Nicola Griffith’s Spear Is a Gender-Bending, Queer Arthurian Adventure

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!


Spear by Nicola Griffith is available now.


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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1412 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. This was one of my favorite books of the year. Not only was it written beautifully but it really healed the Arthurian damage I had from childhood lmao. I got into it by reading the books of [awful awful perons] and then role played it on Neopets with some other girl and got way too oversaturated with it.

    Anyways, this book was so fun and I loved how gay Peretur was. She’s the butch mythical gay warrior we need.

  2. This book sounds awesome. Another queer Arthurian legend retelling people should know about if they like this kind of thing is Amy Rose Capetta’s Once and Future, which also has a queer female Arthur, and is kind of amazing.

  3. Ooh, I’m interested in this.

    Another queer Arthurian retelling is Mia West’s Sons of Britain series – set in 6th C Wales with no knights or magic, it feels like both Arthur’s origin story and an origin story of the Arthurian Legends.

    The series isn’t finished yet (there are 9 planned stories) and imo, it started going off the rails around maybe the 5th book. But the first three are a very solid trilogy about Arthur’s early days and they work well without reading the others.

    Books 1 and 2 are m/m (Arthur and Bedwyr, known as the one-armed knight in the ballads) and book three is f/f with a really satisfying queering of the whole Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot triangle.

  4. Will check it out – I love an Arthurian novel!

    For anyone interested, I’d also recommend Warriors of Alavna by NM Browne, it’s YA fiction and there’s no sapphic romance but it’s got some very queer gender stuff going on. At the risk of revealing too much, let’s just say that it was very formative for my young trans masc self. It’s the first in a trilogy, and the second book leans much more into Arthurian legends, but I’d still recommend it for anyone interested in ancient Britain.

  5. :-) Heather, this just became my n°1 “must read list” because of your review! Thx very much for this jewel! Nicola Griffiths prose is splendid and i can t wait to read this one … i wonder how i missed in the first place … ah well … off to my bookshop….

  6. I loved Spear–I have yet to encounter a Griffith book that doesn’t land just right for me. Haven’t seen Sword Stone Table mentioned in the comments yet; it’s a recent collection of gender- and race-bent Arthuriana.

    Also must give caveat-laden snaps to my beloved The King’s Peace and The King’s Name (Walton).

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