NB: Spolier alert! See the movie first if you don’t want to know the outcome. I’m writing this review, however, for people who may otherwise be disappointed in the movie’s ending — which is better appreciated when you decipher some of the symbolism upon which it is built and have time to study the book’s engravings.
The movie “The Ninth Gate” (script here) is based on a Spanish work of fiction “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. In it the protagonists, Balkan and Corso, respectively search for and research a fictional book called “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”. The searcher is material and acquisitive — he knows what he wants and he goes after it. The researcher seeks knowledge, doesn’t know what the outcome will be and enlightenment is his reward. Both are embarking upon a journey, with very different outcomes, one of destruction by fire and the other of enlightenment. Keep your focus on Corso, this is his story, only he passes through the ninth gate. Corso himself doesn’t seem to realise this until the end. Decide for yourself what the role of Corso’s companion is: Is she heaven sent or come straight from hell? Could she represent the whore of Babylon symbolising a false religion and is the burning of the castle at the end a reference to the downfall of Jerusalem?
Caption: The Whore of Babylon, The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Castle of Puivert. The Ninth Gate references real historical books, characters, places and events to weave credibility and intrigue into it’s plot and leaves it sufficiently open-ended to encourage debate and further research. That’s probably what brings you here, right?
This is a story about two parallel lives going in opposite directions. I’ll refer to the movie, which I have seen, not the book, which I have not read. There are likely to be differences. For Balkan, the journey is downwards, as he tries to summon up the power of the devil: He descends into the Kingdom of Shadows. The fire at the Ninth Gate (of the forged image) is Balkan’s destruction. For Corso the journey is upwards: He emerges from Kingdom of Shadows. The light at the Ninth Gate (of the real image) reveals that it casts shadows upon this world — and for the worthy the journey is out of the Kingdom of Shadows. The light at the end is Corso’s enlightenment.
Three variations of an ancient book “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows” exist. Each book contains nine engravings. Three different engravings in each of the three books are signed LCF for Lucifer. Six are signed AT for Aristidem Torchiam, the fictional book’s author. One engraving signed LCF is a forgery. The nine LCF engravings plot the path into or out of the Kingdom of Shadows. The differences in the symbology of the AT and LCF images decode the underlying story.
In Latin the word “Lucifer” means “Light-Bringer” and references the morning star. The name has become associated with evil and the biblical satan — although gnostics believed quite the opposite, that he was a positive influence. You must figure out whose light is actually shining here and on whom the shadows are cast. It’s a good/god versus evil/satan story that, like a playing card, you can read well enough either way. You could make a convincing case for either — which, I think, is a deliberate dilemma of duality introduced by the author.
There are strong Kabalistic and Tarot references throughout the engravings of the nine gates. There’s minutia in each to delight the souls of researches, from Hebrew letters, Roman numerals through biblical and gnostic references. I’ll simply stick to the dominant themes which advance the story well enough.
The 1st Gate: A knight on horseback holds a finger to his lips signaling silence or secrecy. The latin caption in the film translates to “Silence is golden”. In the book, however, the literal translation of the caption is given as “No one attains who unlawfully contends” or “Only he who has fought according to the rules will succeed”. The book’s caption offers a better hint at the outcome. The film trades on secrets and prefers to remain silent about the real journey — thereby robbing most who watch it of the true meaning at the end.
AT: The knight sees a castle with four towers.
LCF: The knight sees a castle with three towers (pictured here).
The castle in the distance is the destination. The number four symbolises the material world (four seasons, four points of the compass, earth/wind/fire/water etc.). The number three represents perfection (e.g. trinity and the divine triangle). The goal for one will be material for the other it will be spiritual.
The 2nd Gate: A hermit looking bearded man with a pair of keys in his hand stands at door, with a knocker, latched closed. He is accompanied by a dog, with the Hebrew symbol for nine behind him and a burning lantern at his feet. The latin caption translates to “Open that which is closed”.
AT: The man holds keys in his right hand.
LCF: The man holds keys in his left hand (pictured here).
A pair of keys in symbology are often gold and silver. Both reflecting a different light, one of emotional warmth and wealth, the other of spiritual purity and enlightenment. The right hand represents the familiar material world, the left hand represents the unconscious or unknown world. Sinister means left and describes how many thought of left handed people: A misunderstanding of the unknown. His companion might be the right reading ‘dog’ or the inverted left reading ‘god’. One journeyman will see things from the left (spiritual), the other will see things from the right (material). One will open spiritual doors another will open doors to material things. There’s a strong message of duality here.
The 3rd Gate: Captioned “The lost word keeps the secret”, a pilgrim on his path encounters a towered bridge crossing a river. A cherub in the clouds, with a quiver slung over his shoulder, aims his bow and arrow down on the path leading up to the near side of the bridge.
AT: There is only one arrow in the bow and none in the quiver (pictured here).
LCF: There are two arrows, one in the bow and another in the quiver.
Again with the duality: The LCF image reminds the reader that there are two levels of information or two possible outcomes. We see one arrow pointing down to earth and the other, in the quiver, pointing upwards.
The 4th Gate: A jester looking character stands before a maze in a fool’s twin peaked hat. He walks with a stick on his right side — his left leg straight, his right leg crooked. While the entrance is shut, the exit is open in one engraving and bricked up in another. Three gambling dice lay on the path before him: The dice add up to three but the visible sides of each die adds up to six. Three (playing by the rules) vs “666”. Three is god’s perfect number, and “666” is a biblical reference to the devil, a fallen angel. Remember the first gate’s caption regarding playing by the rules?
AT: The maze’s exit archway is bricked up.
LCF: The maze’s exit is open (pictured here).
The engraving’s translated caption is “Fate is not the same for all”. The dice suggest that chance will yield very different outcomes: A dead end for one and an opportunity for another.
The 5th Gate: A old man, seated, counts out gold. They are inside a castle like chamber, foreshadowing the destination. He is being watched over by a cloaked skeleton with an hourglass and a trident. The caption translates to “In vain”.
AT: The hourglass sands are only just starting to flow (sand at the top).
LCF: The sands of time have run out (sand at the bottom, pictured here).
The cloaked figure represents both death and the devil: Death in the skeleton and the devil with a trident. The image suggests that gathering material riches are in vain. Rather than being an achievement to a new beginning — time has been wasted in vain.
The 6th Gate: A man is hanging from the castle walls, upside down, from one leg — captioned “I am enriched by death”. A hand holding a burning sword, like a torch,
extends from a castle window. The castle door is shut. The upside down man’s hair and clothing do not hang down and he has a peaceful look on his face, not anguished.
AT: The man is hanging from his right foot (pictured here).
LCF: The man is hanging from his left foot.
We’re at the threshold to the destination. For the material acquisitive right thinking person there are obvious burning sword and hanging references. For the left minded spiritual folk there are promises of torch light to show the way to the other side of the wall — an inverted world into which the spiritual are reborn.
The 7th Gate: A bearded crowned king is playing chess in a castle like room with a young man dressed like a peasant. The door is closed and a crescent moon shines in through an open window. Two dogs, one white and one black, appear to be fighting in the background. The engraving is captioned “The disciple surpasses the master”.
AT: The chess board is black.
LCF: The chess board is white (pictured here).
One chess website suggests the King plays black and the peasant plays white (from the positions of the black and white dogs) and that ultimately the game is equal — a draw. A mere mortal has become the King’s equal. Man is his master’s equal. Man is god.
The 8th Gate: A young man kneeling in prayer. A knight is standing over him with a mace. In the background is a Wheel of Fortune and a castle with a closed door. The caption reads “Virtue lies defeated”.
AT: There is no halo around the head of the knight (pictured here).
LCF: There is a halo around the head of the knight.
I’m not sure I have a good explanation for the symbols here. The wheel, or Rota Fortunae, represents chance or fate. The castle is the destination. The knight is either (a) guarding over the praying man like a haloed angel — much like the girl in the movie appears to come to Corso’s rescue, or (b) without the halo is going to bludgeon the penitent man — as happens to Corso in several scenes. Perhaps this foreshadows the dual role of the girl in this movie: Apparently a guardian angel but, in the end, a temptress, the fallen angel?
The 9th Gate: Captioned “Now I know that from darkness comes Light” all three of the Ninth Gate engravings are apparently identical. A castle is in the background. In the foreground a naked woman with an open book is seated on a seven headed dragon like creature — which likely represents the whore of Babylon out of Revelations in the bible, associated with the antichrist and downfall. It is the final sexual temptation our pilgrim will encounter. Corso’s guardian angel is apparently a fallen-angel, protecting him on his journey to the Ninth Gate where he succumbs to her temptations.
The engraving in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s book has the castle burning in the background, not so in the movie’s engraving of the Ninth Gate. The LCF engraving bound in one of the books is a forgery, made to look like the others by the Ceniza twins. The LCF original, later found at the twins’ bookstore, has a starburst of light shining out from behind the castle — the castle is not engulfed in flames but awash with sunlight casting shadows upon the kingdom below. At the Ninth Gate the misguided would be destroyed in a fire and the spiritual would, after a final temptation, become enlightened. Having succumbed to the final temptation is Corso enlightened or just a bit wiser?
Suggested reading The Ninth Gate film script | Deciphering the Engravings | Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s book “The Club Dumas” | Director Roman Polanski’s film “The Ninth Gate” | Michael F. Haspil’s website Apocalyptic Productions guide
to making your own Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows | Photobucket slideshow of all the engravings posted by silenceisgolden2 | Phillip Coppens’ The Ninth Gate Opens | Wikipedia on Luciferianism | Wikipedia on Catharism | richcapo’s comments on the IMDb.com boards Who is the girl???, encouraging me to delve more into the Catharism and reminding me how the Catholic church suppressed the ancient religions in the South of France | Chess: The Ninth Gate Problem | The rare book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is mentioned in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas as well as in Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate by its Italian title La Hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo | The Ninth Gate Interview by Caroline Vie