The Grail Code 

Archive for August, 2006

Round Table in the news

Monday, August 28th, 2006

The Round Table is in the news: in fact, it’s being called “one of our most significant ever archaeological finds.” Of course, it’s not quite Arthur’s Round Table, and it didn’t quite start the legends of Arthur’s Round Table (Wace preceded Edward III by a couple of centuries).  But still what makes it news is not Edward III, fascinating character though he is, but Arthur.

Which brings us conveniently back to the Round Table, where we left off, and I promise that I’ll have something to say about that very soon.

O Código Graal

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

When life creeps up on you, it’s usually planning on bonking you with a lead pipe. But every once in a while, the surprise is a pleasant one. Just five minutes ago, the mailman dropped off a copy of O Código Graal, which is The Grail Code in Brazilian Portuguese. I wasn’t even aware that we had sold Brazilian rights. I’m happy, though: Brazil (population about 183 million) is by far the biggest nation our book has invaded outside the United States. I’m also happy to say that our invasions have been completely peaceful. We were, in fact, welcomed as liberators.

Finding the real “sacred feminine”

Monday, August 14th, 2006

Christians all over the world celebrated the feast of St. Mary today. If you’re Catholic, don’t think you have a monopoly on Mary: her feast is on Protestant calendars, too, and of course I needn’t mention how many fans she has among the Eastern churches.

The most beloved saint in Christian history is Mary, the Mother of Jesus; the most famous Christian images are icons and statues of mother and child; the most popular plastic lawn statue in my neighborhood is Mary-in-the-bathtub, as some of the locals call it. Huge factories in China are turning out millions of plastic Marys as we speak.

So how can people say that Christianity suppressed the “sacred feminine”?

This may surprise you, but I think Christians actually have to take the blame for a lot of that misleading impression. If we were really doing our job—if we were bringing the Good News to all the nations—then people would know that, for Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Those ringing words (from the particularly ringing King James Version) tell us right away what sets Christianity apart from almost any other religion. In most Buddhist sects, for example, a woman has no hope of reaching enlightenment: she must be reborn a man, and then there are a few incalculable eons to get through before the goal is reached. But Christians believe that men and women are equally valuable in the sight of God, and equally destined for heaven.

So why isn’t that the impression most people have of Christians? Why are Christians the patriarchalist villains in Dan Brown’s revised version of history?

What Dan Brown is telling people, and I think he believes it himself, is that there was a beautiful old pagan paradise where the Feminine was sacred, but it was stomped flat by jackbooted Christian storm troopers who demoted women to property. What was actually true, of course, is absolutely the reverse: women were property—often more liability than property—to pagans, but to the Christians they were people, each one uniquely valuable as a person with a soul, not as property. If a pagan left an infant girl out by the road to die, a Christian was likely to pick her up and raise her. It’s no wonder that the Christians seemed to have all the women long before the time of Constantine.

But we can’t deny that Christians, being (after all) sinners, have often forgotten the uniqueness of each person as a creature of God, and have instead treated women pretty much the same way the pagans did. Is that the fault of Christianity? No; it’s the fault of Christians. That’s different. A Muslim who blows up a crowded market doesn’t speak for Islam, and a Christian who treats women as property doesn’t speak for Christianity. They both speak for our fallen world of sin.

But we know how to escape from that cycle of sin and death. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” With those words, the model of Christian faith undid the untold ages of rebellion against the will of God. The model of Christian faith is a woman, and Christianity teaches all of us, male and female, to emulate her virtues.

Dan Brown is right: the real Holy Grail was named Mary. He’s just got the wrong Mary. It was Mary the Mother of Jesus who bore the body of the Christ within her. The grail-bearer in many of the Grail romances is a young virgin because she represents the original Grail, the Virgin Mary, who willingly cooperated with God’s plan of salvation.

That’s what the “sacred feminine” really looks like. When Paul says that there is neither male nor female, he’s calling us to remember that Christians are different from the rest of the world. For us, each individual person is sacred, male or female equally, the sexes in balance with each other and with the Earth, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which came about through the willing cooperation of Mary, our model of faith.

Sacred Feminine sighted in suburban Pittsburgh

Saturday, August 12th, 2006

I ventured across the rivers into the wilds of the North Hills last night. It’s another world over there. I live in a happy urban neighborhood in southern Pittsburgh where streetcars roll down the main street. But if I cross the Monongahela and the Allegheny and go uphill for a bit, I find myself in neighborhoods where—believe it or not—they don’t have streetcars at all, and where everyone seems to have a driveway. And they have a free glossy monthly magazine called The Point North where you can read the most astonishing things.

For example, you can read about a hormonal therapy so advanced it’s endorsed by Suzanne Somers herself. And I thought everyone had got over the Da Vinci Code movie by now, but here’s someone who’s devoting a whole page to hoping the movie wins an Oscar.

I won’t comment on the merits of the case: I haven’t seen the movie, although for my own selfish reasons I was very happy about it. But I will comment on this article by K. J. Bryant, because it touches on one of my favorite subjects: the sacred feminine.

What our author loves most about the movie, it seems, is that it celebrates the Sacred Feminine, which was wiped out by militant Christianity in the time of Constantine.

She looks back to a time when people worshiped the Goddess, and women were given the respect they deserved.

“But it wasn’t a time when women ruled,” she tells us. “It was a time of partnership when the sexes were in balance with each other and the Earth.”

When was this time of perfect harmony? Where do we see it in history? Is it in Gilgamesh? Is it among the ancient Egyptians, whose one female pharaoh had to wear a false beard to look the part? Is it in Homer? In Aristophanes? In Aristotle?

Oh, but wait—here’s the answer:

“About 7,000 years ago, ancient marauders from the north moved in and transformed goddesses into wives or consorts of their male gods. Patriarchy’s blade was mighty. Women became property. And our Earth has been out of balance ever since.”

Now I see; now I understand everything. This golden age, this prelapsarian Eden, ended 7,000 years ago, before there was any written literature.

So how do we know so much about life back then? How do we know that the sexes were balanced in perfect harmony with the earth?

Well, basically, we just make it up.

Here our author shows herself a lot smarter than Dan Brown. Mr. Brown puts his Golden Age of the Sacred Feminine in the era just before the Christians muscled in, which as we know happened in the reign of Constantine. The trouble with that is that we know far too much about pagan Greece and Rome, and in particular about how they treated girls and women. I’ve said it before: the “feminine” might have been sacred to the pagans, but females were garbage.

But 7,000 years ago takes us back into prehistoric times. It’s an obvious tautology, but apparently it has to be said anyway: prehistoric times were before history. We don’t and can’t know what was going on then.

Archaeology can show us small female figures, many apparently pregnant, but what were they? Were they images of a great mother goddess at the center of a sophisticated religious society based on peace and harmony? Or were they magical talismans meant to ensure an heir for the reigning patriarch? We don’t know, because we can’t know.

But was human nature entirely different back then? Were people’s lives really based on “balance” with the earth rather than on lust, avarice, and violence? What would we find if we could suddenly discover a real history of those prehistoric times?

As a matter of fact, we can already refer to one example of a prehistoric people who have suddenly entered history.

For a century, scholarly orthodoxy said that the ancient Maya were peaceful astronomers whose most pressing concern was to calculate the exact position of Venus. We could read their calendrical and astronomical calculations, but the rest of their writings were a mystery. We assumed, however, that what was hidden from us was just more astronomy and chronology.

Now we can read the Maya inscriptions, and it turns out that most of their monuments, just like Old World monuments, were put up by kings who wanted to brag about how successfully they had slaughtered their enemies. The concern with the position of Venus, by the way, was purely practical: in Maya superstition, the position of Venus dictated the most propitious time for going out to kill somebody.

Maya history, in short, turns out to be just like everybody else’s history: an endless succession of wars, with bloody battles and an occasional wholesale massacre of civilians.

So why did we believe that the Maya were peaceful astronomers rather than ordinary sinners like the rest of us? Mostly because we really, really wanted to believe it. In hindsight, the evidence of Maya violence was pretty obvious, even without the inscriptions. But we ignored it, because we desperately wanted to believe that paradise on earth was possible. We hope against hope that our world of sin and death is just an aberration—that we could somehow just undo the mistakes we’ve made and find ourselves back in Eden.

None of this means that I wouldn’t like to believe in that golden age where nobody exploited anyone. But the Fall was universal; sin is the human condition, not a peculiar Western eccentricity.

Is it just hopeless, then? Is it inevitable that women should be exploited and treated as property? Or is there a way out? Can we find the real Sacred Feminine and bring it back before we end up, like the Greeks and Romans, in a world where women are garbage?

I’ll have more to say about this shortly, but this entry is already bloated beyond measure. That’s what happens when I venture into the suburbs.

The Round Table

Friday, August 11th, 2006

There’s one important detail in Wace that doesn’t show up in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and that one detail may tell us something about where the Arthurian stories came from.

Wace, as I said, was translating Geoffrey’s History. But in those days a translation was a good bit less the slave of the original than it is today. Translators felt free to expand, paraphrase, summarize, and augment where they thought they could improve their sources. Wace in particular added one detail not found at all in Geoffrey, but one that would forever after be linked with King Arthur and his knights. After describing how Arthur brought all the greatest knights in the world to Camelot, Wace tells us that

For all these noble lords he brought

(Each one himself the better thought;

Each held himself to be the first,

And no one could say which was worst),

The king established that Round Table

Heard of in many a Breton fable.

Wace is usually credited with inventing the Round Table—but he claims no such credit for himself. On the contrary, he implies quite clearly that the Round Table is already well known:

The king established that Round Table

Heard of in many a Breton fable.

Here the Round Table is directly attributed to our prime suspects, the Bretons. We really have no reason to assume that Wace isn’t telling the truth: it was of no benefit to him to make a false attribution. (It’s true that “fable” is a good rhyme for “table,” in Old French as well as in English, but it would be easy to work in the word “fable” any number of ways without attributing the fables to the Bretons.)

The fact that the idea appears no earlier in the surviving literature does not mean that the idea was a new invention. So much of what was written down has been lost, and so much more was never written down at all, that we can only say that we don’t know of any earlier source. But if what Wace says is true, the Round Table was a well-known part of the setting in many of the Breton “lays”—short tales in song—about Arthur’s court.

So was there really a Round Table? Could that actually be a true historical tradition preserved by the Bretons?

King Arthur’s Round Table is one of the highlights of a visit to Winchester, but of course everyone knows that it’s a late-medieval forgery. As we often find, however, the truth is a bit more complicated than what everyone knows.

Grail Code conquers Portugal

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

We’ve just been informed that Editora Bertrand has licensed “the Portuguese (excluding Brasil)” rights for The Grail Code. Those of you who have been sitting patiently in Portugal waiting for your turn will soon find your patience rewarded. No word yet on when our 182 million friends in Brazil might have a chance, but I’m sure the marketers are in a back room somewhere hammering out a deal as we speak. Also no word on when the Latin rights will be sold. After all, Harry Potter is available in Latin, so why not The Grail Code?

Geoffrey and the Breton Minstrels

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

However Geoffrey got his stories, his book was an instant hit. And one measure of how large the secular audience for books had become is the fact that Geoffrey was soon translated from Latin into vernacular languages—even Welsh. (A tiny minority of scholars outside the mainstream believe that this Welsh translation was not a translation but the source: that it was, in fact, Geoffrey’s “very ancient book written in the British language.”)

“Translating” in the Middle Ages was a much freer art than it is today. Translators didn’t mind adapting, summarizing, or expanding the original as they saw fit. The two most famous translations of Geoffrey—by Wace into Norman French rhyme and by Layamon into early Middle English—both add some details not found in Geoffrey’s account. In fact, they seem to bridge the gap between Geoffrey’s book and the later flourishing genre of Arthurian romance.

In this great peace of long ago

(Whether you’ve heard it I don’t know)

Were marvels strange to tell about,

And great adventures were sought out,

Which Arthur’s tales are riddled with

So much that they have turned to myth:

Not quite all truth, not quite all lies;

Neither all foolish nor all wise.

Such legends writers did unfold,

Such wild tales the romancers told

To pad their books where they were able

That everything seems turned to fable.

These lines from Wace’s Roman de Brut sound like the words of someone who’s heard a lot of Arthurian stories. Yet they come from the pen of the Norman poet Wace, who stuck them in the middle of his translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth—a translation produced not too long after Geoffrey’s original work, and before any of the other Arthurian romances that we know of had been written. So where did Wace hear all those wild tales?

Perhaps he heard them from the Bretons.

Imagine any of the hundreds or thousands of feudal courts scattered across western Europe. Something big is going on. Everyone who could find an excuse to be present for tonight’s entertainment is crammed into the castle. All afternoon the ladies have been chattering excitedly among themselves. Small clots of lords and lordlings have been hiding their own excitement by good-naturedly mocking the ladies. Meanwhile, the servants have been busy preparing a banquet for hundreds.

And what caused all this excitement? Simply the news that a few minstrels had straggled into town earlier in the day. In a world without regular theaters, this was as close as people ever got to an opening night on Broadway.

Now at last the time has come, and the great hall is filled to capacity. One of the minstrels who drifted in this morning picks up his lute, and we can hear the low murmur of approval when he announces that tonight he will sing a tale of Arthur’s time.

Somewhere near the front of the audience, perhaps, is our man Wace.

Minstrels wandered freely from one court to another, and they could usually count on a warm welcome wherever they stopped. The ones from Provence were famous for their exquisite love songs, expressing the most delicate shades of feeling in elegantly worked-out verses. But it was the Bretons who had the best stories—stories of a world where magic was always just around the corner, and where another world, beautiful or terrifying or both, might break in on us at any moment.

We recognize this world, of course. It’s the world of ancient Celtic folklore. And because the Bretons were descendants of British refugees who fled from the English invasions, some of their favorite stories were tales of Arthur’s time.

These Breton minstrels might well have been the ones who spun those “wild tales” Wace remembered, full of “marvels strange to tell about.” There’s good evidence that they were all over Europe. In the prosperous northern Italian city of Modena, the cathedral has a startling scene carved over the north portal: mounted horsemen charging, apparently to rescue a lady imprisoned in a lofty tower. What is startling is not so much the subject, but the names of the characters, helpfully written in stone beside them. One of the charging horsemen is Artus de Bretania; the lady in the tower is Winlogee. A man named Mardoc, also in the tower, is apparently holding her captive. Among the other characters in the scene are Galvagin and Che.

These look like familiar names: Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, and Kay. According to students of Celtic languages, they seem to be Breton forms of those names, filtered through early Italian spelling.

Finding Arthurian stories chiseled into a cathedral is startling enough, but what is even more startling is that almost every attempt to date the sculpture places it either before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or at about the same time. The date, and the Breton spellings of the names, strongly suggest that the sculpture was made by and for people who had heard the stories, not from Geoffrey, but from Breton minstrels—and that, in turn, strongly suggests that the Bretons had been bringing tales of Arthur to courts all over Europe (Modena is a long way from Brittany) well before Geoffrey’s book came into circulation.

We might just have stumbled on the answer to a question we couldn’t answer before: Why was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain such an instant blockbuster hit? Perhaps the reason had little to do with the inherent qualities of the book itself. Perhaps it was just the right book at the right time, the book all Europe had been waiting for: the real story of those famous heroes already made so popular by the Breton minstrels.

The Madness of Merlin

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

One of the surprises we find when we read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is how little of it is occupied with Arthur. We think of the History as the foundation of Arthurian literature, and so it was. But even if we include the story of Merlin and the book of his prophecies, the “Arthurian” material takes up only a quarter of the History.

Other legendary heroes fill up the rest—Old King Cole, Cymbeline, King Lear, and others whose names aren’t so familiar. The heroic Aurelius Ambrosius and the despicable Vortigern take up quite a few pages, and their story is filled with gripping drama. But there was never a genre of romance born from Aurelius; no writers lined up to compose allegorical Aurelian adventures. Only Arthur took off.

Or perhaps we should say only Arthur’s world took off. The character of Merlin was such a success that Geoffrey was persuaded to produce a spin-off called The Life of Merlin. In spite of its sober-sounding title, Merlin is a flight of wild fancy quite unlike the relatively plausible History that spawned it. Geoffrey recognized and intended the difference. He had written the History in prose; he wrote Merlin in verse, the sign of a more frivolous entertainment.

“I set myself to sing of the madness of the bard of prophecy,” he begins, “an entertaining tale of Merlin.” And an entertaining tale is what he gives us, where stirring speeches, songs, mysteries, intrigues, and fascinating facts of natural philosophy are all thrown together with a thin plot to string them along. All the romantic tales of Merlin the wild man of the forest go back to Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin.

But even though it’s a fanciful tale that doesn’t even pretend to be historical, Merlin leaves us with the same question we asked about the History: Did Geoffrey make it all up, or did he adapt some earlier source?

The idea of Merlin’s madness was not Geoffrey’s invention. We’ve already seen the germ of it in the Annals of Wales, which tell us that Merlin went mad after a battle between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddoleu son of Ceidio. (To be strictly accurate, the Annals tell us only that Merlin went mad in that same year; we cannot say with certainty whether as a result of the battle or from unrelated causes.)

Geoffrey’s “entertaining tale” begins with that very battle, so clearly Geoffrey has the same incident in mind. The entry in the Annals must refer to a popular story of Merlin’s madness, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Geoffrey had access to some version of that same story. Having supposed so much, we might as well go on to suppose that Geoffrey’s story probably follows the rough outline of the original tale.

In other words, we can take the entry in the Annals as more evidence that Geoffrey worked from older sources, using his own imagination mostly to embellish the stories and turn them into exciting entertainment for his more sophisticated audience. It certainly isn’t irrefutable evidence, but it adds a little weight to the evidence we’ve already collected.

Arthur’s continental adventures

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

“I never said half the things I said,” Yogi Berra once said. Or at least it’s said that Yogi Berra said it. That’s the trouble with Yogi Berra: he’s the gold standard for colorful malapropisms, and eventually any particularly funny malapropism will be attributed to Yogi Berra, whether he said it or not. I won’t be surprised if I see some of the sayings of Mrs. Malaprop herself attributed to Yogi Berra.

I suspect it’s the same way with Arthur. He was the great hero of Britain, the standard against which every other hero was measured. If there was a good old heroic story being told around the campfires, eventually Arthur would become the hero of it.

Geoffrey of Monmouth places Arthur’s last battle in the year 542. There had been no Roman Emperor in the West since 476, and there was never an emperor named Lucius. If there was a historical Arthur, and he was the victor of Badon, he certainly never set out from Britain to conquer Rome.

But other men did, and it’s quite possible that their stories have got themselves absorbed into Arthur’s.

The most famous, of course, was Constantine the Great. He was in Britain when the legions proclaimed him Emperor, and, setting off from there, he did succeed eventually in conquering the whole Empire.

He wasn’t the only one who set out from Britain with imperial ambitions. Maximus, whom Gildas despised so much that he actually gives us his name, set out from Britain to take the Empire, though without the unqualified success of Constantine. There were other Britons, too, who meddled in Continental affairs. The Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe is a big fan of Riothamus, a British warlord who apparently had considerable success in Gaul.

Any or all of these heroes might have contributed his own feats to the story of Arthur. If I’m right about the way Geoffrey worked, he didn’t just make up the story of Arthur and Lucius. He would have taken it from some earlier tradition. But I think the earlier traditions are too mixed up by the time they get to Geoffrey for us to make any more definite conclusion. We can only suspect that they come from some half-remembered feat of some famous British hero who had the misfortune of being almost as good as Arthur.

There is, however, one interesting detail in Geoffrey’s account that sounds almost historical. Constantine succeeds Arthur, and we remember that there was actually a Constantine ruling some part of Britain in Gildas’ time. He was an awful villain, according to Gildas, but he was a Constantine. Could that be Geoffrey’s Constantine?

Arthur conquers Rome

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

When we left Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth, he had just come to the throne, acclaimed by all the Britons. After that, he spends some time putting Britain in order, then subduing Norway, Gaul, and Dacia, all of which seems relatively effortless.  Now Arthur is a glorious prince and a figure to be reckoned with; in fact, he might almost be forgiven for lamenting, like Alexander, that there are no more worlds to conquer. It’s time for a new plot device to come out of nowhere.

At his moment of highest triumph, then, a letter is brought in from Lucius, the emperor of Rome, who demands tribute. Britain has owed tribute since Julius Caesar, Lucius says, and it’s about time the arrears were paid off.

After consulting with his best warriors, Arthur decides to send back a royal raspberry as his reply, and demands tribute of the Romans instead. Them’s fightin’ words, and both sides prepare for a gigantic battle. Arthur, preparing to meet Lucius on his own turf, leaves the kingdom in the hands of his nephew Modred.

When the two sides meet, the Britons defeat the Romans in a pair of great battles fought mostly by means of inspiring speeches. But just at the moment of triumph, news comes in that Modred, in Arthur’s absence, has taken the crown for himself—and the queen, too, while he was at it. Arthur hurries back and defeats and kills Modred, but is mortally wounded himself. He turns over the kingdom to Constantine, his relative, and is carried off to Avalon to be healed.

That’s the story of Arthur in Geoffrey, and the question we have to ask is whether there’s any history in it.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey