Spear by Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith’s Spear glides effortlessly and confidently into the Arthurian cycle, while giving us a completely new character and an outsider’s perspective of Arthur, his court, Merlin, and the Holy Grail.
Published in 2022, this novella starts with the account of a young girl who lives in a cave in the woods with her mother. Their one item of value is a large cauldron in which the mother cooks their food and heats water. The girl roams the woods, learning the language of the animals, knowing how to read the plants and the seasons. She grows stronger. The girl has two names, depending on her mother’s mood. Sometimes she is a word for “gift.” Sometimes, when her mother is raving in nightmares, the girl’s name is “price.” Always, her mother is filled with fear that someone will come seeking them and will take the girl away.
One winter, the girl comes across a long-dead warrior in the snow. She takes his spear, his sword and his purse. Soon after, curiosity leads her to follow a group of knights into the forest. When they are ambushed by bandits, she helps them against the attackers (although none of the knights really see her). From them, she hears of Caer Leon, the king, and the King’s Companions, and is determined to become one.
Calling herself Peretur, the girl sets out on a quest to Caer Leon, to become a King’s Companion. She prevails in trial after trial, but her successes do not lead to rewards, in fact, often the opposite. Peretur prevails, though, finally making it to the King’s castle, only to have the distrustful Arthur tell her that she may stay for a time, but he won’t accept her as Companion.
While she is at Caer Leon, Peretur meets Arthur himself, his sad and childless queen, Gwenhyfar, and the loyal knight Llanza who loves them both. She meets the king’s magical advisor, Nimue, and passion kindles immediately between them. When Peretur realizes her mother is in danger of being discovered by her unknown enemy, Nimue creates a quest for a special few of the king’s knights—a search for the Holy Grail.
The page count is low, but the book is packed with tension, adventure, wonder, magic and beauty. Griffith’s language is poetic enough, bawdy enough, concrete enough and magical enough to bring this time and place — and these people — to life.
For the Arthurian scholars (and amateurs like me) Griffith provides end-notes, detailing her choices on character names, place names, and plot points. The end notes showed me just how masterfully Griffith took a well-known Arthurian story and made it her own.
Five stars. Go read this.
This sounds great – I’ll read it! I really enjoyed Griffith’s “Hild.” Thanks for the review.
So you know how gorgeous her prose is. This is a complete reimagining of an Arthurian character.