The Grail Code 

Archive for April, 2007

Grail Code conquers Czech Republic and Hungary

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

While our backs were turned, somebody went and translated The Grail Code into Czech and Hungarian:

Hungarian, I might point out, is our first language outside the Indo-European family. I think that’s cause for celebration. And what better way to celebrate than by reminding you that the English edition is still on sale when you buy direct from the publisher? Just go to this page and follow the easy instructions. You don’t want people whispering behind your back that everyone in Hungary knows more about the Holy Grail than you do, do you?

Not quite paradise, but…

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

You only have about a century tops to spend in this world before you go on to a better one, but there’s no reason not to spend that short time in the best possible place. It’s comforting to have some confirmation that I made the right choice, even though I didn’t really need it. The latest edition of the Places Rated Almanac puts Pittsburgh at the top of the list again, right where it was in the first edition.

Between those two points, 22 years apart, Pittsburgh has bounced up and down in the list, but it’s the only city that’s always been in the top 20.

Years ago, when I was growing up in the vast Washington suburbs, I used to tell people that my dream was to live in a big old house on the streetcar line in Pittsburgh, a place I knew from frequent visits to relatives. People thought I was a bit odd. Then came the first Places Rated Almanac when I was in college, and I at least had something to point to.

It’s not quite paradise. For one thing, I don’t expect to have to mow the lawn in paradise, or take out the garbage. But as a stop along the way, it’s a good choice. As I sit here right now on the third floor of a century-old house, I hear a streetcar going by.

What they thought of Aristotle

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

The big news for Aristotle’s legions of screaming fans is the latest find from the Archimedes Palimpsest. A palimpsest, as you probably already know (so you can skip to the end of this sentence, if it ever does end) is a book written on top of another book: the pages are carefully scraped off and then used again, because you can’t afford to waste good parchment.

You may recall that the Archimedes Palimpsest is so named from the fact that it was written on top of an otherwise lost work of the great Archimedes, famous for running wet and naked through the streets of Alexandria, which is how they used to celebrate an important scientific discovery back in those days. It was always a party town, but at least Alexandria had a good sense of what was worth celebrating.

But Archimedes was only part of the book. With sophisticated digital imaging, scholars have also been able to recover a previously lost work by the Greek orator Hyperides. And now comes the news that a third lost work has been uncovered from the same manuscript: an ancient commentary on Aristotle.

Speaking as a big Aristotle fan myself (in college my senior thesis was entitled Jazz and the Division of the Soul, and yet I still graduated somehow), I just can’t tell you how exciting this is. Here is a glimpse at how ancient teachers interpreted the foundations of all Western logic. If you don’t think logic is exciting, try imagining how the computer you’re looking at right now would work without it.

So for once I’m not even attempting to ease the subject around to the Holy Grail. Although, as readers of The Grail Code may recall, the best medieval Grail romances were written just as Aristotle was making his big comeback in western Europe. Coincidence? Maybe, and maybe not.

The really tantalizing thing is that the Archimedes Palimpsest was recycled from five old books. Three have been deciphered so far. What’s in those other two? I can hardly wait to find out.

Perceval winneth the golden cup

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

When I was in high school, I used to know every grubby little bookstore in the Washington metropolitan area. Somewhere on a back shelf of one of them I found Sebastian Evans’ translation of The High History of the Holy Graal, and that was the book that first introduced me to the legends of the Grail.

The dreamlike romance was what enthralled me once I started reading, but I’m sure the illustrations were the reason I bought the book in the first place. They were like nothing I had ever seen before. Here’s one of them, and it demonstrates all the qualities that make Jessie M. King’s pictures so striking: the long, flowing lines, the elongated bodies, the medieval attitudes and composition, and the blurring of the line between illustration and decoration. I choose this as the first entry in our new page of Grail art because it’s the first illustration of the Grail I ever remember seeing, and it still haunts me now, several presidential administrations later.

One year

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

There’s been a shameful lack of hullabaloo from the hullabaloo industry, but has just celebrated its first anniversary.

We’ve accomplished a lot in that one short year. Just to take one example, we’ve driven The Da Vinci Code off the top of the bestseller lists. Not that we took its place, but I like to think that out combination of solid history and good-natured raillery is the reason people aren’t talking much about Dan Brown anymore. I also like to think that the Tooth Fairy will make me a millionaire. There are a lot of things I like to think.

Turning to more easily quantified accomplishments, The Grail Code has accumulated six foreign-language editions in just one year, which is actually an impressive accomplishment. I say six because the Croatian edition is in the works right now. I realize that I spend so much time making things up that you might think I’m joking about a Croatian edition, but I’m honestly not.

We’ve also reached a wide audience through radio appearances all over the dial (well, probably mostly at the lower end of the dial), which brings our message to the vast numbers of people who can’t read but like to talk about books anyway.

Finally, we’ve entertained literally dozens of readers right here on the Web, which brings us back to the subject of our first anniversary.

I believe it is customary on these momentous occasions to look both backward into the past and forward into the future. It seems like a good idea, anyway.

To take care of the past first, I’ve come up with a little index of this site. No, not a useful index—anybody could do that. This is an index of a number of the surprising and unusual subjects that have come up over the past year. You could click on the links right away, but that’s cheating. What you’re supposed to do is try to guess in what context each subject came up, and then click on the links to see whether you were right. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Or, to keep our expectations more realistic, doesn’t that sound like a way to waste time while you wait on hold and wonder whether the receptionist has forgotten about you and gone to lunch?

As for looking to the future, in a very short time there will be a new page on this site: a collection of Grail illustrations, mostly from the nineteenth century, which—for reasons I’ll talk about shortly—was the great golden age of Grail art.

Meanwhile, here’s that index:


Amnesty International



Berra, Yogi

Buchanan, James


Caesar, Julius





Erie, Lake





John the Baptist

Johnson, Samuel

Malaprop, Mrs.


Morris, William




Remington typewriter

Somers, Suzanne


Stevenson, Robert Louis

Sturmey-Archer AW three-speed hub


Wells, H. G.





Whose fault?

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

A few years ago, when yet another shooting massacre in the United States was occupying the news, an English acquaintance who was living in Pittsburgh at the time grumbled, “Just another bl—y shooting. Just another bl—y day in paradise.”

For the benefit of the English and Australian readers of this site, I’ve censored what is to them a strong and vulgar term. (It may surprise you to learn that we Americans don’t consider it particularly vulgar, which is probably why we almost never use it.)

But I repeat the Englishman’s expression of resignation and despair because I know he speaks for a lot of us at a time like this. Resignation and despair are our natural reactions to human evil. What can we do? Nothing, it seems. The world is broken, and we can’t fix it.

Now, this resigned view of the universe is just about exactly half right. A Christian knows that the world is corrupted by sin, but a Christian also knows that despair is a sin, too.

Other people, too strong-willed perhaps to give in to despair, will be asking whose fault it was that thirty-some people died in a peaceful college town in the Virginia mountains. You’ll hear a lot of that in the next few days, as more details about the killer come to light and it becomes clear that he was a tortured soul. Of course he was a tortured soul; they always are. Souls at peace don’t need to shoot fifty random innocent people.

Ezekiel has a pretty straightforward answer to the question of whose fault it was: it was the murderer’s fault. Don’t say it’s anyone else’s fault when you sin, Ezekiel tells us (Ezekiel 18:20). We need to remember that, because our popular culture encourages us to see ourselves as the victims when we do bad things. We came from broken homes; we came from intact homes that should have been broken; we grew up too poor to have the things we wanted; we grew up too rich and never had to work for anything.

Don’t give me that, Ezekiel says. You sinned; you pay the price.

But that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Jesus told us that he’d be especially severe with anyone who caused one of his little ones to sin (Mark 9:42). That doesn’t mean the sinner won’t pay the price, but it does mean that there will also be a hefty fine for anyone who pushed the sinner toward the sin.

So whose fault is it? Who made the murderer’s life so hellish that all he could think of was killing?

All the politicians and all the columnists are already going through the usual carefully chosen list of suspects. I wish for once I could hear just one of them say what I’m about to say now: it was my fault.

I don’t mean that I literally drove this particular young man to murder. The last time I was in Blacksburg was in 1986, which was actually before the murderer was born. But how often have I run into similar people—people who might well be just as tortured inside—and failed in my Christian duty?

How many times have you?

Think of what happens every time you get in a car. Have you ever blasted your horn at someone who cut in front of you, even though the maneuver was already complete and there was nothing anyone could do about it now? Have you ever shouted questions about another driver’s ancestry out the window?

Or have you ever known someone at school or at work who just doesn’t fit in—who is ignored by everyone around him, either because of his ethnic background or because of his odd tastes? How many times have you missed an opportunity to say something friendly and encouraging—something that would take you five seconds to say, but would require you to break through years of prejudice?

I’m guilty on all counts. (Except for shouting questions about people’s ancestry. I can never think of them in time.)

Every human being is looking for the Holy Grail, the object of all desire, the thing that fills that aching emptiness in our hearts. Some people stray so far that they despair of ever reaching their goal, and they despair so deeply that all they can see is darkness.

As Christians, we have the duty to point the way for everyone—that’s what Jesus meant by making disciples of all nations. The best way to do that is by showing Christian love to the people who need it most. We can’t just turn away from people because they seem a little peculiar. We have our orders.

And when we fail, we need to confess our failure and repent.

We failed. Lord, have mercy.

Nothing like…

Monday, April 16th, 2007

After I posted the previous article, I began to think how there was a time, before the Web, when the author of an article in a printed publication might challenge his readers to identify the source of a phrase like “a little judicious levity,” offering some sort of prize for the first correct response. Then I thought about how there’s no point in doing something like that now, when any fool can just paste those words into a Web search engine and come up with the answer instantly. And then I decided to try the experiment and found that the first result I came up with was a page of “memorable quotes” from the fantasy Aeon Flux.

Pop culture is a great recycler. That perfect phrase “Nothing like a little judicious levity” comes originally from The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne. It’s a very funny book, and it had a tremendous cult following about a hundred years ago. I didn’t want you to think I was quoting from movies I’d never seen. Commenting on movies you’ve never seen seems unethical.

A little judicious levity

Monday, April 16th, 2007

Longtime readers, or for that matter readers who just discovered the site this afternoon, must have noticed that I spend a lot of my time making fun of people. Your mother probably told you that making fun of people wasn’t nice. Your mother was right, but there are extenuating circumstances.

First of all, I never make fun of anyone who hasn’t already said something stupid. Your mother probably told you that “He started it” was no excuse. Your mother was right. It’s amazing how often your mother was right. You should have listened to her more.

But my main reason for making fun of people is this: it’s what popular psychologists (and, for all I know, dreadfully unpopular ones as well) call a “coping mechanism.”

You see, I’m deficient in charity. It’s the nature of the human species to be deficient in charity, but I think I’m more deficient than most.

Now, a deficiency in charity is a serious thing, and can lead to serious trouble.

Most of you will remember the big Danish cartoon flap a little more than a year ago. A Danish paper printed some cartoons whose message seemed to be that Islam as such promotes violence. The result was weeks of violence throughout the Islamic world. By one estimate, at least 159 people died because of those cartoons.

Over here, we all thought that was pretty darned ironic, didn’t we? But how about that guy who sculpted a naked Jesus out of chocolate? I hate him to pieces! He is flies in my soup! He should be killed to death!

Yes, it seems pretty clear that other people should lighten up about their religions, but insults to my own religion are hard to forgive.

When I realize how deficient I am in charity, I realize that I’m just as prone to fits of rage as any other religious fanatic. In fact, I think we can define a religious fanatic as someone who takes his religion seriously, but is deficient in charity.

Now, there are several different ways I could deal with my deficiency. One is to pray for more charity, which is always a good idea. Another, which supplements the first, is to work on increasing my charity, which might involve consciously trying to return good for evil and all that stuff. That’s hard.

So, while I earnestly work on the first two methods, I fall back on the third, which is making fun of people. It’s a lot better than starting a riot in the street. Besides, it’s hard to get a good riot started around here. People are so apathetic. You can stand right at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield and shout till you’re blue in the face, and people will just walk right past you or hand you pizza coupons.

But making fun of the offensive things people say is more than just an outlet for my hostilities. It changes the way I look at the people by subtle degrees. There was a time when I was really mad at Dan Brown—not for denying the Christian religion, which a lot of admirable Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and other writers do, but for foisting ridiculous dreck on the general public as if it were true history.

Now, though, I don’t see him as a threat. I’ve spent so much time driving trucks through the holes in his historical assumptions that I can only laugh at him, not shake my fist at him. It’s hard to be really amused and still hate the person who amuses you. I find myself actually looking forward to whatever Dan Brown comes up with next, because I know it’s going to be chock full of belly laughs. I begin to think happy thoughts about Dan Brown and all the good he’s done me. I feel something almost like charity coming on.

I’ve got a secret!

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

It may surprise you to learn that Jesus was a multimillionaire who lived with all the trappings of worldly success. I confess it surprised me, until I started to remember some of the things he said in the Gospels. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head, because the cleaning staff has the north wing all in an uproar, and all the guest rooms in the west wing have that awful draft.” I remember that one now.

Yes, Jesus was a multimillionaire, and he came to us to show us how we, too, could achieve the material prosperity we’ve always dreamed of. I presume he was nailed to the cross by the IRS.

That’s just one of the amazing fun facts you can learn from a book called The Secret, which has infested the bestseller lists for months largely through the merciless promotion of Oprah Winfrey.

The secret of the title is the long-hidden knowledge that you can have anything you want just by really, really wanting it a whole lot. Conversely, nothing bad can happen to you unless you believe it can happen. So if, for example, you are currently flying through the air after having been blown up by a sectarian bomb in Baghdad, it may comfort you to know that you brought it on yourself.

The same doctrine applies to contagious diseases. There’s no such thing as a contagious disease: there is only a disease you thought you could catch. The negative thought brought on the disease. Just think how much money we could save if we replaced medicine with persuasion! Think how many lives could be saved in southern Africa if people stopped believing they could catch AIDS! Okay, so maybe that’s a bad example.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking right now. You’re thinking that Oprah’s belfry must be missing a few of its bats if she believes that stuff. But I’ve long since given up on trying to figure out what Oprah actually believes. Besides, she’s far from the only one. Legions, armies, hordes of people are buying the book instead of paying their rent this month.

So do you want to know what I think? I didn’t think so, but I’ll tell you anyway. I think this book was written by Satan himself, or at least inspired by Satan, in the same way that God inspired Galatians even though Paul actually did the writing part. Yes, I’m sure the authors are very nice people. Satan prefers to work with very nice people. Don’t we all?

The message of the book is the same old message Satan always promotes. You can have every earthly desire—I’ll give them to you for nothing—and all you have to do is give up on your quest for what’s really worthwhile. You just have to focus all your desire on earthly things. Don’t worry—I’ll be here to help you every step of the way. (For a good description of Satan’s modus operandi, see the fourth chapter of Luke.)

Well, maybe I’m all wrong about the book. I’ve only skimmed a few excerpts. I haven’t read the book, and I probably won’t read it, although I remember a time when I said that about The Da Vinci Code (which, as I promised, I counted as a business expense on my tax return this year). But it sure sounds like the devil and all his empty promises to me.

Magic Flutes and Holy Grails

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

I’ll try to keep this brief, because I’ve already blithered on about The Magic Flute far too long, and you must be getting pretty sick of it. So instead of coyly easing up to it in my usual insufferable manner, I’ll state the main question right here at the beginning: Why have the stories of the Holy Grail inspired countless works of literature and art through the ages, whereas the Masonic fairy tale of The Magic Flute has no life outside the opera?

And I’ll give you my answer in one word: sin. (See—I told you I’d keep it brief.)

The notion of sin is what’s missing in The Magic Flute, and that lack is what keeps the characters from living and the story from going anywhere.

Yes, we do have good and evil in the opera, but I confess I sometimes have trouble telling them apart. In the story, Good kidnaps a daughter from her mother, holds her against her will, and puts the hero through a series of dreadful revolving doors; Evil attempts to retrieve her daughter and to assassinate the kidnapper. You can see why I just have to take Sarastro’s (and the music’s) word for it that he’s on the side of light; I wouldn’t know him by his fruits.

Surprisingly enough, we don’t really get good and evil in the best versions of the Holy Grail stories. Instead, we get sin—good corrupted into evil in varying degrees. In other words, what we get is something like the real world, with real people who (in spite of their eminence and celebrity) are very much like us.

We showed you in The Grail Code how the whole Lancelot cycle by Walter Map can be read as an allegory of sin and redemption, expulsion from paradise and the quest to regain paradise lost. To make that allegory, the author (or authors) took a hero who embodied everything that their audience would think of as good and deconstructed him. I mean that both in the modern literary critics’ sense and in the more fundamental sense of knocking the foundation out from under him. Lancelot has to learn that everything that made him glorious was actually sin, and it was keeping him away from the only thing that was really worth having. And even after he figured that out, he still lapsed into sin again. That’s what sin is like.

That understanding of sin makes what could have been a cardboard hero into a real person, whose interior struggles hold more interest for us than his most glorious battles and adventures.

Incidentally, this is also, I think, why Papageno is the only character in The Magic Flute who comes across as a real person. He has that sinful nature that we all recognize in ourselves: he wants to do good, but he’s always distracted by greed, lust, cowardice, or whatever passion happens to grip him at the moment. He fails and has to be forgiven by the gods—something we certainly recognize in ourselves. Mozart, genius that he was, saw immediately that Papageno was the only person in the story that anyone would really like and gave him all the best songs, as well as an enchanting set of magic bells that actually get a lot more exposure than the magic flute of the title. Papageno is a sinner like us, and if the story had actually recognized the nature of that sin, it might even have been interesting without the music.

It’s too bad Mozart never wrote a Holy Grail opera. Wagner did, but Wagner was no Mozart.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey