The Grail Code 

Archive for June, 2007

More Boy Scouts (and fewer Nazis)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

A few days ago, I linked to a Web site with what I thought were some dubious theories about the swastika and the Boy Scouts. Almost immediately the author of that site posted a comment on my article (you can read it here). I couldn’t pass up the chance to render my thanks both for the politeness of the comment and the time it took to write it.

The author knows his swastikas backwards and forwards (literally), and points out a few essential differences between the Nazi swastika and the Boy Scout version. For one thing, the Nazi swastika was diagonal, whereas the lines in the Boy Scout swastika are all vertical or horizontal.

I defer to the author’s superior expertise in swastikas, and I certainly don’t have the knowledge to debate the history of the swastika in this country. I do still think that the meaning of the swastika on the Boy Scout emblem is obviously innocent: however it got there, it was a cheery symbol of good luck to the millions of boys who received these medals (and then tossed them in the dirt when Hitler rose to power).

But I wish more of the debate on the Internet could be as delightfully civilized as this one comment from “Tinny Ray.” He must think I’m a naive fool who’s far out of his depth and just doesn’t get it, but he didn’t say that to my face. Instead, he thanked me for taking an interest, and then mentioned what he thought were some important points I had missed. I don’t agree with the politics of the Rex Curry site, but wars would cease if everyone could discuss political differences so pleasantly.

Boy Scouts and Nazis

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

I found a swastika in my front yard this afternoon.

I suppose I might have been worried about that if the swastika had been put there recently, but it wasn’t. As far as I can tell, most of the gang activity in my neighborhood is softball-related rather than neo-Nazi. This swastika was on a copper medal, about the size of a half-dollar, and it must have been dropped about seventy-five years ago. I found it while I was digging in a flowerbed. Odd things turn up when you dig around an old house.

With a little gentle cleaning, I was able to read most of the letters on the medal and make out most of the images. Below the swastika, which takes up most of one side (probably the reverse), are the words “GOOD LUCK”; around the edge of the medal is written “MEMBERSHIP EMBLEM OF THE BOY SCOUTS CLUB.” Inside the swastika are smaller images of a horseshoe, a four-leaf clover, a wishbone, and something I can’t quite make out that might be Egyptian hieroglyphs. On the other side (the obverse, I suppose) is a boy scout on a horse; above him the words “BOY SCOUTS,” and around the edge, “MANUFACTURED BY THE EXCELSIOR SHOE C’POR…” (the rest being illegible).

I said “swastika,” and you thought Nazis, didn’t you? I certainly did when I saw a swastika glinting at me between the calendulas. But the swastika wasn’t always a Nazi symbol. Before the Nazis were invented, it was a popular emblem of good luck, and one of my neighbors pointed out that you can still see swastikas carved in the stone on some houses in Pittsburgh. It was an ancient Indian symbol; Rudyard Kipling used it as his personal logotype. (Few of his books made it through World War II unmutilated.)

The problem with understanding history is that we carry a lot of baggage with us when we try to go back in time. Every decent human being feels an instant and powerful revulsion at the sight of a swastika—probably even people who specialize in historical symbolism and know the history of the symbol far better than I do. But that revulsion is conditioned by some exceptionally ugly historical associations that are comparatively recent. In 1920, very few people would have identified the swastika as a symbol of evil. It was as harmless as a four-leaf clover.

Being able to set aside our historically conditioned revulsions is often what separates good history from history that misses the point. I did the natural thing when I found this medal in my front yard: I looked on the Internet to find out when and for how long the Boy Scouts used the swastika. Almost every site I came up with was like this one, revealing the SHOCKING TRUTH that the Boy Scouts once used the SYMBOL OF EVIL in their own literature and on their own medals. It may well be possible to establish that the swastika was introduced into America by an evil conspiracy (I doubt it, but I leave the possibility open), but it’s pretty obvious just by looking at this medal what the Boy Scouts thought of the swastika. It’s as happy and innocent as pulling on a wishbone.

I can never really succeed in seeing the swastika as a cheery token of good luck in a league with horseshoes and wishbones. The Nazis were just too horrible. To understand history, however, we have to know how the people who designed the medal felt about the symbol, even if we can’t feel that way ourselves.

The latest Grail news…

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

The latest Grail news is that an archaeologist wants to search for the Holy Grail in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura in Rome.

This Grail search is considerably less crackpotty than most, because it’s actually based on some real history. St. Lawrence was, according to one source, the last known custodian of the Cup of the Last Supper. And he’s buried here, so we deduce by natural inference that he took it with him.

The Vatican is considering allowing the investigation, which sounds like a good idea to me. You can’t go looking in a Roman church from the 500s without finding something interesting.

Whether this is real archaeology or sensation-mongering remains to be seen. Certainly real archaeology has to do a bit of sensation-mongering to get itself funded, but a real archaeologist knows how to do it without going off the deep end. Announcing as fact that we have found the Holy Grail–that is, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper–would be going off the deep end. Announcing that we have found a likely candidate would be within the realm of real archaeology. But there are several other good candidates, and they all have good stories to go with them.

Whatever happens, it will be fun to watch.

Where Arthur does appear in Green

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

I said earlier that Arthur doesn’t appear in the obvious places in Green’s Short History of the English People. I should elaborate. Arthur does appear in the index under “Arthur, myths and legends of”—a reference that leads me to page 119, where the Norman Conquest has already happened and we’re talking about the flowering of medieval literature. If you’ve been hanging around in our neighborhood for a while, you can probably guess that Arthur’s name first appears in conjunction with Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose blockbuster History of the Kings of Britain was The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter rolled into one.

It makes sense. For Green, Arthur is a figment of romance, so the proper place to deal with him is in the section on the development of romance. Green sticks to his method. Arthur is a tradition, so there’s no place for him in Green’s scientific history. But the romances of Arthur are documentary facts, so here they are in their proper place.

A tone of distinct hostility to the Church developed itself almost from the first among the singers of romance. Romance had long before taken root in the court of Henry the First, where under the patronage of Queen Maud the dreams of Arthur, so long cherished by the Celts of Britanny, and which had traveled to Wales in the train of the exile Rhys ap Tewdor, took shape in the History of the Britons by Geoffry of Monmouth. Myth, legend, tradition, the classical pedantry of the day, Welsh hopes of future triumph over the Saxon, the memories of the Crusades and of the world-wide dominion of Charles the Great, were mingled together by this daring fabulist in a work whose popularity became at once immense. Alfred of Beverly translated Geoffrey’s inventions into the region of sober history, while two Norman trouvères, Gaimar and Wace, translated them into French verse. So complete was the credence they obtained, that Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury was visited by Henry the Second, while the child of his son Geoffry and of Constance of Brittany bore the name of the Celtic hero. Out of Geoffry’s creation grew little by little the poem of the Table Round. Britanny, which had mingled with the story of Arthur the older and more mysterious legend of the Enchanter Merlin, lent that of Lancelot to the wandering minstrels of the day, who moulded it, as they wandered from hall to hall, into the familiar tale of knighthood wrested from its loyalty by the love of woman. The stories of Tristram and Gawayne, at first as independent as that of Lancelot, were drawn with it into the whirlpool of Arthurian romance; and when the Church, jealous of the popularity of the legends of chivalry, invented as a counteracting influence the poem of the Sacred Dish, the San Graal which held the blood of the Cross invisible to all eyes but those of the pure in heart, the genius of a court poet, Walter de Map, wove the rival legends together, sent Arthur and his knights wandering over sea and land in the quest of the San Graal, and crowned the work by the figure of Sir Galahad, the type of ideal knighthood, without fear and without reproach.

Now, as far as I can tell, this one paragraph (and I admit that one paragraph in Green is a pretty long haul, but it’s still less than a page in this case) is absolutely riddled all the way through with misconceptions, and (I’d say) amazingly unscientific ones. I can say with near certainty that the legends of Arthur were not unknown in Wales until Rhys ap Tewdwr, and that the “Church” did not invent the legend of the Holy Grail, and that Walter Map was not the one who invented the idea of setting the quest for the Grail in the world of Arthur.

But there’s a reason why Green went so badly wrong in this paragraph. I’m almost positive he hadn’t read any of the primary sources, with the possible exception of some part of the Walter Map cycle, which he singles out for deserved admiration. These were romances, not historical documents, and Green had no interest in them. He relied on secondary sources—the latest, most scientific literary historians he could get his hands on. And those literary historians, like many of the biblical critics of the day, were taking their own prejudices and half-formed wild guesses and presenting them as scientific conclusions.

But Green is absolutely correct about one thing: the romances of Arthur are one of the most important historical facts of the Middle Ages. He got that right.


Sunday, June 10th, 2007

It’s a different world now from the one we grew up in. With crime spiraling out of control, we don’t dare give our children the kind of liberty we had when we were their age. Back in those days, parents could let their children walk half a mile to the store by themselves, or wander alone in the woods in the county park, or sit alone in the parking lot while the parents did their shopping, or even go downtown to see a free concert without a chaperone. If we let our children do those things now, they’d be mugged, or run over by a drunk driver, or abducted, or worse.

And if you believe all that, you’re a victim of what I call PLS, or Paradise Lost Syndrome. The crime rate has actually plummeted since the 1970s. Traffic fatalities are way down, too. For most Americans, the world is actually a much safer place than it was when I was growing up.

But the belief that the world is far more dangerous now is almost universal. News reporters regularly talk about “spiraling crime” as a known fact of life, and nobody questions what they’re saying. What’s going on here?

The same attitude is prevalent in Britain, and this BBC story is remarkable not just because it recognizes the difference between the perception and the reality, but also because it quantifies with statistics just how drastically our skewed perceptions have affected our behavior. Though the world is safer for our children than it was for us, we’re raising them as if they were under siege.

But I’m not here to talk about how we should raise our children. I’m more interested in something more abstract and more universal: Where does our PLS come from? Why, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, do we persist in believing that the world is much worse now than it was when we were young?

This kind of thinking isn’t new. Most of us probably remember our parents or grandparents telling us how the world had really gone to pot since they were young. And their parents told them the same thing: the world is really going downhill, what with this filthy jazz music, these lascivious waltzes, these unbridled minuets, this newfangled polyphony stuff. (Young people and their music are always an important ingredient in the continuing downfall of everything good in the world. Personally, I don’t like much music after 1935, so I think you young whippersnappers with your Glenn Miller records have a lot to answer for.)

Certainly the romances of the Holy Grail depended on this universal logic-defying nostalgia. Do you think any of the people who fell in love with the magical lost paradise of Camelot would really have liked to be plunked back in Arthur’s world, exchanging their high-medieval prosperity and stability for the bare subsistence and frequent pagan massacres of the real Arthur’s time? But this idea that there was once a golden age, and that our own age is much worse, is always unquestioned. Everyone believes it. And that may be because it’s true.

We live in a world of sin and death, but the Bible tells us we were created for something better. Being tossed out of paradise and longing to go back is the primeval human experience: it’s coded into our souls like a spiritual DNA, as someone once said in a very good book.

Perhaps what’s missing in our generation is the Christian context. We all have that longing for paradise lost; the Christian religion explains it and tells us to expect paradise regained in our own future. Without that context, we have that memory of paradise lost and the inbuilt longing to regain it, but we don’t know where it all comes from. It must have been something in our immediate past. The world must have been paradise then, and we must have lost it somehow.

That sense of paradise lost is implanted in us for a reason. God put the longing in our souls to lead us back to him. As Christians, we have the real answer to the question literally everyone in the world is asking: why is the world so much worse than it ought to be? The Christian answer is that it’s because of our sin; but the good news is that God’s mercy can overcome our sin and bring us back to paradise.

Meanwhile, take heart. It’s not true that the world is much worse now than it was when we were young. Actually, the world was just as horrible then. Maybe even worse. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

The Golden Age of Blogging

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

(it was three hundred years ago)

Anyone who reads this site and also reads Mike Aquilina’s over at has noticed that Mike and I have almost opposite approaches to this blogging business. Mike makes a few entries every day, often just a few lines each, about whatever has attracted his attention. I tend to consider an idea for a while and compose a long article every few days. It works out just about the same in the end.

I was thinking about the whole blogging business a while ago. For the first time in history, I thought to myself, writers have the opportunity to reach out to the public directly, writing about whatever notions flit momentarily into their pretty little heads, publishing their observations almost instantly. Then I thought for a while about how the Web had completely changed the writer’s relationship with readers, putting it on a much more intimate footing. All this, I said, is completely new, a real twenty-first-century phenomenon. And then I realized that I was all wrong, and that in fact the Web has taken us backward about three centuries, back to the golden age of blogging.

You probably think I’ve slipped a cog if I’m saying the golden age of blogging was three centuries ago. But that’s because you’ve forgotten all about Addison and Steele and the dozens or hundreds like them.

I contend that what Addison, Steele, and the rest were doing all through the eighteenth century was exactly what bloggers are doing today. For people who aren’t familiar with them, let me explain. Three hundred years ago in London you could read any one of a number of “papers”—that was what they called them then—that came out daily, or two or three times a week, and covered whatever subject happened to catch the attention of the author. The Spectator, written sometimes by Joseph Addison and sometimes by Richard Steele, was the greatest of the lot, but it was only one of a large crowd. Addison himself wrote for a large number of them: the Tatler, the Guardian, the Freeholder, the Whig-Examiner, and even the Lover, in which he blogged the progress of a love affair with a cruel and obdurate lady.

I say “blogged” because the style of these papers was exactly the style of blogs today. The author might deal with a particular subject (a love affair, for example), but any idea that entered his brain was fair game for an essay. Correspondents would respond to the essays, and the author would respond to the correspondents; the next afternoon, everyone would be talking about the cleverest things the papers had said in all the coffeehouses, which in those days were where the trendy young people gathered.

So you can see why I think the main effect of the Internet revolution has been to turn twenty-first-century Pittsburgh—or wherever you happen to live—into eighteenth-century London. We have the best of both worlds now: the exciting and immediate literary culture without the cholera and bad teeth. It’s a good time to be writing and a very good time to be reading.

Classics I never forgot

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Back when I was a teenager and the world was a simpler place (like fun it was!), I used to love to read the comic fantasies of Thorne Smith. I had a collection of his books in cheap paperback editions that I picked up wherever I could find them for a quarter or less, although I was willing to part with a whole dollar for a Thorne Smith book that was particularly hard to find. They all had just about the same plot: an ordinary guy who’s little better than a doormat for heartless women suddenly finds himself up to his neck in supernatural shenanigans, usually as the result of meeting an uncommonly gorgeous woman who’s a little more than human. Farcical mayhem ensues pretty quickly. Some of his books were made into first-rate movies, and really every Hollywood comic fantasy since has been trying to live up to the Thorne Smith standard.

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of our old friends, Julie Davis, who’s had so many nice things to say about The Grail Code, is going to be reading us stories via the magic of MP3, and that one of the authors on her list of “Forgotten Classics” is Thorne Smith. Ms. Davis has the perfect podcast reading voice: expressive, pleasant to listen to, and pitched just right to cut through the ambient noise in a car at highway speeds. I know now what I’ll be listening to on long road trips.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey