Da Vinci Decoded

The History Channel in Canada broadcast “The Real Da Vinci Code” as a two hour show last night (March 23/05). Actor, journalist and politician Tony Robinson was the narrator and he brought a comic and sarcastic presence, honed in his appearances as Baldrick in Rowan Atkinson’s “Blackadder” shows, to his role as debunker of modern myths.


The show was originally broadcast in Britain as part of a Channel 4 series called “Weird Worlds”, which is devoted to debunking claims of magic, fantasy, fiction and the paranormal.
It starts with a clip of Dan Brown, the author of the wildly successful novel “The Da Vinci Code” being interviewed during a promotional tour claiming that while his story is a work of fiction, the underlying history of the Grail, secret societies and suppression of the truth about the Holy Grail by the Catholic Church was true. Brown still makes the same claims on his web site, in a somewhat circumscribed way.
Channel 4 has a page for “The Real Da Vinci Code” which summarizes the program’s answers to Dan Brown’s historical claims. There is a savage review of the novel and its historical claims at salon.com (unfortunately only an excerpt but fun)and a thorough article at the ever-useful Wikipedia.
The Grail was originally supposed to be the goblet used by Christ at the Last Supper, which had been found in the Holy Land and transported to Europe, where it became the object of quests by knights – a sort of religious purpose within an essential martial pursuit. The idea first turned up an 11th century work of adventure fiction – about knights on holy quests – and it became a popular story line in medieval literature and art. The Templars were a real group of military men who organized themselves as a quasi-monastic religious organization. They became bankers and shippers, although their main work was providing security for Christian pilgrims in the Holy land. They were suppressed by King Phillip of France who confiscated their lands. Phillip accused them of heresy. Corrupt French Inquisitors supported his accusation, which held off any intervention in defence of the Templars by the Papacy or the so-called Holy Roman Empire (in medieval times the Pope used to crown a European monarch as Emperor of the new Roman Empire – but this is getting a little far from the story). The accusation was false. It was contrived to cover up the King’s campaign to eradicate a powerful group and steal their money. They disappeared in fact, but not in myth. One of the myths was that the Templars had the Grail and went underground to hide the Grail for various mystical purposes. The Priory of Sion is a 20th Century hoax. The idea that Leonardo da Vinci was part of the original hoax. The idea that there are coded messages in his paintings seems to be Brown’s own idea.
Brown obviously took his facts about the Grail, the Templars, and the Priory of Sion from the 1982 “history” called “Holy Blood – Holy Grail”, especially the idea that Grail is the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magadalene, who settled in Southern France and founded the Merovingian dynasty. Robinson interviewed Michael Baigent, one of the co-authors and asks him to defend and support his claims, and he just sits there and says that he trusts his research. One of the key sources for the theories in “Holy Blood – Holy Grail” was the archive of the Priory of Sion, which was a hoax. Robinson didn’t delve into Baigent’s credentials as a historian, which might have been really funny. Baigent writes what my friend Mike, in his days in the book trade, called loon books. I haven’t found a home page for Baigent on the Web but he has author pages at Random House and Penguin UK, and the search engine at Amazon will find just about anything. He has written or co-written on astrology, pyramids, Atlantis, the Templars, Secret Societies etc. His defence of his work in a documentary on Brown’s claims is not surprizing – the success of Brown’s book has created interest in Baigent’s books which have been reprinted since the publication of the Da Vinci Code, and he seems to be seriously devoted to trying to establish that his discoveries and insights are true and that there is some kind of world conspiracy of religious leaders and historians devoted to suppressing the truth.
Brown wouldn’t submit to an interview and it’s hard to get a sense of whether he came to this material as fodder for a thriller, or whether he came to it with a real belief in its accuracy and authenticity.
The TV show was smart, informative and entertaining. Robinson’s performance in interviewing reliable historians, nut authors, kooks and obsessives was fun to watch. He seemed to treat the common people, even the marginally kooky ones with respect, saving the sarcasm for Baigent, Brown and the other grandiose and fraudulent historians. There was scene near the Louvre in Paris where he got several American woman – all seemingly in that famously sensitive, spiritual, affluent and self-indulgent 35-50 demographic – to comment on the book. They were tourists, visiting France on a Da Vinci Code tour, having a great time with their friends and with new people on the tour. None of them seemed to know anything about the history of the Templars, Da Vinci, or any of the books other historical premises. They seemed to assume that Brown was offering a serious interpretation of real facts. That scene was a little sad. They enjoyed the book, they thought it was reliable, they were excited by the grand ideas – and they just didn’t have a clue.

5 thoughts on “Da Vinci Decoded”

  1. I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with what Brown did and is doing. He wrote FICTION. He’s MARKETING that fiction. If loons want to take it seriously, that’s their problem. There’s a game readers play where they accept, for the purposes of a story or movie, the author’s assertion that it is based on fact… because it adds to the enjoyment factor. In the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE movie, Tobe Hooper asserted that it was “based on a true story” which added tremendously to the horrific effect of the movie. Well, it was BASED on a true story… the Ed Geins murders, which are nothing like the movie at all. I think Brown is probably having a laugh over all of this. He’s found some good fodder for this fiction, and it turns out to be profitable. To market it successfully, he ahs to claim to believe it to some degree. That doesn’t mean we have to believe it, other than to engage in the game he’s playing, for the fun of it. I don’t think you can read an author (or his beliefs) into his fiction. The only thing I get out of Brown’s book is that he enjoys playing with conspiracy theories… lots of people do.

  2. Brave Kelso

    One problem is that any verbal communication is a mass of information, emotion, and entertainment. A statement in a verbal medium may carry a factual truth within an imaginative package that creates intellectual and emotional responses and carries meaning in complex ways. Without contextual clues and some effort from the viewer or reader, it is hard to tell news from spin, documentary non-fiction from marketing, advocacy from advertising, fact from fiction. It has seemed more difficult in our lifetime to separate truth from bullshit. It seems that there is an increasing emphasis on entertainment, style, wit, drama and other aesthetic points. Even academic writing often reflects an emphasis on a style and presentation.
    I don’t think a good writer would have to claim that a history built on an obvious and well-known hoax is true to sell books. He could take credit for atmosphere, pace, plot and imagination. Brown seems to be a very average writer who tapped into a motherlode of emotional vulnerability and intellectual weakness, with a publisher or publicist clever enough to recognize and use that. At the same time, he has revived the mysterious conspiracy theories promoted by the real loonies like Baigent.
    If Brown was engaging a playful exploration of conspiracy theories with his readers – I think of Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” although that one is a bit heavy – I would have to accept that as imaginative play. Brown sounds like he is presenting his story as fact within fiction.
    It’s sort of obvious that Brown is going to run with the same formula for his next book, so it will be hard to see if he is going to reveal himself to be more of a spiritual leader than a commercial fiction writer. Remember “The Celestine Prophecy” started as a self-published and self-marketed novel before it was acclaimed as an oracle of mystical revelation.

  3. I agree with you… I think. I just find it amusing that a guy can publish a book and call it “fiction”, market it as “fiction”, and then get criticized because it isn’t “true.”
    I find it even more amusing that some people actually accept it as “true”, despite all the warning signs: marketed as fiction, improbable plot, pulp-style writing and, for God’s sake, an albino as a main character. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Brown actually believes the whole thing.
    How does this all relate to “bullshit”, do you think? If Brown doesn’t believe any of it, and is trying to convince his readers that a falsehood is true for his own gain, then he’s a damned liar. If he just doesn’t care, and is using any elements he can think of just to improve his story, including the element of claiming to believe it, then he’s a bullshitter… or a science fiction writer in disguise, I guess.
    What was L. Ron Hubbard?

  4. garth danielson

    I haven’t read this book it just didn’t look like something I would be interested in. I’m not a thriller fan. I was a bit interested in the buzz about it but got over that pretty quick.
    There is a customer who comes into DreamHaven who just a couple of weeks ago was telling me that he is a Knights Templar, and not the fake ones but the real ones. He was inducted by “some old guys” several years ago in Northern Minnesota and that most of them are dead now. He says he was also a Rosicrucian, the real ones not the ones associated with the Masons.
    http://www.americanreligion.org/cultwtch/rosicruc.html
    There are appearantly some 8 versions out there, according to the above site.
    I did finish two good books. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It’s an alternate history earth novel about a literary detective who is battling the evil genius Acheron Hades who has kidnapped Jane Eyre and is holding her for ransom and fun. He’s a great villian and our hero is a great hero. The writings fun and it’s quick paced, with lots of characters. I’d recommend that.
    I have also been reading the books of my new favorite named author – Eva Ibbotson. I love that name. She writes young adult novels which are really fun to read. The one I just finished was called The Great Ghost Rescue, it’s about a kid who goes to his MP and eventually the Prime Minister of England and gets a ghost sanctuary set up for the ghosts who are being forced out of the places they haunt by creeping modernization. A quick read and very silly. I’ve read 4-5 of her books amd they all are fun reads, what more could you want.
    As I type this Jon Stewart is doing a segment on the Da Vince Code. It’s on the March 24th episode. The Vatican has come out against the book. There were some good jokes. The guest was The RZA from the Wutang clan, he’s cool and more complicated than you might imagine. I heard him on National Public Radio and enjoyed him. He has a book out about the Wu-Tang. It might be good.
    Just a bit about this great movie that has finally come out on DVD in the USA, and I am guessing Canada. Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock have just released Matango – The Attack of the Mushroom People. It’s a 1963 Japanese Toho Studio horror film about a group of people shipwrecked on a small deserted island. They have little food and find that the strange mushrooms will keep you alive but with drastic complications. It’s rather dark and gritty. It’s one of my favorite movies and this is the third copy that I have bought, I had a bootlet VHS and still have a bootleg DVD. This new version looks great and has an interesting subtitled commentary by one of the actors in the movie. It’s directed by Ishiro Honda who directed the first Godzilla and many others in that series. If you haven’t seen the Japanese version of Godzilla, you really missing a great movie. It’s nothing like the American version with Raymond Burr.

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