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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Just an Illusion? A Collaborative Effort? Or God Himself Taking a Personal Interest in How This Story Plays Out?

In Forrest Gump, Winston Groom foretells the sequence of the gemstone books in the form of football game. After the first half in the Orange Bowl, Snake, the quarterback tells the players, “We’re gonna’ run the Forrest Series now.” He throws the ball to Forrest; Nebraska puts two fellas—Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code and William Vance from The Last Templar—to chase after him, leaving Gwin—Gawain in The Story of the Grail—the end, with nobody to chase him around.

In the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown uses Silas to inform the audience, “All four concurred. Independently.” “Their agreement was too great for coincidence.”

The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury begins with flashbacks to events that occurred more than seven hundred years ago. Four men, traveling in pairs, are given the task to deliver a letter that leads to the location of the sunken Falcon Temple and the manuscript hidden in its figurehead. In the end, only one of the four completes the journey.

As the modern day portion of Khoury’s novel gets underway, the fourth horseman— who organized the raid on the Treasures of the Vatican show at the Met—carefully works his way down a set of stairs into an underground chamber that is lit with dozens of flickering candles. We’re privy to the thoughts that come to his mind as he carries an unusual contraption across the room. Home. A distant memory. Another life.

After setting the ancient decoder upon a sagging wood table, he rummages through a pile of boxes and retrieves documents from a folder, then spreads them out next to the machine.

“He murmurs, ’At last.’ His voice was soft, but cracked from too little use.”

His movements down into the cellar of the burned out church are fitting for the layer of The Story of the Grail that the novel reveals; in the medieval tale, beneath the adventures of the knights and deeper than the threads borrowed from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life, the story of Abelard and Heloise is intricately woven.

Khoury infuses Sean Reilly and Tess Chaykin with a mutual attraction that rises from within and seemingly lifts an ageless memory to a time and place where love can at last be nurtured. Reilly is the devout Catholic that Abelard claimed to be, while Tess is free to express Heloise’s doubts about faith and religion without fear of reprisal. And if truth can be extracted from the novel concerning who contributed what to the legend of the grail, it seems likely that Abelard's ideas laid the groundwork while Heloise dug deep and discovered something that she was personally unwilling to explode upon the medieval world.

Heloise was considered a prodigy, fluent in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.

“But I seek not the crown which is the
reward of victory, I am content if I can
avoid danger. It is easier to keep out of
the way than to win a battle. There are
several degrees in glory, and I am not
ambitious of the highest; I leave them to
those of greater courage who have often
been victorious. I seek not to conquer
for fear I should be overcome; happiness
enough for me to escape shipwreck and
at last reach port. “ *

The love story, however, is of secondary importance. The character we need to give our attention to in The Last Templar is Professor William Vance. He is the counterpart to Coach Bryant in Forrest Gump; they are infused with a common spirit. But in this new role, Vance is taking an active part in the story and has finally begun to exercise his voice. In the cellar, he begins to decode the documents he found in France; we’re told this marks the beginning of the next crucial stage in his personal odyssey.

“An odyssey, the end result of which he knew would rock the world.”

For the record, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that the components of this gemstone are primarily works of fiction. But the fact is, Snake knew the lineup of books well in advance and Silas was correct . . . their details concur and there are far too many instances for it to be a coincidence. More importantly the larger story they form is taking on an increasingly serious nature.

If Winston Groom, Eric Roth, Dan Brown, Akiva Goldsman, Raymond Khoury, and Suzette Couture would come forward and tell us that they indeed collaborated, sharing information about the original tale that has gone undetected by Arthurian literature experts, as well as plotting what portion of the story each would focus on . . . it would clarify this situation. It's hard enough to write a book without the extra effort of weaving threads belonging to three to six other authors' work. It would be interesting to find out how they managed to perfectly time their contributions, 8 years between the first novel and its movie and then 15 years between the first movie and the last novel's screen adaptation, tasks that require agents, publishers, motion picture studios, and television networks, just to name of few of the participants.

But if the six writers didn’t collaborate in their creative endeavors, what’s the alternative to this scenario? A heavenly Overseer? God Himself taking a personal interest in bringing the story to its proper conclusion?

In The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon mentions that we have entered the period known as the End of Days and begun the transition into the Age of Aquarius. But as the storyline of The Last Templar progresses, Vance and Tess are caught between two raging storms at sea while trying to raise the Falcon Temple in order to retrieve the manuscript that has been submerged for more than seven hundred years. The captain of the dive ship frowns, “We can’t put a Zodiac down in this sea . . .”

A helicopter hovering overhead establishes radio contact and relays a message from Monsignor De Angelis who is in hot pursuit, “Tell them they’re about to be hit with a storm of biblical proportions.”

There is a degree of truth to the fictional warning.

Khoury's presentation of The Last Templar is filled with words and images that hint of possible impending turmoil. The modern day event at the beginning of the novel is compared to the time the Met hosted the Mayan show. Tess tells Reilly that it’s difficult to think of Vance "in such contradictory terms. He's this charming, erudite professor on one hand and then the polar opposite, capable of such violence . . . " Later she insists the manuscript would polarize people. In the novel, the astrolabe is hidden beneath a gravestone in a church submerged under 100 feet of water. In the movie, the church is buried beneath the ash of volcanic eruptions. In both instances, the church begins to collapse as soon as the pouch is located. Tess reflects on the time she first met Vance; her father was working on a dig not far from the Ararat Anomaly—what some believe may be Noah’s Ark; we're provided the image of a ship on top of a mountain, embedded in ice at 15,300 feet.

It must have been quite a flood back in the old days.

In the midst of the raging storm which is identical to the one that sunk the Falcon Temple, Tess looks at the captain of the dive ship as he studies the “bruised, angry skies bearing down on them.”

Vance tells him to just bring up the falcon and his business here will be done. When asked why he is only concerned about the falcon, Vance shrugs as an expression rooted far away crosses his face. “It’s personal. Call it a matter of . . . closure.”

The Last Templar turns the audience back to The Story of the Grail. And the reality of the situation is that this simple tale was written to imaginatively bring biblical prophecy to life. Specifically, events that were destined to happen once and have come and gone but weren’t recognized for their intended purpose are reenacted by the cast of Arthurian knights. Chrétien borrowed the boy that Isaiah prophesied who was required to learn to choose between right and wrong before two kingdoms would no longer be laid waste. (Isaiah 7:13-16) And he endowed the boy with stubbornness and desire for the armor colored red, just like the apparel worn in the day of vengeance when God's greatness and strength was promised to redeem Israel. (Isaiah 63:1-6) And the first thing the newly created knight does is return the golden cup that had been stolen from the king.

But getting the house in order, is just the beginning.

Of the four fictional works, The Last Templar is paired with Forrest Gump and The Story of the Grail picks up where The Da Vinci Code left off. Robert Langdon was last seen leaving his hotel room, following the Arago markers through the city of Paris in search of the relics of a woman capable of reviving the sacred feminine.

Contrary to popular opinion, the story that introduced the grail to the Western world never included a quest to find it. The only thing Perceval went in search of as he moved from one scene to the next was Mother. After five long years of wandering, Perceval asked how one might find their way.

And the storyteller responded:

Whoever wants to go there, sir,
should take that path on which we were,
go straight on through this forest thick,
and watch for every branch and stick,
which we have knotted, which we bent
with our own hands, because we meant
each knotted branch to show the way,
so nobody would go astray.

We still have to bring The Story of the Grail to its proper conclusion, but the final chapter that brings closure isn't something that's written on paper. It's comprised of the stories of our lives; the story about the grail is a legend about the journey of Western civilization. To borrow an expression that De Angelis uses in The Last Templar . . . when The Story of the Grail is finished, we will have "killed two birds with one stone."

Within the gemstone of books, Forrest won the championship chess match when he landed on square eight; Robert Langdon and Sophie work through the night in a quest to find the truth about the grail; the final presentation of The Last Templar tells us that the treasured manuscript the Templars claimed to have, wasn't real, it was just an illusion they created. We're told multiple times that the document found on the Falcon Temple is written in Aramaic. In the movie, the truth that William of Beaujeau, Grand Master of the Templars, shares with Aimard is that if there were such a document written by Jesus of Nazareth, "This is what it would have looked like." The cameras focuses on a piece of parchment with hand written words.

If it wasn't written in Aramaic, what language would the boy that Isaiah prophesied have used if he left a manuscript for his people?

Biblically speaking, the number eight is symbolically linked to a new day. Most every scene in The Story of the Grail begins in the early morning, in the light of a new dawn. According to the Bible, God rested on the seventh day. But here's the clincher . . . if the seventh day is drawing to a close, the intention of the original story has to be completed. We are obligated by destiny to bring our sacred story to its proper conclusion and we're living beneath a deadline that isn't readily negotiable.

So what would it take to rock this world? Something so powerful it would bring about an unprecedented change in the way we perceive ourselves and all of humanity.

Is the connection between these books merely an illusion, something to entertain us, or do they represent something far more profound? Through the eyes of William Vance, we haven't changed in two thousand years . . . the story of our civilization hasn't progressed.

We don't even know what our sacred story is.

*Letter IV Heloise to Abelard,
Photo by permission: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0