Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

Da Vinci

Posted on by arlen

I suppose I should mention something about the Da Vinci Code, as everyone else seems to be getting drawn in, so here I go.

It’s a well-written thriller, in general, but the historical research is amazingly shoddy. As fiction, I’d give it a B, but if he submitted the “research” behind it as a term paper, it’d get an “F” at most, and we might even have to invent a lower grade for it. He begins with a page stating “facts”, virtually none of which is actually true in the strictest sense, though a few items you could “spin” into being acceptably true, in the sense that claims made in TV commercials are “true.”

You see, I’ve been down this “historical” road a few decades ago, when I read “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, but it seems Dan Brown lacks the critical skills required to be a researcher or historian. He seems to believe everything he reads (‘it’s in a book, therefore it must be true”) which is a fatal flaw when doing research, though quite essential, if only in a temporary sense, when reading fiction.

First off, let me say I don’t have a problem with the theological ramifications of much of the “data.” Though he’s clearly way off base, when you examine the historical record and the dating of old manuscripts, with the assertion that Jesus wasn’t considered divine until Constantine, the rest of the assertions aren’t really troubling. Jesus being married or having children, for example, doesn’t change anything, though it certainly doesn’t square with anything written in any of the historical documents.

My major problem with him is that he doesn’t play fair. When an author paints a historical backdrop for his fiction, he should take pains to get the history right. When he doesn’t, the cognitive dissonance he causes me forces me to drop out of my “suspension of disbelief” and moves me awya from the story. Brown’s use of easily recognized historical fallacies and proven hoaxes means that instead of writing about history, he’s writing an “alternative history” novel, Harry Turtledove’s specialty (to name one popular writer in the genre). Yet whether out of a desire to avoid that “ghetto” or just good marketing sense, he denies that’s what he’s doing.

His major source seems to be “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” (this doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes, as that’s the prime source for everything written in this vein) yet he interestingly seems unaware that one of the authors, in an interview given after the book was published, admitted that he didn’t believe the book’s contention was factual. He simply thought it an intriguing possibility. Brown claims to be unaware that the Priory of Sion (claimed as “fact” by Brown in his book) was a hoax perpetrated by a man wanting to prove himself descended from the Merovingian Kings. (Notably, after the publication of HBHG this man quickly retreated from his claim; he wasn’t comfortable claiming Jesus as an ancestor, apparently.) Far from going back to the 11th century, it was invented in the 1950’s.

Many of Brown’s mistakes can be easily detected by using a mere smidgeon of common sense. If that’s Mary in DaVinci’s picture, then where’s John? (There are only thriteen at the table, and one is clearly Judas, so there’s a disciple missing.) If Constantine invented the idea of Jesus’ divinity, then why are there important manuscripts dating before that point making the same claim? If, as Brown says, the vote was close, why do the records of the conference show the vote to be hugely one-sided? (That’s the beauty of conspiracies, though. If the evidence is lacking, then obviously it’s because “they” have erased or changed it all. But when faced with that proposition the only proper response is, “then how did you find out about it?”) And why would anyone hide secret documents on the shelves of a research library? And if they would do such a bizarre thing, why would they ever choose to clearly label them as secret documents (“Les Dossiers Secret” in french)?

See what I mean? It beggars the mind that someone would not ask such common-sense questions. Other questions that should be asked require a bit of knowledge. One that immediately springs to my mind is that if Constantine selected the four Gospels in the New Testament, then why were they the only four on most lists of scripture we’ve found that were circulating as much as a century before him, and why were they the only ones selected when the Bible was officially compiled, long after Constantine’s death? (Oh, you thought Constantine was at that council, too? You must be reading too much Dan Brown.) Constantine’s role was clearly the same as King James’ would be later: he locked warring factions in a room and told them don’t come out until you’ve settled the question among yourselves.

As an amateur historian, the main reason I dislike Brown’s book is the way he plays so carelessly with history. He seems to think that you can change the authorship or dating of a manuscript almost at will, and that there will be no “ripple effect.” The dating of manuscripts is a difficult thing, and there are many points we use in figuring it out. In many ways, it’s like solving a sudoku puzzle; if a manuscript is mentioned in a known document, then we know it predates that document. If it shows the writer was familiar with another document, then it postdates that one. Slowly we block out the years the document cannot have been found in, and arrive by elimination at when it was probably written. But that process means that if you change the date of one document, that will cause you to completely revise other dates, and eventually, as in sudoku, you will end up with an insoluable puzzle because you’ll find documents that cannot have been written by people whom you have absolute proof wrote them.

I wasn’t at first able to maintain the suspension of disbelief required to fully enjoy the book, and this was the author’s fault for being such a careless researcher. But once I realized Brown wasn’t writing about reality, but rather an alternate universe where these bizarre assertions might be true, that changed.

When dealing with Da Vinci Code, I’m reminded of Errol Flynn’s intro to Robin Hood, “believe only what you see, and then, only half of that!” When reading the Da Vinci Code, remember the book is fiction, not fact, and remember also that most, if not all, of the “facts” claimed in it are also fiction. It helps to remember that in one of the plagiarism lawsuits that followed publication of the book, the judge called Dan Brown a liar. He writes fiction for a living, so why would it be surprising that most of his “facts” are fiction as well?

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May 2006
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