18 May 2024


Simon M. Miles, The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes, Ignotum Press, 2022.

This is really a book for aficionados of the Rennes-le-Château mystery and the multitude of others that spin out of it. Fortunately I am one, but I’ll try to rein myself in. That’s despite my excitement, as The Map and the Manuscript is a genuine gamechanger. Simon Miles has uncovered new evidence that adds a new dimension to the story - and which fatally undermines the sceptical line that the whole thing is just a hoax concocted by a French conman back in the 1960s.

Miles isn’t interested in what is to many the core mystery, that of the unexplained wealth acquired by Rennes-le-Château’s priest, Bérenger Saunière, at the end of the nineteenth century, which he sums up neatly as "a magnet for unreliable history, dubious theology and questionable theories". It’s rather the elaborate add-ons that link the Saunière affair to shadowy secret societies and world-shaking secrets, but which really don’t stand up to scrutiny. However, invoking Philip K. Dick’s concept of the ‘fake fake’, Miles asks Have some of the false elements woven into the story been introduced as a subterfuge to keep an authentic secret safe?’ He answers that question with a resounding yes.

Miles, a laser scientist, was beguiled by the mystery more than twenty years ago in his native Australia, eventually moving to a village near Rennes-le-Château so he could pursue his research on the ground. Here he presents the results of those two decades-plus of investigation. As the subtitle makes clear, it’s as much about Rennes-les-Château’s twin in the valley below, the thermal spa village of Rennes-les-Bains. Or even more so, as that appears to hold the real key.

What drew him in was an aspect of the mystery that usually turns me off, the ‘lines on maps’: natural features and manmade structures in the area that several researchers – most prominently Henry Lincoln – claim form significant alignments and geometric patterns. Intrigued by Lincoln’s claims, Miles set out to check them, and while he found that some didn’t stack up – particularly the geometric ones – others did to an uncanny degree of accuracy. Working at first with maps – Google Earth’s arrival was a godsend – he found more and more alignments of churches, chapels and castles that were so precise that they can only have been deliberate on the part of the builders. Despite my usual caution about these kinds of claims, cherry-picking of sites to fit a line or pattern being all too easy, Miles’ immensely detailed presentation won me over.

But the real gamechanger came when Miles was, inevitably, drawn into other aspects of the mystery that relate to the highly controversial, and very much alleged, secret society the Priory of Sion, and the collection of documents lodged in France’s Bibliothèque Nationale in the 1960s that supposedly prove its existence and purpose. They’re known collectively to enthusiasts as the Dossiers secrets. Most readers will know that the prevailing view is that they’re a simple hoax, concocted by that conman, a distinctly dodgy character by the name of Pierre Plantard, perhaps aided and abetted by a couple of his confrères, what Miles calls ‘the Team’. That’s it, story over.

However, Miles has conclusively identified the author of one of the most enigmatic of the Dossiers, an enigmatic prose poem entitled Le Serpent rouge that has generated a great many theories over the decades. And he’s not one of the Team, but a highly respected academic of the time: Jean Richer, a professor of literature who specialised in the influence of esoteric doctrines on some of France’s major writers.

Not only did Miles discover clues to Richer’s authorship in cryptic references in Le Serpent rouge and the professor’s own works, but he found that Plantard and the Team left their own trail of clues to him in their own writings, and that one of the Team, the journalist Gérard de Sède, even knew and worked with him. Knowing someone of Richer’s academic standing was involved in the Dossiers mystification blows the case for it all being down to a couple of low-level charlatans completely out of the water.

Curiouser and curiouser, although Richer was a literary scholar, just a few months after Le Serpent rouge was deposited in the Bibliothèque, he published a seminal book on ‘sacred geography’ that described his discovery (inspired by a dream) of alignments of temples and sanctuaries in ancient Greece, centring on the oracle site of Delphi – exactly the kind of alignments Miles had been tracing around the two Rennes for a decade. His conclusion is that Richer saw in Rennes-les-Bains a parallel to Delphi. (1)

And curiouser… Following clues from Le Serpent rouge he found the same alignments hidden in another of the baffling texts that has long had fans of the mystery scratching their heads, La Vraie langue celtique et le Cromlech de Rennes-les-Bains, written in the 1880s by the village’s priest (and friend of Saunière) Henri Boudet. So Boudet, in the nineteenth century, knew about the alignments, and Richer in the 1960s knew that he knew – but both hid their knowledge in works full of absurdities…

From there the trail becomes even more labyrinthine, while remaining startlingly coherent, in ways that it’s impossible to summarise even in a review of this length. It involves the works of nineteenth century proto-surrealist novelist and poet Gérard de Nerval (Richer’s literary hero), Jung’s theories on alchemy, Jonathan Swift’s Ars Punica, Goethe (one of whose tales, a major influence on Nerval, was translated into French as Le Serpent vert – bit of a giveaway), esoteric groups such as the Martinists, geometric codes in various documents such as the alleged parchments found by Saunière, and even Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I’ve always seen as a sendup of works on these mysteries. And that’s just a few.

But while Miles’ discoveries take the story on, they don’t get to the bottom of it: it rather introduces a whole new level to what was already a hugely complicated business. At the end, Miles himself acknowledges he can only speculate about what it all means. Ultimately it all comes back to those alignments – the only testable element – but what they were for is itself a mystery.

The other path, the literary one, from Le Serpent rouge to Richer to Nerval and others, seems to be about opening the door to a different mode of consciousness, something discovered by Nerval through his exploration of symbolism – and possible involvement in esoteric orders – and eventually led to him being hospitalised as mad, although he insisted he was perfectly sane: he’d just found a different way of perceiving reality. Miles suggests that Richer followed Nerval’s method, resulting in the dream that was the key to his discovery of sacred geography. As Miles puts it, "If Jean Richer was able to recapture the poetic experience of peoples of the past, then we are in the presence of modes of transmission that we currently do not understand, nor do we readily concede even exist. To modern ears, this sounds strange, yet the Ancient Greeks would have had no problem with the concept."

So maybe the answer is impossible to find using conventional reason and logic.

Miles doesn’t claim to have got to the bottom of it all, and it’ll take more than one reading of his book to come to a view about whether he’s really avoided all the red herrings strewn along the path, as well as hitting on the right interpretations at every step. But the core of the book certainly hangs together.

The Map and the Manuscript is, of necessity, a big book, almost 500 pages, and it’s not a light read, though that’s due to the range and complexity of the subjects it covers, and as the dizzying connections between them, rather than Miles’ writing. He sets it all out as clearly as anyone can. It’s only when it comes to the geometry that it gets hard for a non-geometer like me to follow.

My only negative is the lack of an index, especially in a book with so many intertwining tales. I often wanted to skip back to remind myself what he’d said about a subject, but it took a lot of flicking through to find what I wanted.

Although Miles says at the outset that the reader doesn’t need a prior knowledge of any of the subjects, it wouldn’t make an easy introduction to the Rennes-le-Château and Priory of Sion mysteries – but then it’s unlikely to appeal to anybody not already bitten by the bug. Which is a pity, as there’s a lot more to the book than just those mysteries.

It really is indispensable reading for anyone with an interest in this affair. And it should be read by the detractors who dismiss the whole business as a fabrication and see those take it seriously as naïve and gullible. But I don’t hold out high hopes.
  • Clive Prince

(1)  https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20170705-the-mystery-behind-greeces-temples

11 May 2024


Serena Keshavjee (Editor). The Art of Ectoplasm; Encounters with Winnipeg's Ghost Photographs. University of Manitoba Press, 2023.

Of all the phenomena of Spiritualism and mediumship, ectoplasm seems to me to be the most implausible, even ridiculous. The photographs recording the phenomenon are surely faked, and any supposed physical evidence is never really evidence of anything. And what has it got to do with the University of Manitoba?

23 April 2024


Lochlainn Seabrook, Mysterious Invaders: Twelve Famous 20th-Century Scientists Confront the UFO Phenomenon, Sea Raven Press, 2024.

On 29 July 1968, the US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics, held a symposium on UFOs. It was instigated by Congressman and NICAP member J. Edward Roush, and he introduced the session by saying this was to be an assessment of the UFO problem by six experts, to enable better judgements about future avenues of research.

18 April 2024


Judith Flanders, Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain, Picador, 2024.

‘Don’t be so morbid!’ is usually the reaction to any spontaneous discussion of death and dying in the 21st century. For example, bringing up the subject of funerals arrangements while in good health is thought of as the province of those guilt-inducing TV advertisements for funeral plans, themselves usually shown on channels dedicated to old stuff for wrinklies. 

10 April 2024


Linda Powell.  Against the Odds. Major Donald E. Keyhoe and his Battle to End UFO Secrecy, Anomalist Books, 2023.

To those of us who just think of Donald Keyhoe as the author of some of the earliest and most important UFO books, and as a director of NICAP, this biography gives us an excellent insight into his early career and how he came to be involved with this subject.

17 March 2024


Simon Webb. The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies. Pen and Sword Books, 2023

This book contains a mass of information and conjecture; all of it diverting, some of it convincing, much of it discredited. The author takes time (55 pages to be precise) to set the context, and to introduce his wide-ranging selection of traditions, concepts and images common across Northern Europe. 

9 March 2024


Perttu Häkkinen and Vesa Iitti. Lightbringers of the North: Secrets of the Occult Tradition of Finland. Inner Traditions, 2022.

This enjoyable read has in my view been given the wrong title. I would suggest 'Riotous Assembly' for what follows is just that: a smorgasbord of short biographies mostly from the twentieth century of some of Finland's most notorious characters involved in one form or another in the occult. 

27 February 2024


D.W. Pasulka, Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences, St Martin’s Essentials, 2023.

Pasulka, who is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, regards the belief in UFOs as a ‘nascent religiosity’ and that the perception of the subject is mediated and manipulated by the media and unnamed agents of disinformation.

16 February 2024


Joanne Morreale. The 
Outer Limits. Wayne State University Press, 2022.
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity....

10 February 2024


Sam Knight. The Premonitions Bureau, Faber and Faber Ltd, 2022.

This is that rarest of literary animals – a book about what might loosely be called the paranormal that not only made it into the mainstream, but received excellent reviews from those who would normally be complete cynics unwilling to soil their eyes on any such work. Sam Knight, however, has cracked it.