Dan Brown
NY: Doubleday, 2003
ISBN # 0-385-50420-9.
454 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2005

With all the buzz, radio talk shows, many reviews, soon a movie to be made, I feel like one of the last American readers to get to this book.

But the contrast between “the buzz” and the book itself has fascinated me. The dominant theme I heard discussed was a sexual relationship or even marriage / love affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I must say: if that had been the theme I would have been very surprised at the level of discussion the book created. Two very fine novels I have read already tackle that theme and do it well. Nikos Kazanzakis’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and the incredible THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST by Jose Saramago.

However, Dan Brown has bigger fish to fry and created what I found to be both a gripping yet aggravating thriller and a clever, almost ironic exploration of the myth of the Holy Grail, elevated to a world-historic conspiracy theory.

The basic plot device is clever and rather straight forward for the genre of the thriller. Jacques Sauniere, a curator at the Louvre in Paris is murdered. Harvard scholar, Robert Langdon, in Paris to give a lecture on symbolism in religion, becomes a lead suspect in Sauniere’s death. Ah yes, we need a special and beautiful woman and right on the heels of the murder Sophie Neveu, expert in code breaking, turns up just as the standard thriller’s police investigative star is interrogating Langdon, at the murder site no less, in the basement of the Louvre. Sophie, wonders of wonders, is actually the murder victim’s granddaughter, but no one yet knows this save Sophie herself. She’s ostensibly there as a code breaker, but I move too fast.

Then, in the style of Robert Ludlum, Ken Fowlett, John LeCarre, a stream of super rich, important, powerful and famous people play roles while high tech surveillance, daring deeds and tension-filled scares abound.

Yes, there is a bit of sarcasm in my tone. This formula, the standard thriller novel of espionage is by the book and, on my view, not nearly as well done as other leading writers of this genre.

What aggravated me a great deal was that Brown seemed to be playing with the readers, laughing at us as stupid. He likes to stretch out his surprises to the umpteenth degree. That slow pace of his thriller plot’s “revelations” was not only aggravating, but boring. Perhaps the most frustrating example is the snail’s pace of revelation of the SECOND aspect of the novel – the myth of the Holy Grail which first appears on page 239 or a 454 page book.

I could site other examples, but I don’t want to include any plot spoilers here.

Thus, on my view, as thriller the book is not great. Too typical, moving too slowly, insulting the intelligence of the reading audience along the way.

Fortunately there is more than just a thriller here. This is a story of the Myth of the Holy Grail and in this second section I think Dan Brown is very clever and more successful than will be his main character, Robert Langdon when his own book is published. We have an author, Dan Brown, telling us of his fictional character, himself an author. Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of religion, an expert on religious symbolism. He has finished a book which is in the process of being published when the murder of Jacques Sauniere occurs.

If Brown makes any solid case on the Myth of the Holy Grail in this novel it is of the powers of the male dominated Catholic Church, and of the male dominated western culture to cover up this myth and to easily discredit or bury any attack on the status quo of male domination.

Perhaps one of the strongest cases Brown makes in the novel is just how successful these cover ups are and how hard it is to get the questions “out there” in a successful manner. I would like think of this pop novel might have been purposely chosen since it had a better chance of doing that job than a more scholarly work.

Langdon’s book will not do the job. It will be a scholar’s dream and inspire and motivate academics and fanatics, but it won’t shake the existing power structure. On the other hand, novelist Dan Brown is seeming to have a more powerful impact on getting this question raised than the bulk of Grail theorist in history.

What is this myth which Dan Brown lays before us. I think it is not a significant plot spoiler to lay it out. Langdon and another scholar of the Grail Legend, Leigh Teabing, conveniently have to explain it all to Sophia as we go along. This plot device – the need to keep Sophie informed – works quite well.

The central issue is this: Religions in general and especially in the areas today called the western world, and most past cultures had a central place for women. The concept of male and female, the need for the two to unite to procreate created an ideology of the union of the two being needed for the whole – the yin and the yang, the balance of nature was modeled in this duality and its unity.

On this view Jesus lived in that world and with this particular ideology, his own partner was Mary Magdalene. However, continues the myth or conspiracy theory, in the 3rd century the Constantinian Church and especially the Council of Nicea changed all that, demoting woman to her current secondary role in all aspects of life, and created the male dominated church and entire edifice of Western Culture.

The real Holy Grail is not a cup but a large set of documents which reveal this alleged historical plot and cultural world of the domination of women by men.

The reason I’ve argued above that novelist Dan Brown, with this fiction, has been more successful than the scholars are wont to be is that such documents have emerged in the Dead Sea scrolls and other “gospels” but none of these has had the power to shake the male dominated church or patterns of sexism in Western Culture. Now, however, in Brown’s tale, the power structure fears that the secret society which has for over 1000 years been in possession of these documents is about to reveal them. The desperate struggle for control of Western Culture is on, even a struggle for World Culture.


In the end, of course, Dan Brown is on the side of the Knights Templar and the Priory, the contemporary keepers of the documents.

The intriguing question Brown raises, answers but doesn’t at all develop – alas and alack – is: should the documents be revealed? The answer Brown implies in the novel is one he HAD to give is -- they won’t reveal them now, they will wait. Otherwise his novel would face a dilemma:

So he hints that what actually is more important than revealing documents exploding the divinity of Jesus myth and restoring the place of woman in religious hierarchy are the notions of hope, personal responsibility and choice. That is, he rejects the duality of our culture as being man verses woman and sees it more as authority verses individual liberty and personal responsibility.

Admittedly I’ve said more about this issue in these few paragraphs than Brown does in the novel, but I think the logic of the ending has to mean this.

Since I’m still in the “spoiler” section and those not having read the book shouldn’t be reading this part anyway, I do want to complain that Brown is not very good at creating suspense by giving a subtle hint at one place, then using that later on. He gives it away much too often after spoiling thus would-be suspense. I look at my notes and see this typical example:

The Royal Blood. Oh hell, now Brown will have Sophie be a direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Why would he be so clumsy as to give this away now?

Further critical notes that might be spoilers:

The device of all the puzzles which Jacques Sauniere uses in revealing the location of the Grail to Sophie and Robert is fun, but get tedious. If the stakes were so huge, as they were, then the risk of losing the Grail forever was simply too high to justify it. The only justification is to create suspense for the author’s readers.

And lastly on this issue, the use Jacques Sauniere makes of anagrams for Sophie makes sense. He trained her in them. But, when we read an ANCIENT text speaks of the rose and Langdon points out the anagram Eros, one has to blanch and ask – the ANCIENT text was making anagrams in modern English? Most curious.


In the end I enjoyed the novel. However, I found the thriller part of the novel to be weak. It moved too slowly and the author seemed not to respect even a basic concept of good sense in his readers.

But the story he tells of the Holy Grail is fascinating and gripped me. I suspect he made things seem more clear and obvious historically than they are, but he whet my appetite toward these ancient texts.

I did have to wonder:

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett