by Nicola Griffith
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 10, 2022
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Thanks to Edelweiss for an advance copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review. Nicola Griffith's Spear will be published next Tuesday, April 19. It is a retelling of many different myths and legends from different times and various cultures, but the one most familiar would be King Arthur and his court at Camelot. Except this story calls him Arturus (Artos to his closest advisors), and his court is at Caer Leon. Wikipedia tells me that Caerleon is one of the suspected locations for Arthur's castle. It was also the site of a Roman fortress, whose circular ampitheater may have been the inspiration for stories of the Round Table. There is no round table in Griffith's take, but it's possible that came after events in this book. Also, the members of Arturus's court are called Companions instead of Knights.
Several of the characters' names, like Arturus, are close enough to ones I'm familiar with to make the connection. Arturus's queen is Gwenhwyfar; instead of Lancelot it is Lanza, also known as Lance to the King and close friends; Myrddyn rather than Merlin; Arturus's son, not appearing here, but mentioned by name once, is Medrawd rather than Mordred. Caerleon is in Wales, and most of the names seem to be Welsh rather than the English ones from Sir Thomas Malory's later account. We don't learn the name of the protagonist right away, instead her mother, Elen, calls her by various pet names; Dawnged, meaning gift or favour; T‚l, payment to Elen; BÍr-hyddur, the spear enduring. Elen and the girl have been hidden away, protected by a geas Elen has placed around their cave home, somewhere near Ystrad Tywi in southwest Wales. It is not until the girl decides she has to venture away from that protection that her mother reveals her true name, Peretur. In an afterword the author says that is a variation of Peredur, but in other stories it has been Peredurus, Perceval, Parzival, Percival, or Parsifalóall from varied sources, Early and Middle Welsh, Latin, Old French, Middle English, Middle High German, etc. I doubt any of those stories were about a woman who became a member of Arthur's court.
Peretur has many abilities. She communes with nature, both animals and plants, and can gather information from them. A fly that had previously touched the leg of a ram brushes her arm, and she knows the location of that ram, and that it is approaching her, preparing to charge. For as long as she can remember she has had visions and heard the call of a special lake, and she believes it to be her destiny to find it. All water, whether it be rain or lake or stream, is connected, so she senses the special lake every time she encounters water. Even before she left her mother she had come upon the body of a man, and just touching him brings her his thoughts at the time of death, so she knows he was thrown from his horse. She takes his sword, spear, and knife, a coin, a ring, as well as his "fish scale" vest and leather armour. She gives the knife to her mother, and sharpens the sword's edges, its tip being broken. She also reinforces the sword's scabbard, and alters the vest and other garments to fit her. She binds her breasts, cuts her hair, and disguises her appearance in other ways. On her journey to find the lake she acquires an abandoned work horse, works on different farms for food and a place to sleep. Being able to commune with animals makes her perfect to work at a byre (stable). It is at one such place she first encounters Companions from Car Leon, but an argument with their leader causes her to be driven away from the place. At this time there is only one person she has met that knows she is a woman, the daughter of the innkeeper, with whom she has had several romantic trysts.
She is determined to do great deeds to redeem herself in the eyes of the Companions, and to Arturus. Her unique abilites help her to overcome what would seem to be superior forces of bandits, some of whom she kills, others she thinks can be rehabilitated, convincing farmers to take them on as labourers. The most notorious bandit is someone banished from Arturus's court, the Red Knight. I may be mistaken, but I think that is the only time the word knight is used. She faces him with inferior weapons, a much smaller horse, and yet her abilities enable her to defeat him. This and many other triumphs have the country folk on her side, and many follow her back to Caer Leon to testify of her bravery. Arturus is not convinced, suspecting Peretur is after his special sword. Another change here; instead of Excalibur, Arturus's sword is Caledfwlch, again from the Welsh stories. There are several things Peretur did not know about herself, or her mother, and she never knew her father. She had assumed that some things her mother had told her were just stories, but she later learns the truth from another of Arturus's advisors, NimuŽ, the Lady of the Lake. Yes, that lake, the one Peretur had been seeking. I'll not reveal any of the other things Peretur learns from NimuŽ, although I will reveal that NimuŽ knew immediately that Peretur was a woman. Working together they are able to retrieve two other special objects, then hide or destroy them so they would not tempt anyone else to obtain their power. One of the items is thought by Arturus and the Companions to be the Holy Grail. It's not, its provenance is completely different, and it's probably more powerful than the mythical Grail, too powerful to be trusted in the hands of anyone. They do not attempt to wrest Caledfwlch from Arturus, leaving that for another time, possibly upon his death.
I may have revealed too many things, while also keeping some of Peretur's history secret, but the power of this story is not in the details of the plot, or even in the differences from other stories you've read. It is in the character of Peretur, her actions and reactions to everyone and everything she encounters, and her affinity with nature. Most of all it is some of the most beautifully lyrical prose I've ever read, including the descriptions of nature, and the thoughts Peretur has as she reads nature to plan her moves. Her various battles against bandits, as well as the scrimmages she has with other Companions, are detailed enough to paint a vivid picture in the reader's mind, witnout being too graphic and gory. With the exception of Arturus, everyone is captivated by Peretur's prowess and strength, but most especially by her kind and generous heart. Give this book a chance, and I'm sure Peretur will capture your heart as well. Highly recommended.
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