Illusory questing beast

Albrecht Durer

by Lev Grossman.
Arrow 2005 (2004).

‘Codex’ is the name applied to a medieval book, one which was composed of sheets stitched together, in contradistinction to ancient scrolls or wax tablets on which texts were written in the classical period.

The novel Codex is about just such a tome, one which appears to be both unique and therefore much sought after.

Around this book Grossman weaves a modern thriller which, given that the times move on apace, may not be as modern as Grossman might have hoped it to be.

Frampton’s ‘The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras’

In that this is a tale of a contemporary quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating; and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that may not stand up as a plot device, especially while real-life technology overtakes his scenario.

Sadly, in common with many such thrillers – the paperback cover of this edition is a homage to, or perhaps rip-off of, the original The Da Vinci Code jacket with its medieval archways – there is little about the characters to empathise with or care about: they are enigmatic stereotypes, and it’s hard to feel a connection with cardboard cut-outs, particularly the vacillating and inconsistent protagonist.

The final nail in the coffin, for me, is the totally surreal view of modern England that is conjured up in the closing pages as the North American hero, the archetypical innocent abroad, chases after his chimaera on the other side of the Atlantic. And of course we know that this type of Questing Beast ultimately proves illusory.

Still, as a thriller it does its job, pulling the reader along at breakneck speed with reflective episodes interspersed, and is intriguing enough to mostly keep you enthralled, almost through to the end. There is affection enough in the asides about medieval literature and the physicality of ancient tomes; a pity then that there is an unreality about the concluding events.

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2011 online review first published here March 2013, tweaked and reposted in anticipation of a reread and review of the final part of Grossman’s altogether more successful and enjoyable trilogy The Magicians, an adult take on the Narniad

5 thoughts on “Illusory questing beast

  1. I must read Grossman’s Magician trilogy, but somehow I feel I’d devour this one – even if it left me feeling a little short-changed on the cliche front. Brave to (re)post a less than glowing review these days, but you have explained why it didn’t work for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my view a decade or so ago, so if I ever reread it I might be kinder to it than I was here – I’m very happy to admit that I may have had a mistaken opinion! As for being brave I can only tell it like it was, as it presented itself to me at the time…


  2. Pingback: Illusory questing beast – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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