Rosslyn, New Texaco

Back before Dan Brown had becoming the Most Important Human Ever, even before he published Angels and Demons, my wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin Glen, Scotland. While not actually seeking the Holy Grail, I had been doing some research on Celtic lore, ostensibly where the Grail legend originates, and so we made our way to the remote and (then) desolate site of this unusual church. Officially the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, it is, without doubt, the busiest piece of architectural stonework I have ever witnessed. We went for the grail. We stayed for the art.

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

The research I had been conducting (finally published just last year as a contribution to a Festschrift for Nicolas Wyatt) involved the Mabinogian, a repository of Celtic mythology, and the legend of Bran. For sharing the name of a healthful breakfast cereal, Bran is renowned for also having had a life-restoring cauldron. He even made a journey to the netherworld and his head kept singing even after having been dissociated from his body. An uncommon hero indeed. All historical indicators, however, point to the cauldron as the original of the Holy Grail. Certainly the Bible does not mention it, nor does it appear very early in Christian mythology.

People, as Dan Brown’s financial independence loudly indicates, like a good conspiracy theory. There is a comfort in believing that a magical object of great power is out there somewhere and that a rather ordinary Harvard professor (!) might be able to find it, yet resist taking it. Far truer to life is Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade; people feel the need to touch, to control the power beyond themselves. Even at the cost of their lives. Despite the fact that the Grail is a fiction, it simply will not disappear — although no one can find it and it has never been seen. Faith tends not to be based on tangibles. This is attested every time Dan Brown makes his way to the bank and the population reads with wonder about meanings that simply don’t exist.


Turning Brown to Green

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol comes out tomorrow, and I, for one, will not be standing in line to purchase a copy. I actually read his previous two Langdon stories in the correct sequence — Angels and Demons then The DaVinci Code — and what immediately struck me was their similarity of plot and lack of historical veracity. Perhaps as a sometime writer who has had difficulty finding publishers I am just jealous, but the stories to me seem to draw on tired theories of some great conspiracy in antiquity that involved Jesus and Mary Magdalene eloping to France after the crucifixion where they happily raised a family only to be forgotten by history while he was off becoming a deity some thousands of miles away.

I read an interview with Dan Brown about his new book in which he confesses that he’s not a believer in conspiracy theories. To me some of the Area 51 stories sound more convincing than the trite material from Holy Blood, Holy Grail that has been recycled into a fictitious field of academics — symbology — and given a fake pedigree by placing Langdon at Harvard. I was in college when Holy Blood, Holy Grail came out and my literature prof told our class that the work was revolutionary and would restructure modern society. The only restructuring I’ve seen is the planet tipping a little towards Brown’s bank account trying to readjust to all the cash rushing in.

Perhaps my real frustration is with the fact that the ancient world is already fascinating without requiring fictionalization, yet those who actually do know something about it experience difficult times finding non-fictional university posts. Meanwhile average citizens will swirl around bookstores like the insects in an Indiana Jones movie waiting to purchase a copy of a book that fictitiously recreates that ancient world. If Harris tweeds are as miraculous as they seem to be in Brown’s books, maybe I should click my elbows together and say three times, “There’s no place like Rutgers” and I’ll end up in a fulltime professor of Symbology instead of teaching Ancient Near Eastern Religions as a mere adjunct tonight.

An authentic Harris tweed in its native Scottish environment

An authentic Harris tweed in its native Scottish environment