The Dan Brown phenomenon The Lost Symbol: Washington’s aprons
After Rome, Paris and London, Dan Brown has set his sights on the architecture and layout of the US capital to weave his plot. Though this time Masonic in theme, pyramids and obelisks are once again his primary obsession.
by Philip Coppens
Originally titled “The Solomon Key” and set for a tentative release in 2005, the re-titled “The Lost Symbol”, the successor to “The Da Vinci Code”, was always believed to feature Freemasonry as the main secret society under review (after the Illuminati in “Angels & Demons” and the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei in “The Da Vinci Code”). After Rome and Paris and London, the new scene was believed to be Washington.
Both predictions eventually proved correct, though the publication date of the book eventually slipped to September 2009. Some argued that the first “National Treasure” film (2004) was based (read: stolen) from Brown’s then unpublished novel and that this created untold problems for Brown. Indeed, there are clear correspondences between the film’s script and Brown’s plot, including some of the details (spiral staircases leading down to a Masonic treasure being the most obvious one) and it appears that, if the rumours are indeed true, rather than rewriting the book, Brown and co. decided to put time between the film’s release and the launch of his novel. The choice of Freemasonry as the next secret society to be tackled by Brown was obvious for many reasons. Masonic imagery provides a veritable treasure trove for Brown to let his main character Robert Langdon – an expert in symbolism – loose on. Secondly, Freemasonry has throughout its history been a controversial organisation, rife with speculation of harbouring great secrets and apparently intent on taking over (or having taken over) the world. With those two key ingredients in the mixture, Brown had everything to make yet another powerful cocktail, which he needed, seeing “The Lost Symbol” was the sequel to the world’s biggest bestselling book ever. Since the creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, thousands of books have been written on Freemasonry. Some pro, many contra; some written by insiders, some not. In the almost three centuries that it existed, the movement has never been free of criticism or controversy. In the 19th century, the Vatican issued anti-Masonic encyclicals, one of them branding the Masons “the Synagogue of Satan”. Hitler ranted against the Masons, had many of them arrested and deported, and published anti-Masonic journals not only in Germany, but also in countries like France.
Brown had therefore a lot to choose from, but to remain true to his own style, he needed a specific city for his action, and that was the US capital of Washington DC. The Masonic connections of Washington were first popularly aired by David Ovason in “The Secret Zodiacs of Washington DC”, published in 1999. Brown got some of his inspiration from the book, specifically when he mentions that the construction of the Capitol Building was set to coincide with astrological alignments that include the constellation Virgo.
As in his other novels, Brown has woven the Masonic architecture of Washington – whether clearly visible or extrapolated by the likes of Ovason or others – in his storyline. As several of the founding fathers of the United States were Masons, including George Washington himself, this is a relatively easy task. Hence, Brown’s inclusion of the Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria atop Shuter’s Hill is an expected choice. Brown points out the building’s design was inspired by the Pharos lighthouse of the Egyptian capital of Alexandria, that it is capped by an Egyptian-like pyramid and that inside Washington is portrayed in full Masonic regalia. He adds that it houses a replica of Ark of the Covenant, and a scale model of throne room of Solomon’s Temple – a Masonic lodge said to mimic the layout of Solomon’s Temple. The site was indeed chosen as it followed the ancient tradition for the location of temples on hilltops or mountains and was the very spot once proposed by Thomas Jefferson as the ideal site for the nation’s Capitol. Far more famous is the Washington Monument, “America’s Egyptian Obelisk”, which was another obvious candidate for inclusion in this book. Equally, it should not come as a surprise that much of the plot of the book is placed here. From his previous novels, we know that Brown has a fascination with obelisks – explored in “Angels & Demons” in Rome – and pyramids – the Louvre pyramid of Paris. Indeed, this time around, the main focus is on “The Masonic Pyramid”, which is somewhere in Washington and which urgently needs to be located by Langdon. This “Pyramid” is either a small artefact, a design on the city’s street grid, or worked into one or more buildings and it takes Langdon several attempts to realise himself what it might all mean. Specifically, this “Masonic Pyramid “is said to lead to “the Lost Word”, which promises much, but at the very end of the novel, stays far clear of the controversy that Brown delivered in especially “The Da Vinci Code”, in which the “Lost Word” of the Bible – Mary Magdalene – was said to be buried under the pyramid of the Louvre.
The Washington Monument measures 555.5 feet in height and is the world’s tallest masonry structure unsupported by steel. The original intended site for this obelisk was the Jefferson Pier, a few hundred feet west of its present location. It would have designated the precise intersection of the city’s east-west and north-south axes, in line with the White House, and would have been a veritable “obelisk topped with benben stone” in the very heart of the capital. But the idea had to be abandoned on practical grounds: the designated ground was too marshy – resulting in the true east-west axis being thrown off by one degree to the south. Instead, the Monument aligned perfectly north-south to the House of the Temple, when that building was constructed.
Such “sacred geography” of Washington features heavily in the works of Ovason and others and towards the very end of “The Lost Symbol”, Brown too somewhat succumbs to this temptation, though unlike the locations of key obelisks in “Angels & Demons”, does not weave it into his plot as such. The Washington Monument was long in the making. As early as 1783, Congress approved the erection of a statue in honour of George Washington, though it was proposed that this would be a more traditional equestrian statue. Originally, Washington’s body was meant to be buried there, but legalities stopped his body from being transported from Mt Vernon.
Lack of funds resulted in new designs, as well as delaying the laying of the first stone of the Monument, which occurred as late as July 4, 1848. The ceremony was conducted by Benjamin French, wearing a Masonic apron and some researchers have argued that at that precise moment, the star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and referred to in Masonic lore as “The Blazing Star”, could be seen rising in the east, over the Capitol Building.
The Civil War and other problems caused further delays, until it was finally completed in 1884, with a Masonic completion ceremony held on February 21, 1885. As prominently pointed out by Brown, the structure included a praise to God, “Laus Deo”, though the Masonic name for God, “the Supreme Architect”, also appears inside the obelisk, on one of the dedication stones from the Grand Lodge.
Upon its completion, the Monument became the tallest structure in the world, taking over from the Cologne Cathedral; it held on to its position until the Eiffel Tower was completed a decade later. After the Vatican and the Louvre Pyramid, Brown has therefore once again chosen a veritable monument as the key building for his novel. Brown weaves in other key sites and landmarks, like Washington National Cathedral, pointing out that it houses ten stones from Mt Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, as well as a piece of moon rock. He does not point out that the Jerusalem Altar was made from stones quarried at Solomon’s Quarry near Jerusalem, reputedly the site where the stones for Solomon’s Temple were quarried, or that Glastonbury Abbey provided the stone for the bishop’s cathedra. Specifically the former would have been an element he could have used, seeing how important Solomon’s Temple is for the Masons.
Like the Masonic Memorial, the Cathedral is relatively modern – the early decades of the 20th century. Indeed, the Cathedral was only completed in 1990. The man credited with designing Washington’s ground plan, Pierre L’Enfant, did set aside land for a “great church for national purposes” as early as 1792, but the land was later occupied by the National Portrait Gallery. In 1891, there were renewed efforts to build a national cathedral and this time, the initiative met with success, to be completed two centuries after the idea was first proposed. Apotheosis of Washington Brown on occasion finds it hard to let go of Leonardo da Vinci totally, and who can really blame him when you’ve sold over eighty million copies of a book featuring him. In “The Lost Symbol”, he highlights that there is a statue of Washington as Zeus by Horatio Greenough. On the statue, Washington is portrayed with a specific finger gesture, the so-called “John Gesture” – though Brown does not identify it by name – revealing the continued influence that the book “The Templar Revelation” has had on him. The statue created much controversy in its time, though not for this specific gesture. The statue was made to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s birth in 1832 and was meant to go in the Capitol Rotunda, but upon its public display in 1841, it attracted immediate controversy and criticism, as the sight of a half-naked Washington was deemed to be offensive. Thus the statue began a series of relocations, first to the east lawn of the Capitol in 1843, until it moved to the Smithsonian in 1908.
Following the success of codes hidden in paintings, Brown continues to weave in some paintings. Specific attention goes to the “Apotheosis of George Washington”, also in the Capitol Rotunda, painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. An “apostheosis” means the raising of a person to the rank of god, and in this case, thirteen maidens symbolising the original thirteen states flank the three central figures.
Another painting used in the novel is Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I”, which hangs in the National Gallery of Washington. Brown uses it specifically as it features an enigmatic magic square. Indeed, whereas most of the elements of “The Lost Symbol” were identified or predicted years in advance, his use of magic squares in the creation of Brown’s typical code that needs to be worked out was the rare exception. And magic squares are a veritable ancient device to hide esoteric meaning and truth, even though Brown bypasses most of that, in order to weave in his own type of code-breaking, which is far more treasure hunt than anything for which magic squares were truly designed for.
Finally, should there be any doubt, indeed, the first American President George Washington was a Mason. He was initiated in 1752 and was the first Master of the Alexandria Lodge, from 1788 to December 1789. When he was inaugurated President on April 30, 1789, he was therefore a Master. When he died, he was buried with full Masonic honours and with one exception, his pallbearers were members of his own Lodge. Washington as Zeus Knowing the controversy that erupted upon the publication of “The Da Vinci Code”, senior Masons in the United States voiced their concern that they might have to spend years responding to Dan Brown’s fiction. They had even created a website in advance to combat untruths, if this needed to occur. But throughout the book, Brown is extremely sympathetic towards Masonry. He has Langdon say that “The entire Masonic philosophy is built on honesty and integrity. Masons are among the most trustworthy men you could ever hope to meet.” At the end of the novel, he writes that they are “one of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood organisations in the world”.
Indeed, he argues that Masonic secrets should not be taken literally, and that Masonry is a non-denominational attempt to unlock the human potential, in the service of God and the greater good. Though he goes to some extent to outline that this a God For All Religions, in the end, Brown does pin the entire riddle on a Bible – most uncontroversially.
For a man who is known for the controversy created by his novel “The Da Vinci Code”, in “The Lost Symbol”, he shies away from any. Still, Brown uses the conspiracy theories about Freemasonry for his plot. It is no secret that high ranking members of society were and remain members of Freemasonry. In the novel, he creates Senators, the Secretary of Defence, Supreme Court justices, the Speaker of the House and the Director of CIA as Masons whose membership is about to be exposed, and which would “show” that the upper echelons of American politics are indeed run by “The Brotherhood”.
This density of Masons in politics – not just in the United States – was definitely the case at one point in history, but has waned in recent years, as Masonry has lost much of its appeal in younger generations and the new career politicians. But Brown once again shies away from any controversy, as a single paragraph could have created just a tiny bit of controversy, by including some real-life examples of leading politicians in recent history that were Freemasons. After all, Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford were all Freemasons; in fact, at least 15 Presidents were Freemasons. As was Allen Dulles, long-time controversial Director of Central Intelligence. House of the Temple Brown also made an interesting decision not to link the finale of “The Da Vinci Code”, set in Rosslyn Chapel, and “The Lost Symbol”, which focuses on Freemasonry. There are several books that highlight how Rosslyn Chapel has strong connections to Freemasonry and some of these books are known to have inspired Brown in the making of “The Da Vinci Code”. He highlights how the headquarters of the Scottish Rite in America, the House of the Temple, has symbolism that “rivalled that of Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel”. Seeing that the Grand Lodge of Scotland was formed in 1736 with William St Clair, descendent of the builder of Rosslyn Chapel, as Grand Master and that the origins of Mt Heredom, mentioned throughout the book, a so far unidentified if not mythical hill somewhere in Scotland, such links could have been easily created. Instead, Brown decided to keep “The Lost Symbol” more stand-alone, which is not at all wrong, but which does show, once again, how he in this novel tends to shy away from controversy, even though the inclusion of such material would create a potentially better storyline. And that is how Masonry and the “sacred layout” of Washington in the end is treated in this book: Brown dips in, but never truly drinks or uses from the gifts non-fiction authors have given him. Whereas “Angels & Demons” was truly original and “The Da Vinci Code” ingenious in working the various strands together, in “The Lost Symbol”, Brown has satisfied himself in reworking successful elements from his two other Langdon books into the new setting of Washington and Masonry, but at no single moment in time does he show much originality, or is he able to transform these tools and make them his own. One might therefore argue it is a lost opportunity, though Freemasonry will be happy that for once, it has been spared of much controversy. Then again, it seems that Freemasonry only ever attracts unexpected controversy…