Kingdom of the Grail

Here is an inventive, seldom explored facet of the Norman Invasion and the gradual settling of power in the absence of Richard Coeur de Lion from his British kingdom during the Crusades. Concentrating on the mottled history of a single barony, A. A. Attanasio contrives a revenge plot and Grail legend variation so complex that they encompass two continents, the Pope, and the King.

Ailena Valaise, elderly baroness of Castle Lanfranc, is forced out of her home in 1188 by her ruthless son Guy, to wander toward the Holy Land on pilgrimage until death. Ten years later, a beautiful young girl and her entourage of knights and camels appear before the gates of Lanfranc, claiming she is Ailena herself, made young again by drinking from the Holy Grail. When all tests of her identity are tried and passed, she is accepted into the castle, her “son” Guy and his knights forced to obey her by pressure of popular belief. The reader learns quickly, however, that the claimant is actually Rachel, an orphaned Jewish girl, trained by old Ailena to counterfeit the miracle.

The device provides Attanasio with a forum for discussing several perplexing topics: false and true faith, the distance between abstract Christian chivalry and its practical application in the pursuit of power, and the reconciliation of Christian and Jewish ideologies through the expedient of noting that Jesus was a Jew. Laid over the philosophical debate are a handful of love stories: the temptation of a priest-knight by a Magdelene figure (called Madelon in the book), the anguish of an acolyte lured from his faith by Rachel’s promise to the dying Ailena, a Celtic warrior’s rough affection for the maiden, and the celibacy of a knight in honor of his castrated superior officer.

Despite the chivalric setting and the sometimes archaic language, this book is for adults. The story moves forward by a series of internalized anguished examinations of conscience; graphic scenes of death and love contrast with the general atmosphere of castles, knights, and other familiar medieval fare; and the universal premise of “acting on faith” is called into question on every occasion.Told in the present tense to back up through the layers of history, this novel succeeds on both the narrative and the philosophical level.