Umberto Eco and the Affair of Rennes-le-Château

Umberto Eco and the Affair of Rennes-le-Château

I imagine that some readers of The Map and the Manuscript might be surprised, even perhaps a little disappointed, to find the final chapter devoted to a discussion of the novel Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Rather than, say, an explosive claim to have found some extraordinary treasure, or terrible secret, or grand conspiracy.

If so, I hope they won't feel too let down. I'd like to think that Umberto Eco's novel is a far richer treat and a much more satisfying final destination than any pot of mere gold or jewels.

And you can take it home with you, which is something you would never be able to do if you were to find buried treasure in France.

In any case, there is a secret concealed beneath the surface of Eco's remarkable novel. Foucault's Pendulum is both a satire of the Affair of Rennes, and Eco's literary homage to one of his favourite authors, the nineteenth century French writer and poet, Gérard de Nerval.

In masterfully combining these two elements, he is able to explore what happens when bad history intersects with false belief, as it does so pervasively within the tangled nest of tales around Rennes-le-Château, while gently hinting at a knowledge of deeper elements hovering around the narrative.

Since the publication of my book, a reader (hat tip: Han Wammes) has brought two fascinating texts to my attention, both previously unknown to me. Today I'd like to comment on the first of these.

Thanks to Han, I was surprised and very pleased to learn that Professor Eco had written an entire chapter on the Rennes-le-Château affair in an anthology published in 2013 entitled The Book of Legendary Lands. I was not aware of this when I went to some lengths to establish, in The Map and the Manuscript, that Eco knew about the Rennes affair. I found and shared several quotations from interviews and elsewhere which showed that Eco was at least broadly familiar with the story of Saunière and related tales, but in this chapter he gives an extended run-down of the full history and its aftermath.

If I'd have known, I could have simply pointed to it! No matter. It gives a good opportunity to confirm the extent of his knowledge of the topic, and to gauge his response to it.

Here is the description of the book in which the chapter on Rennes-le-Château appears:

"From Homer's poems to contemporary science fiction, literature through the ages has continuously invented imaginary and legendary lands, projecting there all those wishes, dreams, utopias and nightmares that are too intrusive and challenging for our limited daily reality. Umberto Eco leads us on an illustrated journey through these distant, unknown lands: introducing us to their inhabitants, their heroes and villains, the passions and preoccupations that shaped them, always mindful of the continued importance of myth and legend to modern life and consciousness. Placing ancient and medieval texts beside contemporary stories, films beside poems, comics beside novels, it is a journey that is both erudite and enjoyable, and one that only Eco could have created."

In this collection of his essays on a wide range of fictional and imaginary places, Eco demonstrates that he has a thorough, even intimate, knowledge of the details of the Rennes affair. He also puts it in wider context. His retelling of the Rennes-le-Château story places it firmly within a frame of myth and contemporary stories, as the description of the book promises.

He begins with a brief discussion of the legends around the Holy Grail, and its association with Montsegur and the south of France. He notes that it was in this suitably prepared fertile ground that the affair of Rennes took root and flourished. He also discusses the origin of some of the elements of the story in Maurice Leblanc's novel The Hollow Needle.

He has clearly done his reading, and paid close attention to the twists and turns of the saga. He includes several little known snippets of information about Plantard, deSède, deChérisey and various other players in the drama which show that he has not just dipped a cursory oar in the water. Nevertheless, whilst the material here shows he was well informed, it has clearly all been drawn entirely from the public domain. There is nothing which would suggest or even hint at any kind of insider knowledge, or private insight, into the Affair.

Eco does make one small error in his retelling of the saga. It occurs in a passage where he discusses the legal action brought against Dan Brown for plagiarism by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Eco writes that all three co-authors joined in suing Brown, but in fact it was only Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent. Wisely, Henry Lincoln, did not participate.

Eco leaves the reader in no doubt how he feels about the Rennes-le-Château industry in general, and Dan Brown in particular. Here are a few quotations from The Book of Legendary Lands :

"How such a pile of nonsense could have been taken seriously (and their book not regarded as a work of science fiction) is still a mystery, but the fact remains that it has reinforced the myth of Rennes-le-Chateau."

"the case of Rennes-le-Château not only tells us how easy it is to create a legend de novo, but how it can enjoy success even when historians, courts and other institutions have recognised its mendacious nature."

"If this really were a historical reconstruction, then there is no explanation for the umpteen blunders that (Dan) Brown gaily sprinkles throughout his narrative..."

In short, Eco considers all of this to be, well, let's use his phrase: "a pile of nonsense".

And he is, of course, exactly right.

The entire narrative around Saunière and the parchments as it was put forward in the Dossiers Secret in the 1960s, is false. The parchments are certainly a modern day concoction. Whatever Saunière found, it was not the parchments. Everything that has proceeded from those elements is the pile of nonsense. And it continues to this day.

Eco skewers this madness without hesitation, and deservedly so, in the chapter on Rennes-le-Château in The Book of Legendary Lands.

And yet. In The Map and the Manuscript, I quoted Eco from his deeply interesting 1992 book Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, in which he says of Foucault's Pendulum that "the story was so thick with mysteries both true and false". Notice: both true and false.

With this in mind, we might be justified in taking Eco's denunciation of the affair of Rennes with a very small pinch of salt.

Taken as a historical account, it's a collection of false mysteries.

But if we are willing to engage with the affair of Rennes on a different level, not as literal history but as a set of archetypes grounded in myth, landscape and culture, without obsessing about gold or buried things or X-marks-the-spot, then perhaps there are some true mysteries to be found in these stories.

In Foucault's Pendulum, I suggest, Umberto Eco has presented a more nuanced account of the affair than he has expressed in The Book of Legendary Lands. In particular, he has woven in an extraordinary hidden layer of references in his novel to the nineteenth century French writer Gérard de Nerval. But why? What does Nerval have to do with the affair of Rennes?

Which brings us back to that final chapter of The Map and the Manuscript.

The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes

Available in Kindle, paperback, hardback and now ePub.

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Beyond the Map and the Manuscript

Author, researcher, speaker. My first book, The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes, was published by Ignotum Press in 2022. I blog here on topics connected with the book, including landscape alignments, ancient sites, France, the Pyrenees, Jean Richer, Rennes-les-Bains, alchemy, geometry, Jung, Gérard de Nerval, Le Serpent Rouge, the Affair of Rennes, and more.

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