Historical fiction is a genre of literature in which imaginary characters live within the realistic boundaries of known facts. In her class syllabus Using Historical Fiction In The History Classroom, Sarah K. Herz writes:
The author of historical fiction must blend historical facts with imagination and creative style to master his art. He must be a master of the past so as to portray accurately ideas, attitudes, tendencies, and themes and weave his story—accurate in all its details—into the thematic materials. . . . Historians and novelists often differ in their points of view about the historical novel and its purpose. However, both agree that the writer of historical fiction must not distort past reality; the writer must not manipulate historical facts to make the novel more interesting or exciting (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute).
By this definition, The Da Vinci Code would need to develop its plot with historical integrity. When challenged on his facts, the author cannot rightfully say, “It’s only a novel.” Such positioning places the reader in a schizophrenic world of fact and fiction.
Dan Brown writes an “alternative history” without giving the reader the ability to see where his facts begin and end. Literary scholars see the difference; the average reader may not.
Let’s look at how the “what if” history of The Da Vinci Code plays out with elements that are alleged to be factual.
Are the book’s claims about the Holy Grail, the Priory of Sion, and the Knights Templar historical?
According to The Da Vinci Code, the legendary Holy Grail is not the chalice used at the Last Supper of Christ. Instead, Brown uses his “experts” to suggest that the real Holy Grail is a person, Mary Magdalene, who carried the bloodline of Jesus Christ by having His child. The book also treats as fact the existence of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which for centuries has kept the secret of Jesus’ relationship to Mary. Mary Magdalene, according to this bestselling novel, represents the feminine aspect of God (the “divine feminine”)— loved by Jesus but denied by the church for hundreds of years.
The Knights Templar are also included as protectors of the secret but were all but wiped out by the church.
The Holy Grail and the Priory of Sion are only two of the many “facts” that need to be subjected to a historical “reality check.” The Holy Grail is a medieval legend about the cup of the Last Supper. The first appearance of the term “Holy Grail” was in 1170 in Perceval, a romantic writing about the legend of King Arthur and his kingdom of Camelot. When Brown suggests that the Holy Grail is not a cup but actually Mary Magdalene who carried on Jesus’ bloodline by having His child, he alters an existing legend about the historical “cup of Christ” and uses it to advance fictional claims about Jesus and Mary.
The Priory of Sion also has a basis in fact, but not in the sense that Brown portrays it. The title has been used three different times. It was first a monastic order founded in Jerusalem in 1100 that was absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617.
The second and third Priory of Sion were each under the leadership of Pierre Plantard (1920–2000), an anti-Semitic Frenchman who went to jail in 1953 for fraud. In 1954, Plantard formed a group called the Priory of Sion to help those in need of low-cost housing. The group dissolved in 1957. Then in the 1960s and 70s he created a series of forged documents to “prove” the existence of a bloodline descending from Jesus and Mary through the kings of France to himself (claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne). He and his associates called themselves the Priory of Sion and deposited these documents in libraries all over France, including the National Library.
In 1993, however, Plantard admitted under oath to a French judge that he had fabricated all the documents relating to the Priory of Sion. The judge issued him a severe warning and dismissed him as a harmless crank (www.priory-of-sion.com).
The Knights Templar are based in history but, once again, not as portrayed in The Da Vinci Code.They were founded in 1118 as a military religious order, but they did not become wealthy, as alleged in the novel, by discovering the secret of the Holy Grail. And there is no evidence that they were annihilated for having knowledge of it.
Were Da Vinci and Isaac Newton members of the Priory of Sion? The significance of the Priory of Sion is bolstered in the plotline of The Da Vinci Code by claiming a little-known connection with such geniuses as Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton. Once again, however, Brown bases these assertions on one of Plantard’s forged documents called Les Dossiers Secrets d’Henri Lobineau (The Secret Records Of Henri Lobineau). Even though a French judge got Plantard to admit his hoax, Dan Brown uses these “secret records” as if they were legitimate.
These facts are important to readers of The Da Vinci Code. If there is no credible evidence that Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton were secretly involved in the Priory of Sion, and if there is only fraudulent evidence that the Priory of Sion was formed to keep “the secret of Mary Magdalene,” other factual claims of The Da Vinci Code also need to be carefully looked at.
Did Da Vinci leave clues to his beliefs hidden in his art?
Dan Brown’s main characters—Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu, and Leigh Teabing—are experts at deciphering codes and interpreting symbols. This is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. The book accurately points out that Leonardo was known to have used reverse text (which could be read with a mirror) for some of his “progressive theories on astronomy, geology, archaeology, and hydrology” (p.300). Yet, his “secrets” were probably more scientific than religious. Leonardo was among the Renaissance scientists who had to be careful not to raise suspicion that their theories were challenging established church doctrine on creation.
Brown, however, used the fact of Da Vinci’s reverse-style scientific essays to suggest that Leonardo also left clues in his artwork about secret religious beliefs, which if known would have changed the public’s acceptance of his work. In The Da Vinci Code, the great artist is portrayed as a goddess worshiper who left clues in his artwork to let us know that his views of Christ were not in line with the teachings of the church.
But how believable is this claim? Art critics who have no interest in defending the church have rejected the notion. Authorities in the art world believe that the “hidden clues” to Leonardo’s secret faith exist only in the imagination of those looking to make a conspiracy theory plausible (see: Bruce Boucher, “Does The Da Vinci Code Crack Leonardo?” The New York Times, 8/3/03; Sian Gibby, “Mrs. God,” Slate, 11/3/03).
Is the book’s portrayal of the Catholic organization known as Opus Dei accurate?
Early in The Da Vinci Code, a “tortured soul” by the name of Silas is introduced as the faithful assassin doing “the work of the Lord.” Silas turns out to be a member of Opus Dei, complete with a spiked belt for self-mortification and a willingness to silence (murder) all enemies of the secret society.
Brown begins his book by stating as fact: “The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.”
Again, The Da Vinci Code alleges to have uncovered “secrets” about the church. The truth is that the real Opus Dei is a Roman C atholic lay organization that emphasizes piety and good works. Its founder Josemaria Escriva was born in Bab astros, Spain, in 1902 and created the Work (or Opus Dei, “work of God,” as it would later be known) to empower lay people, instead of focusing on the spirituality of clergy.
The characteristics of Opus Dei are self-denial and sacrificial good works within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet its portrayal in The Da Vinci Code as existing to suppress documents of the Priory of Sion is pure fabrication. As we have already noted (pp.9-11), the claim that the Priory of Sion exists to keep the secret of the relationship between Jesus and Mary is without merit or evidence.