If you've seen the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, you might have a hard time reconciling the physical differences between the incomparable Ian McKellan and the character described thusly:
Their host arrived at the bottom of the stairs, appearing to Sophie no more like a knight than Sir Elton John. Portly and ruby-faced, Sir Leigh Teabing had bushy red hair and jovial hazel eyes that seemed to twinkle as he spoke. He wore pleated pants and a roomy silk shirt under a paisley vest. Despite the aluminum braces on his legs, he carried himself with a resilient, vertical dignity that seemed more a by-product of noble ancestry than any kind of conscious effort. (54.33)
But despite his ginger Santa-style look, Teabing serves several important roles in our story. The least important but most fun: plucky comic relief.
Despite his obvious intellectual gifts, this guy has the sophomoric humor of a…well, a sophomore boy. He'd fit right in in a high school locker room, with all the towel-snapping and dirty jokes. Teabing relishes innuendo and a brand slightly off-color humor that would set his stuffier guests on edge:
The smile that grew on Teabing's face was almost obscene. "Robert, you've brought me a virgin?"
Langdon winced, glancing at Sophie. "Virgin is the term Grail enthusiasts use to describe anyone who has never heard the true Grail story."
Teabing turned eagerly to Sophie. "How much do you know, my dear?"
Sophie quickly outlined what Langdon had explained earlier […]
"That's all?" Teabing fired Langdon a scandalous look. "Robert, I thought you were a gentleman. You've robbed her of the climax!"
"I know, I thought perhaps you and I could …" Langdon apparently decided the unseemly metaphor had gone far enough.
Teabing already had Sophie locked in his twinkling gaze. "You are a Grail virgin, my dear. And trust me, you will never forget your first time." (54.56-62)
As you can see, Teabing takes a borderline-obscene pride in eliciting a shocked silence from his "students." So, his foppish distaste of anything French (despite living in one of their most impressive chateaus), his palate for the exquisite and rare, and his disdain for anyone not indoctrinated to Grail lore gives Teabing a flippancy that's pretty hard to hate—as a character, that is…we might not actually like having this guy at a party.
And, in contrast to Langdon's smooth, professorial demeanor, this can come as a bit of fresh air.
In addition to providing some valuable levity in a pretty intense book, Teabing is like an academic wingman to Robert Langdon. He's also super-knowledgeable, but in contrast to Langdon, it's in one, very specific, topic: The Holy Grail.
As Langdon explains:
"Teabing's life passion is the Grail. When whisperings of the Priory keystone surfaced about fifteen years ago, he moved to France to search churches in hopes of finding it. He's written some books on the keystone and the Grail. He may be able to help us figure out how to open it and what to do with it." (51.44)
That's some specialty, eh? And the fact that he's wealthier than some small nations has allowed him to devote his entire life to studying everything about the Grail. When Sophie and Langdon are ushered into Teabing's study, Sophie's amazed at what it contains:
Teabing's "study" was like no study Sophie had ever seen. Six or seven times larger than even the most luxurious of office spaces, the knight's cabinet de travail resembled an ungainly hybrid of science laboratory, archival library, and indoor flea market.
"Learning the truth has become my life's love," Teabing said. "And the Sangreal is my favorite mistress." (58.1-4)
He's a devoted lover, that Teabing. Unfortunately, his intensity eventually gets the better of him, because by the end of the book we learn that his desire to reveal the sacred truth has been twisted into something…less than honorable.
In order to truly appreciate Teabing's role as The Teacher, you almost have to read the book twice—once you realize that he's orchestrated the entire debacle his evil genius becomes all the more impressive.
His skills at manipulation are beautiful: to Silas and Bishop Aringarosa he's a devout believer, motivated by his faith (and maybe a small sum of money). To Rémy he's a co-conspirator, a trusted ally in their espionage. To Langdon and Sophie, he's their knight in shining armor—willing to overlook their fugitive status for the greater good.
In fact, Fache sums it up best:
Teabing had displayed ingenious precision in formulating a plan that protected his innocence at every turn. He had exploited both the Vatican and Opus Dei, two groups that turned out to be completely innocent. His dirty work had been carried out unknowingly by a fanatical monk and a desperate bishop. More clever still, Teabing had situated his electronic listening post in the one place a man with polio could not possibly reach. The actual surveillance had been carried out by his manservant, Rémy— the lone person privy to Teabing's true identity— now conveniently dead of an allergic reaction.
He's an evil mastermind—which, again, isn't someone you want to meet in real life, but is absolutely someone you want to read about. His passion for the Grail and all that it represents must have twisted his mind, because his reasons for murder and mayhem seem a little bit…flimsy.
Check it out (we're giving you a whopping quote here, but it does a good job of showing you Teabing's bizarre-o dastardly motives):
"I discovered a terrible truth," Teabing said, sighing. "I learned why the Sangreal documents were never revealed to the world. I learned that the Priory had decided not to release the truth after all. That's why the millennium passed without any revelation, why nothing happened as we entered the End of Days."
Langdon drew a breath, about to protest.
"The Priory," Teabing continued, "was given a sacred charge to share the truth. To release the Sangreal documents when the End of Days arrived. For centuries, men like Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Newton risked everything to protect the documents and carry out that charge. And now, at the ultimate moment of truth, Jacques Saunière changed his mind. The man honored with the greatest responsibility in Christian history eschewed his duty. He decided the time was not right." Teabing turned to Sophie. "He failed the Grail. He failed the Priory. And he failed the memory of all the generations that had worked to make that moment possible." (99.10- 12)
So. The truth is that Jesus was a human man, and had fathered children. With Mary Magdalene. Scan.da.lous.
And all of that information had been contained in the documentary that Teabing had produced for the BBC with Langdon as a corroborating historian. So why was Teabing so dead set on the Grail being necessary to reveal the truth? Hadn't he already done that?
One could argue that it would be the proof necessary to substantiate his claims as more than that of a conspiracy theory nutcase. That can be pretty motivating to someone who already feels that they have a lot to prove.
One of the more revealing quotes in the book is when Teabing says to Langdon:
"I fear," Teabing said, "that I've just demonstrated for your lady friend the unfortunate benefit of my condition. It seems everyone underestimates you." (65.36)
And that, my friends, is how he managed to orchestrate everything that happens in Da Vinci Code without anyone being the wiser until the very end. Teabing's a pretty clever dude…even if he's nuttier than a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar (British metaphor!).