Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
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 Spirit, seeks to propagate the message of Christ amid the sordid ways of the world. Luke suggests that the beauty of the cup amid the degradation of the world is a figure for the peril Christians must successfully face to be untainted by the stain of sin. Furthering his involvement with Christianity, Basil falls in love with Deborra, the imaginative and resourceful granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy Jew who had arranged for Jesus’s burial, whom he marries even as her grandfather dies. He encounters a wide range of characters, from role models such as the leading Christian apostle Peter to the irresponsible magician Simon Magus, who perverts Christianity into mere self-display and entertainment, and Mijamin, the unscrupulous Bedouin bandit who is always looking for an opportunity for himself. Basil becomes a wealthy man and owns property, including slaves.
Made unhappy by Peter’s spurning of him and his views, Simon Magus presents himself to Rome’s decadent and malevolently self-centered emperor, Nero. The magician tries to carve out a third position between Christianity and paganism, claiming that he is Jesus’ true successor as magician and wonder worker. Helena is an assistant to Simon Magus who insinuates herself into Basil’s life. Though tempted by Helena’s beauty and even more by the love potions she has clandestinely given him, Basil forswears this invitation to infidelity, politely dismisses Helena, and dedicates himself to a lifetime of companionship with Deborra.
In a vainglorious effort to show his magical powers, Simon Magus jumps from a tower, thinking he will be able to fly, but instead plummets to his death. Nero, pleased by Simon’s failure, seeks to make the Christians scapegoats for his death. However, many of the leading Christians manage to escape and hide themselves. Nero also searches for the chalice; however, the Christian elders have craftily hidden it.
The chalice has been hidden in a humble kitchen, covered with sugar, and ignored by the Roman search parties because of its unlikely place of sequestering. While celebrating this victory, Basil remembers his own years as a slave and, in a flush of generosity, frees all his slaves. At this moment, though, the chalice is stolen by a bunch of thieves, most likely led by Mijamin. Basil and Deborra, chastened by the loss of the chalice and now impoverished by Basil’s dispensing of his slaves, nonetheless vow to lead a Christian life together in the future. The book ends with the predication of an apocalyptic return of the chalice in contemporary times.
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