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The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence
by Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey
Loyola Press, 2006
(241 pages, $15.95, paperback)
reviewed by Robert P. Lockwood
In the cavalcade of idiocy that passes through the popular culture, nothing has had more staying power in recent years than The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s hatchet job on the legend of the Holy Grail. Listed on the New York Times bestseller list for approximately 42,000 weeks, it was made into an excruciatingly dull but popular movie. In the end, everybody got rich, which is all that really matters.
A host of truly awful books followed, including one that will surely become a camp classic as the years go by, The Third Secret, by Steven Berry. The Plan 9 from Outer Space of modern American fiction, Berry’s book purportedly reveals the hidden Third Secret of Fatima, in which the Blessed Mother informs us that she is pro-abortion, hates celibacy, begs us to contracept with whatever device is convenient, and, for good measure, endorses gay marriage.
The unifying theme of Dan Brown and his fellow travelers—and perhaps the source of their popularity—is that there is a vast hidden knowledge out there and a centuries-long conspiracy by dark powers to keep you, the reader, from knowing it. The best part is that this knowledge, once discovered, demands nothing. No conversion necessary, no amending of one’s life required.
Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey see a positive note in all this. In The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence, they see the resurgence of interest in medieval mysticism reflected in the popularity of Dan Brown’s use of the Holy Grail as another proof that the “rationalist fads of the twentieth century are extinct or dying, and religion is stronger than ever.”
Bailey, a Lutheran, is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Aquilina, a Catholic, is the vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and author of several books on the early Church (and a frequent contributor to Touchstone).
In The Grail Code, the authors trace the roots of the Holy Grail legend back to early Welsh ballads, as well as to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain from the 1100s. Geoffrey resurrected for a new audience tales of King Arthur of Roman Britain, just as Europe was on the cusp of a revival of literacy and letters.
The authors focus on Chrétien de Troyes’s Story of the Grail from the twelfth century and the great Vulgate Cycle of stories attributed to “Walter Map” in the thirteenth century. Most of the accumulated elements of the legend that have passed into common cultural understanding—the stories of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain, the search for the Holy Grail, the Round Table and its Knights, the destruction of the lost paradise of Camelot—draw on the “Walter Map” books.
What the authors recapture in The Grail Code is that the legend of the Holy Grail is a medieval allegory dealing with much more than a tragic love story, heroic battles, and the glories of knighthood. The story is the quest for something greater than ourselves, a pilgrimage “about longing and desire—our longing for the unattainable, and our burning desire to attain it anyway.” It is about the Eucharist and the union with God it brings.
Brown’s interpretation of the legend of the Holy Grail—that the Grail is the physical bloodline of Jesus Christ traced back through Mary Magdalene—is nonsense. But the universal appeal of the allegorical meaning of the actual Grail stories—of conversion and the Real Presence of God-with-Us—is attributable to “that unfulfilled longing for the divine that all of us feel, even when we refuse to be led to the only thing that could possibly fulfill it.”
The Grail Code reads like its own mystery novel. The legends of the Grail grew out of the mists of early Christian England but came to life in France with the rise of medieval civilization.
It is here that Aquilina and Bailey make their essential case for the wisdom of the Grail legend. Rather than offering the “revived pagan mythology, anti-Christian propaganda, swashbuckling adventure,” and lurid bloodlines that Dan Brown created, the “whole purpose of seeking the Grail is usually to change the seeker’s life.”
The authors detail the consummate legend of the Grail as told in the “Walter Map” Vulgate Cycle, which focuses on Lancelot. The climax of the story is when the true Holy Grail is revealed in the mystery of the Eucharist, revealing that Christ can only be found, not in heroic quests, but in the repentance and conversion Lancelot achieves at the very end of his pilgrimage.
They trace the various transformations of the Grail legend through the growth of rationalism and skepticism, and the rise and fall of Eucharistic piety. The mysticism and Eucharistic piety of the Grail legends give way to what the authors see as an “intellectual impatience: an unwillingness to trifle with anything that could not be thought of in concrete terms. . . . A world of pure reason had no room for tales of the Holy Grail, because it had no room for miracles.”
The legend of Arthur was revived in the nineteenth century by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his popular Idylls of the King, with the Holy Grail now the actual cup of the Last Supper, but, in keeping with the Anglican theology of his day, stripped of its Eucharistic imagery and devotion. Finally, in the twentieth century, the Grail becomes, under Hitler’s Nazi fanaticism, a symbol of the quest for the pure Aryan bloodline; and Himmler and the SS, who believed in a real historical cup with magical powers, actually pursued archaeological digs to find it.
Bringing the legend of the Holy Grail to the present, Aquilina and Bailey show how the strange conspiracy theory of The Da Vinci Code “reject[s] what for the medieval authors was the central point of the Holy Grail story: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
The Real Story
Aquilina and Bailey have recaptured the essence of the Grail legend with a concise and powerful book that is a perfect antidote for your Aunt Mabel who managed to get herself wrapped up in Dan Brown’s little fantasy, and for your cousin Wilbur who is always looking for arcane and esoteric knowledge. Rather than offering a detailed refutation of Brown’s meat-ax approach—these exist by the score—Aquilina and Bailey present the compelling real story of the Holy Grail: a medieval tale of sin, pilgrimage, conversion, repentance, and the Real Presence of God-with-Us.
It could make a good movie.
The St. Paul Center can be found at www.salvationhistory.com. Christopher Bailey hosts a weblog called The Grail Code (www.grailcode.com).