Register Wednesday | January 20 | 2021

Holy Blood, Holy Riches

What, exactly, is at the heart of the Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial?

My first clue that the plagiarism trial of The Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown might be a load of irredeemable nonsense came as I peered discreetly over the shoulder of a Random House executive while riding the elevator down from Mr. Justice Peter Smith's tenth-floor London courtroom last week. On her scribble pad, at the top of the page, was the heading "settlement discussions," and the phone number of a luxury hotel around the corner from the High Court.

At this point, a conspiracy theorist might have jumped to conclusions. Certainly the plaintiffs must be eager to discuss a "settlement," which is a word lawyers use when, for reasons of tact, they don't want to say "gobs of money." But Random House? Don't they stand firmly behind Brown? Why would they want to discuss a settlement if they believe in his defense? Is it because Brown knows he really did plagiarize from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG, the court calls it) and expects the legal winds to blow against him? Or, given that Random House publishes both books, might this prove that the whole trial is a cock-up for publicity's sake?

Alas, probably not. My glimpse of that scribble was "proof" of Random House's duplicity only in the sense that HBHG is "proof" that Mary Magdalene, the world's most famous prostitute, was Jesus's wife and bore him a child whose descendants are today protected by a dark conspiracy. Which is to say that it is proof of nothing but a rich imagination.

But the hunt, as they say, was on.

Another clue that this whole trial is a farce-and that Brown, if not a literary genius, is at least an intellectually honest author-came during the testimony of his accuser, Michael Baigent. The slim and smartly dressed co-author of HBHG tried to explain to Random House's lawyer that the plot of The Da Vinci Code is based entirely on "the fruits" of his voluminous scholarship. "The Da Vinci Code uses the tips of the icebergs for the research that we did," Baigent added, mixing metaphors like he was mixing a cocktail. In the packed gallery, it occurred to me that fruit and iceberg-tips might make for a top-notch blender drink, but they hardly constitute a convincing case for copyright infringement.

The case, as outlined in legal documents and courtroom arguments, is not that The Da Vinci Code-a 40-million-copy bestseller, soon be a major Hollywood movie starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou-plagiarized even a sentence from HBHG, but rather that it appropriated HBHG's "central architecture," and thus its co-authors deserve a share of the profits.

The "architecture" is essentially this-Jesus may have survived his crucifixion and his pregnant "wife," Mary Magdalene, may have left the Holy Land soon after and landed near Marseille in the south of France, where their descendants may have intermarried with the Merovingian dynasty of French royalty in the fifth century. This secret, so the story goes, is potentially so devastating to the Catholic Church that a shadowy organization, the Priory of Sion, was established to protect this most holy of bloodlines.

The HBHG co-authors came to this dramatic conclusion by studying the life of a nineteenth-century rural French priest named Berenger Sauniere, who appears to have come into a vast quantity of money for no obvious reason. Before his death in the early twentieth century, Sauniere stashed something important (by implication, the Holy Grail-whatever that might be) in the countryside of Provence, near Rennes-le-Chateau.

Richard Leigh, another co-author, does not explicitly claim that their theory is true, but rather that it is plausible, based on the evidence he and Biagent have collected.

Leigh, who often wears sunglasses in court, is a ruddy-faced man with long dark hair circling out from a large bald spot, grey sideburns and a white handlebar moustache. From his courtroom demeanour-including whispered asides to his lawyer-he seemed a cheerful and relaxed man, with a packet of full-strength Marlboros at the ready in the breast pocket of his brown leather jacket.

Baigent, his co-author, seems entirely the opposite; clean-shaven, with a prominent aquiline nose and greying hair cut just above his well-tailored collar. On the stand he was calm and eloquent, but at other times he seemed tense about the proceedings. When asked politely at a lunch break how he was doing, he answered, "I can't say."

Neither appears particularly professorial, as one might expect for the authors of a book that draws together the history of the Crusades, Joan of Arc, King Arthur, the Fisher King, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the arcane symbols of pagan sun worship and just about every other major theme in the conspiratorial view of European history. In fact, a naive observer might mistake Baigent for a banker and Leigh for a biker. (A third co-author, Henry Lincoln, is not part of these proceedings.)

Brown himself took the stand himself this week to flatly deny plagiarism and to declare that neither he nor Blythe Brown, his wife and researcher (and not a witness in the trial), even possessed HBHGat the time his synopsis for The Da Vinci Code was completed in January 2001.

"If I had read it, I would have included it in the bibliography because I would have been eager to impress my publisher and share this knowledge," he testified this week.

Brown admits, however, that he gave several explicit nods to HBHG in The Da Vinci Code. One of his major characters, for instance, is called "Sauniere," and his villain is called "Sir Leigh Teabing," which is such a transparent anagram for Leigh and Baigent that it could not possibly be a coincidence. ("Dan Brown," it should be noted, is an anagram for "own brand," which, given the current state of his globalized career, seems somehow appropriate.) At one point in the The Da Vinci Code, Sir Leigh even mentions HBHG by name, pulling it from his bookshelf and observing that, "To my taste, the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis, but their fundamental premise is sound."

In the book, Teabing adds that HBHG"caused quite a stir" when it was published in 1982. He was right. Just as the locations in The Da Vinci Code are hot tourism destinations today, so too was Rennes-le-Chateau overrun with camera-toting conspiracy buffs in the 1980s.

The trouble for the court is what to make of this strange state of affairs in which an elaborate conspiracy theory-first presented as speculative history-eventually comes to life in a work of fiction, and a blockbuster at that. To further complicate matters, much of HBHG's "central architecture," as laid out in fifteen controversial bullet-points prepared for the purpose of this lawsuit, is not even purely original. In fact, as Random House's lawyer tried to establish, HBHG seems to owe a direct and significant debt to several earlier scholars; notably Henry Chadwick, the historian of the early Christian church.

A third clue that this plagiarism case deserves some healthy skepticism came from the thickly moustached Judge Smith who, at a particularly tense point in Baigent's cross-examination, bluntly asked him and the Random House lawyer, "So what is the [Holy] Grail, then?"

Now, it must be said, that anyone who can truly answer that timeless question must surely have better things to worry about than the meagre millions involved in a Hollywood film, even if that film does star Tom Hanks. But, as it turns out, HBHG and The Da Vinci Code offer different answers. On the stand, Baigent said his theory is that the Holy Grail is both Mary Magdalene herself (or at least her womb) and the bloodline of Jesus, which she carried and passed on to posterity. Here, Baigent alludes to what might be the most profound bit of wordplay in all history-that the term Sangrail, or "Holy Grail," might be a corruption of "sang real" or "royal blood"-that is, the blood of Jesus.

In The Da Vinci Code, however, Sir Leigh Teabing explains in "hushed tones" to the dashing Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon-and his attractive sidekick Sophie Neveu-that "the quest for the Holy Grail is literally the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene." At no point does he equate it with Jesus's bloodline. Call it hair-splitting, but when questing for the Grail, one cannot be too precise.

Random House even presented to the court a letter written by Baigent twenty years ago to a British PhD student of history, to the effect that Mary Magdalene's mythical journey to France-undeniably an important part of The Da Vinci Code's thesis about Christianity's abandonment of the "sacred feminine"-was almost peripheral to HBHG, which is primarily about the Priory of Sion. "One cannot lean too much upon such legends, and that is why we only mention it briefly on odd occasions," he wrote.

Random House's lawyer said this letter represented Baigent's view of the Mary Magdalene myth, "untainted by your desire to bring this litigation." In other words, there is nothing very "central" about that bit of allegedly stolen architecture.

In order to protect freedom of expression for scholars and writers, copyright law begins with the premise that facts cannot be copyrighted, only their expression. In this case, the crucial facts-the ones that set HBHG apart from academic histories of the same topics-are not really facts at all but rather wild conspiracy theories, some of which also figure more or less in The Da Vinci Code.

They also figure, it must be noted, in an upcoming gay pornography film, The Da Vinci Load, in which the great artist's sperm is found dried up in his paintings and is discovered to have supernatural powers. No one, not even Brown, has accused The Da Vinci Load's producers of intellectual dishonesty-it is slated for release on May 19, the same day as the Tom Hanks movie. As Judge Smith deliberates in the matter of Baigent and Leigh vs. Random House, it is a shame he won't have the luxury of watching it. It might have reminded him that plagiarism and inspiration are very different things.

Joseph Brean hasn't forgotten about the sacred feminine. He can be reached at [email protected]