Comparing Brown and Eco: Knights Templar in the Da Vinci Code and Foucault's Pendulum
Schaffrath, Stephan, The Midwest Quarterly
This essay seeks to critically compare two seemingly incomparable novels: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Brown's novel is a popular bestseller and a fast-paced, plot-driven mystery tale, a quick read intended for mass consumption. Eco's work, on the other hand, invites its readers on an erudite and satirical journey that is difficult to appreciate by those with little or no background in occidental and occult history. These two novels, which by most accounts would be placed on opposite ends of the spectrum of what constitutes haute literature, both contribute in meaningful and significant ways to the general discourse on theories about the Knights Templar, especially in regard to hypotheses regarding conspiracies. As works of fiction, neither contributes much in the way of factual information. However, each novel in its own way--serves the pursuit of learning. Brown's novel does so by reaching millions of people with his questions about some of the fundamental principles on which occidental identity rests, whereas Eco's novel informs readers of the complexity of and the epistemological hazards posed by a topic worth exploring.
The Da Vinci Code does not constitute a literary masterpiece, at least not in the traditional sense of a meaningful exploration of the human condition, as so many celebrated works of the slowly evolving literary canon do. Nor is this an example of an avant-garde prose experiment, in the vein of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It is a rather accessible book that, despite its respectable length, lends itself to a quick read. The Da Vinci Code is a fast-paced mystery novel that would never have become the subject of controversy had it not been for the "heretical" nature of its plot that suggests among other things that Jesus Christ had fathered offspring. The Knights Templar are strewn into the mix as alleged erstwhile protectors of said offspring. This is the nexus where Brown's novel begins to connect to Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, a highly "literary" novel that artfully beguiles its readers with erudite wit and many a good dose of dramatic misery, including the horrific deaths of two of its three main characters and the impending demise of the third, the narrator himself.
Both novels engage the subject of conspiracies involving the Knights Templar or--more precisely--people who claim to be the proper heirs of this once military order. Although the two authors' novelistic approaches to this topic are different, I intent to show that both works of fiction in the end contribute to the non-fiction discourse of Knights Templar research. The focus here shall be less on the traditional literary value of either of these novels, but rather on their contributions to the world of philosophy in its original sense, the love and pursuit of truth and knowledge, specifically here the study of the Knights Templar. Eco, as a celebrated semiotics expert and academic novelist, naturally caters to the academically minded readers' appetite for cerebral analyses of how a text conveys meaning overtly and in between the lines. With Foucault's Pendulum, he embeds a sophisticated discourse that questions the basic veracity of any occult hypothesis into the framework of an enjoyable work of fiction. What Eco achieves in terms of quality of novel-embedded discourse, Brown makes up for by the size of his readership and his novel's accessibility. Ultimately both works of fiction nevertheless contribute to the same goal: the popularization and perhaps even democratization of Knights Templar discourse.
With Dan Brown's widely read and fiercely debated The Da Vinci Code, the general public has entered a world of what had been until recently mostly a subculture of discourse, a community of amateur scholars and esoteric aficionados who are fascinated by anything that involves the histories and mysteries surrounding the Knights Templar. Although the connection to the Knights Templar is little more than a subplot in The Da Vinci Code, it serves as an important device of suspension of disbelief in this work of fiction as it seeks to historically ground a fictitious story by means of documented history, albeit one that is still not completely understood by scholars today. …