The Da Vinci Code

It’s the cleanest depiction of self-flagellation I’ve ever read. And let’s not get into how he cleans up the Templars. They’re heroes protecting the Jesus Princess! You could give that book to a ten-year-old.
–My wife.

The best-selling novel of the last couple of years has a plot that relates to the Holy Grail, so it connects to a major influence on fantasy lit, and it’s actually set in the near-future, making it a kind of SF. A movie will be out soon, and I just received a copy of the illustrated edition; therefore I’m going to review it here.

General Information

Title: The Da Vinci Code

Author: Dan Brown

Original Publication Date: March, 2003

ISBN: 0385504209

Buy from: Amazon.com or
Amazon.ca

Premise:

An American academic finds himself a suspect after the curator of the Louvre is murdered. To prove his innocence, he and the man’s estranged granddaughter, a cryptographer, must follow a trail of enigmatic clues.

Meanwhile, a fanatic albino, an obsessed detective, and some guy called “the Teacher” are in hot pursuit.

High Point

Brown can write a page-turner. Although he often relies on cheap devices– like withholding information that everyone in the novel already knows– he creates suspense, and I wanted to get to the end.

Low Point:

This novel has outsold everything else around? Oh, please. It spoon-feeds its readers with the necessary information, its characters are thinly drawn, and the dialogue heavily expository and often outrageously bad. Only our albino monk manages to be personally interesting.

It also defies plausibility that Sophie would turn entirely away from her grandfather after what she witnesses in the chateau. She’d be shocked, of course, but this man raised her (so far as she knows, he’s her only family), and her background would not have left her a prude. I don’t buy that she would refuse all contact for years. Her actions would be out of character– if she had one.

The Scores

Originality: 2/6 Brown cribs other sources, most notably Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Story: 4/6. The story makes this work. He knows how to write a page-turner and, despite all of my negative comments on this book, I respect that fact. Even many fans of the book, however, share with me their disappointment with the ending.

Characterization: 2/6. He creates clichés, when he creates characters at all. Only Silas has any depth. People often act because it serves the plot, not because of any plausible internal motivation.

Imagery: 5/6. Brown does a good job of describing the various locales.

Emotional Response: 3/6. He kept me in suspense, and some people will enjoy the James Bondesque ride through exotic locations. He started to lose me towards the end. There’s simply not enough here.

Editing: 4/6. Yeah, The Code has become a bestseller, so who am I to be critical? And very talented classical and jazz musicians scrape by while Eminem and Britney Spears become wealthy. Bottom line: this guy can make you want to read to the end, but his style recalls more than a little adventure novels written for kids.

Overall Score: 4/6.

In total, The Da Vinci Code receives 24/42

Oooh! Twenty-four is forty-two reversed! It must be a cryptic clue!

Additional Comments

This is a work of fiction, but many people have accepted Brown’s history as fact, and he encourages the trend. The novel begins with a note labelled “Fact,” and it goes on to list three points, the first of which (discussed under #1) is most definitely not a “fact.” Brown has suggested in interviews that he believes the gist of his own conspiracy theory. The illustrated edition has been arranged so much like a factual coffee-table book that it cannot help but nudge readers in the direction of believing that the history beneath the story must be real.

Many sites document the errors. While some of these are affiliated with religious organizations whose noses have been (IMO, deservedly) put out of joint by the suggestion that their doctrine might be suspect, that does not mean their critiques are wrong. Entire books have been published on the subject, and the History channel aired a documentary debunking several assertions made in the book. Look elsewhere if you want detail, but here are my top five:

1. Brown claims that the Priory of Sion, founded in 1099, has protected a secret for centuries. He lists this first among his opening “facts.”

We know little of the Priory. Claims have been made of its ancient history, but no evidence for its existence can be found that predates 1956, and current identified members claim it was never more than a social club. Nothing contradicts this claim.

As for the list of luminaries who supposedly held the top position in the Priory over the centuries, the sole source for the claim comes from Les Dossiers Secrets, which surfaced in 1975. The best that can be said about Les Dossiers Secrets is that these documents of dubious origin make claims unsubstantiated by any known history. Most historians believe the documents to be a hoax, seeded into the Bibliotheque Nationale for reasons as yet unknown, possibly as a hoax by Priory member Pierre Plantard.

Of course, in Brown’s fictional world, they may be real documents, just as, say, Atlantis is a real place in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and in DC and Marvel’s comics. Readers should remember that their status in the real world is a little iffier.

2. Early Christians decided Jesus’s divinity in a vote, so that they could better sell their new faith.

Yeah, many beliefs surrounded Jesus in the centuries after his death, and the Nicene Council happened so that Christians could arrive at some conclusions. Yes, in the centuries that followed, those who disagreed with the official version of things often found themselves in a heated situation. Yes, it’s also true that some early Christians did not consider Jesus to be God. However, his divine status was widely accepted among Christians at the time of the Nicene Council. Brown’s account manages to be highly misleading without being false. He makes it sound as though some fourth-century theologians pulled Jesus’s Godhood out of their butts. In fact, they endorsed a widespread interpretation.

3. Brown’s art history includes many inventions. I don’t condemn him for this; he’s a writer creating a story. But many of his takes on famous paintings, which he presents as widely-held by historians, have no support whatsoever. We can debate why Da Vinci chose to make John quite so effeminate-looking, and positioned him as he did with relation to Jesus. However, that is supposed to be John, and not Mary Magdalene in the painting.

4. So, did Jesus marry Mary of Magdalene? Did they produce children? Personally, I would identify more with a Jesus who had a wife. However, the historical case for their marriage remains weak.

It’s true, as Brown asserts, that the church rewrote Magdalene’s history so that she became a former prostitute, but that identification has always been controversial. However, while their marriage may be an accepted fact among many historians in Brown’s alternate universe, it is hardly so in ours.

5. He turns the Knights Templars into heroes. Their real history is decidedly less pure.

Even More Additional Comments

How would the hypothetical documents at the heart of this mystery be such a threat to Christianity in the twenty-first century? The ideas they support have been around for some time. Obviously, nothing could amount to definitive proof of the claims they supposedly endorse. People could accept or reject them, the same as people now accept or reject various religious faiths.

What are we supposed to believe resides in those chests? Jesus’s wedding album, with photographs? (I’m seeing Peter in a tuxedo here, giving a speech). A bill for the cake, signed JC? Christians would condemn any documents on the marriage as false, and it would be business as usual.

Although he does not directly reference Rennes-le-Chateau, Brown has drawn most of his conspiracy theory from twentieth-century attempts to solve that mystery. I recommend this site if you’re interested in exploring the matter, and this site, even if he mostly asks us to accept his word for his ultra-skeptical interpretation. Too many other authorities suffer from sloppy research and lame attempts to sell you their book with the definitive interpretation. I’ll give you mine, free of charge. You may find it here, and my history’s as reliable as Brown’s.

13 replies on “The Da Vinci Code”

  1. y42 says:

    Overrated
    It was a good read, but not great.

    And my low point is that I could break the cryptex without dissolving the papyrus in the vinegar, using either the forces of nature, or modern technology, and having so many characters that are described as being far more intelligent than me fail completely to realise that annoyed me all through the rest of the book.

    This isn’t a bad book, but it doesn’t live up to the hype, and frankly, the controversy is your run-of-the-mill religious nut-job overraction.

    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: Overrated

      Raise your hand if you figured out the mirror writing instantly and couldn’t figure out how a symbolist, a cryptographer, and an expert on the Holy Grail, all with passing-to-expert knowledge of Da Vinci, take forever to realize that’s what it was.

      • Alexius says:

        Re: Overrated

        Raise your hand if you figured out the mirror writing instantly and couldn’t figure out how a symbolist, a cryptographer, and an expert on the Holy Grail, all with passing-to-expert knowledge of Da Vinci, take forever to realize that’s what it was.

        *Hand*

        • Harry the Dirty Dog says:

          Re: Overrated

          Raise your hand if you figured out the mirror writing instantly and couldn’t figure out how a symbolist, a cryptographer, and an expert on the Holy Grail, all with passing-to-expert knowledge of Da Vinci, take forever to realize that’s what it was.

          “It’s backwards writing, but I can’t be bothered decyphering it because they’ll tell me next chapter anyway”

      • FarmerBob says:

        Re: Overrated

        Raise your hand if you figured out the mirror writing instantly and couldn’t figure out how a symbolist, a cryptographer, and an expert on the Holy Grail, all with passing-to-expert knowledge of Da Vinci, take forever to realize that’s what it was.

        Its been a while since I read it, so I don’t remember that. I didn’t find the book to be that great of a page turner. A little more than halfway into the book I managed to figure out how to predict his plot holes^W^W cliffhangers and I managed to get almost all of them for the rest of the book. The beginning was pretty good though.

  2. jayhawk88 says:

    I read this book
    Thought it was pretty good, then I went and picked up Digital Fortress. Got through maybe 3/4 of it and just finally gave up on it.

    It’s like you said, a lot of reliance on cheap literary tricks to build suspense. I mean it’s like some announcer at the end of a Flash Gordon serial: “Why is this character acting in this seemingly peculiar manner? Tune in next chapter, where….” Seems to me that Brown probably has himself in a nice, comfortable spot as the next Tom Clancy or John Grisham. He’ll be able to turn out the same book every 14 months for the next 10 years, every one will be in Barnes and Noble and Sam’s Club in paperback 3 months after release, and people will eat it up like it’s candy.

  3. nkuzmik says:


    I should probably read the book before I say anything, shouldn’t I?

  4. Daemonik says:

    A few rebuttals

    2. Early Christians decided Jesus’s divinity in a vote, so that they could better sell their new faith.

    …those who disagreed with the official version of things often found themselves in a heated situation.

    He makes it sound as though some fourth-century theologians pulled Jesus’s Godhood out of their butts. In fact, they endorsed a widespread interpretation.

    Heated situation? Being hunted down and executed for heresy would be a ‘heated situation’ I suppose.

    Don’t act as if the structure of the Catholic Church didn’t help out the feudalist political system of the later Holy Roman Empire either, nor that the Church wasn’t willing to slap a Christian face on pagan rituals for the sake of easing conversions.

    As for pulling Christ’s divinity out of their butts, it’s may have been the most common belief amongst the largest groups of Christians at that time but it wasn’t exactly ‘Gospel’ either. Most of the potential Gospels were culled and the Gospels that were included in the Bible can’t even be confirmed as being written by their attributed authors or that those authors had personally met Christ. To this day there is no definitive Bible with many Gospels being dropped or later added back by the various Christian sects.

    3. Brown’s art history includes many inventions. I don’t condemn him for this; he’s a writer creating a story. But many of his takes on famous paintings, which he presents as widely-held by historians, have no support whatsoever. We can debate why Da Vinci chose to make John quite so effeminate-looking, and positioned him as he did with relation to Jesus. However, that is supposed to be John, and not Mary Magdalene in the painting.

    As you say, we can debate what Da Vinci was saying with the Last Supper but we will never definitively know what his intent was. Heck, it’s just as plausable that Da Vinci was pissed at the Church that day and decided to paint John a little effeminate as a private joke.

    4. So, did Jesus marry Mary of Magdalene? Did they produce children? Personally, I would identify more with a Jesus who had a wife. However, the historical case for their marriage remains weak.

    For that matter, the historical case for Jesus is fairly weak, with no physical or literary confirmations of his existence outside of the Bible. Sociologically, I do feel that it’s unlikely that a Jewish man of Christ’s age would not have had a wife.

    5. He turns the Knights Templars into heroes. Their real history is decidedly less pure.

    Yet, the Templars weren’t the Baphomet worshiping homosexual baby eaters that King Philip portrayed them as either. I don’t wish to sing them undue praise but I don’t think they were above average for institutional abuses for that era either. Also, considering their central role in the novels conspiracies it made literary sense for them to be portrayed in a softer light. It seems odd that you forgive the author his ‘inventive art history’ yet dog a little historical tweaking towards the Templars.

    I think that the success of The Da Vinci Code springs mainly from it’s timing. Being released at a point where interest in Christianity is surging, both by it’s adherants and detractors, it has brought a lot of the questions about the origins of Christianity out of the philosophy and theology departments and into the lay persons perception. As Evangelicalism becomes even more prominent as a political force it can do us no harm to publicly question what some would contend is literal truth and law. For that alone I cheer The Da Vinci Code.

    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: A few rebuttals

      Heated situation? Being hunted down and executed for heresy would be a ‘heated situation’ I suppose.

      Don’t act as if the structure of the Catholic Church didn’t help out the feudalist political system of the later Holy Roman Empire either, nor that the Church wasn’t willing to slap a Christian face on pagan rituals for the sake of easing conversions.

      My first comment was understatement (also, a poor play on the meanings of “heated”). I didn’t address any of the other matters you raise. They are a matter of history, and I was addressing his inventions, simply because so many people are taking this book so damned seriously.

      Most of the potential Gospels were culled and the Gospels that were included in the Bible can’t even be confirmed as being written by their attributed authors or that those authors had personally met Christ. To this day there is no definitive Bible with many Gospels being dropped or later added back by the various Christian sects.

      Doesn’t change the fact that he misrepresents that period. Also, although many variations of the Bible exist, there really are only four Gospels accepted by various Christian sects. Unfortunately, we are missing much that relates to the other accounts.

      For that matter, the historical case for Jesus is fairly weak, with no physical or literary confirmations of his existence outside of the Bible. Sociologically, I do feel that it’s unlikely that a Jewish man of Christ’s age would not have had a wife.

      True, but another matter, which I didn’t address.

      Also, considering their central role in the novels conspiracies it made literary sense for them to be portrayed in a softer light. It seems odd that you forgive the author his ‘inventive art history’ yet dog a little historical tweaking towards the Templars.

      Once again, I am not disputing his right to alter history in a work of fiction. I’m merely pointing out some of those alterations.

      the origins of Christianity out of the philosophy and theology departments and into the lay persons perception. As Evangelicalism becomes even more prominent as a political force it can do us no harm to publicly question what some would contend is literal truth and law.

      It’s a novel. If one has a serious intent to raise questions about the origins of Christianity, they should do so in a serious manner. If that was the purpose of The… Code, it backfires, because it’s case is so entirely fictional. However, I suspect Brown’s intention was to sell many copies of a book.

      That said, I suspect that you are correct, and a part of what makes the book so popular is that much of what he says is comforting to a secular readership with the concerns you name.

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: A few rebuttals

        of The… Code, it backfires, because it’s case is

        its case” Arrrgh!

    • smeep says:

      Re: A few rebuttals

      I think that the success of The Da Vinci Code springs mainly from it’s timing. Being released at a point where interest in Christianity is surging, both by it’s adherants and detractors, it has brought a lot of the questions about the origins of Christianity out of the philosophy and theology departments and into the lay persons perception. As Evangelicalism becomes even more prominent as a political force it can do us no harm to publicly question what some would contend is literal truth and law. For that alone I cheer The Da Vinci Code.

      I actually think that the interest in this book stems from a disillusionment of religion in general, and Catholisism in particular. I find that there are quite a few people around me (and this may not be true all over) are questioning their faith. I know I certainly fall in this category.

      As for the book itself, it was a fast read. If anyone hasn’t purchased this book, and is looking to, I do recommend the illustrated version. It helps with deciding your own take on what Mr. Brown is asserting.

      Also, I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s other books, and the post earlier that stated that he’ll probably keep publishing the book every 14 monthes… well, he already is. He uses the exact same plot devices in each book (there’s 4 total). It got to the point where every plot “twist” was completely predictable. I’m suprised that this book is taking so much heat in Christian religious circles, and yet Angels & Devils is not. Although, given the recent Papal “election” (don’t know what else to call it), I find that A&D was helpful in understanding how that process works.

      • y42 says:

        Pointless and futile

        I actually think that the interest in this book stems from a disillusionment of religion in general, and Catholisism in particular. I find that there are quite a few people around me (and this may not be true all over) are questioning their faith. I know I certainly fall in this category.

        Join me to the dark side: Absurb Nihlism.

        There is no god, no reason, no purpose to life. You will die, for good and for ever, everything you love will die.

        So, eat, drink and be merry: For tomorrow we die.

  5. dirtymatt says:

    My thoughts…
    #2) IIRC the earliest writings about Jesus treat him as a purely spiritual being, basically 100% god, and over time he becomes more and more human until you get the mortal son of god that we have today. Dan Brown gets the history completely backwards. Not to mention the Bible was well on its way to being established by Constantine’s time, and his death bead baptism when he was “too weak to object” was a perfectly common practice at the time. It was believed that your soul was washed clean at baptism, so if you waited until you were about to die to be baptized you’d die with a clean soul and be assured entry into heaven.

    #3) If you look at the last supper Jesus also looks fairly effeminate. Brown’s phantom disembodied hand is completely absent from the painting. And the dagger that is being held by an elderly man looks to be more of a table knife with the hand being rested on the man’s hip.

    #4) I’d say definitely not. As another poster pointed out, there is little historical evidence that he even existed. There is less historical evidence that Magdalene existed.

    My big issue with his whole theory was that it just doesn’t make sense. Why would the Priory of Sion go through all of this trouble to protect a secret, and then scatter “clues” all over creation as to what that secret is so that a professor and cryptographer can in one night work out the details (not to mention the millions of drooling fans who figured out every mystery a chapter ahead of the characters)?

    I’ll admit it, the book did keep me entertained. I was just really pissed off about his “facts” page. Historical fiction is fine, but to lie to your readers and present elements of your fiction as fact is just pathetic.

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