Fact or Fiction? Part 3 (Dan Brown)

Bringing fiction to life with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code

Something marvelous happened in 2003: the plot of a 15-year old novel became reality.

In 1988, Umberto Eco published Foucault’s Pendulum, in which three bored editors at a Milan publishing house—Jacopo Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi—come up with the idea of a global conspiracy that would allow the descendants of the Knights Templar to take over the world at the end of the millennium.

Their game begins with the accidental spilling on the floor of a large pile of folders. The three editors decide to scramble together phrases and notions extracted from those pages, feed them to Abulafia, their computer, and select the most interesting combinations. The main idea behind Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) is that something starting as a random combination of information, given the right attention, could go on to break out and live its own life, not only independently of the will of its creators, but sometimes devouring those creators in the process.

The next morning, Belbo was radiant. “It works,” he said. “It works beyond anything we could have hoped for.” He handed us the printout.


The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée

It logically follows


The Druids venerated black virgins


Simon Magus identifies Sophia as a prostitute of Tyre

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

The Merovingians proclaim themselves kings by divine right

The Templars have something to do with everything


“A bit obscure,” Diotallevi said.

“Because you don’t see the connections. And you don’t give due importance to the question that recurs twice: Who was married at the feast of Cana? Repetitions are magic keys. Of course, I’ve compiled; but compiling the truth is the initiate’s right. Here is my interpretation: Jesus was not crucified, and for that reason the Templars denied the Crucifix. The legend of Joseph of Arimathea covers a deeper truth: Jesus, not the Grail, landed in France, among the Cabalists of Provence. Jesus is the metaphor of the King of the World, the true founder of the Rosicrucians. And who landed with Jesus? His wife. In the Gospels why aren’t we told who was married at Cana? It was the wedding of Jesus, and it was a wedding that could not be discussed, because the bride was a public sinner, Mary Magdalene. That’s why, ever since, all the Illuminati from Simon Magus to Postel seek the principle of eternal feminine in a brothel. And Jesus, meanwhile, was the founder of the royal line of France.” (p. 376)

Romanian translation (2004)

Romanian translation (2004)

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it is the main idea behind Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code published in 2003. In Umberto Eco’s book (1988), this scenario involving Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the Templars is the fiction that bleeds into reality. Dan Brown managed to make millions of people believe this fiction is reality. How did he manage that?

First of all, this conspiracy theory was not Dan Brown’s, not even Umberto Eco’s. The Da Vinci Code was based on a 1982 nonfiction book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, which was a bestseller in its time and has been discredited since. The main idea in Dan Brown’s book has been tried before and proved to be controversial and viable, even though, as Laura Miller shows in her article “The Da Vinci crock” on Salon.com (December 29, 2004) it’s based on bogus history and fraudulent claims made by fame-seekers.

After he cleverly begins his novel with a list entitled “Fact:” about two secret societies called The Priory of Sion and Opus Dei, Dan Brown reinforces the truthiness of his novel by adding that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” From here on, the reader is free to take the novel as more than a work of fiction, to seek deeper meanings behind the thesis Brown puts forward, not knowing where to stop with the assumptions of truth.The stage is set now for fiction to be taken as fact by those readers who are not interested necessarily in the novel’s plot, but in the “truth” behind the plot. People consider Brown’s book a key that they can use to get to real-life secrets.

In her article, Laura Miller quotes the works of a few scholars who even wrote books trying to expose the fabrications behind The Da Vinci Code. But to try to debunk the claims of this novel has become an endless, fruitless task. The “truth” in Holy Blood, Holy Grail has received a second life through Dan Brown’s novel, its own global life, its own followers who have invested too much time and energy and pride in believing it to give up on it now.

In Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), Umberto Eco highlights the psychological mechanisms Dan Brown takes advantage of in 2003 in order to sell his book. Jacopo Belbo, one of the characters in Eco’s novel, explains:

Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect. (p. 378)

(…) our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until we did it automatically, out of habit. I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing. (p. 467)

In the computer-generated compilation in Eco’s novel quoted above, every line is true in itself, just as Brown’s story is based on bits of true information. As Casaubon explains in Foucault’s Pendulum:

“Nevertheless, our story was plausible, rational, because it was backed by facts, it was true—as Belbo said, true as the Bible.” (p. 493).

Romanian translation of Angels and Demons

Romanian translation of Angels and Demons (2006)

People then find meanings that they long for in that interpretation. Their wanting it to be true turns it into reality. Dan Brown makes sure that the reader sees what he or she wants in his text and the text validates the reader’s premises. But if pressed on the bogus history and the false associations in his novel, Dan Brown can always fall back on the argument that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. In Lia’s words in Foucault’s Pendulum, Dan Brown “invented hair oil.”

Umberto Eco wrote a novel in which fiction is taken as fact with tragic consequences. Dan Brown seems like a character in Umberto Eco’s novel, except that he is real and the consequences of The Da Vinci Code being taken seriously are only 200 million copies or more sold in 50 countries or more, and The Da Vinci Code and its prequel, Angels and Demons, adapted into blockbuster movies. Not so tragic, especially for Dan Brown.

Next: What if? The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Dennis R. MacDonald.

Previous: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and the rewriting of history.

8 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction? Part 3 (Dan Brown)

  1. Hi Roxana
    I anticipated the third post of your thread and I was not disappointed. Nice work.
    I love the way you parse the snake oil peddlers and the philosophers.
    It reminded me of Mark Twains 1905 letter to a snake oil salesman pasted below.
    And yet folks continue to buy the snake oil.

    Letter from Mark Twain to a snake oil peddler:
    “You, sir, are the scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link”

    Nov. 20. 1905
    J. H. Todd
    1212 Webster St.
    San Francisco, Cal.

    Dear Sir,

    … The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

    Adieu, adieu, adieu!

    Mark Twain

    • There’s something profoundly human about buying the snake oil. A belief in the possibility of something better. I find the sellers to be the culpable ones. And the handshake between buyer and seller fascinating and maddening.
      Thanks for posting Mark Twain’s letter here, Max. I love his turn of phrase and his rhethorical devices.

  2. We humans will always look for the interpretations that suit our beliefs and dogma, and if they don’t fit, we will twist and bend until they do, truth be damned. So sad, but so true.

  3. Roxana: Another astounding compilation on your long journey into the interstices between history and fiction, truth and lie. At the end of it you’re working a rich vein about the human mind. There, once an event (a novel) is experienced, it shares the same space as any other event (history) and can be treated on an equal basis. My mother went to the store. On Battlestar Galactica, the cylons nuke Caprica. Stephane Lupasco wrote a lot about truth, lie, and untruth. You are in good company. Our brain with its mind is a gullible but beautiful artifact of evolution. I’m happy that you continue to explore.

    • I’ve read a few books about the psychology of believing, most recently the fascinating “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths” by Michael Shermer, but that doesn’t make me any smarter. I’m still not able (by design) to recognize my biases, but I try to remember the way the brain works when the characters in my novel act. Not sure how good I am at that either.

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