Today’s book review is SPEAR by Nicola Griffith, a queer retelling of one aspect of Arthurian legend. This ethereal read is about identity and brims with beautiful, lyrical writing.
Author: Nicola Griffith
Age Category: Adult
Publish Date: April 19, 2022
Print Length: 192
*These are not affiliate links and I do not make a commission from any purchase made using these links.
She left all she knew to find who she could be . . .
She grows up in the wild wood, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake drift to her on the spring breeze, scented with promise. And when she hears a traveler speak of Artos, king of Caer Leon, she decides her future lies at his court. So, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and sets out on her bony gelding for Caer Leon.
With her stolen hunting spear and mended armour, she is an unlikely hero, not a chosen one, but one who forges her own bright path. Aflame with determination, she begins a journey of magic and mystery, love, lust and fights to death. On her adventures, she will steal the hearts of beautiful women, fight warriors and sorcerers, and make a place to call home.
The legendary author of Hild returns with an unforgettable hero and a queer Arthurian masterpiece for the modern era. Nicola Griffith’s Spear is a spellbinding vision of the Camelot we’ve longed for, a Camelot that belongs to us all.
Reading SPEAR is like walking through a portal to early medieval England. Nicola Griffith superbly translates that ethereal, mythical atmosphere to paper in this queer retelling of the sword, the stone, and the holy grail. At the beginning we meet a young girl who grows up with her mother in a cave away from society. We see this hidden world through her eyes in dream-like fragments. Everything feels new, prehistoric, and interconnected. But as she grows older she yearns to explore beyond her home, to the dismay of her mother, Elen, for something deep within urges her forward.
I really enjoyed the lyrical writing style of SPEAR, which reminded me of Laura Sebastian’s HALF SICK OF SHADOWS. It took a few pages for me to adjust to the flowing, analogous storytelling approach. Once I turned off the literal interpretation switch in my brain, it was easy to appreciate Griffith’s poetic portrayal of Arthurian lore. I find this style of writing works incredibly well (for me) to create that otherworldly feeling of being figuratively transported directly into a fairytale.
I know I’m poorly versed in all the iterations of Arthurian myth, or the influence of language on its interpretations. However, it’s clear Griffith uses her knowledge of this to the fullest extent in SPEAR. The Author’s Note section makes evident her thorough research on names, language, and characters that appear or change over time. SPEAR is Griffith’s contribution to retelling a portion of Arthurian legend, which has been rewritten many times over hundreds of years. Those who appreciate languages (specifically Old and Middle Welsh) will likely enjoy this linguistic element. It was fun to try and figure out which Old language name translates to the modern English equivalent (e.g., Myrdden for Merlin).
With respect to themes, SPEAR is overwhelmingly about identity. Though she is a queer character, the identity theme is less about sexuality. It is predominantly about knowing who she is as a person, knowing her qualities. I’m vague here about her name for a reason. It plays an important part in the beginning of the story. At that point her identity is tied to the names her mother gives her based on her mother’s moods. Her mother spoke in riddles and half truths, so she doesn’t fully understand her history or her mother’s past.
Only when she demands her true name does she set out to apply her own meaning to it based on her own actions rather than her mother’s projections onto her. This journey isn’t as philosophical as it sounds, it just is. And so, one action at a time, she makes a name for herself attributed to strength, agility, and goodness.
There is also a nod to mental health representation. I thought the actions of the main character’s mother, Elen, reminded me of someone who has bipolar disorder. (However, I’m no professional, so this is my best interpretation. I’m open to correction.) I can’t say too much more about that without tip toeing into the realm of spoilers. I also want to acknowledge Griffith’s unique take on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot component of the story, which I loved.
There’s so much more I want to write about, such as Griffith’s spin on the sword and the stone and the holy grail. (Or, at least, it was a spin to me!) I found it particularly interesting since I had just read THE CHILDREN OF GODS AND FIGHTING MEN, which also incorporates some of these myths. Overall, I really enjoyed the novella SPEAR. I definitely recommend it to fans of Arthurian legend or to readers who hanker for medieval, atmospheric settings. Those who enjoyed HALF SICK OF SHADOWS or DARK EARTH will undoubtedly appreciate this retelling of a facet of Arthurian legend.
Content warnings: blood, death
Reading format: Library hardback