|Volume LVII||January 2010||Number 1|
Finding Treasure in "The Lost Symbol"
by P.J. Roup, District Deputy Grand Master for Masonic District 54
In late September, "The Lost Symbol," Dan Brown's long awaited follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code," came to rest briefly on bookstore shelves. I say briefly because it sold more than one million copies in the first 24 hours. Prior to that day, rumors that our beloved fraternity may figure prominently into the plot had some within our ranks concerned and/or intrigued. Could one who is not a Mason write a believable book about the Craft? Would we be treated fairly? Would the conspiracy theorists cite this novel as fact like some did after the release of "The Da Vinci Code?" As an aside, I never understood the uproar over "The Da Vinci Code" since the dust jacket (at least mine) has the words "A Novel" clearly printed on it.
"The Lost Symbol" opens in The House of the Temple in Washington, D.C., where its antagonist is being initiated into "the highest echelon" of the fraternity. His motives aren't known, but he thinks to himself, "Soon you will lose everything you hold most dear." This is the first of Brown's many masterfully orchestrated cliffhangers and one of the things that makes this book so difficult to put down. Nearly every one of its relatively short chapters leaves the reader with an urgent need to resolve something. That something is rarely resolved in the next chapter. Rather, the reader is left hanging again and anxious about something else.
As the plot unfolds, the reader accompanies Robert Langdon, noted Harvard symbologist and the protagonist of two of Brown's previous novels, "Angels and Demons" and "The Da Vinci Code," through Washington, D.C. - from the Capitol building to the Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Va. - with many stops in between. Each setting is described in such detail that the reader may sometimes feel he is actually there with the characters. Brown's description of art - including "The Apotheosis of Washington" - is as close as you can come to a forgery with the written word.
Through the nearly limitless knowledge of Robert Langdon, we learn of the supposed relationships between the occult, astrology, the founding fathers, the Egyptian mysteries and Freemasonry. Though some of the connections are dubious, it is obvious that Brown conducted meticulous research prior to penning "The Lost Symbol."
Why do many people find Dan Brown's novels so fascinating? Part of his genius lies in his ability to intertwine what in reality are disparate objects, entities, locations and sciences like Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia I," the Freemasons, Washington, D.C., and the little-known science of noetics. The result is a tale that makes the reader, even if only briefly, scratch his head and wonder how he could have missed such obvious connections.
It is precisely because so many of the locations and organizations in the book are familiar to the reader that he can easily suspend his disbelief - just a little - and see plausible connections in the otherwise unrelated.
Does the capstone of the Washington Monument weigh precisely 3,300 pounds? I'm not sure. Even if that is the case, does it prove a Masonic conspiracy? Doubtful, since 33 and 3,300 are completely different numbers. Still, Brown takes his fair share of poetic license in the book, creating locations and events to help advance the plot. It doesn't detract from the story. Again, it is a novel, so one should expect some things to be concocted from scratch.
If the book has one major flaw, it would be that it is quite formulaic. Brown draws on what has worked in the past: Exotic but familiar location? Check. Robert Langdon unwittingly duped into becoming involved in the plot? Check. Attractive, intelligent woman to accompany him on the adventures? Check. Why not? It has worked before and it will work again, as long as Brown is able to connect all the dots to the satisfaction of his readers, which he was able to do in this volume with great deftness.
Back to our own cliffhanger: How did the Masons fare in the book? Actually, we receive extremely fair treatment from Brown. Through Robert Langdon, the reader is assured we are not a religion. When a student calls the Masons a "freaky cult" because of our initiation rites, he replies, "Don't tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh," - an allusion to Sunday Communion beneath the cross.
Later, he notes that, "Masonic initiations were startling because they were meant to be transformative. Masonic vows were unforgiving because they were meant to be reminders that man's honor and his 'word' were all he could take from this world. Masonic teachings were arcane because they were meant to be universal . . . taught through a common language of symbols and metaphors that transcended religions, cultures and races . . ." Most of the worn objections and criticisms that have been hurled our way over the years are adroitly deflected or dismissed by Langdon. All in all, the fraternity is treated most fairly.
Masons and non-Masons alike can enjoy this book. As a Mason, you may want to consider reading it so that the next time someone sees your ring and starts a conversation with "Hey, I just read 'The Lost Symbol' and was wondering . . ." you will have at least some common ground to begin a conversation about what it really means to be a member of the world's greatest fraternity.
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