One King, One Soldier by Alexander Irvine


Published by Del Rey Books ( )

Alexander C. Irvine brings the intertwining myths of the Fisher King, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail together in America in his entrancing novel, One King, One Soldier. He infuses Cold War realism into this magnificent novel, following the path of the Grail through three distinct and related storylines. This is a novel that works on many levels, from the impact of the communist threat early in the novel to the power of story, myth and belief laced throughout the novel.

As the novel opens, Lance Porter is being discharged from the Korean War, after suffering a leg injury in battle. He returns to the States, San Francisco specifically, and learns his girlfriend from Michigan, Ellie, has come to Berkeley to meet up with him. After hearing many rumors of communist groups forming in Berkeley, Lance does not immediately go out to meet Ellie. Against his better judgment, Lance hangs out in San Francisco longer than he should and becomes sucked into the life of the beat poets. One poet in particular, Jack Spicer, intimates Lance is an incarnation of the Fisher King. The surreal quality of the novel kicks in here, as Lance doesn’t know whether to believe the crazy eyed poet or think the poet is making a pass at him.

Our second narrative follows George Gibson, a barnstorming baseball player at the turn of the twentieth century. George inadvertently gets mixed up in the business of the Grail, unsure of his role or of the whole back-story involved with the Grail and those seeking it. While Irvine focused the majority of the characterization on Lance, George was still very fleshed out. Irvine brought to light enough details about George to make him a fully believable character.

The third narrative follows Arthur Rimbaud, another poet, in his quest for the Grail. Rimbaud obsessively seeks the Grail throughout Africa, searching for the artifact in Ethiopia. As Arthur learns more about the Grail and its true history, so do we. The grail, in One King, One Soldier is historical talisman much more integral to the history of Christianity than simply being the Cup of Christ.

Each character reacts differently in their quest for the Holy Grail, and the role it casts them in – Arthur seeks it out, George falls into it and Lance, after some hemming and hawing, accepts his role. In all of this, though, Irvine never states what being the King does for he who holds the Grail. In this novel, that truly isn’t the point. The point is the quest and the how it affects those on the quest, and believing in the quest, best illustrated in the following passage:

“Belief,” he said after a while. “We all go to church, we all give ourselves ulcers worrying about the next promotion of the communists in the Rotary Club, but deep down inside I think we know that’s not the point. There’s something bigger out there, and we want to know what it is so we can believe in it.”

Compared against the Arthurian/Grail themed novels I’ve read, Irvine has made One King, One Soldier a truly American novel, by tying in the Grail legend and Templar legend into that most American of pastimes, baseball. Baseball is perhaps the one sport in America most surrounded by a sense of history and myth. Irvine’s seamless intertwining of the magical aura of Baseball and the Grail myth is just one quality setting this magnificent novel apart from the rest. As I was reading this novel, I got the same feeling I did as when I read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful novel American Gods, a sense that even in America, a country not always associated with the magical, there was an underlying sense of magic and the “other” going on, right under our noses. Something that, viewed from another slant, would open our eyes to greater things at work as we go about our daily lives.

Alexander C. Irvine has taken one of the most utilized themes in fiction and created a story and novel completely his own. While in terms of page length this is an average sized novel, the story it tells is large and a joy to behold. While the blurb on the cover compares Irvine’s novel to The Da Vinci Code, that comparison is a bit unfair, as Irvine’s novel is a more fulfilling, better told, and ultimately, a more satisfying novel.

Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford

© 2004 Rob Bedford

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