The Grail Code 

Archive for November, 2007

Bringing out the nuts (part 2)

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

We were asking why the story of the Holy Grail brings out the nuts, and I think to answer that, we have to decide what makes the story of the Holy Grail so appealing in the first place.

First of all, the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, as refined by the medieval writers, is simply perfect. It’s the story every other story wants to be when it grows up.

If I were to take any random novel and tell you that it was really, underneath it all, the story of man’s quest for what is ultimately desirable and how his own failings stand in the way, you’d probably tell me I’d got it just about right. Tom Jones, or Mardi, or A Christmas Carol, or War and Peace—I’ve just given you the facile undergraduate key to interpreting them all. Feel free to use it in your papers. You’ll get at least a C minus, which is better than nothing.

But the story of the Holy Grail is the story of that quest, not underneath it all but through and through, with no fillers and no artificial additives. I’m tempted to say that it’s the story, the one we’ve been telling each other since Gilgamesh, but refined and purified until it can’t be refined any more. It’s pure essence of story, or at least as pure as our current storytelling technology will allow.

But why does a story so good bring out the nuts? Probably because it’s so good—so good that we really want to believe it’s true, at least in some sense. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to believe the Christian part of it, because we’re still rebelling against the cartoon Christianity that pop culture mistakes for the real thing.

But if you can’t have Christianity, what’s left of the story? Not much. When you unceremoniously dump out the blood of Christ, the Holy Grail is as achingly empty as—well, as a heart without Christ. It has to be filled with something: something ultimately desirable. What do we want most of all? That’s what we’ll put in it. Love, or sex, or the Holy Grail of Information Architecture—whatever we think we want the most, we put that at the center of the story. And then the story is just about magic, which actually isn’t very interesting in itself.

The amazing thing about the Holy Grail legends is the way they use our mundane desires to lead us toward what we really desire. The Grail appears at Camelot and gives each knight his favorite meal: a straightforward appeal to the stomach. The quest is actually undertaken on that basis. But if it never went beyond the stomach, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Things really get interesting when the quest, or the Grail itself, begins to lay bare all the knights’ deepest spiritual failings.

Now, as we said in The Grail Code, there’s a longing born into our hearts. It’s like a spiritual DNA, as Mike always says: everyone is programmed to feel it. It’s designed to lead us toward God, and it takes a powerful act of the will to force it to lead us away from God.

The combination of that profound longing and our willful avoidance of its real goal is what produces silliness in the most benign cases, and madness in the most extreme. Here we can see what’s so appealing about the various perversions of the Grail legend into crazy conspiracy theories: it’s as though, by taking control of what may be the world’s most perfect story, we can somehow take control of God—who is, after all, at the center of the story—and mold him into what we want him to be. That, of course, is madness; but it’s a very common madness. It’s almost an inevitable madness. And that’s why every nut with a grudge against God wants to take over the Holy Grail.

Why does the Grail bring out the nuts?

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Nestled among the multiple copies of Dan Brown’s masterpieces in the clearance section of a local bookstore, I found—no, wait a minute, that sounds like I was nestled among the copies, etc., which is not a position I would put myself in. Let me start over, without taking the opportunity to bash poor old Dan Brown, who, after all, has been the target of a lot of ill-natured abuse these last few years, and only has a billion dollars to show for it.

While I was looking through the clearance books, I found a book by one Giles Morgan with the pleasingly utilitarian title The Holy Grail. For the small price I could afford to take a chance on it, even though the author’s other credits included writing for the Fortean Times, a magazine devoted to the belief that the world is inexplicably weird, or weirdly inexplicable, I forget which. I was surprised to find the book a mostly sensible and balanced history of the Grail in legend, literature, and popular entertainment. It’s a small book and a huge subject, so it skates lightly over the things The Grail Code dwells on at length: Walter Map and Thomas Malory get about a page each. But it presents a good overview of the whole story of the Grail in culture, and it doesn’t dwell on the kind of tabloid-friendly “mysteries” that make up the bulk of most Grail books.

Now, why did I say I was “surprised” to find that the book wasn’t loopy? Partly, I’ll admit, it was just the mention of the Fortean Times on the jacket. If you haven’t experienced the peculiar kind of intellectual loopiness that grows at the Fortean Times, I can’t honestly say that you ought to, but I do sneakily admire it from a distance. Charles Fort, the eponymous founder (don’t you just love the word “eponymous”? Eponymous eponymous eponymous), spent his life searching out odd phenomena that were difficult to explain—a rain of frogs, for example—and cataloguing them in charmingly rambly books (The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, Wild Talents) whose basic theme seems to be that the world is really weird and scientists are deliberately covering up the weirdness. It’s like paranoid conspiracy theory without the invective. Fort’s followers keep up the tradition, searching the world for unusual phenomena and grinding their brains down to the corpus callosum to come up with reasons why all scientific explanations fail. You can probably imagine what sort of Holy Grail book I might have expected from a Fortean.

But the Fortean connection wasn’t actually the main reason I was surprised. I was surprised because, without ever really thinking about it, I’ve learned to expect that almost every book about the Holy Grail will be full of hooey.

It’s almost impossible to find a book about the Holy Grail that doesn’t ignore all history and logic in the most cavalier manner imaginable. There’s something about the Grail legends that brings out the wacko in everyone. Mike and I wrote The Grail Code precisely because almost all the other books about the Holy Grail went so wildly off the rails, and none of them showed much interest in what we thought was the most interesting stage of the development of the legends: the magnificent allegories spun out of the Grail legends by great literary figures like Walter Map. We had to write it because it was the book we wanted to read.

What is it about the Holy Grail that makes nutters of us all? I’m going to start right off by admitting that I don’t really know the answer, so all you’ll get from me is a bunch of speculation. Which is all you ever get from me on this site anyway. Stay tuned: in the next installment, we look at what it is that makes the Holy Grail legend the greatest legend of all.

New Dan Brown movie needs a better script

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

The BBC reports that the writers’ strike has delayed the production of Angels and Demons, the “prequel” to The Da Vinci Code. It’s based on a book Dan Brown wrote before he wrote The Da Vinci Code, using the same hero and the same plot. Apparently “the script needs more work,” which is a bit of a puzzle for a number of reasons. First, couldn’t they just use the same script they used for The Da Vinci Code? I didn’t read Angels and Demons, but my wife (who read it for her book club at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop) tells me that a few global search-and-replace runs would take care of all the minor differences. Second, why does a script that needs more work bother them now if it didn’t when they made The Da Vinci Code? Third, doesn’t delaying until the script can be polished pose a slight danger that the fascination with all things Dan Brown could fizzle before the movie is released? Fourth, when you announce to the world that the script for a Dan Brown story isn’t quite good enough, aren’t you just inviting long paragraphs of dripping sarcasm from the grumposphere? Fifth, if you’re adapting “a novel so bad that it gives novels a bad name” (as Salman Rushdie said about The Da Vinci Code), isn’t a bad script what you actually want? And sixth, if you’re a writer struggling to make a living from your writing, can you avoid lapsing into unseemly grouchiness when you see the Dan Brown empire poised to make another few hundred million dollars? Apparently not.

Anyone remember Dan Brown?

Friday, November 9th, 2007

This afternoon I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore and happened to notice a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress. It was remaindered at $5.98, then marked 50% off that price, then plunked on the “LAST CHANCE” table.

All of which reminds me that no one is talking about Dan Brown anymore, which is a pity because he’s such an easy target. I have not read any of his other novels; my wife read Angels and Demons for her book club, which she thought was pretty much the same book as The Da Vinci Code except with a different MacGuffin. Other people have told me the same thing about his other books. Perhaps he was the sort of writer who only had one book in him, but he kept writing it until it caught on. I admire persistence. According to the Wikipedia’s article, his future projects include two books that also sound like the same book with a different MacGuffin—one about a secret society that’s kept a vast conspiracy going for centuries and the other about, um, a secret society that’s kept a vast conspiracy going for centuries. The fans won’t be disappointed.

What makes me proud to be an American is that none of the members of these age-old conspiracies, all of which have members at the highest levels of government, have been allowed to kill Dan Brown, or even to imprison him on charges of blasphemy. “Should you kill people because you don’t like their books?” Salman Rushdie (a real novelist) once asked rhetorically. His answer was that you shouldn’t. “Even Dan Brown must live,” he said. “Preferably not write, but live.”

Meanwhile, Dan Brown’s descent into irrelevant remainderhood reminds me how glad I am that Mike and I didn’t write a book about The Da Vinci Code. If you haven’t read The Grail Code yet, now is an excellent time—now that you can actually enjoy the history of the Grail legends without worrying about what Dan Brown said about them.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey