Fresh Takes on Old Tales: Nicola Griffith’s Spear
WRITTEN BY KATIE STINE
Arthurian legends occupy a great deal of space in Western fiction. Whether it is the love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, or the stories of Merlin, much has been written about Arthurian Britain.
Spear by Nicola Griffith (Tordotcom/Macmillan, 2022) is a fresh look at this ancient tale. But how does one remake something new? As authors, we often recycle tropes, archetypes, settings, even genre expectations. In Spear, Griffith takes two ancient concepts, twining them together, adding a lens through which very few tales are told. As for Spear’s landscape, Griffith acknowledges that “the whole story cycle is fundamentally a national origin story: straight, white, male, privileged, nondisabled supremacism.” So how do we tell a story that is already tired?
Instead of the Sir Percival we know as one of the knights of the Round Table, the main character of Spear is Peretur (an early iteration of the name Percival), the daughter of an anxious woman in hiding. At first, this doesn’t seem to be all that fresh—after all, from Mary Stewart’s books we have a cave in Wales. But in Spear, magic isn’t flowering in the forest, it is magic hiding a mother and daughter. The other twist here is not just the gender-bending aspect of Peretur being female. It is fresh because this detail is precisely beside the point. Who cares about anatomy when Peretur has bigger mysteries to solve; for instance, what happened to her mother that she won’t even tell Peretur her actual name until a third of the way through the story?
As Griffith notes, “the origins of [Peretur’s] name made it possible to bring Welsh history and Irish myth into a largely English legend, to expand the centre a little.” The connection with the magical forest is a connection to original source material, as Griffith says: “…the original version of Sir Percival was supposed to have been raised in the wild by his mother.”
When Peretur ventures outside of the protective magical borders and encounters the knights of the Round Table, she is enamored. Not at the sight of smelly warriors, but because she wants to be like them. As a descendent of the Tuath Dé, an Irish tribe of supernatural beings, Peretur has supernatural strength and ability. Again, not a new concept to have a half-god, but fresh because this is a female character where her gender is not relevant. Unlike modern female superheroes whose backstories must provide extensive discussion about their non-brute strength superpowers, Peretur never questions her own capabilities. “This was a perfect way to create a Peretur/Percival who was naïve,” Griffith says. “Unaware of the rules of power and privilege and other social guidelines: she could be poor, a woman, queer, without connections and wholly different, all while being utterly free to be strong, confident, generous and thoughtful without feeling inferior.”
For this reader, it felt fresh to not have to delve into the question of whether she would be stronger if she were a man, or of threats to her person when she is found to be a woman, as Peretur is mistaken for a boy more often than not because of the armor she wears. Peretur acts as a knight and is therefore treated as one.
Another aspect that made this a refreshing read was the acknowledgement that Christianity in Britain was not always the default. The time period is on the cusp of the cultural exchange, and as Peretur is of the Tuath Dé, the idea of a Christ figure is strange. The Tuath Dé have four magic objects: Peretur is in possession of one, the spear, and Peretur’s mother is possession of another, the cauldron. But because of the mixing of cultures, when Peretur hears about the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ drank from, she is confused. Finally, she connects the magic to the bowl she and her mother ate out of every day at home. The quest for the Holy Grail for King Arthur becomes Peretur trying to outrun her sire, the Tuath Dé god Manandán, to her mother and her home.
In that quest, both perspectives of Christian and pagan are correct: what King Arthur refers to as the Holy Grail is the sacred magic bowl of the Tuath Dé. It is the same object, but centered by different myths. In some respects, we can see that as the larger metaphor for Spear. The fresh take here is centering female experience—but in a way that makes its femaleness the least important fact. This touches on the fallacy we often believe, that in order for one thing to be true, another perspective must be false.
In Peretur’s world, few truly lose. As in life, there are rarely clear-cut circumstances, as people are messy and unpredictable, and are changed by the society they keep. As Griffith notes, “We are social animals. If you want to effect change you build a movement, an army, a community—a group who relies on one another, needs one another, changes one another.” Peretur builds that community when she needs one, as we all do. This isn’t the traditional Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell, where, as Griffith puts it: “[A] traditional hero is untouched by the world—untouched by the changes he creates; untouched by the wreckage he leaves behind him as he strides towards his goal.”
In our post-pandemic world, uncertain and traumatized as many readers are, a new way to honor the character’s past seems not just topical but rewarding. Every book does not need to be from a non-white, non-male perspective, but this reader believes that books that will find resonance with readers are those that adjust from the typical Campbell narrative structure (“a strong manly hero striding across the landscape bending events to his will”) to a narrative which acknowledges the journey thus far, and that one truth does not exclude another.
Indeed, when Peretur returns to protect her mother, she finds that more has changed than just herself. And we readers have changed too. In our new post-pandemic world we must make room for how the world changed, how our family structures may have changed, how our own health changed. Griffith acknowledges that Peretur “knows that though she has to move on, her past will always be a part of her.” As it will be for us.
That’s why we still turn to our comfort reads, like Arthurian legends, but why we also need the fresh take that acknowledges that we are no longer the people we were.
About the contributor: Katie Stine writes award-winning Regency romances about women’s boxing as Edie Cay. Her first two books have won the Golden Leaf, the Next Generation Indie Book Award, the Best Indie Book Award. A Lady’s Finder came out in March. She is a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 100 (May 2022)