(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Thomas B. Costain, a Canadian who spent his adult life in the United States, was a late bloomer as far as literature was concerned. While pursuing a successful publishing career that ultimately led to him to become a senior editor at the New York firm of Doubleday, Costain began, in his fifties, to write historical novels. Featuring copious background and strong, humanistic characterization, Costain’s style as well as his outlook is roughly similar to that of his friend and fellow Canadian historical novelist, Nova Scotian Thomas H. Raddall. Unlike Raddall, however, Costain focused most of his attention on the medieval period. In The Silver Chalice, he went back further and wrote of the period immediately after the Gospels. The Silver Chalice was the best-selling book in 1953 and was made into a movie in 1954, starring Paul Newman in his first leading role.

The Silver Chalice begins in Judea. Basil, a young Greek slave, is asked to craft a silver chalice to hold the cup used by Jesus and his followers at the Last Supper. Basil is the son of Ignatius of Antioch, a man of stature in his community. However, he had been tricked out of his inheritance and sold into slavery. Apprenticing himself to a silversmith, he has made the best out of his situation and learned the skills of sculpture and engraving. Basil is a skilled sculptor and soon creates a beautiful silver chalice to hold the cup.

Basil becomes educated in the beliefs of the early Christians as well as in the Jewish lore that lies behind these beliefs. Luke, one of the most stalwart of Jesus’ apostles, instructs Basil in the wide disparity between the ideals Jesus exemplifies and the realities of life. Luke teaches that the Church, guided by the Holy...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Frederick, John T. “Costain and Company: The Historical Novel Today.” College English, 15 (April, 1954): 373-379. Still the only extant scholarly article on Costain; puts him in the context of the American and European historical novel as a genre.

Fuller, Edmund. “Which Held the Blood.” Review of The Silver Chalice. Saturday Review 35 (August 2, 1952): 18. The most thorough of the contemporary reviews of the best-selling book.

Noonan, Peggy. Introduction to The Silver Chalice. Reprint. New York: Loyola Classics, 2006. Enthusiastic overview of the work by the well-known conservative and Roman Catholic commentator.

Nuzzo, Lucia J. “Thomas B. Costain.” In American Novelists, 1910-1945, edited by James J. Martine. Columbia, Mo.: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1981. Basic facts about the life and work of Costain.