23.5 Degrees Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (Mania.com)
Review Date: Saturday, September 19, 2009
Now that most of us have read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, it's inevitably just a matter of weeks before the spin-off guide books are churned out. So, I thought it might be fun to have a quick look at some of the more obscure background references in Brown's plot in advance, just to get the ball rolling.
The book begins with a quote from The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P Hall, which indicates the direction of the storyline in more ways than one, as the shocking event that kicks off Robert Langdon's new adventure is the discovery of his dear Masonic friend's severed hand in the center of the Washington DC Capitol Building's Rotunda. The hand is tattooed with bizarre symbols which Langdon immediately identifies as indicating that the amputated appendage is being deployed as a mystical summons in the guise of the Hand of the Mysteries.
Conveniently, this arcane concept can also be found in The Secret Teachings of All Ages in chapter LXXIII, which you can read an excerpt from, along with viewing the relevant illustration, here. As Manly P Hall explains, "The original drawings from which this plate was taken is designated the hand of the philosopher which is extended to those who enter into the mysteries. When the disciple of the Great Art first beholds this hand, it is closed, and he must discover a method of opening it before the mysteries contained therein may be revealed."
As it happens, I have this book and know the material passibly well. However, although Professor Langdon scathingly instructs his students that, " 'Google' is not a synonym for 'research' ", not only is it possible for the reader to Google their way through the more obscure material in The Lost Symbol, but the characters themselves hypocritically seem manage to obtain instant access to computers and Blackberrys whenever their more laid-back investigative skills let them down. In fact, it speaks volumes that essential information is purloined from internet discussion forums and there is even a brief tutorial in the subplot which explains how to perform an Internet Protocol address reverse lookup.
Another main literary influence is revealed in a casual reference by Langdon on page 29 to the fact that the cornerstone of the US Capitol Building was laid at a specific date and time "because, among other things, the auspicious Caput Draconis was in Virgo."
Initiates will immediately recognize this as a reference from David Ovason's The Secret Zodiac of Washington DC (released in the US as The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital, where a large portion of Peter Solomon’s revelations in the Washington Monument can also be traced to.
In Secret Zodiac, Ovason explains that the auspicious Caput Draconis alignment with Virgo, which dictated the timing of the laying of the Capitol's cornerstone, had to do with the north node of the Moon's orbit intersecting with the ecliptic of the earth specifically at the moment when it aligns with Virgo’s alpha star, Spica. Ovason notes that Spica was used "for millennia by sailors [as a navigational aid], which possibly helps explain the epithet Stella Maris, which is sometimes translated as 'Star of the Sea'", thereby hinting at some of the celestial correspondences of the Washington DC layout.
However, for me, the Magic Squares were the most fun. As soon as the well-known and oft-used Freemason's Cipher on the Pyramid was decoded into a grid, it was immediately recognizable as the 4x4 Magic Square of Jupiter, although Brown’s clever use of the Albrecht Durer version added an extra layer of interest.
But there was an aspect of the Franklin Order-8 Square that wasn't explained, which has a curious relationship to the plot. The 8x8 Magic Square (which, as a chessboard, enables other kinds of encryption techniques) is also known as the Magic Square of Mercury. The Greek counterpart of Mercury is Hermes, whose head is carved on stone markers along the original Meridian line through Washington DC, which the United States government unsuccessfully tried to get recognized as the worldwide Zero Meridian in place of Greenwich. And this Meridian aligns with 16th Street where the Scottish Rite’s House of the Temple is located.
I was delighted to see the Washington National Cathedral, with its Moon Rock and Darth Vader gargoyle, used as a location. The inside joke is that the Gazebo on the grounds of the Bishop’s Garden was the secret meeting place of the 1980s DC performance art group known as The Belfast Wide Awake Club…
But perhaps the most personal coded reference in The Lost Symbol occurs in Chapter 44 (which is, itself, a numerological master number), when Robert Langdon calls his editor to get Katherine Solomon's phone number so that he could warn her that her life was in imminent danger. The ironic humor behind Jonas Faukman's pithy comments about the tardiness of Langdon's manuscript becomes apparent when one realizes that Jonas Faukman is an anagram of Jason Kaufman, Dan Brown's own real-life editor who must have hassled Brown mercilessly in much the same manner over Brown’s long delays with The Lost Symbol.
In fact, when we consider what Brown was going through during the writing of this book, taking into account the stress of an international lawsuit and the rumored complete re-write of the manuscript, one has to congratulate Brown on actually managing to finish the book at all. It must have been awfully tempting just to walk away.
But, from my point of view, this stress becomes apparent in the sometimes uneven pacing of the action, which drags in some places, and odd gaps in the information which, admittedly, probably aren’t apparent to those who don't know the background material well enough to notice.
Anyway, this should be enough to get you started... and I don't want to deprive the Lost Symbol bandwagon-jumpers the joy of earning an honest crust!
Mania Grade: B
Book: The Lost Symbol
Author: Dan Brown