The Code War

ON MONDAY, the High Court in London will hear a lawsuit which will either make publishing history or be dismissed as a storm in a teacup.

It is more than 24 years now since The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail first saw the light of day. Its subject matter was an alleged conspiracy by the Catholic Church to suppress the accidental discoveries of the priest of a tiny mountain church in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Research undertaken revealed a shocking, if somewhat fantastical, web of intrigue involving a hypothetical bloodline of Jesus Christ through Mary Magdalene, the Merovingian Royal dynasty of Europe, and a secretive conspiratorial brotherhood linked to the 13th century Order of the Knights Templar and known as the Prieur de Sion. On publication, the book caused outrage and instantly became an international best-seller.

The collaboration between the book's three authors began in 1975. Henry Lincoln is a London-born actor and script writer who under his real name of Henry Soskin wrote scripts for the television series Z Cars and appeared in episodes of the 1960s television series The Avengers. Back in the 1970s, he was lecturing at a summer school when he met Richard Leigh, an American novelist and short-story writer. Leigh introduced him to Michael Baigant, a New Zealand-born psychology graduate who had recently abandoned a career in photo-journalism for a film project on the Knights Templar.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The three writers soon discovered a shared obsession with historical and esoteric mysticism, and the collaboration began. Lincoln claims his inspiration was drawn from a non-fiction paperback, Le Trsor Moudit, by French writer Grard de Sde, thus leading to a string of further publications relating to the Catholic priest Brenger Saunier and his church of Rennes-le-Chateau. Baigant and Leigh went on to collaborate on a book about the Knights Templar, and another about the Dead Sea Scrolls. More recently Lincoln has been preoccupied with his theories relating to the geometric genius of the ancients. Of the trio, however, he is the only one who has chosen not to take part in the court proceedings. In fact, he appears to have distanced himself from his co-authors. In a recent interview, he preferred not to talk about it.

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1982. Five years later, Cape was bought over by the New York-based Random House which, in 1996, under its Arrow Books imprint, released a revised and updated edition "with explosive new discoveries".

Enter Dan Brown, a graduate of Amherst College, Massachusetts, USA. The son of a mathematics professor, Brown's first two novels, Digital Fortress and Deception Point were also published by Random House and dealt with issues of morality in politics and code-breaking. Some might say that it was simply a natural progression for him to move on to a monumental conspiracy theory involving the Catholic Church.

In 2003, he produced The Da Vinci Code, the second novel in a three-part series, the first entitled Angels and Demons, the third as yet to be completed. In The Da Vinci Code, a cleverly contrived cast comprising an American Harvard professor, a French cryptographer, a millionaire English aristocrat and an albino monk are caught up in the murder of a curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris and subsequently embark upon a voyage of discovery which leads them to Westminster Abbey in London, Rosslyn Chapel on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and back to the Louvre again.

At the core of the story is a sinister, centuries-old plot to destroy the notional blood-line descendants of Jesus through an alleged marriage to Mary Magdalene. Capturing the imagination of a readership hungry to identify with a spiritual alternative to organised religion, The Da Vinci Code has, within the past three years, sold 48 million copies, been translated into 44 languages, and has been adapted by award-winning producer/director Ron Howard into a Hollywood blockbuster film scheduled to open at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Four centuries earlier, such heresy would have culminated in the perpetrators - writers, publishers, film producers and actors alike - being burnt at the stake. Instead, they have become the recipients of huge royalty cheques, and possibly this is where the problems lie.

Dan Brown's work has been at the centre court proceedings before. Last August, a US District Judge ruled that his book "exploring codes hidden in the artwork of Leonardo Da Vinci" was not substantially similar to Daughter of God by American writer Lewis Perdue, published in 2000. In a countersuit, Perdue asked the judge to rule that infringement was nonetheless proven and asked him for $180 million in damages. His allegation was that: "Brown had copied the basic premise of Daughter of God, including notions that history is controlled by victors, not losers, and the importance of the Roman Emperor Constantine in requiring a transition from a female- to a male-dominated religion." The judge responded: "Ideas and general literary themes themselves are unpredictable under the copyright law." Which poses the question as to whether or not there is such a thing as an original idea? Is not every advance in human creativity based on discoveries that have come before? These are the kind of hypotheses the judges will be expected to rule upon on Monday.

During the 1930s, German historian Otto Rahn also became obsessed with lost biblical treasures said to have been hidden in the foothills of the French Pyrennes, and his subsequent books and excavations, sanctioned by Adolf Hitler's SS commander Heinrich Himmler, inspired the Harrison Ford film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Intriguingly, there are only three references to Leonardo Da Vinci in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and these only in passing as a Renaissance Grand Master of the Prieur de Sion. No mention is made of his masterpiece, The Last Supper, a central plank in the thesis of The Da Vinci Code which claims that the figure on the right hand of Jesus is not, as previously thought, an unbearded St Peter, but Mary Magdalene herself. The Prieur de Sion was itself revealed as a hoax in 2000 when Pierre Plantard, the man from whom both Grard de Sde and Henry Lincoln had gathered their information concerning its provenance, was hauled up before the French judiciary for claiming that Roger-Patrice Pelat, a close friend of President Mitterrand, was a former Grand Master of the association. When the judge ordered a search of Plantard's home, he confessed to having made the whole thing up.

Other than for its role within The Da Vinci Code, the Prieur de Sion's only credible epitaph today is that it provided the wacky fiction for such parodies as the breakaway Led Zepplin band The Priory of Brion, not to mention the controversial Monty Python film Life of Brian. Of course, none of this does anything to dissuade the faithful who believe that it is a code name for the wealthy Catholic interest group, Opus Dei.

Both Baigant and Leigh have done well out of their association with The Da Vinci Code and it is hard to analyse their action seriously. Perhaps what has inflamed them most is the half-anagram name Sir Leigh Teabing allocated to the English bad guy in the plot, which does seem to suggest that Brown was cocking a snook at them. If so, it shows careless insensitivity on his part, and a sense of humour failure on their part.

On the other hand, the amount of publicity generated by the court hearing will undoubtedly boost the sales of both books, especially those of an old potboiler which, despite it remaining an enthralling read, even Henry Lincoln describes as being 20 years out of date.