This review in two parts, one from a lay reader perspective, and one from a Masonic perspective.
The Masonic perspective can be found here.
Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, reminded me of a parable. A parable is a story embellished with perhaps some grains of reality to convey a broader idea of truth. Dan Brown in his new book, The Lost Symbol, has artfully woven an update of an ancient parable into a modern suspense novel that features prominently the one group that should be most apt to see the connection, the Freemasons. Freemasonry, a fraternity “veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”, is central to the plot under pinning’s, but by its end, merely the back drop by which the modern parable is played out.
Brown, at his finest, is a genius at writing parables. The The Da Vinci Code is a prime example, the telling of the story of the Christ, but not as a divine emanation of God, but rather a mortal man who walked the earth like the rest of us. Brown’s novel was a work of fiction then, just as it is now with his release of the The Lost Symbol. But artfully, he weaves in elements of reality and fact, so as to set his stage onto which the story unfolds, perhaps to give it a greater link into reality, or to simply paint enough real figures into the work so the less (or not real) elements blend in to diffuse with the rest. The more believable the story, the more real it feels for the reader.
In his latest book, The Lost Symbol, Brown brings the story immediately to your feet, sweeping the reader into the air with anti-hero Robert Langdon. These first steps, however are only after a mysterious initiation with libations from a skull. Better to start the mysterious early. With this rapid start, and dubious ceremony, Brown wastes no time in introducing the cast of players and introducing suspicions of who is and who isn’t to be trusted. It works for Brown’s novels; they are after all suspense thrillers. With our cast in place, the story then begins to unfold at whip shot pace.
I do wonder if the book was conceived on a walking tour of Washington, as in the unfolding pages, the actions and activities seem to be bullet points on a map of D.C. rather than more well thought out (or conceived) stages. It seems most of Langdon’s ah-ha moments happen in the less important rooms of these Washington landmarks. Sub sub basements, kitchens, and church offices hardly seem as sexy as the Vatican library, but their mundane setting is really the same places all of us have time to reflect and think in our day to day life. This secondary settings may be a clever illusion to the importance of the idea of discover of the inner sanctum to which we each must travel for our own discoveries, but again, this is Dan brown, and he is writing about the allegorical and symbolic Masons, so you must treat the text with just as much symbolic verve. And brown’s use of these locations give clues to the broader idea of the story too, the chamber of reflection in the U.S. Capitol (inner journey), the Library of Congress (learning, knowledge), and the National Cathedral (where church and state meet).
Science plays an interesting role in this book too, and with another Masonic twist. The nascent field of Noetic Sciences features large here, but not in a first person the reason de etre way, but in a “this is similar to this” allegorical way. Religious mysticism (of all religions) is really at the core of this new science, but besides being an early plot point and step stone to link Freemasonry, mysticism, and Noetic Sciences, the new science field really doesn’t come into play, in the same way it did in Angels and Demons. It was, almost, another symbolic back drop to the whole story, interesting, and connective, but not vital, not the story itself.
As I mentioned, this review will be split in two, and the goal of the 2nd is to look more at the Masonic connections and connotations. But as the book itself was about Freemasonry, it is important to note that Brown’s treatment of Masonry was very tender, almost to much so. Early on, Brown goes to GREAT lengths to debunk and say what Freemasonry isn’t, covering the “is masonry a religion” issue, and even guffawing at the notion of secret geometric grids in the streets of Washington. Even the infamous MASON on the great seal on the back of the 1 dollar bill gets a quick walk on, only to of been used as a dodge for something else. Brown really did write this book with the fate of Freemasonry in mind, in parts almost writing as if he were creating one of our own brochures (perhaps off which he copied his passage) saying very strongly in his main character’s voice “In this age when different cultures are killing each other over whose definition of God is better, one could say the Masonic tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable.” Brown does go out of his way to weave in all manner of Hermetic, Gnostic, Rosicrucian, and Cabalistic ideas into the offering, but not in a way to dominate the reader into submission of belief, but to paint the picture that the ideas of Freemasonry, in their age and wisdom, are not wholly a Judeo-Christian construct, more on that in a bit in part 2.
Like past Brown novels, the story soon out paces the stage settings and takes over as a thriller and this book is no different. Its pace reaching a fever pitch of intrigue, manipulation, and murder, while embroiled in the ancient mystery of a “Masonic pyramid”. There are a few gasp moments for the reader, and plot spins that I didn’t see coming until hit square in the face by them. And the story winds out with a tragic dilemma, which brings me back to the idea that the story itself was a modern retelling of an ancient parable.
:: spoiler alert::
Caravaggio (1573-1610) The Sacrifice of Isaac
The parable I mention is from the bible. In that sacred text, very early in Genesis (chapter 22 to be exact) Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a show of his allegiance to his faith in God. In that past parable, the test of faith is tremendous as the eldest born of Abraham is the greatest sacrifice that he can give, and give he does, willing at the command of God. In the very last seconds, Abraham is spared, his faith proven, and a ram is substituted for his son. In the climax of The Lost Symbol, that same test of faith is presented, but for a different outcome. As Abraham was to be the one giving sacrifice, the protagonist of the story, Peter Solomon is in that Abrahamic position, and knowing what the consequences were for the sacrifice he was forced to make, he still chose to not make that sacrifice, choosing to follow his heart. Symbolically, in a book about allegory and symbol, it stuck me that the story was alluding to a transition from one of Abraham’s blind faith (as an external salvation, doctrinal, dogmatic, and absolute), to man believing in the faith within us, that by our acts and intentions we were communing with the divine, which is a Gnostic outlook that sacrifice, in totality, is not necessary and in the end destructive.
The reason for this conclusion seems to me to be based in the preceding pages as repeatedly the ideas of the Hermetic law were repeated and stressed (As Above, So Below) and the bomb of the protagonist was not one of physical destruction, but of ideological chaos. To sacrifice the son would still bring chaos, absolute destruction, personally and publically.
The story wraps up and all the loose ends become tied in the neat bows that Brown manages to make following so many leads and loose ends. But the way in which the book reached its crescendo, not in a fiery explosion or an earth shattering revelation of biblical purport, was lack luster. The inclusion of the CIA, the cavalcade of 33rd degree masons and publicity of the who’s-who of Washington seemed to me an interesting plot point, but hardly reason to blow up historical property, and murder several innocent bystanders, but then, this is a suspense novel, and this YouTubian plot device was just as much a stage setting as the Masons themselves (twitter even got a mention to put the story in a contemporary but soon to be outdated setting). Really, would the world be so traumatized to see people, who are already pretty open about being Masons, being Masons?
In the end, it was a good book, fun, flighty, suspenseful, with a few a-ha and gasp moments. Was it worth the 5 year wait, I’ll let you be the judge, but it was a nice testament to Freemasonry, and very tasteful in its portrayal of the ancient and honorable fraternity, to which I say thank you to Dan Brown. I give the book 7.5 out of 10 stars, and can say that I enjoyed reading it, and I think that you will too.
For those who read the book, but are wondering what Freemasonry is about, I recommend this Free E-book “What is Freemasonry?.”