch, and believed that he should be that monarch. To establish a claim of legitimacy, Plantard added "Saint-Clair" to his last name – as a means of tying him to old European royalty – and in various places planted documents purporting that the Priory was an ancient organization dedicated to preserving knowledge of Christ's offspring. The story, so it went, was that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, had a child, and that child went on to have descendants that became the Merovingian line of French kings. This was supposed to be something that eventually threatened the Catholic Church's hold on power in medieval Europe, so the Church conspired to wipe out the bloodline and all knowledge of it. All of this is what Holy Blood, Holy Grail is centered around.

Anyway, Plantard claimed that he was a direct descendant of the Merovingian kings, and basically the whole Priory thing was something he cooked up to make himself look like a serious contender to a throne that he wanted restored. And that's it: despite what The Da Vinci Code claims, the Saint-Clair and Plantard families are not descendants of Christ, and there never was a real historical Priory of Sion.

Now, peppered throughout this pseudo-history are some real events that did happen, like the crusade against the Cathars in southern France and the pope deciding to wipe out the Knights Templar in 1307. But nowhere, until it appeared in 1956, was there ever found an organization called the Prieure de Sion: the "Priory of Sion".

Problem #2: The "Hieros Gamos" sex ritual and Sir Isaac Newton

When she was 22, the character Sophie unwittingly witnessed her grandfather – who unbeknownst to her was the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion – engage in the "Hieros Gamos": a mass "orgy" ritual done by members of the Priory as a way of honoring the concept of the sacred feminine that has been attacked throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church. It is meant to symbolize the uniting of male and female in the blessed sensuality of the orgasm through which the mystery of God can be known.

Elsewhere in the book (again, copying Holy Blood, Holy Grail almost by rote) it notes that Sir Isaac Newton was at one time the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion.

What exactly did Isaac Newton do during the Hiermos Gamos sex ritual since he was a life-long virgin?

Problem #3: The Gospels... all eighty of them?

Leigh Teabing tells Sophie that there were originally about eighty gospels, and that the ones that went into the New Testament were only included at the behest of the Emperor Constantine at the Council at Nicea. All the others are the so-called "Gnostic gospels", like the recently published "Gospel of Judas". The New Testament gospels, Teabing goes on to say, were products of church invention in the first few centuries following Christ.

Here's the problem: this statement of "historical fact" is now almost forty years out of date. Over the past few decades there have been enough manuscripts found that it can safely be said that the synoptic gospels – those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – were all written and in relatively wide publication by 60 A.D., before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed a few years later by General Titus's boys. Based on current evidence, the gospel attributed to John was written no later than 70 A.D. and very well likely several years before that, even. With the exception of a few passages missing from some, the vast majority of these manuscripts concur with each other with a tremendous degree of transmitted accuracy. Additionally, there is a mountain of evidence supporting the belief that all of Paul's letters were written and made available throughout the churches of the Roman world by 80 A.D., and again possibly much earlier than that.

As for the other documents considered by some to be "gospels", such as those found at Nag Hammadi several years ago, it is believed by many serious scholars of the era that these were products of fusionist schools that sought to reconcile the then-nascent beliefs of Christianity with what was then the also growing-in-popularity Gnostic worldview. As it is, none of these "Gnostic gospels" have been found to have a legitimate basis in scholarship that we currently know of. That is not to make a blanket statement that none absolutely exist... but if they do, we just don't know about them yet, or at least as much as we do about the traditional gospels as have been transmitted to us to the current day.

Problem #4: "I want to major in Symbology!"

Robert Langdon, the main character of the story, is a "symbologist". Ummmmm I must have missed studying Symbology when I was in college. But I was pretty busy sub-minoring in Psycho-History too so maybe my advisor just forgot to mention it :-P

And there were quite a few other problems, some big and some small, that I happened to catch while reading this book (which took me 15 hours of nonstop straight reading through the night to do). But these were my biggest nit-picks about The Da Vinci Code (well, these and the aforementioned over-reliance on Holy Blood, Holy Grail).

Again, I don't think this is a bad book. I don't think it's an overwhelmingly good one either. Is The Da Vinci Code an evil book then?

C.S. Lewis said that one of the dangers of demons – apart from not believing in them – was that you could believe in them TOO much, to the point where they are given power over you. I think that's what has happened with the hysteria over The Da Vinci Code: too many, and they may be well-meaning, but a lot of Christians are seeing an evil threat when there really isn't any. The Da Vinci Code isn't some diabolical plot aimed at the heart of the Christian faith. It is simply a mildly entertaining book with a lot of problems in it. And what does that say of the strength of our faith when we cry out that a book like The Da Vinci Code is a threat to it, anyway? I mean, this kind of rancor aimed at The Da Vinci Code really makes us Christians look silly at best, and spiritually vacuous at worst.

I read The Da Vinci Code, and my faith in Christ came out none the worse for wear. Just as I was able to read Holy Blood, Holy Grail years ago and didn't feel my beliefs suffer for it in the least way. And so long as my fellow brother or sister in the Lord bears in mind that this book has some pretty glaring flaws to it, I've no problem with them reading it either, or probably seeing the movie for that matter, if as Paul writes in 1st Corinthians, if their own consciences have no problem with doing so.

But as for myself: I've gone through The Da Vinci Code once already. I highly doubt that I'll subject myself to it again, either in book or movie form.

It's got a kick-butt soundtrack by Hans Zimmer though.


Magnus said...

The judge in the HB,HG vs. DVC case stated that "their argument was vague and shifted course during the trial and was always based on a weak foundation" and "It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright." — Judge Peter Smith, in his ruling that the Da Vinci Code lawsuit was "based on a contrived and selective number of facts and ideas."

Just discovered this link, so i have not had a chance to read it.

Magnus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Magnus said...

In Addendum

If Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln had been honest about their work being speculative from th get go - rather than clinging on to the notion that it was 100% factual - I believe they would have won their suit. However, they maintained it was fact even when confronted with the truth and the suit just made them look like bigger charlatans. History doesn't have a "plot", fiction does.

Chris Knight said...

The HB,HG authors claimed it was fact?!? What in the...?!? No wonder their case went down in flames. Thanks for the info!!

Magnus said...

Yeah, the book was always sold as Non-fiction. I believe Leigh has stated it was a speculative work, but they seemed to downplay that considerably. (bad for sales I guess) Tony Robinson did a special called The Real Da Vinci Code, which debunked Brown, Leigh, Baigent, Lincoln, Plantard and de Chérisey. On that special one of the HB,HG people is very cagey about the whole speculative or fiction question - even when confronted by the facts of Plantard and de Chérisey's hoax.
Back in 1992, there were a number of students which were treating HB,HG as plausible if not out right factual. I read it in the library and then looked up Plantard and found out about the hoax. Try and convince people that they have been bamboozeled though...

Chris Knight said...

That's the one real evil of The Da Vinci Code, and I don't really even blame the book itself for that: too many people are treating it and books like HB,HG as gospel truth. That's the fault of the said people, that they are so shallow/gullible as to swallow this crazy notion hook, line and sinker. I'd rather believe that Lord of the Rings as written by Tolkien is an account of actual history from 9,000 years ago. Think I read somewhere a few days ago that like 22% of people polled in Canada said that Da Vinci Code was factually accurate, believe it or not. That's way too many people getting hoodwinked.

Magnus said...

17%, but even that is too high.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm an Athiest and I have to say that I found the Da Vinci code to be a dire book, quite apart from it tackeing Christianty head on, it's full of curious coincidences, poor charactisiation, a murderous Albino for goodness sake and a lot of flat prose combined with the historical innacuraces and conjecture. It's not the worst book I've ever read but it comes close. Surely Atheiest and Christians can combine and share in the damnation of this book simply on the basis of how crap it is.