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.