Thursday, December 24, 2009

Symi:Threads of Ancient Stories

In The Last Templar, the heist of the Vatican treasures in New York City attracts multiple investigative agencies before Sean Reilly is told, “So it looks like it’s your baby after all.” Much to Tess’s surprise and pleasure, Sean follows her to Turkey where the discovery of the hidden astrolabe triggers a race to locate the sunken ship called the Falcon Temple. When the pair escapes shipwreck, they’re carried by the ocean waves to the shores of Symi, an island named after Poseidon’s wife that is said to be the birthplace of the Three Graces—the attendants of Aphrodite, the goddess of love . . . Venus, as Robert Langdon refers to her in The Da Vinci Code.

Beneath the budding relationship between the FBI agent and the sagacious archeologist is a fabric of details woven from a real life story that began almost nine hundred years ago when Peter Abelard wrote about the many misfortunes he encountered in life.

Abelard had good intentions when he set out as a youth, claiming to have fled from the court of Mars—the god of war—in hope that he might win learning in the bosom of Minerva—the goddess of wisdom. But his life as a philosopher and theologian repeatedly took tragic turns as a result of his intellectual pursuits and an attraction he could not abate for a young prodigy named Heloise whom he arranged to tutor under the roof of her uncle’s home . . . and availed his services well into the wee hours of the night:

“Oh, how great was the uncle's grief when
he learned the truth, and how bitter was the
sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to
part! With what shame was I overwhelmed,
with what contrition smitten because of the
blow which had fallen on her I loved, and
what a tempest of misery burst over her by
reason of my disgrace! Each grieved most, not
for himself, but for the other. Each sought to
allay, not his own sufferings, but those of the
one he loved. The very sundering of our bodies
served but to link our souls closer together; the
plentitude of the love which was denied to us
inflamed us more than ever. Once the first
wildness of shame had passed, it left us more
shameless than before, and as shame died within
us the cause of it seemed to us ever more desirable.
And so it chanced with us as, in the stories that
the poets tell, it once happened with Mars and
Venus when they were caught together.”

Not long after Abelard and Heloise were discovered in a compromising situation, Heloise realized she was pregnant. On a night when her uncle was away, Abelard stole her from the house and took her to his homeland where she stayed with his sister until the baby was born. Heloise named their son Astrolabe. In the real life story, the discovery of the baby Astrolabe in the distant town initiated a storm of emotions and events that began with the lovers’ marriage, yet culminated with Heloise being sent to a convent . . . which triggered Abelard’s castration by a group of thugs who came like thieves in the night.

In authentic Grail fashion, The Last Templar straddles the boundary that separates make-believe from reality as it breathes life into old souls, imaginatively reincarnating them in a time and place where their story can finally be put right. In the modern day setting the island of Symi provides good soil from which love can sprout; it’s a place where faith and hope are embedded in the fabric of people’s lives without constraints imposed by religious dogma.

There are, however, subtle adjustments that occur between Raymond Khoury's novel and Suzette Couture's screen adaptation of the story. Sean remains the Lent observing FBI agent, though his surname changes from Reilly to Daley. In the novel, the oiled skin pouch that contains the mariner’s astrolabe is hidden beneath a carved stone at the bottom of a man-made lake and birthed through a small opening into the surrounding water; in the movie the astrolabe is recovered from under a grave marker in the relics of a church buried beneath dust and ash. The local doctor, Costa Mavromaras, and his wife Eleni, who provide care for the storm battered pair in the book, are replaced by a Greek savant named Konstantine.

Tess Chaykin keeps the same name but a transformation occurs in her underlying identity as details acquired from Heloise diminish and she assumes the qualities of someone who is more ambitious, someone who has more courage and hungers for victory. In the movie Tess introduces herself to Sean Daley as the “sequel to the prequel.” She is no longer associated with the woman who gave birth to Astrolabe . . . she becomes the woman who rescues something of great importance from the grave. In her new incarnation she insists on taking the driver’s seat no matter how rough the terrain and has a preference for designer heels. If there is any truth to the statement that you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear . . . Tess’s collection of Manolo Blahniks lean toward the flair for fashion once entertained by Eleanor of Aquitaine.

When it comes time for Tess to say good-bye to the people on the Greek island, Konstantine inquires about a comment she made when they first met: “You said to me your father found the Cross of Constantine. That’s the Emperor Constantine?”

Tess smiles, “It was his greatest find. When I was a child, I used to think that someone came down out of the sky and whispered in his ear to tell him where to find it.”

Konstantine grasps onto the opportunity in her words, “Maybe you were right because children have a way to see the truth. Their minds do not get confused with questions of reason. That’s why I resist growing up.” He chuckles at the simplicity of his statement and then sends her off with a blessing, “God be with you.”

Assuming each character brings something to the gemstone, Konstantine infuses the story with a spiritual presence, but his real gift is that he understands the role of sacred stories. His parting words—the wisdom he wants Tess to take with her—distinguish the underpinnings of Greek mythology that linger on the island from what belongs to the Western world.

Anyone familiar with life as it exists in Greece today would agree that gods and goddesses still have a presence and ancient myth is honored, despite a Westernized society. It’s probably the closest setting we have in the modern world that resembles the coexistence of pagan ideologies and Church doctrine that the Emperor Constantine confronted in the 4th century. The island of Symi becomes the stepping stone across the boundary of make-believe into reality and the imaginary character Konstantine is charged with designating each sacred thread to its proper place. When we can discern the full significance of his words, we will have discovered at least one of the secrets of life.

The scenario that’s forming celebrates an old world strategy that will be played out more than once before this odyssey has ended. In his book The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman describes the sophisticated way Greeks used myth:

“Here a dilemma, based on the story lines of ancient myths, was presented in a play and acted through so that the consequences of the characters choosing one solution rather than another could be assessed by an audience, a truly democratic way of airing ethical issues. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that the purpose of tragic drama was to give them some form of emotional catharsis, an experience which would make them more complete human beings.”

In The Last Templar, as Tess is leaving the island, all possibilities of a manuscript capable of changing the world have been destroyed. Symi provided an opportunity for her to witness faith and hope first hand. She's certain that to tamper with something that brings so much meaning to people would do more harm than good and intentionally keeps what she recovered from the falcon head a secret, then takes a stand against William Vance when he attempts to acquire possession of it.

However, Tess unintentionally hinders what she is hoping to protect when she fails to recognize the presence of God in her midst. Her faith is invested in a glimpse of humanity that isn't consistent with her experiences in New York City, or those found in much of the modern world. Figuratively speaking, when Vance falls over the rocky cliff . . . God is as good as dead.

In the novel, Tess considers leaving the Big Apple and moving to Arizona where she and those she loves can carve out a better life, away from the crime and violence that permeates the city. In the movie, she returns home and rushes back into the daily routine . . . running to beat the clock to watch her daughter exhibit the skills she’s developing in self-defense. Tess jumps for joy, “Whoo! I’ve created a monster!”

Oblivious to the activities behind her, Tess is surprised when Sean Daley begins speaking over her shoulder, repeating the words she shared with him while he was in a coma. Sean provides Tess with a new pair of boots to replace those lost during their adventure at sea. The boots serve as a reminder that her work isn’t finished. More importantly, they're a link to a memory that can be reflected back upon.

If there is a saving grace, it's that the Greek sacred story has already run its course and between Pandora's curiosity, her marriage to Afterthought, and the hope that they released into the world for all mankind . . . questions belonging to reason still exist in the minds of those who have grown up in the shadow of the story.

We're left to contemplate the implications of what has transpired and wonder how our own story might have ended if events had gone a different way.

Photo by permission: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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