Robin McKinley has a few motifs and structures that she really likes writing. Beauty and the Beast is one that comes up frequently; Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) are obvious adaptations, but Chalice (2008) uses the bones of that story, as well. A couple months ago, I dug into McKinley’s use of the sovereignty goddess trope in The Hero and the Crown (1984), and that also turns up in Chalice, albeit less flashily. Aerin is a warrior queen who ascends to a sort of guardian role over Damar. Mirasol, the protagonist of Chalice, is a much quieter heroine with a much smaller realm, but her role still has strong overtones of sovereignty goddess.
As discussed earlier, the sovereignty goddess is a mythological motif that binds together land and ruler. She is often the guardian of tools that symbolize this tie with the land. Frequently, there is a marriage ritual, sometimes involving a real woman, that externalizes the idea that the lord or king is bound to his land and his land to him.
The governmental structure of Chalice is vaguely feudal. Mirasol serves a Master, who rules over the demesne of Willowlands, but he in turn answers to an Overlord. The Master, Liapnir, has a traditional circle of advisors made up of people with various roles and abilities political and magical. The Chalice is both. As a role, Chalice binds and unifies land, Master, workers, and Circle through ritual and magic. But within the role is still a person, as Mirasol’s story makes abundantly clear.
Mirasol comes to power as Chalice after the old Master and Chalice die in circumstances both tragic and vague. The Master was hedonistic and irresponsible to a point that it broke the land, and his Chalice couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up to him and stop him. With no training—and, until the Circle comes to tell her the land has chosen her as the new Chalice, no idea what’s happening to her—she has to stumble her way through both the ritual role and political role of Chalice when the new Master (who has problems of his own) arrives. Unlike most Chalices, who fill their chalices and work their rituals with water or wine, Mirasol works in honey.
Her Master is also unconventional, in that he had to leave a religious calling in the priesthood of Fire very late in the process, leaving him barely human. There is a great deal of concern—from himself and Mirasol and the Circle and the people—that he might not be able to effectively take on the role of Master due to his affinity to Fire rather than the Willowlands. Between them, they find a new-ish way of being Master and Chalice, lord and sovereignty goddess.
Mirasol’s tie to the land and the way that she-as-Chalice embodies the land is much more confining and defined than Aerin’s role in The Hero and the Crown. Mirasol can’t leave the demesne, and she’s the only one of the Circle who can’t. The records she reads to try to learn how to be Chalice refer to Chalices as “the Landtied,” and attempting to cross the boundaries of the Willowlands into another demesne will literally kill her. She knows exactly where those boundaries are because of her innate connection with the “earthlines”—the ribbons of magic that run through the land and make it the Willowlands. The land and other natural forces respond to her in kind; the signs that she has become Chalice include her bees overproducing honey, her goats overproducing milk, and the mead fermenting in her basement overflowing.
The Master also has a magical connection to the land, but his is inherited through his bloodline. Liapnir describes the sense of being “called” back to the Willowlands after his brother (the old Master) dies, that in spite of having pledged himself as a priest of Fire, the Willowlands needed him so badly they helped break his bond to Fire. Yet, as I’ll get into in a minute, despite his own bond with the land, he still requires the Chalice’s support to truly rule it.
While Aerin’s sovereignty symbols are a sword and a crown, Mirasol has a collection of goblets, each designed for a specific purpose; while we never see the full set or get all their names, there’s one for binding (she uses this one the most), one for decisions, one for welcome. Chalices—indeed, any container for holding, serving, or consuming liquid—are one of the oldest symbols, a distinctly feminine one (in contrast to the masculine-coded sword that Aerin uses). Cups represent life and destiny, as seen in the numerous literary echoes of “let this cup pass from me.” Most famous is the Holy Grail, an Arthurian/Christian symbol whose origins have been argued over, with some claiming it was stolen from Celtic mythology and others insisting it’s been Christian all along. The argument is possible, though, because the cup/chalice/cauldron is so ubiquitous.
The ritual role of Chalice is just as binding and confining as Mirasol’s inability to leave the land. She is expected to be steady and calm, is not allowed to sit while being/bearing the Chalice, and frequently must also go hours without eating or drinking in order to preserve the mystique of the role. These expectations lead to two parallel problems: she loses all her friends, who now see her as something greater than they—as mere woodwrights—and the others in the Circle expect her to just know how to be Chalice and offer no guidance. This isolation is shown to be detrimental to Mirasol’s mental health, and she constantly frets that she’s not Chalicing right, that she’s going to do more harm to the land than good.
Ultimately, the role of Chalice is to support and reinforce the rule of the Master and bind him more closely to the land and his Circle, as well as the Circle to each other. The Chalice is the glue that holds everything together and legitimizes the Master. This is where the core conflict of the plot comes in; after the incident with the old Master and Chalice, and because the new Master left the priesthood of Fire, trust is thin in the Willowlands.
When the Overlord decides to impose an Heir on them, the politics of Mirasol’s role clash with the magic of her role, and her inexperience leads to problems. She hates the Heir, Horuld, on sight, and senses he’s a bad fit for the land. Yet her attempts to be gracious are misread as an acceptance of Horuld, even a preference for him over Liapnir, and she has to do a lot of damage control to assure the people that she’s behind Liapnir but also willing to help Horuld take his place should that be necessary.
This is where the sovereignty part of her role really comes into play. In reading the old records to figure out how to be Chalice, she discovers that an “outblood” heir can be bound to the land by marrying the Chalice and having children. Under most circumstances, the person of the Chalice is sacrosanct—she can’t marry and is actively discouraged from having children; in cases where the Chalice passes to an actively pregnant or nursing woman, it’s seen as bad luck. The Chalice belongs to the land and the Master alone.
The Overlord doesn’t simply assign an Heir to the Willowlands, though; he orchestrates a duel between Horuld and Liapnir designed to remove Liapnir immediately. Mirasol fears for the continuity of the land, still unsettled from the last Master, and Horuld’s ability to merge with it the way a Master should. She also suspects that the Overlord intends to remove her once she’s married Horuld and borne a new Heir. The Overlord’s plan is fundamentally opposed to how the world is “supposed” to work, and Mirasol’s Chalice persona violently rejects it. “Any decent man would refuse to raise a sword against a Fire-priest whose strength is in Fire, not swordplay,” she thinks. “Any Heir fit to be Master of a demesne would refuse to go through with this.”
It’s Mirasol who decides the duel, again as both Mirasol and Chalice. Liapnir tries to sacrifice himself, but Mirasol screams, and the land answers—every bee in the Willowlands descends on the dueling field, killing Horuld and severing Liapnir’s ties to Fire, making him fully human again. As everything settles, Mirasol declares that she’ll marry Liapnir anyway and forge a new tradition.
McKinley balances old and new throughout Chalice; the traditions of the land, Chalice, and Master are old, the social structure dictated by the needs of the land. But Mirasol is new—a completely untrained Chalice whose power is in honey. As Farah Mendlesohn has pointed out, in the absence of an apprenticeship, Mirasol has to turn to old books and records, “with the implication that there is no new knowledge.” Mirasol’s resistance of the Overlord retains the traditions and bloodline of the land, but her choice to marry Liapnir against all tradition lays the foundations for something new—but not too new. She is still Chalice, she still binds land and Master, she still acts as the sovereignty goddess for the Willowlands.
References and Further Reading
Robin McKinley, Chalice, 2008.
Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, 1984.
Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers, 1996.
Farah Mendlesohn, Review of Chalice by Robin McKinley, First Opinions, Second Reactions 1.3, 2009.