Nicola Griffith’s short novel Spear takes us on a luminous journey deep in Welsh roots of Arthurian legend to record the exploits of Peretur as she seeks to understand her nature and the fate that awaits her at Caer Leon, the stronghold of Arturus and his Companions. As Griffith explains in her afterward, she has searched through all the versions of Arthur’s history and primitive Britain in different forms and the languages of early Welsh, medieval Latin, Old French, Middle High German, Middle English and more to pull together her brilliant interpretation.
Spear gives us a vivid and completely original portrait of the figure known variously as Peretur, Parzifal, Parsifal or many related names, but here as a woman, and the search for the great cup that is one of four magic objects that belonged to ancient gods. The others are the sword Arturus keeps at his side as the source of his power, the stone from which he took it and the great spear that becomes Peretur’s weapon.
We see Peretur first as a young girl, so far without her true name, raised in the isolation of a cave by a mother determined to keep the child from her mysterious father. She seems to be imbued with her own special powers. Even in childhood, the natural world sings to her of its subtlest shifts and portents of change.
“Before harvest, when the bee hum spreads drowsy and heavy as honey, she tastes in their busy drone a tale of the stream over which they skim, the falls down which stream pours, the banks it winds past where reeds grow thick and the autumn bittern booms.”Spear, Advance review copy in Kindle edition, Location 30
Her mother Elen stays as close to their cave, completely hidden from view, as she possibly can, fearing always that the girl’s father, Manandan, will return to take the cup and the daughter from her. It was he who had enslaved Elen and taken her soul and from whom she stole the cup as payment for her suffering. Though she tries to keep the girl as close as possible, she grows stronger and roams more widely, sensing gradually that her fate lies elsewhere. Finally, when it is clear the girl is about to leave, Elen reveals her true name Peretur (from a Welsh word for spear-enduring) and declares that she will never see her again. The mother puts a spell on the girl that makes it impossible for her to speak about Elen or reveal the location of her cave.
From there we follow Peretur as she encounters peasant families whom she helps and from whom she accepts food and shelter. Because of her strength and skill, she is always taken for a young man, though in one romantic encounter she sleeps with a young woman who learns her secret but pledges to keep it. She happens upon the partly buried body of a warrior and takes his weapons and leather armor before giving him a better burial. With these, she sets about battling the bandits that have been terrorizing the farmers. Eventually she happens upon a group of Arturus’ companions and helps them fight off a bandit troop.
She tells them it is her destiny to go to Caer Leon and be accepted as one of the king’s Companions, but they tell her she must make a name for herself first. She sets out to do that through an encounter with the dreaded Red Knight. After that she leads a procession of the people she has helped to Caer Leon, meets Arturus and the rest of the court but finds them suspicious of her. There are many further adventures Peretur has to carry out, and these take her deep into the magic of the king’s sorcerer, Nimue, and eventually back to her cave home and a confrontation with her father, the god Manandan.
Nicola Griffith’s Spear takes us on a circular journey of discovery that flows on brilliant prose. I had to read it in a day because the rhythm and imagery were so fluid and deeply woven into the sensual world of Peretur’s heightened perception and powers. I found Spear to be a flawless work of glistening imagination, a rendering of early Britain that is completely original and fresh. Peretur is an unforgettable figure, always alert to what her senses take in, brilliant in action and, something that is hard to portray, a character who feels thoroughly good as she grows into her adult self and all her powers.
Part bildungsroman, part Arthurian adventure, steeped in magic and intensely lyrical in style, Spear is a book I found completely captivating. It’s one of many great shorter works I’ve read in the past year that perfectly matches length to its structure and purposes.
My thanks to TorDotCom and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which I could base this review, reflecting solely my own opinions.