Cracking the Da Vinci Code

IT ISN'T JUST ANY AMERICAN NOVEL that can force the exhumation of a long-dead priest from a village cemetery in southeastern France.

Cracking the Da Vinci Code

IT ISN'T JUST ANY AMERICAN NOVEL that can force the exhumation of a long-dead priest from a village cemetery in southeastern France. But the September reburial of Abbé Bérenger Saunière (1852-1917) within a tourist-proof concrete grave is only one indication of the fact that The Da Vinci Code is a book like no other. Since it first exploded into popular consciousness 18 months ago, Dan Brown's thriller about a modern-day quest for the Holy Grail has become a worldwide megaseller. And fans have not been content to merely read it. Devotees have overrun Europe the past two summers, nowhere making their presence felt more strongly than in Saunière's old parish of Rennes-le-Château.

The hamlet of about 150 souls isn't even mentioned in the novel, although it and the Abbé - reputed to have hidden a Grail treasure in the area - figure prominently in Brown's sources. "The world has gone mad," Rennes Mayor Jean-François L'Huilier told reporters. "They come here and stomp all over the place with no respect for anything or anyone. They set off explosions and climb over the cemetery wall to dig up the dead. That's why I had to exhume the corpse." Grail sites that are mentioned in The Da Vinci Code have had to cope with an influx of equally persistent, if better behaved, visitors. Some respond with silence: in Paris's newly crowded Church of St. Sulpice, pastor Paul Roumanet simply posted a notice denouncing the book. Meanwhile, guides at Paris's Louvre Museum and Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie church - homes, respectively, to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Last Supper - now have pat answers ready for those who want to see Brown's evidence for themselves.

The cause of all this pop culture buzz is a thriller that unfolds at breakneck pace. Covering a single 24-hour period, The Da Vinci Code divides its 454 pages into 105 chapters that provide a cliffhanging moment or a puzzle to ponder every four pages or so. It opens with the last 15 minutes in the life of Jacques Saunière, mortally wounded Louvre curator. Saunière spends his final moments constructing a series of fiendishly complicated clues, in English no less, designed to lead Brown's heroes (and no one else) to the Holy Grail. Soon, Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of religious symbology, and Saunière's granddaughter Sophie, a codebreaker as clever in deciphering as grandpa is in encrypting, are in hot pursuit - chased themselves by French police, an albino killer monk and his secret master.

Seventeen million copies have been sold, about 500,000 of them to Canadians. Our libraries are jammed with it - in Vancouver, 1,000 readers are chasing the city system's 120 copies, including Chinese and Korean versions, while in Toronto, 6,000 people are lined up for one of 660 library copies. The Code is the highest-selling book ever from Random House of Canada, and it has sat on the Maclean's bestseller list for a record 75 weeks. Recently, in another first, the just-released illustrated edition joined the original on bestseller lists. The Hollywood version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, starts filming in May. It adds up to an extraordinary influence for a cartoonish, if exciting, excursion through what's become known as "alternative" history and well-worn anti-Catholic motifs.

It's the novel's backstory, of course, that has generated the buzz and sparked the controversy. The Holy Grail is not the icon familiar to millions, simultaneously a real object (the cup Christ used at the Last Supper) and the mythic inspiration for some of Western civilization's greatest art, music and literature. Brown's Grail is, prosaically speaking, the bones of Mary Magdalene, documents that prove her marriage to Jesus Christ and trace their bloodline through the ages, and - finally - the true record of Christ's ministry. Some of the couple's descendants became kings of France centuries afterwards; others are alive today. Symbolically, in the Code the Grail represents the "sacred feminine:" an entire half of human wisdom marginalized by misogynist Church Fathers. In the 4th century CE, to consolidate their power over the faithful, clerics declared - for the first time - that Jesus was God. Churchmen also violently suppressed records of Jesus's family life and of the leadership role his wife (and other women) played in the early Church.

The male clergy never entirely succeeded in this, according to The Da Vinci Code. The shadowy Priory of Sion has continued to guard the Grail and Jesus's surviving bloodline. Sometimes it has been led by Christ's descendants, at others by such towering intellectual figures as Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci. The latter blatantly salted his paintings with clues for those who have eyes to see. But he wasn't alone. All around us great artists have encoded the sacred feminine in everything from architecture to Mozart's Magic Flute. Recovering the feminine principle, many Code characters believe - that is, proving the true Grail story - will bring healing to a violent, testosterone-troubled world.

Eyepopping enough, but on occasion, this alternative version of Western history spits out something weird enough to raise the suspicion that The Da Vinci Code is actually a parody, an inside joke on our contemporary love of conspiracy theories and distrust of established institutions. How else to explain Brown's tribute to Walt Disney as a man who "made it his quiet life's work to pass on the Grail story?" The Little Mermaid in particular is "a spellbinding tapestry of spiritual symbols so specifically goddess-related that they could not be coincidence." (Remarkable that, given the film was made 23 years after Uncle Walt's death.)

In truth, even if Brown's sincerity, like his grasp of fact, is not quite rock-solid, his millions of fans are surely not reading The Da Vinci Code for a laugh. His book has connected with the spirit of the times in a way that speaks volumes about us and our world. Its success has spawned an entire cottage industry of debunkers, mostly the work of small Catholic publishers in the U.S. Given the demonstrable extent of Brown's historical illiteracy, the attacks can feel like piling on. Yet the battle of the Code vs. the codebreakers has had no discernible effect on the book's popularity.

Some of Brown's errors are actually deliberate distortions, necessary to his story. It's simply wrong, and easily disproved, to write that Christians thought Jesus an ordinary mortal until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. What the bishops assembled there decided was how Christ was divine - in what way God and man mingled in him. A handful thought Jesus's divinity was somehow different from that of God the Father; they were overwhelmingly outvoted. Hence those parts of the Nicene Creed, still recited in most Christian churches, that only theologians understand these days: "true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father."

When he cares, Brown exhibits a lavish attention to detail, not only in his plot puzzles but in other word games. Louvre curator Saunière is named after the Abbé of Rennes-le-Château, while the implausible name the author gives Grail fanatic Leigh Teabing is a tribute to Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent (Teabing is an anagram of Baigent). The main authors of 1982's Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a primary source for the Code's backstory, don't seem to have been mollified by the gesture - in October, Leigh and Baigent sued Brown's publisher for plagiarism.

That care is not visible elsewhere. Particularly in his asides, in which Brown tries to cram lashings of historical support without disrupting his jolt-a-minute pacing, he comes across as just another guy who believes everything he ever read on the Web. Some mistakes are merely irritating or, on occasion, amusing. With a little goodwill, readers can accept that Brown doesn't know what's in the Dead Sea Scrolls or even the difference between the 4th century and the 400s. But at times his sloppiness, to give it the most charitable explanation, leads him into flat-out lies that tap deeply into ancient wells of suspicion and bigotry.

Consider Brown's single-paragraph summation of the witch craze that lasted from the 15th to the 18th centuries - part of his description of the Church's "deceitful and violent history." In rapid-fire succession Brown writes: that the Catholic Inquisition deemed to be witches "all female scholars, priestesses, gypsies, mystics, nature lovers, herb gatherers;" that it also targeted midwives who eased the pain of childbirth because it was dogmatically necessary that women suffer (the legacy of Eve and the apple); and that the Church "burned at the stake an astounding five million women." No, no, no and, good God, no!

Brown's number is astounding, if only because it's out by a factor of 100. Modern scholars who have pored over records of witch cases - this was not the Dark Ages but early modern Europe, a culture as bureaucratic as our own - have found about 110,000 trials. The conviction rate was around half, meaning that 50,000 to 60,000 women and men - up to a quarter of convicted witches were male - were variously hanged, strangled before being burnt at the stake, actually burnt alive, or otherwise hideously done to death. True, 50,000 victims of religious hysteria are still 50,000 too many. Just as the handful of people - mostly daycare operators in places like Martensville, Sask. and Manhattan Beach, Calif. - who have had their lives destroyed by modern secular witch hunts for satanic child abusers is a handful too many.

So forget the numbers. It's the wholly Catholic nature of Brown's holocaust that's disturbing. (Talk about piling on - the Roman Catholic Church has enough real sins to atone for.) Salem, Mass., site of the English-speaking world's last great witch hunt, saw the judicial murder of 13 women and seven almost forgotten men in 1692. Brown, a graduate of Massachusetts's Amherst College, presumably knows that Salem was a Puritan colony, not a stronghold of the Spanish Inquisition.

The witch craze reached its peak between 1550 and 1650 during the vicious religious wars of the Reformation era. Areas where the Catholic Church was strong were largely free of it - Ireland killed only four witches in three centuries. But in Germany, epicentre of the sectarian struggle, 26,000 witches died in an era of extreme social turmoil. Most of them were executed by local secular courts, victims of the grievances of their neighbours, Catholic and Protestant alike. The other main witch-hunting countries were France and Switzerland, similarly fissured by religion. For a novel whose characters frequently discourse on the evils of the Big Lie, Brown's witch burning is more than a bit much. He likes his puzzles childishly complicated and his history infantile.

So why have these mistakes and falsehoods not made a dent in The Da Vinci Code's unstoppable popularity? In part, it's because the bad history isn't as noticeable as the exciting plot twists; most readers are probably unaware of it, and many wouldn't care if they were. Reflexive anti-Catholicism, with its centuries-old roots in the English-speaking world, remains among the most tolerated of prejudices. Critics of the official Church - some of them lay Catholics - see it as out of step with the modern world in its secrecy and undemocratic nature, and in its stance on abortion, birth control, homosexuality and the role of women. It's almost universally considered to have been even more oppressive in the past. And, crucially, in the U.S., public opinion has also been alienated by the pedophile scandal in the American church. In short, if a writer wants to intimate that Roman Catholicism used to be fully occupied in burning alive an assortment of good guys - proto-Protestants, curious scientists and uppity, goddess-worshipping women among them - millions of readers won't blink.

And that's where The Da Vinci Code slots most neatly into the current climate of opinion. (Brown, it should be noted, has nothing at all to say about Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy: his age-old war is fought between two medieval survivors, the Priory and the Church.) The novel tosses up the pedophile scandal more than once. In one key passage a character says, in effect, who are you going to believe - me, or a bunch of hypocritical clerics who just had their latest cover-up exposed? The riposte works well when Brown addresses Christianity's early days, where documentary evidence is scarce. It's his characters and their unnamed experts against the voices of tradition. And the burden of proof, for many of his readers, and increasingly for society at large, seems to have switched to the traditionalists.

There are positive words in The Da Vinci Code for everyone who has ever been persecuted or slighted by the Church, from Gnostic heretics to gay people, including the book's ultimate hero, the "flamboyantly homosexual" Leonardo (probably half-true - according to art scholars, flamboyant he was not). But Catholic women in particular can't be blamed for seeing a larger "truth" peeking out from Brown's mountain of error. There is plenty of evidence that Jesus, and the early Church after him, accorded women a higher status than the surrounding pagan or Jewish cultures, though nowhere near as high as Brown suggests. Given that, and the role of later Christianity in Western misogyny, Mary Magdalene may well have played a larger role after Christ's death than the male authors of the New Testament acknowledge. In similar fashion - though with far less plausibility - Code characters assert that Christ must have been married because that was the norm for Jewish men in his time. Prove that he wasn't, they implicitly demand. If the orthodox respond that there's no mention of it in Scripture, back comes the obvious answer: expunged by those with a vested interest. So who are you going to believe?

This tipping point between the faith of our fathers and one that could resonate more closely with our current yearnings is at its sharpest with Brown's ultimate proof - Leonardo's Last Supper. You can look at it, one of the masterpieces of Western art, and see what onlookers have seen for five centuries. On Christ's right-hand side, there because he was the disciple Jesus loved best, is John, painted as an effeminate young man because he was the youngest of the 12 apostles and that was the style for portraying beardless youths. (And because Leonardo liked to surround himself with beautiful young men.) John is leaning towards Peter to discuss what Christ has just said: one of those present would betray him.

Or you can look at Leonardo's work and see Mary Magdalene, the metaphorical incarnation of the sacred feminine, at the right-hand side of her husband, Jesus, being threatened by Peter, arch-misogynist. Once you see her there, Harvard man Langdon enthusiastically tells Sophie, you can see the sacred feminine everywhere: in paintings and music; in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; and in the womb-like interiors of medieval churches, the work of master masons who were always in on the secret. (Presumably they avoided clerical suspicion by throwing up all those exuberantly phallic spires.)

When the world turns, it turns on crises of authority. Catholic apologist and literary critic G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who watched the crumbling of Christian certitude in his own time, is said to have remarked: "When men stop believing in God, they don't then believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Witty, and true enough, but no defence for tradition. The last Roman priest of Jupiter could have said as much as he spied, amidst the wreckage of his culture, people worshipping a crucified criminal.

The Da Vinci Code is just a novel after all, and a badly written, error-strewn one at that. But its amazing success is not based on the thriller element alone - the sheer number of copies sold make it a cultural straw in the wind. For most readers it marks their first encounter with ideas and themes that have hovered on the edge of mainstream Christianity for years. And many of them, Christian or not, clearly like what they see.

Senior Writer Brian Bethune has a Ph.D. in medieval history.

BY BRIAN BETHUNE

THE CODE VS. HISTORY

The 24 breathless hours covered in The Da Vinci Code take place against an enormous backdrop of 2,000 years of alternative Western history. None of it is original to Brown. As his plot requires, he dips into a rich stew of wild conspiracy theories more than a century old and serious works from contemporary feminist scholars. Alt history vs. the official line:

c. 30 - 325 CE

CODE Jesus and Mary Magdalene, both of royal Jewish blood, marry. After Jesus's death, his pregnant wife flees to safety in France. Mary Magdalene, who male Church leaders later deliberately malign as a prostitute, is really the incarnation of the feminine principle, the Christian version of a pagan goddess in a world much more woman-friendly than now. She becomes the true Holy Grail, as a proper understanding of the words will show: the Old French Sangreal should not be separated after the "n" (San Greal or Holy Grail), but after the "g" (sang real or blood royal).

FACT It's not much of a leg to stand on, but no one can prove Jesus and Mary Magdalene weren't married, and the supposition that early female disciples were prominent among Christ's followers is reasonable. In 591 CE an influential pope, Gregory I, did confuse Mary Magdalene with a sinful woman elsewhere mentioned in Scripture, thereby setting in motion later medieval legends about her. The Church issued a correction in 1969. As for the royal bloodlines, the spurious etymology and the idea Christians did not think their saviour was divine - not a chance.

4TH CENTURY

CODE Pagan Roman Emperor Constantine decides to use Christianity to unite his empire. Wanting a divinity-based religion like the paganism he knew, Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and commissions a new Bible, throwing out any of the 80 or so gospels extant that tell the whole truth about Jesus (only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are left). Excluded books are banned and burned, almost burying the true story for all time. Women-hating clerics eagerly join the bandwagon, denying Jesus's marriage and driving the sacred feminine right out of Christianity.

FACT What 80 gospels? Long before Nicaea, today's four Gospels were the most authoritative books in the faith; far from denying Christ's humanity, they tell how he suffered, died and was buried.

AFTER NICAEA

CODE Jesus's descendants marry into the Merovingian family and become the famous long-haired kings of France (476 to 750 CE). Even after they're deposed - and supposedly exterminated - by a Church-backed conspiracy, secret descendants survive.

FACT The Merovingians have always fascinated conspiracy theorists. Those who believe they were the descendants of extraterrestrials from the star Sirius make the Grail theorists look sober.

THE FIRST CRUSADE 1095

CODE The Church launches it, in part at least, to find and destroy records in the Holy Land pertaining to Jesus's family and his true mission. Unknown to the pope, one Crusade leader, Godefroy de Bouillon, is a secret descendent of Jesus.

FACT The Crusades' complex mix of motives did not include archaeological research.

THE PRIORY OF SION AND THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR

CODE After conquering Jerusalem in 1099, Godefroy founds the Priory to protect his family secret. The Priory, which keeps to the shadows, creates a public military wing, the Templars, in 1119.

FACT The Templars are certainly known to history, as well as to seemingly every esoteric theory ever concocted, but the Priory was invented by a shady Frenchman named Pierre Plantard in 1956. An old friend, one of the founding members, told the BBC in 1996 that Plantard "always had a great imagination."

THE RISE OF THE TEMPLARS

CODE After secret excavations under the Jerusalem temple, the knights find something of enormous value. Back in Europe, it solidified their power and wealth overnight. Grail enthusiasts are split on whether the find was treasure or Grail documents, or both. The Code doesn't commit itself. If it was the documents alone, theorists assume the knights grew rich by using them to blackmail the papacy.

FACT In the current film National Treasure, the Templars discover a vast haul of gold (which eventually finds its way into the hands of George Washington and, later, Nicolas Cage). Equally believable.

FALL OF THE TEMPLARS

CODE In 1307, fed up with the Templars, Pope Clement V sends sealed orders to his troops across Europe, to be opened simultaneously on Fri., Oct. 13 (which is why Friday the 13th is now thought unlucky). Countless knights were swept up, tortured and burned at the stake. But many escape capture and go underground - they influence world events to this day. And the precious documents, held by the secret Priory, eluded the papal grasp.

FACT Crucifixion on Good Friday, 13 at the unlucky Last Supper - these are why Friday the 13th was a scary day long before 1307. As for Church troops stationed across Europe, the pope could only dream. Clement was wandering about Provence at the time, looking for a permanent base. He was politically under the thumb of the French king, the man who actually issued the sealed orders to his officers in his realm. And the Knights Templar are long gone.

MODERN TIMES

CODE Since the destruction of the Templars, the Priory of Sion has carried on - often under such leaders as Victor Hugo or Leonardo da Vinci - seeding clues everywhere while awaiting the right moment to reveal all. Brown, to his credit, does tackle a tricky question. If going public will restore the sacred feminine to a place of honour, why is the Priory waiting? A Grail guardian says that letting the story be told via the arts - the better to have it seep into our cultural DNA - is working.

FACT The Priory (remember Pierre Plantard?) wasn't led by an artistic elite, because the Priory never existed. Nonetheless, the stealth process of getting the story out through artistic works strikes a chord. Non-fiction versions get laughed out of bookstores; The Da Vinci Code has sold 17 million copies.

Maclean's December 20, 2004