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Volume 16, Issue 2: Ex Libris

Book Reviews

Woelke Leithart

The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
Doubleday, New York, 2003

Thrillers are funny things, really. People buy so many of them, but each one is really pretty much like the others. But because there are so many of them, it is really rather untrue to describe such recurring elements as clichés. After all, just about every thriller has them. It might almost be more useful to refer to them as conventions of the genre. We don't refer to Virgil's invocation of the Muse as a cliché because it's required by his genre.

That's why Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code is really nothing special. It's been out for about a year, but still stands at or near the top of the bestseller lists. As far as modern-day thrillers go, it's pretty standard. It reads like a movie, the quality of the writing is poor, and the ending doesn't pay off like you wish it would. In short, it's very much like an average thriller that is kind of fun on a vacation but doesn't actually do anything for the intellectual sense. The only thing that makes this book special is its rabid attack on Jesus Christ and His Church.
The plot is fairly straightforward at first dive. The central character is Robert Langdon, a "symbologist" from Harvard University who is cheaply described by Brown as "Harrison Ford in harris tweed."1He gets called in to do some apparent consulting at the bizarre murder of a museum curator in Paris. One thing leads to another, and he and a cryptologist from the French version of the FBI (thriller convention dictates that she must be an attractive, single female, and she is) have to follow the clues left at the murder scene to unlock a puzzle. The puzzle, filled with anagrams and codes, turns into a search for the legendary Holy Grail.
As far as the plot goes, Brown doesn't stray at all from the thriller formula. Since he can't have Langdon going to law enforcement for help, he must make him, like virtually every thriller hero since Richard Hannay, a fugitive from the law as well. The hero needs to be a handsome, intelligent fellow, and if he's a college professor (`a la Indiana Jones) then that's a bonus. Convention dictates there be several plot twists, and there are. In fact, the only time that Brown leaps from the thriller train is by not having his leading lady end up in bed with his hero.2 But the most annoying part of the plot itself is by far the pacing. Each chapter is an average of two pages, and each chapter ends at a mini-climax where something else is revealed. It's worse than the hardy boys.
Through a series of codes and stretched linguistic leaps, Langdon and his companion finally unveil the true nature of "the Grail." According to the book, the Grail was the code name for Mary Magdalene, who was in fact the wife of Jesus. Jealous disciples suppressed the truth after Jesus' death, and Mary was forced to flee with her child by the Nazarene. Since that time, the Vatican has taken control and kept the truth about Jesus hidden, destroying documents which showed anything to the contrary. Brown chalks up thefts, murders, and even the Crusades to the suppression of this "truth." He sets up a mysterious society called the Priory of Sion that has protected the secret of the "Grail" from the machinations of the Vatican for centuries, a society with such alleged leaders as Da Vinci, Newton, and Nicolas Flamel (of Harry Potter fame).
The central portion of the book, where the entire conspiracy is unveiled to the characters, is actually quite infuriating. The annoying part is not so much the blatant attacks on the Person of our God—though it's blasphemous, we've seen this sort of thing before, and not just in thrillers. The maddening part is the blatant historical inaccuracy that Brown puts on display as fact. The book is riddled with such a plethora of factual errors that listing them all would be too time-consuming,3 but I will point out a few. Brown claims that Constantine called the Council of Nicea to convince the church that Christ was divine: "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His [sic] followers as a mortal prophet." He claims that Nicea changed the four gospels we have to conform to such a position, though it leaves the reader wondering why the Nicene Creed didn't get included in the Sermon on the Mount; if they're adding to Scripture, why not make it even more explicit? Some claims are laughably implausible. After all, we only have to look at Da Vinci's The Last Supper to see that the disciple on Jesus' right is John, not Mary Magdalene. The central point of the explanatory middle of the book is to point out that "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false" (emphasis in original).
The Da Vinci Code is, at its fundamental level, an assault on the assumptions of the Church disguised as a mediocre thriller. It spreads lies about the Son of God and His Gospel, and portrays all attempts to discredit its sources (such as the Gnostic Gospels) as blind, misguided faith. If you disagree, you are to be pitied for not having an open mind. After all, if we don't believe modern scholarship, who are we to believe?

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