We are surely—hopefully—nearing some kind of peak of cultural reboot fatigue, awash as we are in retellings, re-adaptations, and perpetually rebooting expanded cinematic universes. So it’s either an odd or an apt time to recommend a new entry in King Arthur stories, much-reinterpreted and pieced together from older traditions as those legends are. Fresh, poetic, and sensuous, Nicola Griffith’s Spear recaptures what’s wild and strange in those stories and their sources—or, rather, doesn’t capture at all, but lets it stay free and secretive, lets us see it running off the page and into a wider world.
The story follows an initially-nameless girl, later calling herself Peretur, growing up with her mother in the wild before seeking adventure. After encountering a noble group of knights, she sets herself the task of joining their company, makes a name for herself fighting fierce bandits, and must eventually lead a quest entangled with her own supernatural origins. Readers familiar with Arthurian legend will quickly identify the setting—Percival and the Grail, Guinevere and Lancelot, a certain sword from a stone—but Griffith inclines towards Welsh and other non-modernized naming conventions, not so much hiding the source material as allowing us to focus on this incarnation, this character and her journey, and on the weirder and older forces in play.
Cards on the table: I generally dislike magic “systems,” the mechanistic over-explanation of fantasy—so it was a real delight to find in Spear something that genuinely feels magical. There are different species of magic at play here—the potent artifacts of the Tuath Dé, Nimuë’s thoughtful sorcery—but the magic that Peretur uses throughout, as naturally as breathing, is mostly just an incredible awareness, an attentiveness to things, that permeates the entire text in a way both wondrous and believable. It’s a world in which surfaces speak of unseen depths, where a passing fly carries news of danger, where a shadow smells of intent and words “smoked and fumed” with traces of the speaker’s home.
That focus on things, on the material, is why the magic works so well in Spear, and it’s also a huge part of why the story works on more realistic levels. Simple and detailed realities of food, weapons, and armor define many of the novella’s scenes and situate it within a complex historical setting. Like most anywhere, anywhen, this kingdom is a collage and palimpsest of peoples, cultures, and languages, and while Peretur’s vantage is a somewhat naive one, her glimpses of the larger world reveal it to be far richer and more diverse—and thus more realistic—than that of many a whitewashed pseudo-medieval fantasy.
Griffith commendably threads a very interesting needle, incorporating inclusivity to the basic fabric of the story without couching it in modern terms. This is most obvious in how Spear handles sexuality, with happily queer and poly characters who nonetheless don’t have our contemporary framing for those identities. Peretur’s journey does not lack for desire or romance, but the thought of kissing a man fills her with “nothing but refusal,” which is as close as the novella comes to actually naming her sexuality. Her deep discomfort around class and inequality as her own star rises is another poignant moment, all the more so because she can only process it from her own context: an unease she feels keenly but lacks the words to theorize.
All of this—the magic, the world, the chivalric duels and quests—is a delight to read, because Spear’s prose is gorgeous. It’s rife with alliteration and striking metaphor that beg to be read aloud, from the opening lines (“In the wild waste, a girl, growing”) to offhand details (“the sound of a river of peas pouring into a bowl”). It’s never flowery, but potent, distilled, and stays close to Peretur’s youthful perspective—an intensely animated kind of language that works just as well in the novella’s quieter moments as in its violent confrontations.
Spear is also shot through with allusions to other stories and legends. It’s not trading on us catching these references, but using them to evoke a much larger world—the way your ears know when you step from a small room to a vast one, or to an open field. Tolkien-lovers, though, will perhaps get a clue to Nimuë’s nature, and a chuckle, when Peretur is warned she is “subtle and not to be meddled with.” The overall effect is almost effortlessly mythic, neither ostentatious in its use of older language nor self-consciously modern. It’s fresh, vibrant, somehow timeless—I found myself thinking of the beguiling simplicity of Le Guin’s language in the Earthsea books—and perfectly complemented by Rovina Cai’s breezy, oneiric illustrations throughout the book.
The best part of a really good retelling is a kind of double experience—you’re in the moment of the story, but at the same time you have rich and informed expectations, you’re thinking of how other artists and versions have approached these same ideas and themes. These stories endure not just because it was easier for some corporation to repackage them, but because people have found something worthwhile in them, again and again. Spear is a fantastic excuse to dig into Arthurian legend, and it stands on its own as an enthralling read—an instant classic, born of classics.
by Nicola Griffith
Published April 19th, 2022
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.