Monday, October 19, 2009

The Spirit of Jacques Saunière

In the opening scene of The Da Vinci Code, Jacques Saunière is critically wounded and trapped within iron security gates at the Louvre. He is the only person remaining with knowledge of a truth that must be passed on and there is only one person on earth to whom he can pass the torch. He gazes up at the walls of his opulent prison and "the world's most famous paintings seemed to smile down on him like old friends."

I imagine Saunière and Eleanor of Aquitaine could chat into the wee hours of the night about being in possession of a secret of untold significance. Saunière figured he had fifteen minutes with which to lay out a path of clues to pass the secret on before his death; Eleanor lived through moments while she was imprisoned when she would have preferred to die, but the secret she carried forced her to continue living. Coincidentally, after she decided to use her old friends—the imaginary King Arthur and his knights—to carry her secret into the world, Henry II eased up on the rules governing her confinement. After ten years of being locked away, she was permitted to live under house arrest.

Fueled by the urgency of Saunière's final moments, Dan Brown didn't waste a minute before he began weaving threads of the 12th century players into his 21st century novel.

In the Prologue of The Story of the Grail, Chrétien de Troyes says:

The man who wants good harvests strows
his seeds on such a kind of field,
God grants a hundredfold in yield;
on barren ground good seeds but lie
until they shrivel up and die.

The Da Vinci Code tells us Robert Langdon's popularity had increased a hundredfold after an incident at the Vatican. And just like the individual characters in The Story of the Grail are a collage of many people, Robert Langdon is little bit of Chrétien, a little bit of Abelard—he refused to speak publicly about his role in the prior year's Vatican conclave—and a little bit of Forrest Gump. As Chapter 1 is getting underway, Langdon is looking at his tousled self in a mirror before thinking "You need a vacation, Robert." Forrest made the cover of Fortune while Langdon is captured in an article in Boston Magazine that's used to introduce him in Paris. Before a crowd of people, the hostess at The American University of Paris quotes "he has a voice that his female students describe as 'chocolate for the ears.'"

Bezu Fache is called "the Bull"; Abelard was called "the rhinoceros." Fache lost his shirt investing in technology stocks; Forrest Gump made a fortune with an investment in Apple, Inc. Fache paces like a caged lion, probably not unlike the lion at the Wondrous Palace.

Sophie has red hair and green eyes, presumably the same as Eleanor. The young cryptologist never told her boss that she was related to Jacques Saunière. He thought this was because she didn't want preferential treatment for having a famous grandfather. Eleanor's grandfather was William IX, a powerful, wealthy, cultured individual who wrote music and poetry and is considered to be one of the first great troubadours. He died when Eleanor was quite young, but left a lasting impression on his granddaughter.

Actually, Jacques Saunière makes quite an impression on The Da Vinci Code. Despite the fact that he dies before the first chapter even gets underway, he influences the path the story takes from beginning to end. We gain a better understanding of Saunière the night that Silas enters the Church of Saint-Sulpice. Sister Sandrine watches silently from the balcony as the monk disrobes and begins striking the floor to break a tile in search of the Priory keystone supposedly hidden beneath it. This is the silent alarm she hoped would never happen. The upper echelon has been compromised. In a sealed enveloped she tucked beneath her bed years ago is a piece of paper with four telephone numbers. Her instructions are to call and warn the others. The fourth number is to be called only if the other three cannot be reached.

The first three phone numbers Sister Sandrine calls leave her terrified as she comes upon a hysterical widow, a somber priest, and a detective working late at a murder scene.

The last number on the list connects her to an answering machine and she cries, "The floor panel has been broken! The other three are dead!"

Thinking outside the novel and reaching back in time, Heloise was a widowed lady known to occasionally have a hysterical outburst. Abelard was a somber priest. And I suspect Eleanor worked late quite often doing detective work that had something to do with a bloody lance. All three indeed are dead!

Who is the Grand Master in this novel, the guardian of the legend of the grail...the keeper? In the church, Silas has found a stone under the tile with the inscription Job 38:11. In the biblical story, Job practices a speech he would give before God...if only he knew where to find Him. For Sister Sandrine, the recipient of the fourth phone call, Jacques Saunière, is nowhere to be found.

Soon afterward, Sophie reflects upon the time she had left school a few days early before spring break and hoped to surprise her grandfather. He wasn't at their Paris home when she arrived. For a moment she considered that he might be working at the Louvre, but then changed her mind when she remembered it was Saturday (the 7th day), a day he rarely worked. "On weekends, he usually—"

An unfinished sentence, clues that complete the picture, riddles, and codes all work to engage the reader's imagination. Saunière's primary concern in the Prologue was, "If I die, the truth will be lost forever." Transposed into reality, no truer statement has ever been said.

Robert Langdon was on the right path but at some point he was bound to realize it wasn't the relics of Mary Magdalene he was in search of. The five letter words that opened each cryptex were related and S-O-F-I-A was properly positioned above A-P-P-L-E. Where do an ancient word for wisdom and apple fit into the story of Mary Magdalene?

Langdon repeated sentiments we've all heard, that partaking of the apple incurred the wrath of God, Original Sin, the fall of the sacred feminine. The middle clue described "Rosy flesh and seeded womb." If you slice an apple horizontally, it bears the signature of the sacred feminine as the seeds appear as a five pointed star; the symbol for the sacred feminine is found in the core of an apple.

Photo by permission: / CC BY-ND 2.0

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