The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith
Posted on April 20, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
Knights and legends and the dream of the British Isles… but for author Nicola Griffith, something was missing. What was it, and how does Spear offer it to reader? Griffith explains in this Big Idea.
I’ve loved the Matter of Britain since I got my first library card. I dragged home every bit of Arthuriana I could find. What I loved most about books like Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset was the setting, the landscape of Long Ago: the scent of the forest, mist on the moors.
What I didn’t love was never seeing people like me moving through that landscape: no crips and no queer people, no women who weren’t tropes, and zero people of colour.
There’s a reason we’re not in these stories: the Matter of Britain is at heart a national origin story. Its nativist, class-ridden, ableist, manifest destiny is pretty much baked in. So in late 2019 when I was asked to write a story for a ‘race-bent, queer-inclusive’ Arthurian anthology, I said no; I didn’t think it could be done and still feel Arthurian. I went back to researching Menewood, the sequel to Hild. Then I got a second email about the anthology.
I opened the email intending to say no—my fingers were poised over the keyboard—when into my head dropped an image: half hidden by trees an exhausted figure in mended armour sitting on a bony gelding and holding a red spear. And I knew how to combine Arthurian legend with Welsh history and Irish myth—and lose all the nativist baggage. More to the point I knew it would be fun—something silvery and quick. So I set Menewood aside, opened a new document titled “Red,” and began.
Words roared out, a torrent leaping and tumbling with sheer joy. In just 17 days “Red” had become Spear.
Think of Spear as a cousin of Hild, but with magic—not just Hild’s wild magic of the landscape, and the magic of love and the human heart, but the sword-swinging, monster-killing magic of myth and demigods. It’s set a hundred years earlier than Hild, in Wales rather than England, so instead of Hild’s sturdy Anglo-Saxon sentences I let the language off the leash, let it run as it wanted, and what it wanted was to be throughly Celtic: rhythmic and rippling and periphrastic. Which makes sense because after all Peretur, the character at the centre of Spear, is Welsh.
Written mention of the Arthurian hero most people know as Sir Percival begins in Old Welsh of the sixth century. But the figure in my vision was not nobly born or a person of privilege. That bony gelding, for example, spelled poverty, or at least a sense of mend-and-make-do. And though their armour was red—like the fifteenth century Sir Percival’s armour—it wasn’t medieval plate but leather sewn with horn panels: something from a much earlier era. It had to be Peretur, from sixth-century Wales. Which was perfect—not only because it’s my favourite period but because I wanted Wales specifically. In the fifth century, after Roman legions withdrew, the Irish raided west Wales repeatedly, and eventually ruled it. So now I could link the story to legends of the Tuath Dé and their Four Treasures: the cauldron, the sword, the stone, and the spear.
The first three treasures, in the guise of the Grail, Excalibur, and the stone Excalibur is pulled from, fit very neatly into Arthurian legend. The spear, though? Not so much. But on one of those philological deep dives researching Menewood I’d learned that the name Peretur could plausibly stem from two Welsh words, bêr (hard or enduring) and hyddur (spear). Bêr-hyddur: Peretur.
If you’ve read Hild you know I’m a big fan of historical accuracy. Spear though, is stuffed with magic and demigods, so I approached historical realism from a different perspective. Queer people, disabled people, people of colour, poor people, women and the gender non-conforming are an integral part of the history of Britain—we are here now; we were there then. So we are in this story.
My Peretur, then, is born in a cave to a traumatised mother who has fled into hiding with almost nothing, who’s barely able to look after herself, never mind her child. Peretur learns to provide for them both, without being seen, via a kind of involuntary barter: she steals what she needs from isolated farmsteads and, in exchange, gives the farmers something they need. Although Peretur’s poor in material goods, she’s rich in experience: she revels in her physical strength, she loves roaming her valley, and she delights in protecting these people—who she thinks of as her responsibility—even though they have no idea she exists. And later, when she leaves home, her stance to the world isn’t wary and folded-in but wide-open and full-throated. There’s danger, yes, and loss and fear, but this isn’t a story of stress or angst. It’s a story of love, and lust, and fights to the death: Peretur lives large because Peretur’s a hero.
Having said that she’s not like the heroes in the Campbellian tradition, who are relentless in pursuit of their goal—which is to crush their enemies, heedless of the suffering they cause, and move on, unaffected by the wreckage and weeping in their wake. Peretur’s goal is not just to win fights and slay monsters—which she does, with great élan—but to find her people and a place to call home. And that’s what I want for this book: to find its people.
To me, it doesn’t matter whether Arthur or Camelot ever existed—because to me Camelot isn’t really a place. It’s a state of mind, a condition outside reality whose heroes fight not for power over others but the power to fight in service of a dream, a dream of justice and inclusion, a dream of belonging. Camelot could have existed, yes, and maybe some of us wish it had existed, but what makes it enduringly attractive is that it might yet exist. So this book is for people like me who want to be immersed in a time and place we’ve never seen—a past we’ve been told doesn’t belong to us. Spear is for those of us who long not only to see ourselves in that heroic past but to be the heroes—to not just exist, but to live large and to thrive.
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This book is a dream come true! I can’t wait!
My copy arrived yesterday and I can’t wait. I’m also relieved to hear that Menewood is not a myth and I really hope you got right back into it.
This is so exciting. I’ve been waiting for Menewood and it looks like I’ll have to keep waiting a bit, but what an exciting consolation prize. Any book by Nicola Griffith is a cause for celebration.
@Jeff @Nortally MENEWOOD is not a myth. It’s finished and will be published around this time next year!
Sounds great, and I’m not a big Arthurian fan. Except that ‘Merlin’ from 1998 with Sam Neill, I did like that.
I’m thrilled that you have a new book out and I am patiently awaiting my turn in the library queue. You are one of my favorite authors; your stories invariably become part of my personal mythos. Thank you for keeping on.
Cannot wait to read this!!!