The Grail Code 

Archive for August, 2007

Hadrian was fifteen feet tall and looked like a hippie

Friday, August 10th, 2007

They’ve found a great big statue of Hadrian, the Roman emperor who tried to solve the barbarian problem in Britain once and for all. He simply built a great wall right across the island to keep the nasty Picts from pouring southward the way they tended to do whenever they felt the need for a bit of plunder.

It worked pretty well as long as the Empire poured enormous resources into keeping the wall liberally coated with soldiers. But walls don’t keep barbarians out forever, as even the Chinese—who built the biggest and best anti-barbarian wall in the world—could tell you. If you build a wall, eventually the barbarians will come at you by sea and demand that you buy their opium.

The mere fact that Hadrian and his successors were willing to put so much effort into defending the province shows how valuable they considered Britain. It also created the conditions under which Britain grew civilized, prosperous, and dependent. Without those Roman soldiers keeping the Picts on the other side of the wall, how could the Britons defend themselves?

The answer, of course, was to hire somebody else to do it, which brought in the seaborne English barbarians and led to the English conquest of most of the island.

Meanwhile, we have a new portrait of Hadrian to admire. The statue would have been about fifteen or sixteen feet tall, to judge by the size of the foot, and it shows Hadrian with his trademark beard. Most emperors shaved, but Hadrian wanted to look like a Greek philosopher. In other words, he was a hippie emperor.

History has generally judged him well. He didn’t persecute the Christians for their religion, as long as they complied with the laws of the Empire (which they couldn’t always do, of course, but you can’t have everything). He improved the imperial administration, and in general the empire was governed well during his reign. Although he had to face an especially bloody Jewish revolt, that all took place in the east and didn’t affect Britain much at all. As far as Britain was concerned, Hadrian was just about the ideal emperor, and things would have been just fine if every emperor after him had been just like him.

Harry Potter: no Grail, but plenty of quest

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

The last Harry Potter book had surprises for just about everyone. I won’t give anything away, except to say that there’s no Holy Grail per se, but there’s quite a lot of quest. In fact, you might find more than one parallel with the famous quest for the Holy Grail.

The quest is one of the favorite themes in literature, and doubtless always will be. Take one brave but human hero and one or more magically desirable objects, and then place an assortment of almost insuperable evils between them, and you’ve got a proper quest. The basic plot doesn’t change, because it doesn’t need to change. As it stands, the quest plot not only is susceptible to infinite variation, but also comes pre-loaded with a rich assortment of metaphorical and symbolic possibilities. The quest can be a metaphor for the course of our whole lives, or for any particular endeavor, or for both at once. For all of us, life is a journey toward the ultimately desirable goal, with a minefield of misfortunes and evils standing in our way. Whether it’s Lord Voldemort or the Department of Motor Vehicles, we have to face the evil of the moment and overcome it before we can be on our way.

A long wait to renew one’s driver’s license doesn’t quite have the appeal in the retelling that, say, the quest for the Golden Fleece has. Now, if I had the choice, I’d much rather stand in line at the DMV than battle a bunch of Ray Harryhausen monsters. But I’d rather hear stories about the monsters than about the DMV. (“And then when I finally got all the way to the front, they told me I was in the wrong line!”) I can’t explain that peculiar perversity of my nature, but I probably don’t have to explain it. I’m sure you share it.

Yet the monsters and the indifferent or hostile clerks differ more in degree than in kind. Courage, persistence, patience, and determination will serve you as well at the DMV as they will against creatures of stop-motion animation. To put it another way, we can learn lessons from our favorite stories (not least Harry Potter) that help us find the right path on our own quests. That, after all, is what allegory is all about.

Meanwhile, a suggestion: if you’ve finished the seven Harry Potter books and need something else to read, why not introduce yourself to the stories of the Holy Grail? You’ll find most of the same ingredients you loved in Harry Potter, but you might find an even deeper and more satisfying meaning. Here’s a good place to start in your new quest.

Ingmar Bergman

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

So Ingmar Bergman finally lost that chess game. And If you have any idea what I’m talking about, it’s because Mr. Bergman created one of the most memorable allegories of all time: the image of a man playing chess with Death, holding off the inevitable as long as he can. Countless millions have seen The Seventh Seal, but many times that number recognize the image of chess with Death without ever having seen the movie.

I have little to add to the torrent of tributes, except to say that allegory is our business here at, so it seems like nothing less than a duty to acknowledge the life of one of the great masters of allegory—especially one who so valiantly fought an age that had little patience for the stuff. If you’ve avoided seeing The Seventh Seal because you expected unbearable bleakness, see it now. It’s full of tough questions, like the Book of Job, and it doesn’t give us straight answers. But it’s also full of unexpected beauty and hope and joy, just like life.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey