The best thing about Arthurian legend is that it’s straight up fanfiction. Everyone is riffing off of someone else’s story, and all those stories are just riffs of the stories that came before them. Swords on swords and grails on grails and even Arthurs on Arthurs, if you happen to be reading a time-traveling AU. There’s just so many threads to pull on! But outside the realm of fan fiction for BBC’s early aughts cult classic Merlin, and of course every time Daniel Lavery gets his literary paws anywhere near Camelot, there’s not too much queerness to speak of in modern day Arthurian writing. Enter lauded, countless-award-winning author Nicola Griffith, whose LGBTQ+ novel, Spear, flips the whole legend on its head, while keeping a keen eye on all the mythology that came before it. There’s magic! There’s sword fights! There’s sapphic romance! And, best of all, there’s Griffith’s melodic prose, which will weave you up in its spell in a matter of pages.
Our heroine, Peretur, is raised by her mother, far away from Caer Leon, in complete isolation. And that’s on purpose; she’s running and hiding and determined that no one will ever find her or her child. She’s got some things some very powerful men want, and some things even more powerful men would come after if they knew her treasures existed. Peretur spends her days frolicking through the hills and valleys of her rural land, learning to forage and fish, brew potions and weave baskets. She grows strong and agile, a whisper on the wind, and only ever journeys into the nearby village to leave gifts for the farmer’s wife who sets her heart ablaze. A chance run-in with the fallen body of one of the Knights of Artos, King of Caer Leon, supplies her with a broken spear, sword, and some piecemeal armor — and a feeling she can’t shake, that she was meant for something greater than life alone in the forest. Despite her mother’s protests and promise that goodbye is forever, Peretur sets out on her hero’s journey, disguised as a young man.
I never get tired of gender-bender stories, from Shakespeare to Mulan, from Virgina Woolf to She’s the Man. And what I particularly love about Spear is that none of Peretur’s potential love interests (or mentors) flip out when they fall for her (or agree to train her) and she reveals her gender to them. Some folks see right through it, of course; others are like, “Cool no problem, shall we continue on to the hayloft and get to smashing?” It’s sexy and powerful and she doesn’t stay hidden forever. There’s also nothing quite as satisfying to me as that old Lord of the Rings play where a woman warrior flings off her helmet on the battlefield and declares I AM NO MAN before driving a sword through the heart of some misogynistic monster.
Spear is more than adventure and romance; it’s also a rumination on what it means to ‘belong’ to someone else. How much of who we are is where (and whom) we came from? And how much is who we’re desperate to become? What if our destiny calls us away from a person who feels like we’re their destiny? What do we owe to those who love us? And what do we owe to ourselves? Griffith examines these — very queer — questions with both deftness and gravitas.
Oh, and as a bonus, just a small and special treat: Spear throws open the door on the Lancelotian triad you’ve waited your whole life to see. When I say it’s queer, I mean it’s queer. The whole time I was reading, I was giggling to myself imagining Nicola Giffith doing her Arthurian research as Merlin from Disney’s The Sword and the Stone: What a mess! What a medieval muddle! We’ll have to modernize it!