Monday, January 18, 2010

The Legend is True: La Clef de Voûte

In the year 1185 a minstrel shared the last lines of The Story of the Grail and they were etched in the mind of the audience. In the moment the tale abruptly stopped, Gawain was unable to leave the Wondrous Palace and had sent a messenger to Orkney town where King Arthur was holding court for Pentecost. When the messenger entered the palace hall he found King Arthur seated with one hundred kings and another hundred dukes all waiting to dine. But King Arthur's face was sorrowful and filled with care because his nephew wasn't there. Then suddenly he fell down in a faint and everyone ran to raise him instantly.

From her seat on the balcony
the lady Lore saw them all
and the commotion in the hall.
She sped downstairs and sought the queen,
upset and shocked by what she'd seen.
The queen, who saw her come along,
asked lady Lore what was wrong.

Not another word was written as part of the original story by Chrétien de Troyes who seemingly vanished into the mist. The court poet was never seen or heard from again . . . if he ever truly was.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The last time we saw Robert Langdon, he was crossing the boundary that separates make-believe from reality in search of a woman who holds the secret of the legend of the grail. The very words that the Teacher spoke to Silas on that fateful night when The Da Vinci Code began were effectively brought to life through the events that unfolded . . . and describe the final circumstance of the characters at its conclusion. "And so the legend is true."

"According to lore, the brotherhood had created a map of stone . . . or a keystone—an engraved tablet that revealed the final resting place of the brotherhood's greatest secret . . . ."

When Robert Langdon first gazed upon the cryptex he could formulate only one conclusion. He was holding the Priory keystone. The legend was specific.

The keystone is an encoded stone that lies beneath the sign of the Rose.

He inquires of Sophie as to whether her grandfather had ever spoke to her of something called la clef de voûte, a common architectural term for the vault in an archway. He explains that every stone archway requires a central, wedge-shaped stone at the top which locks all the pieces together and carries the weight. In English we call it a keystone.

Langdon admits the Priory keystone is not his specialty. His interest in the Holy Grail is primarily symbologic and he had tended to ignore lore regarding how to actually find it. But he knew that people had been searching for the keystone in French churches. Grail seekers had concluded the keystone was a literal architectural wedge, with many believing the map to the Holy Grail was incorporated high in an archway of some forgotten church, mocking the blind churchgoers who wandered beneath it.

Sophie looks at Langdon and argues that the cryptex can't be the keystone because she was certain her grandfather had made it and there was no way it could be part of an ancient Grail legend.

"Actually," Langdon replies, feeling a tingle of excitement ripple through him, "the keystone is believed to have been created by the Priory sometime in the past couple of decades."

In reality, Langdon was correct . . . at least about the timing. The keystone, the map to the grail is incorporated into Winston Groom's novel Forrest Gump published in 1986. Not only does the novel use its twenty-six chapters to record every twist and turn of the path through the five books belonging to the gemstone, it provides a legend of the map informing the audience what to look for, encoded in the sixth paragraph of the first chapter.

Forrest says, “Now I know something bout idiots. Probly the only thing I do know bout, but I done read up on em—all the way from that Doy-chee-eveski guy’s idiot, to King Lear’s fool, and Faulkner’s idiot, Benjie, and even ole Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird—now he was a serious idiot. The one I like best tho is ole Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Mos of those writer fellas got it straight—cause their idiots always smarter than people give them credit for.”

Five books—just like the gemstone itself—each with an “idiot” character, which at face value are seemingly unrelated to each other, yet reveal what to anticipate in the thousand plus pages we have available to work with. Five novels that roll from one to the next, with shared details and woven threads almost like a universe within a universe . . . the legend of the map to the grail. The story of the story, within a story.

For the record, my thoughts are given to shining a light on the path through Forrest Gump, The Da Vinci Code, The Last Templar, and The Story of the Grail. Summaries of the five works of "literary art" referenced in Forrest Gump's sixth paragraph are described below and were obtained from

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin is 27 years old and is as gullible as a person can be; he also possesses all of the qualities that affirm humankind’s greatness. Myshkin suffers from epilepsy and has spent much of his life in an asylum, separated from the world. But he’s been treated with some success in Switzerland and is finally returning to Russia. The Myshkin family line ends with him and a female cousin named Lizaveta. On the train ride to Saint Petersburg, Myshkin meets and befriends two gentlemen, the dark and enamored Rogozhin and a quasi-lawyer name Lebedyev. He arrives as the perfect human being, untainted by a world where sinners abound and money is of primary importance. His character is associated with light while Rogozhin is submerged in darkness, figuratively and literally. Myshkin is likened to Christ; Rogozhin can be perceived as the devil.

Love arrives in various manifestations. The two men love the same woman, beautiful Nastasya, who has a dwindling reputation having once been kept as a concubine by a wealthy man named Afanasy Ivanovitch. Rogozhin is passionately in love with Nastasya. Myshkin loves her out of pity or what is described as Christian love. Myshkin also tangles with romantic love with Aglaia—the daughter of his cousin—who identifies the prince with the protagonist of a famous Russian poem by Pushkin, “The Poor Knight” because of his extravagantly chivalrous and tragic quest to defend the honor of Nastasya in the face of ridicule and at times contempt. In the end, Rogozhin murders Nastasya and shows her body to Myshkin who has a complete mental breakdown and is once again an “idiot.”

The novel was considered one of the most brilliant achievements of the Russian “Golden Age” of Literature. It was not translated into English until the twentieth century.

King Lear by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare wrote King Lear based on accounts of a semi-legendary Celtic figure who he is said to have discovered in an edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed . . . who himself discovered the story in The Historia Regum Britanniae written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century . . . which was a translation from an even older book written in the British language. Monmouth’s work captured the Welsh nation from about 1100 b.c. to A.D. 689 and included extensive coverage of the reign of King Arthur. Monmouth dedicated his book to Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

In 1155, Robert Wace wrote Roman de Brut, which was a version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History translated to French, and dedicated his work to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England. The modern day quotes Wace: “I know not if you have heard tell the marvelous gestes and errant deeds related so often to King Arthur. They have been noised about this mighty realm for so great a space that truth has turned to fable and an idle song. Such rhymes are neither bare lies, nor gospel truth. They should not be considered either an idiot’s tale, or given by inspiration. The minstrel has sung his ballad, the storyteller told over his tale so frequently, little by little he has decked and painted, till by reason of his embellishment the truth stands hid in the trappings of the tale. Thus to make a delectable tune to your ear, history goes masking as fable.”

King Lear’s fool has an important role in the first act and then disappears without explanation in the third act. Deeper meaning of the characters and their relationships are garnered by focusing on specific words. The fool’s last line is “And I’ll to bed at noon,” leading many to think that he is to die at the highest point of his life. A popular explanation for the fool’s disappearance is that the actor playing the fool also plays the role of Cordelia. The two characters are never on stage simultaneously. When Cordelia dies in the final scene, King Lear holds her and says, “And my poor fool is hanged,” seemingly supporting the fact that the fool and Cordelia were one and the same.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: The story is about former aristocrats struggling to deal with the dissolution of their family and its reputation. The novel is separated into four distinct parts, each told by a different person. The first part is told by Benjy Compson, a 33-year old man with severe mental handicaps. Benjy’s narrative is dated April 7, 1928 and is characterized by frequent chronological leaps. The second section writes from the point of view of Benjy’s older brother on June 2, 1910, and the events leading up to his suicide. The third section, April 6, 1928, captures the voice of Jason, a cynical younger brother. And the fourth section, written on the 8th of April, one day after Benjy’s entry, introduces a third person omniscient point of view, where the author presents glimpses of thought and deeds of everyone in the family.

It has been said that a simple plot summary cannot adequately describe this novel, as much of its strength lies in its technical achievements and lyrical prose. The name of the novel was taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5 of William Shakespeare’s play:

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time,
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more: it is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”

The notion of a tale told by an idiot is obvious in the case of Benjy, but the idea can also be extended to Quentin and Jason who display their own varieties of idiocy. They’re all idiots.

When Faulkner won the Noble Prize in Literature for this novel, he said that people must write from the heart, “universal truths.” Otherwise they signify nothing.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: The story takes place during three years of the Great Depression in the fictional “tired, old town” of Maycomb, Alabama. Arthur “Boo” Radley is a recluse who never sets foot outside his house; he dominates the imagination of Jem, Scout, and Dill who fantasize about how to get him outside. As time passes, Scout and Jem discover that someone is leaving them small gifts in a tree outside the Radley house. Their father, Atticus, is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. The whole family is ridiculed and taunted. Danger is averted when Scout, Jem, and Dill shame an angry mob intent on lynching Robinson, by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’ and Tom’s point of view. Despite evidence presented during the trial that supports his innocence, Tom Robinson is found guilty. He is shot and killed when he attempts to escape the prison. Bob Ewell, the accusing woman’s father who was humiliated during the trial vows revenge. He attacks Scout and Jem on their way home from school following the Halloween pageant. Jem’s arm is broken, but amid the confusion, someone comes to the children’s rescue and carries him home. Scout realizes that it’s Boo Radley. Bob Ewell was killed in the struggle. Boo asks Scout to walk him home and after he disappears behind the front door of his home, Scout imagines life from Boo’s perspective and regrets that they never repaid him for the gifts he had given them.

Harper Lee grew up in Alabama. Several people and events from her childhood parallel those of the fictional Scout. Lee’s father was an attorney similar to Atticus Finch, who defended two black men accused of murder in 1919. After they were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case. Lee had a brother, who like Jem in the book, was four years older. Their mother was mentally and emotionally absent; a black housekeeper came every day to care for both the home and the children. The character Dill was modeled on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, who lived with his aunt next door to Lee, each summer. Capote had an incredible imagination and a gift for telling stories. Both he and Lee loved to read. Lee was a scrappy tomboy, quick to fight while Capote was ridiculed for his advanced vocabulary and his lisp. She and Capote would write and act out stories; their friendship grew as each felt alienated from their peers. Down the street there was a family who lived in a house that was boarded up. The son of the family got into trouble with the law and his father kept him at home out of shame for 24 years. He was hidden until virtually forgotten.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: Two migrant field workers arrive at a ranch near Soledad, California during the Great Depression, hoping to “work up a stake.” George Milton is an intelligent and cynical man. Lennie Small is an ironically named man who is not only large in size but has immense physical strength. Lennie is of limited mental abilities and has a tendency to rouse up trouble because of a personal aspiration to tend to rabbits—he likes to stroke soft things. He was accused of attempted rape in the last town after touching a young woman’s dress. At the ranch, dreams appear to be moving closer to reality. But the dream crashes when Lennie accidentally kills the young and attractive wife of Curly, the ranch owner’s son, while trying to stroke her hair. A lynch mob gathers. George, realizing he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despair like all the other migrant workers and wanting to spare Lennie a painful death at the hands of the vengeful and angry Curly, shoots Lennie in the back of his head before the mob can find him and after they had recited their dreams of owning their own land.

In 1937, Steinbeck was quoted by The New York Times: “I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.”

In 1938 Steinbeck wrote in his personal journal, “In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other."

Throughout Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck emphasizes dreams. George aspires for independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and most importantly to be “somebody.” Lennie aspires to be with George and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security in his old age. Crooks dreams of owning a small homestead where he can express self-respect, acceptance, and security. Curley’s wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame that was lost when she married Curly.

Fate is felt most heavily as the characters’ aspirations are destroyed as George is unable to protect Lennie. Steinbeck presents this as “something that happened,” which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.

Structured in three acts of two chapters each, Steinbeck intended the writing to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.

It was originally titled Something That Happened, however, Steinbeck changed the title after reading Robert Burn’s poem, "To a Mouse," which tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing the field; it suggests that no plan is fool-proof and no one can ever be completely prepared for what the future brings.

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Story that Turns on a Single Detail

Photo by permission: / CC BY 2.0

In the world of make-believe, Tess Chaykin was once considered archaeology’s rising star. As the story's protagonist, she revives a dream to recover something truly meaningful for the world . . . that potentially results in the greatest loss of historical significance spanning the previous two thousand years.

If The Last Templar had continued beyond Tess's return to New York City, we would have witnessed the personal plundering of self esteem. But the story didn't progress further and we're left to imagine her feelings after having held the Gospel of Jeshua in her hands . . . in the moments before the wind billowed the sheets of parchment like the sails of a ship and delivered them once and for all into the crashing waves. If Tess were a living and breathing human being she would be haunted by the single detail she knew was missing the moment she gazed upon its words. Was the gospel authentic?

"Veritas vos liberabit!" The truth will set you free! The very words that the fourth horseman said as he held the ancient decoder in his hands at the onset of the novel are effectively brought to life through the events that unfold . . . and describe the final circumstance of the surviving characters at its conclusion.

In essence, the novel assumed the objective of a sacred story. But the odyssey isn’t over yet.

Unbeknownst to Tess, the audience is privy to a flashback from the 13th century in which William of Beaujeu confesses the truth about the origin of the document, stating the only thing that matters is that their enemies believe it's real: “How many have died as we battle for our God, for his supremacy? We are drenched in blood, we and our foes alike. And we bleed the same. Will we ever set aside our hatred for each other? We will … with this.”

In multiple scenes, Vance challenges the divinity of Jesus, claiming he was a man, only a man. But when Tess asks for confirmation about what he’s suggesting, the response can be perceived as conflicting: "You’re saying that there’s no . . . that there’s no Virgin Birth? No resurrection?”

“No, Tess.”

“No miracles?”

Vance takes a more serious tone, “Thousands of years ago men needed gods to deal with death and plagues . . . and unreliable harvests! But now . . .”

In the world that belongs to William Vance, honesty is the only requirement. All he wants is for the world to know the truth.

In hindsight, Vance's impromptu appearance as soon as Tess retrieves the treasured document from the falcon head suggests that the supposed diary of a carpenter named Jeshua of Nazareth never stood a chance. Not because of what it said, but because false representation, even for a noble cause, isn't worthy of the precious short time we have to bring closure to our sacred story. Everything needed to accomplish the Templars' goal . . . and so much more, was already in place and merely waiting for the proper time.

Two thousand years ago a wise teacher said, "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near." (Matthew 24:32) As Jesus continued to describe the days when the old ways of thinking would come to pass, he shared another parable about a man who harvested where he had not sown and gathered where he had never scattered seed. (Matthew 25:14-30)

And then, sometime around the year 1185, Chrétien de Troyes sowed the seed of a tale:

He little reaps who little sows.
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.
So Chrétien sows, disseminating
this story he’s initiating,
and sows it in such fertile soil,
he can but profit by his toil,

This tale was called the Story of the Grail. Now, the tender twigs of spring make fine knots to guide the way so nobody will go astray, while the seed that was planted more than eight hundred years ago has spread from the medieval town of Troyes, France to every region of the Western world.

Something of a miracle as William Vance would say.

On reality’s side of the boundary that separates it from make-believe, by the time Raymond Khoury’s novel was published, Dan Brown had already put the wheels in motion to revive an older story using Robert Langdon as his leading character—a professor whose “visibility had increased a hundredfold after his involvement in a widely publicized incident at the Vatican.”

In the final scene of The Da Vinci Code, Langdon follows the Arago markers to the Louvre. As he steps over bushes onto what he perceives as hallowed ground, he claims it’s as if he were crossing over into another world. Becoming fully awakened to the unthinkable possibility, he gazes at his surroundings and reflects upon the words of the final clue that Jacques Saunière left for him to follow:

The Holy Grail 'neath the ancient Roslin waits.
The blade and chalice guarding o'er Her gates.
Adorned in masters' loving art, She lies.
She rests at last beneath the starry skies.