Judge Mike Pinsky really thought Da Vinci could come up with a better code than A=1, B=2, etc.
"But enough of geometry for the moment. Let's just enjoy the countryside."—Henry Lincoln
When I was in college, 20 years ago now, I went through a period where I was quite the conspiracy buff. I read every book by Robert Anton Wilson, brushed up on the Masons and Templars, joyously embraced the fun Umberto Eco made of the whole business in Foucault's Pendulum. And held my tattered paperback of Holy Blood, Holy Grail close to my heart. I do not think that this was my youthful rebellion against family tradition, since a book that questioned the validity of Catholic doctrine would not have had that sort of effect on a Jewish kid like me. It was the infinite possibility that esoteric knowledge offered.
The thesis of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, as put forward by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, was that Jesus secretly married Mary Magdalene, who smuggled their child out of Jerusalem and set up shop in France. The "sangraal" referred to in Arthurian legend was really a reference to the royal blood ("sang raal") of Jesus, rather than a holy grail ("san graal"). The authors mustered some interesting evidence, and even more interesting interpretations, to warm the heart of conspiracy theorists everywhere. I wondered how true it was, then moved on to the next collection of wild theories.
In any case, that was a long time ago, and my views on power and interpretation have grown far more complex since then. But when I saw that Holy Blood's wild exposé of secret of the Grail was recycled into a popular bestseller recently, I had to laugh. The truth behind the Grail? Hell, I knew about that 20 years ago.
Let us be honest, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code is entertaining on a purely superficial level. I've read all four of his books to date, and they are all pretty much the same: good looking hero pairs up with a good looking sidekick of the opposite sex to uncover a massive conspiracy. Faceless assassin takes orders from secret leader, whom the audience is misled into thinking is the visible villain of the story, but who always turns out to be a good friend of the hero pretending to help while really masterminding the entire evil operation. But we do not notice the enormous plot holes and coincidences because the pace of the story (which usually takes place over a single day or so) is so fast. That, in a nutshell, is every Dan Brown novel. For a few hours, while waiting in the airport or laying on a beach chaise lounge, such a creature is disposable fun. Where The Da Vinci Code succeeds (and perhaps the reason why it has dominated the bestseller lists for so long) is in the sense it gives its audience that we are all in on a monstrous secret of earth-shattering proportions.
Except it is not really much of a secret at all. There is nothing in Brown's novel that has not been worked over in dozens of books over the course of the last 30 years. It is a secret that everybody already knows. Indeed, there is apparently a whole miniature travel industry dedicated to fulfilling grail quest fantasies, and The Da Vinci Code has given it a fresh transfusion.
Take for example Henry Lincoln's Guide to Rennes-le-Chateau. Filmed in October of 1999, this tour video has been repackaged to cash in on the Da Vinci Code craze by the ironically named Disinformation Company.
Gloucester resident Lincoln has researched the connection between the family of Jesus and the French Merovingian dynasty since 1969. Getting long in the tooth for leading tour parties in person, Lincoln has chosen to make a few last coins out of his career-long obsession with medieval conspiracies. His primary purpose in this tour is to take us around the Languedoc region to visit places connected to the rogue priest Berenger Sauniere, who claimed to find a secret in 1891 that produced a mysterious treasure.
Lincoln expects you are basically familiar with the story of the Priory of Sion, since he doesn't stop to explain who Berenger Sauniere is or speculate openly about what the "priest's treasure" might be. The presentation is fortunately lacking hysteria or conspiratorial tones, admitting that many of the books written about the subject (presumably not his own) are "quite dotty." He presents the puzzles Sauniere left in matter-of-fact fashion, admitting that any solutions offered are merely guesswork. He loves the mystery and the beauty of the region and has harsh words for tourists who come and vandalize Sauniere's legacy.
Sauniere was a real character, a would-be master of esoteric wisdom who filled his church with alchemical symbolism and secret codes. Some of them Lincoln connects to various heresies and secret societies (Cathars, Freemasons, etc), but wryly avoids forcing any specific interpretations. Sauniere's antics and artwork were openly heretical. Did he believe Jesus was not crucified? Did he believe Jesus had a twin? Did he stumble onto the secret of the Holy Grail? Ultimately, you can dismiss Sauniere as a nut, an indiscrete guardian of a terrible secret, or a red herring. After all, if the secret is so important, why give out so many clues about it?
It may just be that Sauniere set out puzzles because he had a lot of time on his hands exiled back to the pastoral landscape of his youth. Who knows? In any case, Henry Lincoln is an affable host, and his sense of humor and balanced presentation of the evidence makes him feel convincing. He is careful to assert that any theories must be grounded in fact, brushing off the many imitators who have jumped aboard the conspiracy bandwagon over the years. I suppose he must be assertive in order to protect what he feels is his legacy, since he constantly mentions "his" discoveries of various puzzles. But there are so many contradictions in the evidence that any sensible person really does need a sense of humor to deal with all of it.
Most of the places Lincoln takes us actually do not appear in Dan Brown's novel, so I wonder if fans who pick this up hoping to see the cathedrals and paintings and whatnot from Da Vinci Code will be disappointed. This is not Lincoln's fault. Remember that he taped this in 1999 for another purpose altogether. True to its name, the Disinformation Company has repackaged this with a misleading title to peripherally connect it to the revival of Priory lore. But the travelogue itself offers no discussion here of the Grail, the nature of Sauniere's "treasure," or what most of the coded messages might mean (except for a few speculations). Lincoln hints that this DVD is meant to be used as a guidebook for searchers visiting the area, although his anger at indiscrete tourists make you wonder why he is advertising an area already tramped over to the point of near destruction.
I have a suspicion that Dan Brown might have watched this video or one like it while researching his novel and based the character of Sir Leigh Teabing at least in part on Henry Lincoln. The obsession with the Priory of Sion, the professorial manner, the Gloucester farmhouse (which Brown moves to France for economy of plot). Of course, I can only speculate on this.
Taken on its own merits however, the misnamed Exploring the Da Vinci Code is a reasonably entertaining collection of scenery and cute stories. Do not expect a close connection to Dan Brown's novel, and you may have to go read a few more books before you can understand the significance of most of the locations visited herein. If you are planning a trip to France though, you might discover a few interesting places to visit if you rent this disc first. Exploring the Da Vinci Code, like so many tour films you see on the Travel Channel and its ilk, is a budget vacation you can experience through your television. So if you must have this disc, tear off a piece of hearty bread, spread some warm brie on it, and grab a handful of grapes.
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