The Tide of Life: Review of Spear by Nicola Griffith
Spear. By Nicola Griffith. Tordotcom, April 19, 2022.
Nicola Griffith has dazzled us before with her exploration of a Dark Age Britain through the eyes of a redoubtable character of intense observation and strength. With the wonderful Hild, Griffith told the story of 7th-century figure St. Hilda of Whitby, a young woman making her way and her destiny in a world at once harsh, mysterious, and beautiful. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Griffith has returned with a small new masterpiece, bringing her passionate, graceful voice to the ever-changing corpus of Arthurian legend with Spear, a subversive and genderbending take on the famous legend of Sir Percival. Griffith’s genius in Spear is in taking various parts of the classic Percival story and weaving them into a new whole, in the grand tradition that, as she notes in her afterword, has always been open to reinterpretation: “There was no single true tale of Arthur and Camelot: the legend is and always has been mythic fanfic, endless mash-ups of what has gone before.” The best retellings of legends recognize that consistency with a master narrative is far less important—even insignificant—compared to the emotional and psychological concerns of the time that authors and readers bring to those legends. What new meanings can be teased from histories and lives so distant from us?
In Spear, Griffith gives us a lead character, Peretur, who is many things. Much of her story is her evolution from role to role across time. But bound up in her changing identity is a core of constancy that matches Per against any of her legendary predecessors or her various Percivalian iterations. Per is direct and confident in her ideals, desires, and appointed mission. As she states to Arturus while standing before him, a mighty ruler haunted by fateful prophecies and suspicious of Per’s intentions, “Lord king, I do not want the cup…Nor any thing of power. All I have ever wanted is to fight for what is good and clean and bright. All I want is to know who I am and where I belong. And I belong here, lord, as a Companion.”
Though her mind and heart are true and straight, her quest, on the other hand, is atypical of the standard journeys of fantasy. Yes, Per does battle against armed knights, throws herself against mystical figures of misty legend (her violent combat against the murderous Red Knight is a highlight of action in the novella and a key moment in Per’s development as a warrior), and follows liminal paths that cross between magic and reality (such as, for example, Nimuë’s island in which Myrddyn lies). In this, Spear is of a piece with other Arthurian stories.
But Per’s true quest is really one of identity. “[W]ould she one day find her one true name?” This search for a warm and lasting source of human connection extends throughout the entire novella. Discovering her name is a large and symbolic part of this process—Per’s mother calls her different things depending on what stories she tells Per at any given moment, in a bid to keep her hidden. We see in Per’s mother a personification of the mutability of narrative, of the ways in which stories and legends change over time depending on circumstances and the needs of both teller and listener. It’s an important point to be made in any work that uses an ever-shifting body of stories as its base, and especially so here with Griffith’s unconventional heroine. Per’s journey into life and growth truly begins at the moment she is finally given a name by her mother, an act that cements Per in time and space, gives her tangibility and reality, and that instigates the true start of the novella’s action.
Per is a queer woman and a low member of society (when we first encounter her, she is literally living with her mother in a cave), which readers may note makes her atypical in a standard Arthurian legend (or even in historical novels that strive to be “accurate” in rendering history). However, one of Griffith’s most inspired strategies in the novella is to at once tell the story of Per as a singular hero—which, of course, is part of any heroic legend—and to make the facts of her queerness, her gender, and her social status not reasons to other Per. As Griffith notes in the afterword:
Most importantly for me, historical accuracy also means this could not be a story of only straight, white, nondisabled men. Crips, queers, women, and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain—we are embedded at every level of society, present during every change, and part of every problem and its solution.
Per’s sexuality is a part of her, but it does not set her apart significantly from her society nor does it define her as somehow different or apart from the people around her. (Likewise is Llanza—aka Lancelot—not defined by what Griffith subtly identifies as his clear romantic love for both Gwenhwyfar and Arturus.) Instead, it is merely a part of who Per is, part of her truth.
Spear is deeply concerned with the true nature of things, with seeing behind illusion to the reality of the world. Griffith takes joy in beautiful descriptions of the natural world of Dark Ages Britain in which Peretur lives. Loving descriptions of houses rich in woodsmoke, of the movements of animals, of the blueness of magical lakes, and of humble villages and grander settlements like Caer Leon, all help to set Peretur’s story within a frame of sharp and sensual reality, making it a truly human story. Spear takes place in a past fundamentally unlike typical high fantasies set in royal courts or immense palaces; instead, it is set in a world where commonness and humbleness are the norm. Note Griffith’s description of Caer Leon, a place Per silently notes that, at last, she belongs:
It was nothing like the stories. No king or queen arrayed in glittering gold, no roaring fire or men beating time to bard song, no boasts or toasts over wine. It was a man and a woman sitting at a table at one end of the echoing hall, and the fire was out, for it was spring, and there was no wood to waste, and they were there to listen to their captains and counsellors, to hear news and take reports, to tally supplies and make plans. There was food at the table, good food but plain, and the cups were made of wood, though those Arturus and Gwenhwyfar drank from were beautiful turned maples, with chased silver rims.
Despite the immense magics being worked during the novella, Griffith never loses sight (or sense) of setting her story in places steeped in real ways of human and natural living. At one point, Per is sitting with Nimuë (the Lady of the Lake), chatting and eating together: “And then [Peretur] laughed because it was good to be in a world where maids milked cows, air was just air, and time moved in orderly ways. While they ate the soup made of honest broth and good herbs, they talked of this and that—how both Myrddin and Elen had the habit of pursing their lips when they were thinking; the birds that sang in the spring of their homelands.” It’s a humble moment that describes two lives lived simply and naturally and humanely. That humane core powers the novella and the world in which it is set.
Jeremy Brett works at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received both his Masters in Library Science and his MA in History from the University of Maryland-College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor.com Publishing.