Thomas Bertram Costain (May 8, 1885 – October 8, 1965) was a Canadian journalist who became a best-selling author of historical novels at the age of 57.
I have read a number of Costain’s novels over the years. Probably his best known work is The Black Rose, an adventure of an Englishman traveling to China during the reign of Edward I (Longshanks – yes, the same Edward portrayed in the movie Braveheart). The setting is roughly the same time period as Marco Polo‘s travels to China. Tyrone Power (and Orson Welles) starred in the movie version.
The Silver Chalice is the other well-known Costain book, set at the time of early Christianity. The movie version is Paul Newman’s first major role though he was apparently not happy about his performance:
Paul Newman was apparently not proud of his performance. When the film was broadcast on television in 1966, he took out an advertisement in a Hollywood trade paper apologizing for his performance, and requesting people not to watch the film. This backfired, and the broadcast received unusually high ratings. The film is sometimes referred to as Paul Newman and the Holy Grail. Newman called the film “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s”. He once screened it for guests at his home, handing out pots, wooden spoons, and whistles and encouraging the audience to offer noisy critiques.
Costain did not limit himself to medieval times for his writings. His first published novel, For My Great Folly was set in the 17th century as a pirate adventure, telling the story of John Ward. Ride With Me is during the Napoleonic Wars. The Moneyman tells the story of Jacques Couer who was basically the banker for King Charles VII of France and shows the fickleness of royal favors was not just a trait of the English. The Tontine is part gambling tale and part a historical tracking of the 19th century. The Darkness and the Dawn is set with Attila the Hun as a character. Son of a Hundred Kings is set in Canada in the 1890s and beyond and reminds me a little of Dickens’ Great Expectations (although in this case, it is everyone else except for the protagonist looking to cash in on their projected beliefs in the lead character’s heritage).
While I think The Black Rose is my most favorite of Costain’s books, I am going to close with this quote from Costain:
History pays no heed to the unspectacular citizen who worked hard all day and walked at night to a humble home with dust on his tunic and his flat cap. But in the end the builders have had the better of it. The miracles they accomplished in stone are still standing and still beautiful, even with the disintegration of so many centuries on them, but the battlefields where great warriors died are so encroached upon by modern villas and so befouled by the rotting remains of motorcars and the staves of oil barrels that they do not always repay a visit.
Photo from Jeff Kramer licensed under Creative Commons