Image description: A book, Spear by Nicola Griffith, standing upright in the grass under the trees. Against it lean an enamel pin, sized to look like a shield, and a large boar spear. A small hedgehog noses through the grass at lower left. It could be spring, summer or early autumn.
Over on Instagram, OliviaKRobinson asks;
I was struck by how incredibly rich and well-researched the world of Spear felt – what sources did you use to develop and research it?
Much of the foundational early-medieval research—the things I need for world-building: language, archaeology, climate, material culture, agriculture, etc—I’d already done1 in service of Hild (2013) and Menewood (October 2023). And those sources are so numerous and spread over so many years—many before I started keeping track of my sources—that I wouldn’t really know where to start.2
Much of the Arthuriana, in all its (almost) infinite variety, I’d absorbed by osmosis over the years, first through story—everything from Mallory to Tennyson to Sutcliff to Treece to Stewart to Bradshaw—and then through the sources I encountered in those books’ paratext.3 For example, when I first read Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave in my late teens/early twenties, I read her Author’s Note and encountered for the first time mention of the Historia Brittonum (HB) by Nennius (or, as I discovered many years later, the ‘Nennian compiler’). In the course of researching Hild I discovered that Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (HE) probably relied to an extent on De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (DEB) by Gildas—but possibly also on a lost source referred to as the Northern Memorandum. Which turned out to perhaps also have been part of the inspiration for HB—as were DEB and HE. I was beginning to figure out that much of what we think of as history has no definitive source, just endlessly circular references and revisionist interpolations. For a while I thought everything we thought of as history was actually just legend, or even myth. It was at that point that I gave up history and relied instead of archaeological research and material culture. Only to discover that this was often interpreted through the lens of standard historiology.
Round and round with no beginning. (Maybe you’re beginning to understand why there’s no simple answer to an apparently simple question.) Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love this stuff! It’s my crack. I can get so lost in tracing the connections that I forget why I was researching in the first place; the research becomes its own purpose and joy.
Anyway back to Spear. When I first pondered the possibility of working with Arthurian legend I was in this liminal space: poised between the absolute knowledge that it couldn’t be done—that nativist, supremacist Manifest Destiny was essential to what makes the legend so attractive—and the dawning realisation that there was…something, some tiny clue glimmering in the mist if I could only get to it… And the etymological research I’d been doing in service of place names was part of it.
I’ve been writing fiction long enough to understand when a thought, and idea is so delicate it has to be ignored for a while so it can solidify. So instead of running down the etymological link I started thinking about the Matter of Britain and how it has been used as a rationale for English/Anglo-Saxon/Germanic supremacy for almost a millennium. And that’s when I started thinking about legend and its relation to myth, about cosmology, eschatology, and ontology. I read all sorts of seriously odd stuff that was part philosophy and part religion with a dash of lit theory which led me in circular fashion (this research always ends up being circular, repeating as endlessly as the seasons) back to Tolkien’s notions of myth and story. At which point I felt I’d reached a precarious balance that would topple if I added one more thing, so I sat back, left everything mulch in that black box that is the writer’s subconscious, and did something else (I wrote some more Menewood).
And then one day the vision of a rider on a bony gelding emerging from the mist, both exhausted, both wounded, the rider in tattered and mended armour and holding a red spear, and Boom! it all came together: I could see how Arthurian legend had to end the way it did in order to create its own beginning, and that the rider was Peretur, that I could set this story in the sixth century and, through the person and name of Peretur herself, could tie together Welsh history, English legend, and Irish myth and absolutely fucking destroy that rich white straight nondisabled male Manifest Destiny crap.4
So my sources? Everything I’ve ever read and loved and hated, everything I’ve yearned for and wanted to change. Will it change the world? No. Might it crack the legend open just enough for others to enter? Maybe a little. But if the only real result is one small book that pleases me very much, that’s enough.
 And am still doing
 It includes all stages of early-medieval (or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or even ‘Dark Ages’) historiography starting with early to mid-20th century standards such as Trevelyan, to Stenton and on, through the archaeological emphasis in the 70s, to popular TV shows like Time Team to cultural histories to Big History and now to academic pre-prints and conference papers and—importantly—research blogs. If I could somehow go back in time and take notes, I have no doubt the working bibliography would run to several hundred pages. But it also includes constant current research into the natural world: which trees flower first? What do hedgehogs eat? When do certain birds migrate?
 Paratext is just a fancy term for the fiddly bits, the delicious extras some writers generously include with their novels: the Author’s Notes about history, historicity, process, and so on; maps; glossaries; family trees…
 Insert emoji of writer standing on her desk, head tipped back, positively yodelling in triumph.
3 thoughts on “Spear’s first year #3: Rich research, circular as the seasons”
Love the commentary. And understand how research can be its own reward. Let’s hear it for exploring rabbit holes! I was thrilled, decades ago, to discover Sutcliff and be gifted by a new way to experience history and legend. You are very much her worthy successor.
Heh, I think I prefer the term ‘fiddly bits’ to ‘pretext’.
Your commentary about our original sources raises questions which have been rattling around in my head ever since reading a few myself including Bede and something by Aristotle which I found myself doubting was by Aristotle. (wry grin) I was thinking about the advantage the monks had in shaping history and the disadvantage the Lombards had, robbing their monasteries and annoying those with the power of the scroll. :)
I was thinking about the questions you raised about just how little a voice did women have in the ancient world? Questions you discussed during a Zoom interview. I found myself recalling Thomas Costain’s highly subjective, yet very entertaining accounts of the Plantagenets and the Matildas before Plantagenets. Many of his books features powerful ladies who remind me of Breguswith, web-spinners who watched, listened, manipulated, holding a lot of power and respect.
They definitely had voices, not matching the picture of submissive femininity bandied about so often in official history. Which makes me think about the term history, his story, something which has also been discussed by many a professor of mine.
You did some smart research in looking for sources. Yes, it can be like crack. I’m impressed that you found the right balance, following the research without being lost in it, sticking to your goals in locating the material you wished to detect.
Thank you for sharing not only your findings, but your way of research. It’s juicy food for thought.
I’ve read a lot about ‘the Dark Ages’ and they fascinate. Also read a lot Cecelia Holland’s work (she is actually a Facebook friend too). It strikes me that this era really only existed in France and Britain. Germany never had much Roman civilization to lose. Ireland was never Roman and it was flowering, as was the Arab Caliphate. Byzantium was struggling but not gone. It all makes the Dark Ages seem like a curious anomaly…
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