I was ransacking my bookshelfs the other day looking for Harry Potter book 1 to give to a friend, and I rediscovered my copy of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. I know that his book created quite a stir back in the day due to the conspiracy of Mary Magdalene and Jesus and their supposed offspring and subsequent royal dynasty of the Merovingians. Many religious people were outraged and warned against the dangers such statements could produce etc pp. People wrote books about the historic errors and faults, which are surprisingly easy to spot. In some instances a simple wikipedia search is enough to discover them.
Dan Brown didn't come up with his conspiracy plot by himself though. There was another book called The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail which said essentially the same, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and had his children, and that his bloodline became later the ruling dynasty of france (Merovingians) and that the last descendants are still alive today and are protected by the prieure dé sion. The descendants of Jesus were a threat to the vatican and the church tried to murder every descendant in a century long blood feud. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln published their book in 1982.
Nevertheless, Dan Brown did something exceptional because he intertwined two very popular literarary themes, the search for the holy grail and the conspiracy plot. Because Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail in his Da Vinci Code, the two heros who search for her, Robert and Sophie, actually search for the holy grail. In accordance with that theme, they have to survive adventures, chases, solve riddles along the way- all classic themes from arthurian novels and grail novels. In fact, Sophie resembles the prototype of Perceval. She grows up without knowing the family secret about her heritadge, which is being the last of Mary Magdalenes bloodline, and adventures and riddles lead her to finding out the truth about herself and her family.
Classic court literature always had a strong religious theme and a strict structure in which the story was told. That is not paralleled in Dan Brown's book, but some of the character traits of Sophie are similar enough to those of Chretien de Troys Perceval. He wrote the oldest known version of the Perceval novel in the 13th century. Perceval is a knight of King Arthur's round table. It is interesting to see the similarities between the classic grail literature and Brown's book - something that hasn't really been pointed out anywhere because people were only interested in historic faults or the consequences for the catholic church etc. This parallel goes on even more, because Brown develops a pagan cult of femininity in his book. This trend has also parallels in grail studies where fertility myths were linked with the holy grail at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. New age fantasy literature picked up on that link as well, the most prominent example being Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon. Part of the reason why people were researching the origins of the grail myth was due to Charles Darwin and theories of going back to the origins that were prominent at the end of 19th century.
This mythic side of the story, Sophie searching for the holy grail, adventures, riddles etc. is padded with a classic conspiracy plot. A dark power with dark goals is trying to take over, nobody really knows who "They" are, there is a secret society with secret sacred rituals and nobody really knows who "They" are either. Who is better suited to be the bad guy than the Vatican with its secret archives and ancient history or power and wars? "Everybody" knows that there has to be some dark secret, and thrillers about the vatican and the church in general are always popular for that very reason. It is fun to read about those who you suspect, I suppose. Brown gives his conspiracy credibility by halftruths and historic events and names that really did exist, and those who don't know it any better like most of his broad audience, might get lulled into taking his constructed conspiracy for the truth.
It does sound believable enough, so much that serious authors wrote responses defending the church and religion and whatnot. Herein lies the problem I have with his book. As I wrote this paper while studying history, my aim was to point out why popular science can be problematic in such usage. Historic facts just have to be dressed and altered in a conveneant way to fit the plot - and such is literary freedom. But Dan Brown states in the beginning of his book: "
Fact: The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secret, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Dandro Boticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo Da Vinci. The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion and a danverous practice known as 'corporeal mortification'. Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 24e Lexington Avenue in New York City. All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
Brown tricks his readers with this prologue, because he never really quotes his secret documents, the treasure (of course there is the treasure of the templars as well.. ) with all the archives and books about Mary Magdalene's bloodline are only referred to but never quoted. He does quote the apocryphic testaments and the bible, but never those documents that are the supposed sound proof for his theory. Artwork and architecture are not the same as a written records, and so it appears that Brown has historic sound proof while all he does is making his readers believe that he does. And they believe him more than maybe a historian that tries to tell them that they got it all wrong. That is a point of contention for me because he blurrs the lines between fact and fiction and simply sells his fiction as fact. I could go on about the Dossiers Secret, which are fake, and the Priory of Sion, which is also almost fake and was invented by the forger of the Dossiers Secret. That guy simply smuggled them into the National Library in Paris.
I hope that this might make a reread of the Da Vinci code fun. It is a very well written book, Dan Brown is a great author and he put alot of research into the Holy Grail theme. It is worth checking it out again.