Spear by Nicola Griffith is an Arthurian novella about Peretur (Perceval) set in 6th century Wales, with a lot of realistic detail of everyday material culture, armor, weaponry, and the diverse peoples inhabiting the island after the reign of the Roman Empire. For example, Bedwyr (Bedivere) is of African ancestry, and Llanza (Lancelot) is brown-skinned. The most notable change from the usual Arthurian mythos is that Peretur is a lesbian woman, disguised as a man in order to fight with Arthur and his Companions. I am a sucker for “woman dressed as a man” historical narratives, so this was catnip to me!
I also liked how Griffith integrated magic into the narrative; it felt organic to intricately tie artifacts such as Artur’s sword and the stone it came from to Peretur’s origins as the daughter of a magical being and also to Myrddyn (Merlin) and Nimuë, whose relationship is also reworked in a way I found very satisfying from a feminist point of view.
Griffith’s dialogue with Arthuriana reworked a lot of elements I find annoying in many versions of the story, for that matter. The usual toxic love triangle of Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot is here presented as a mutual polyamorous relationship with Artur, his beloved spear brother the Asturian knight Llanza, and Gwenhwyfar. Their relationship is concealed from others but visible to Peretur’s eyes. Llanza was one of my favorite characters; he has congenital damage to one of his legs, but on horseback is the best of Artur’s warriors as well as the most loving and loyal. Griffith deftly characterizes each of the Companions, no matter how brief their appearance, giving a sense of wholeness and reality to the story.
As with all Griffith’s work, I highly recommend Spear and hope that someday she writes more with these characters.