Most of us know the legend of King Arthur – at least, in broad strokes. A legendary British leader who rules over the kingdom of Camelot, Arthur builds a legacy of justice and equality with the help of a sword called Excalibur and a wizard named Merlin.
In actuality, there are dozens of versions of the Arthur myth, many of which both contradict and complement one another in various ways. In some, Arthur is a warrior who defeats the Saxons, in others, he battles supernatural enemies and is betrayed by his own nephew. In several, he’s the epitome of a Christian king, who encourages his knights to seek the very chalice that Jesus himself used, even as he himself is deceived by those closest to him. In still more, he takes a back seat to familiar medieval romance figures like Lancelot, Percival, Galahad, and Yvain.
But in almost every retelling of King Arthur’s story, one thing stands out: How few women there are in it.
This is, of course, precisely why Netflix’s new series Cursed feels like such a breath of fresh air. Based on an illustrated YA novel of the same name, it’s Arthurian legend reimagined for a younger, modern-day audience. And, as a series, it puts its female characters front and center, allowing them to drive the story in new and intriguing ways we haven’t really seen before.
This version of the story is told through the eyes of Nimue, the mystical Lady of the Lake, an oft mentioned but never explored character in the original tales, here reimagined as a teenaged girl with a magical gift and a complicated destiny.
Den of Geek spoke with author and series co-creator Tom Wheeler about his love for Arthurian legend, exploring the origins of the Lady of the Lake, and the decision to give Nimue a voice of her own at last.
“There was so much out there, there’s so much Arthur content out there, it wasn’t clear how we were going to make it feel relevant to today or different or new,” Wheeler explains.“I was wondering, how would I kind of lure my daughter, who was 11 at the time, like, who would she connect with? How would the mythology inspire her? How could it inspire her in the same way [it did me]?”
Of course, there are some familiar female figures in Arthurian legend: Guinevere, Igraine, Morgan le Fay, Elaine of Astolat, to name a few. But most of these women exist on the margins of the tale at best, there to be love interests or to die tragically in service to the story of men. Few have anything that might even charitably be called agency, and those that attempt to choose a path for themselves wind up branded as evil incarnate or bring about the fall of a kingdom. (Sorry, Guinevere.) It’s not entirely easy for women to find someone familiar to root for or connect with in these stories.
“You have characters, the female characters in this mythology, they tend to be seductresses,” Wheeler says. “They didn’t seem to have the three dimensions that the other male characters had, that had such impact and influence on us growing up.”
“[So] I started to look at the characters, the women characters that hadn’t quite gotten their due.”
In multiple versions of the Arthur myth, the witch Nimue is a powerful figure who entraps Merlin with his own magic. In Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Le Morte d’Arthur she even takes his place at court afterward and serves as Arthur’s chief magician in her own right.
But unlike many figures of Arthurian legend, there’s no real definitive take on the character – scholars can barely agree on whether all the Nimues and Ninianes and Vivianes in the various texts are meant to be the same person, let alone whether she’s also the famous Lady of the Lake. (There are several Ladies of the Lake in Malory, just as an example.)
In short: It’s rare that Nimue is depicted as a real person, rather than as some sort of magical or supernatural being that possesses little in the way of an interior life.
However, according to Wheeler, this narrative gap presented a unique opportunity for Cursed to reimagine the character for modern audiences, giving her a voice and a purpose that she hasn’t always possessed.
“There are, of course, several different versions of Nimue, but it didn’t seem like there was a really grounded, relatable, approachable [one],” Wheeler says. “Why does she have the sword? Why is she giving it to Arthur? What is their connection?”
“From those questions, things started really to take off and as a story began to unwind backward in a way, and how could we take this back and If we started to focus on this young woman before she became this ethereal force of nature, then what could we do with the other characters?”
In Cursed, Nimue (Katherine Langford) is a young Fae girl, the daughter of a high priestess who’s chosen to become a leader in her village. She possesses powerful magic in her own right. She’s “strong-willed,” “angry” and dark at times,” stuck at an age “where you’re torn between home and leaving home.” Her journey to her future as the Lady of the Lake is a coming of age tale as well as an iconic moment of legend, and the story of the show reflects that.
“[I] focus[ed] on the image of the sword coming out of the water and the mystery and the tragedy and the magic that surrounds that,” Wheeler explains.
“To me, that image felt very tragic, very meaningful, but also sacrificial. From this sense of a tragic ending, it was interesting to see how we could kind of bring that back to almost a normal place, at her most grounded and real who was she?
“I’m very moved by the story of St. Joan and this idea of a young woman, standing up to these institutions, whether it’s the crown, or the church or her mother and the elders of her village.”
This complexity allows the character of Nimue to become something more than the strange woman lying in a pond distributing swords that so much of popular culture generally remembers her as.
In Cursed, she is a fully three-dimensional figure who drives her own story, making “impulsive or unwise” decisions even as she stands up for her people or faces down the threat of the Red Paladins. She’s not perfect, but in this case, that fact simply makes her human, much the same as the men in the story.
“The idea that we could build a hero out of these very complicated parts was really fun,” Wheeler says.“There was just something about Nimue as a character that you don’t always get as a writer, which is, she would make choices that would surprise me. And that’s great, it means you’ve put the right pieces into place. In a lot of stories, [there’s a] need to drive or wedge your character [to do something] or fit them into a certain structure. In this case, she was coming alive.”
Wheeler acknowledges that this version of the character and the world in which she inhabits is very different – and purposefully so – from what has come before.
“This is a very, very new kind of 21st-century take on the most kind of traditional aspects of [Arthurian legend],” he says. “It will be a really fun part for the audience to see which characters are coming, or which characters they don’t see coming. but introducing them in unique ways and new ways.”
This version of Nimue is, in her way, a completely new character. Complicated and messy, she still may be headed toward an undeniably tragic end. (In some versions of this story, anyway. The jury’s still out on that here for the moment.) But in Cursed she at least gets her chance to tell her own story first, and shape the stories that will follow. Nimue doesn’t simply give Arthur a magical sword and hope for the best – she helps him become a better person along the way.
“Personally, I was raised by strong women. And I just think there’s something great about the idea that one of Arthur’s great teachers is this woman that we haven’t heard much about,” Wheeler says.