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The Silver Chalice

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Adoption and slavery. Life in Nero's court. Miracles and magic. This is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain.

You will never see His eyes. Never, unless you can clear your mind of everything save the desire to see them. You must love Him as we do. When you have that love, He will come out of the darkness and you will see Him as though He stood before you.

How I got the book: Purchased on Amazon.com for Kindle, $7.99. Like My Cousin Rachel, the book appears to have received recent cover upgrades, so I won't be tormenting you with any drawings of what I think the cover should look like.

The writer: Thomas B. Costain. According to Wikipedia, Costain was a journalist who transitioned to bestselling author of historical fiction in his late 50s. And here's an interesting nugget: four of his novels were made into feature films, with The Silver Chalice serving as one Paul Newman's film debut (he played Basil, the main character in the novel).

The book: More tolerable than The Robe; still not my cup of tea. Set in the years of the early Christian church, the novel follows Basil, a boy of low social standing who is adopted by a wealthy, childless man, only to be cheated of his inheritance and thrown back upon his wits and his talents, in particular his skill as a silversmith.

The book features many of Jesus' disciples, as well as Biblical and historical figures like Simon the Magician, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Roman Emperor Nero, all of whom interact with our young hero as he works to craft a reliquary for the cup used at the Last Supper. There's peril; there's romance; there are love potions; there are camels.

There's also what I'd like to here deem the "shaft of light" effect. Let me digress a bit. Several years ago, my husband and I purchased the DVD The Work and the Glory, which concerns the early years of the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints by Joseph Smith. We aren't Mormon; it just looked like an interesting movie.

And it was an interesting movie. My only issue with the movie, in fact, was the shafts of light that made their appearance toward the end of the film. When anyone knelt down to pray, a shaft of light would break over his or her head. The symbolism was heavy, and it also nearly forced the watcher to take a side--to believe that the person praying was on the right path, that God was present in the moment, that something like a miracle was taking place. In other words, the film lost the veneer of objectivity and began very nearly to preach.

This is my essential problem with books like The Robe and The Silver Chalice. They have such a strong point-of-view that they limit themselves, and it comes down to metaphorical (or often literal) shafts-of-light moments. Incidentally, this same phenomenon did not occur in The Song of Bernadette, and I have to credit the lack of shafts of light in part for the strength of that novel.

That said, and this happens to me a lot, the last paragraph or so of The Silver Chalice was somewhat redemptive, despite following hot behind a shaft-of-light moment. That's because it spoke so beautifully to the historical moment in which the novel was written: 1952, the midst of the Korean War, the world still adjusting rapidly to the new reality of atomic war. I won't spoil it by quoting at length here. Let's just all agree that I'm a sucker for a strong ending, no matter how hard I had to work to get to it.

A few other notes on the novel:

-Gender dynamics in this book are pretty mad. There's a clear virgin/whore split between the few female characters who appear and I'm almost positive that it fails the Bechdel test (in fact I can only recall one conversation between women at all, and it concerned seduction tactics). There are also beautifully obtuse lines like "[t]he girl had supped with him; lightly, for she was mindful of the danger to the feminine figure in rich food" and "[s]even of them are girls, which is a tragedy." I also learned the phrase "hymeneal lamps." It's difficult to say how much of the weirdness can be attributed to early A.D. Roman Empire simulation and how much can be attributed to early 1950s America sexual attitudes.
-Camel-singing may be a thing; camels may not have the same standard humans have regarding human voices, though. And Costain was a sucker for dropping in other little informational tidbits, like the fact that sorbitio is a barley water considered cooling or that leaves of salsola have a salty flavor or that a rakhala is a concave saddle used on a camel. -There's a short but wild bit when the effects of cannabis use (in a paste form) are described. A banker takes a bit to "[restore] all of [his] powers at once" (basically, as an upper). It seemed...incongruous? Anyway, it got me interested in looking into attitudes about marijuana use in America over the course of history, which led me to this timeline.

Next up is John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, the last of the bestsellers from 1952. I've been promised by a friend that I'm in for a treat, so stay tuned as I continue to slowly make my way through 50 years of New York Times #1 bestselling fiction.