Among the nation-building myths of Europe, none has more enduring power than that of the Holy Grail -- a trend that has continued in modern historical fantasy. Yet despite the popularity of stories about King Arthur's knights, the Grail's origins and function remain so obscure that a library could be filled with books speculating on the subject. Was the Grail the chalice that held Christ's wine and later his blood, or Cerridwen's cauldron of fertility and feminine power? Did Mary Magdalene carry the cup from Golgotha to Gaul, or was the Grail itself a metaphor for her womb containing the holy bloodline of the Son of God? From Malory to von Esenbach to Tennyson, from The Mists of Avalon to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, the Grail has taken on these roles and more. Yet surely it could not have been all these things. For if the Grail were proof of the Word made flesh, how could it have been a pagan relic, or the symbol of a conspiracy to hide Christ's own lineage from his followers?
Marie Jakober places the Grail in medieval Germany, where emperors and dukes struggled with the Church and one another to rule the Holy Roman Empire for God's glory and their own. In this alternate history, Count Karelian of Lys strayed from familiar paths and entered the forest of Helmardin, where -- according to his onetime squire, Paul -- he discovered the hideous and ungodly Black Chalice at the castle of a terrifying, seductive sorceress. In the account he has been commanded to write for the Holy Father, Paul marks this event as the beginning of Karelian's fall into darkness. But before he can begin to tell his version of the story, the witch of Helmardin appears within Paul's chamber at the monastery, binding his quill so that it will write only truth. Side by side, two narratives unfold: the straightforward story of faith and heresy that Paul wishes to tell, and the blasphemous revelations of wisdom, kindness and love stronger than religion.
In the castle of Car-Iduna, Karelian finds more than the Black Chalice; he falls under the spell of the priestess Raven and learns of the life-giving powers of Tyr and the other ancient gods. Sick at heart after the bloody crusade to win Jerusalem for the God of Love, Karelian wants only to retire to Lys, but the leaders of Germany have not finished with him. The count accedes to a political marriage to keep faith with Gottfried, Duke of the Reinmark, but his young bride bears a terrible secret. Then he discovers Gottfried's ambitions, which represent a threat to the peace of the entire world, for the Duke believes himself to be the descendant of Merovingian kings -- and, through them, the bloodline of Christ. Gottfried presumes it is his destiny to unite Europe and the Holy Land under his family banner, even if it means deposing lawful kings, betraying the Church and slaughtering all unbelievers in his path.
Karelian must choose between his oath to his liege and his devotion to Raven, who is not only his beloved but the champion of the ancient gods of the Earth. Having spent decades killing for the Church, he is grieved to discover that he may have to take up arms again if he wants to stop a massacre in the name of God's kingdom. But for Paul, the dilemma is even more painful. The young squire learns of Gottfried's plans and witnesses what he believes to be a miracle proving the Duke's divine birthright. As he watches his lord become a champion of sorcery and heathenism, he knows he must betray Karelian. Still, despite his admiration for the unsullied Duke, he finds it unbearable to turn against the Count of Lys.
Paul himself cannot bear to remember how he came to make the choices that would shape the future, though the outcome of history hinged on his actions. To record the truth, as he has been bound by both Pope and sorceress, Paul must admit that he loved Karelian. Loved him not only for his nobility and strength in battle, but for his golden hair and warm laugh. Loved him with a passion judged by the laws of the Church to be a graver sin than murder. Paul cannot ponder Karelian's actions without remembering his private response to the man's seductive physicality and casually-offered affection. He cannot stand to live unless he can find a way to blame Karelian for his own intolerable urges; he will accuse the knight of corruption, sorcery, treason, anything that might explain how (in an exorcist's words) the man could have left tracks on his soul. Paul would tell any lie to evade the eternally damning knowledge that he may have loved Karelian as much as he loves God.
The Black Chalice tells of the conflict between Christianity and paganism, but that struggle is bound up in so many others -- asceticism and carnality, duty and freedom, eternal bliss and earthly peace, the pluralism of Germany and the dream of worldwide dominion. Though the men of the medieval Church are not villains -- indeed, most of the priests are sympathetic, though human and flawed, rarely devout -- its ideology is portrayed as murderous and horrifying. Yet there is no clear-cut contrast, as in The Mists of Avalon, between the Christian god and those of the pagans; though their names are invoked to summon power and protection, Tyr and Hel remain vague, formless forces that shape the world without seeming to manifest within it. Elves, wolves and talismans work the magic of Car-Iduna, which is sometimes as violent as a Crusade.
Jakober is more interested in the role religion plays in shaping people and nations. Though her Reinmark and her dukes are fictional, her accounts of the Crusades and the structure of the Holy Roman Empire stick closely to recorded history. Some readers may feel ambivalent about the Holy Blood, Holy Grail storyline, for Gottfried could have claimed the same divine rights without needing divine blood -- certainly other Crusaders and kings did so. Nor does the conflict in Paul between the Count of Lys and the Son of God require that Paul believe in a flesh-and-blood manifestation of the latter. The scant evidence of the bloodline gives Gottfried slightly more legitimacy and makes him seem slightly less mad than a Napoleon or Hitler, but there's not nearly enough effort to make the reader believe in it, which makes Paul seem too gullible and pathetic to earn much sympathy afterwards.
This is a tale of men in a man's world, yet the women are complex and admirable. Karelian's teenage bride Adelaide grew up in the house of the cruel and violent Count Arnulf, and found the only happiness she ever knew in the arms of a mysterious dark knight. She comes to her marriage terrified that her husband will discover her absent virtue, but Karelian can guess at the horrors in her past and does not judge her even when she betrays him. Sigune, the Wend woman who was Arnulf's mistress before he destroyed her beauty, devotes all her sorcerous energies to plotting revenge, though it means destroying Arnulf's daughters and other innocents. Arnulf's wife Clara and Gottfried's wife Radegund struggle to maintain what limited power they have, playing household members against one another and seeking to influence their domineering lords.
The sorceress Raven, half-veela, a shapeshifter, remains nearly as elusive as the gods she serves. She tells Karelian that he was carefully chosen to discover Car-Iduna as a potential champion, though it is also obvious that she chose him herself for his magnificent physique and malleable morals. She survives horrific abuse at the hands of men and gives her lover the means to avenge her, but it's not clear how closely her influence is tied to Car-Iduna, nor whether the chalice empowers her or vice versa. This makes perfect sense in the portions of the story narrated by Paul, but readers witness events from Karelian's point of view and from Raven's as well. It's not easy to stop thinking about the deliberate gaps and odd anachronisms, for Jakober wants modern readers to ask questions and relate to underlying themes that would not have been spoken aloud in the medieval world -- the possibility of free love and unashamed agnosticism, often voiced by the witch who stands for "the disobedience which lurked forever at the edges of...consciousness" of terrified Christians.
Quotes from ancient philosophers, theologians and poets begin each chapter, revealing a medieval mindset that called sexual pleasure a sin even in marriage and honored blind devotion above literal truth. Yet Jakober creates a world rich with magic and song, with love that refuses to be constrained by the laws of kings or churches, much as the Black Chalice creates and celebrates all the dust-bound, fecund bounty that the God of Love seeks to conquer. This is the Grail of Life not from Arthurian lore, a symbol of a remote deity in heaven, but from pagan myths where the gods reside on Earth. Even readers who find the Christian themes objectionable will be entranced by the seductive narration.
[Michelle Erica Green]