Malibu novelist Glen Craney’s dreams of triple-barred crosses among the ruins of a castle led him to research the history of the Cathars, a mysterious branch of medieval Christians whose beliefs went against the Catholic Church.
By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times
In the political climate of today, journalists can be driven in a far opposite direction from their normal “beat.” For Malibu screenwriter, novelist and erstwhile reporter for Congressional Quarterly magazine in Washington, Glen Craney, that can mean almost 6,000 miles and 800 years ago, to an ancient hotbed of medieval rebellion, the Languedoc region of southern France.
In his new historical novel, “The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars and the Lost Teachings of Christ,” (Brigid’s Fire Press), Craney explores a portion of Christian history suppressed by the Catholic Church for centuries, a subject that proved explosively fascinating for modern audiences with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and the controversial film based upon it.
“I was raised Roman Catholic, but knew nothing about the Cathars,” Craney said with a twang in his voice, reflecting his mid-Western, southern Indiana roots. “But about 10 years ago, I had a dream where I saw a woman dressed in robes, walking in the ruins of a mountain castle. These strange, triple-barred crosses kept popping up, which I had never seen before. When I started researching the image, I found that these crosses were the symbol of the Cathars, a religious sect that was living in France in the 12th century.”
The more Craney learned of the Cathars, a mysterious branch of medieval Christians whose beliefs in good-versus-evil dualism and Gnostic principals put them directly at odds with the Catholic Church, the more he was driven to intense research, traveling to France and visiting the scenes of their ultimate genocide.
“When I found myself climbing the hill to Montségur, a Cathar fortress near Narbonne that was the sight of a final massacre of the last Cathar prefects, I realized it was the castle I had seen in my dream,” Craney said.
During the 13th century, the church felt threatened by the sect and issued a papal decree permitting confiscation of lands owned by the Cathars. Northern French noblemen, led by King Philip, were looking for new fiefdoms.
“So, the extermination of the Cathars was basically a land grab by the king, with the blessing of the Pope,” Craney said.
It is speculated the Cathars originated in Eastern Europe during the Byzantine Empire. They believed a spark of divine light existed in mankind, constantly at struggle with a temporal world polluted by Satan.
They were pacifist vegetarians, lent no credence to the Biblical crucifixion, believed in reincarnation and thought the Catholic Church was a betrayal of the original purity of Jesus’ message.
Such heretical philosophy forced the Cathars underground in the 12th century.
“Because all Cathar writings were eventually burned by the church, we don’t know most of their history,” Craney said. “But they found a champion in a viscountess of the region named Esclarmonde de Foix, who supported and provided refuge to the Cathars.”
In 1208, the regional papal legate launched a crusade against the Cathars that lasted decades, ending in a siege of the town of Béziers, where 20,000 people were massacred.
A period of inquisition followed, with pockets of Cathar sympathizers being systematically eliminated, and a last stand at the fortress of Montségur.
“We don’t know what happened to Esclarmonde,” Craney said. “But popular theory holds that, the night before the final massacre, some Cathar prefects escaped with a treasure. Some say that might include sacred Gnostic gospels, which challenge what the Bible tells us. This treasure has never been found.”
Craney said that, since the 13th century, the triple cross morphed into a double cross and has long been an icon of freedom.
“During World War II, the Cathar cross was a symbol of the French Resistance,” Craney said.
History has long been a passion of Craney’s, though he began his professional career in law.
“But most people don’t realize what practicing law is like,” Craney said. “So I attended Columbia School of Journalism.”
He ended up covering national politics, including the Iran-Contra scandal, but acknowledged that watching Washington politics was “sort of like sausage making” and pulled up stakes 15 years ago.
“I came out here and drove up PCH,” Craney said. “I hit Malibu and said, ‘I’m home.'”
The change in climate led to screenwriting and a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for his screenplay “Whisper the Wind,” about World War II Navajo code talkers.
“There was interest in producing it,” Craney said. “But then someone came up with another script about the same subject that had Nicholas Cage attached to it. That’s the script that got produced.”
“The Fire and the Light” took 10 years to write, working off and on throughout the decade, and Craney considers it to be “two chances at the pie”-a novel and, eventually, a screenplay. He has already written a sequel to the novel, set about 50 years later in Scotland.
“There is a certain correlation between the church’s rigid dogma of medieval times and the religious extremism of today,” Craney said. “You see the seeds of it in the ‘end times’ philosophy of today.”
John Evans, proprietor of Diesel, A Bookstore, concurs.
“Books such as these-done thoughtfully, well-researched, well-written-allow us to gain the distance of history, to view the perennially conflicted relationships between power, faith, and individual experience,” Evans said. “Religion-rationalized acts of genocide are not religion-specific, whether pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other. It’s thanks to novels like this that we can keep these perspectives in mind. We need them.”
Does Craney see a possible correlation between the popular success of “The Da Vinci Code” and his own novel?
“From your mouth to God’s ear,” he replied.
“The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars and the Lost Teachings of Christ” can be found at Diesel, A Bookstore and Malibu Shaman, as well as through Amazon and major bookstores.