Monday, October 21, 2013

1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain

The Author:

            Thomas B. Costain (1885-1965), was born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  His writing career started in 1902 when he was hired by the Brantford Courier as a reporter.  He later went on to work for the Ontario’s Guelph Daily Mercury in 1908.  In 1910, he married Ida Spragge and was hired as an editor by the Maclean Publishing Company.

            In 1920, Costain moved to the United States to become an editor of the Saturday Evening Post. That same year, he became a naturalized citizen.  He remained at the Saturday Evening Post until 1934, when he became a story-editor for Twentieth Century Fox.  He published his first novel in 1942, My Great Folly, which, like the rest of his novels, was a piece of historical fiction.  Costain also wrote a lot of non-fiction volumes, most notably the Plantagenet series, about the Middle Ages dynasty of the same name.

The Book:

Length: 533 pages

Subject/Genre: Early Christianity/Historical Fiction

            The Silver Chalice takes place in first century Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem.  The novel’s protagonist is a gifted silversmith named Basil.  Adopted by a wealthy Greek merchant, Basil was wrongly sold into slavery by his adoptive Uncle after his adopted-father’s death.  But the quality of his workmanship gained the attention of Luke (as in, ‘the gospel according to’).  Luke buys Basil’s freedom and takes him to Jerusalem to work for Joseph of Arimathea.  After completing demonstrating his ability to Joseph (and impressing his Joseph’s granddaughter, Deborra), Joseph reveals to Paul and Luke that he has the Holy Grail.

Artist's recreation

Joseph wants Basil to craft a silver chalice to house it.  This will require Basil to travel and meet the apostles so he can sculpt them.

            This is by no means the first time I’ve said what I’m about to say, but I feel like I need to say it again.  I was clearly not in the target audience for this piece of Christian historical fiction.  What I’ve found reading a bunch of these, is that they start with the assumption that anyone who reads it is already going to feel very strongly for Christianity.  If you don’t start with this viewpoint, the character’s emotional and spiritual growth doesn’t seem particularly reasonable because it acts as if there is only one possible spiritual/philosophical response.  Which, if you start with a foregone conclusion, isn’t a problem, but otherwise it falls apart a bit. 

            As I pointed out in the bio section, Costain was also known for his non-fiction histories.  From what I’ve found, the detail in The Silver Chalice (and there’s a lot of it) is very well researched.  In his attempt to capture the ancient world, Costain, like Lloyd C. Douglas, decided to use prose that mimics a scriptural tone. For example, “The oil merchant, gasping for breath and slightly purple of cheek, stepping inside to escape the sun, which was beating down with all the fury of the fires of atonement.”  The frequent use of archaic grammar (“purple of cheek”) and over-the-top religious metaphor seems a bit pompous, honestly.
            It wasn’t incidental that I mentioned Lloyd C. Douglas in the previous paragraph.  The Silver Chalice was frequently compared to The Robe, which is also the bestseller for the second time in 1953.  Religious fiction and historical fiction have been perennial favorites in American popular literature.  Likewise, one of the best ways to get on the bestsellers list is to have previously been on the bestsellers list.  Costain appeared on the top ten annual bestsellers four times in the 1940s, reaching the number two spot in 1947.  As with most of the bestsellers so far, The Silver Chalice was made into a film.

            The 1954 film is notable for two things: Being Paul Newman’s first feature film role (he played Basil) and being so bad that when it was going to air on TV years after its theatrical release, Newman took out an ad apologizing for the film. 

            Like with a lot of the books I’ve read so far on this list, The Silver Chalice is not bad, but it’s not very good.  It’s pretty understandable why it’s no longer famous.  If you enjoy religious/historical fiction, you’ll probably like The Silver Chalice, but there’s no particular reason to seek out this novel, specifically.

Also published in 1952:

Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Edna Ferber - Giant
Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea
Flannery O'Connor - Wise Blood
John Steinbeck - East of Eden
Kurt Vonnegut - Player Piano
E. B. White -Charlotte's Web

Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribners. Supplement 7 (1961-5). Print.
Costain, Thomas B. The Silver Chalice. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1952. Print.


  1. If i recall correctly Newman also said that he would never again star in a movie that required him to wear a cocktail dress. If you've seen the movie you'd understand.

  2. The movie is... terrible. So terrible. The book is not actively terrible, but it's not great either. Research-wise, Basil is a very Byzantine name for a pre-Christian Hellene. And if I remember correctly, he has a uncle named Denis, which is not even Greek; it's French and medieval! Ugh.

    If you want to read something in the first century Hellenistic world, Gillian Bradshaw is a good bet. Her writing is lovely, and she knows, understands and loves the pagan Mediterranean world. Silver Chalice was the first book I ever tried to read by Costain, and it was the last.

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