In Netflix’s Cursed, the legend of King Arthur is reimagined to center a different hero as the wielder of a fateful, mystical sword: the Lady of the Lake, otherwise known as Nimue. But just who is Nimue, the mysterious sorceress at the center of this bold new adaptation? The many foundational texts of Arthurian legend offer a wealth of insight.
In literary tradition, the Lady of the Lake is known by many names—most commonly Viviane, Vivien, Ninianne, and Nimue. Many literary and historical scholars believe that the Lady of the Lake is not one person, but rather a handful of distinctly separate Ladies of the Lake (all water fairies and enchantresses) who share the same epithet and role. The name Nimue was popularized by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the best-known works of Arthurian literature, which was published in 1485. Though most scholars agree that King Arthur and his cohorts are mythical folk heroes, not actual men and women who lived and died in medieval England, the legend of the Lady of the Lake may precede the legend of King Arthur. Some scholars believe that she originated as the Celtic water goddess Conventina, whose name evolved into Covienna and later gave way to etymological forms like Vivien. Coventina was widely worshipped throughout the western Roman Empire and early Britain; in modern Northumberland, tourists can visit an ancient shrine to Coventina, located in Hadrian's Wall.
Cursed, adapted from the popular graphic novel by Frank Miller and Thomas Wheeler, envisions its Lady of the Lake as a young enchantress descended from the fey, a race of woodland beings with miraculous healing abilities and a storied, mythical past. The fey are persecuted by the Red Paladins, a group of religious extremists working at the behest of King Uther Pendragon to cleanse England of all non-human individuals. The Red Paladins seek to slaughter every last member of the fey in mass genocides, with the goal of insulating King Uther’s rule from magical threats. When the Red Paladins lay siege to Nimue’s village, Nimue is entrusted with a fabled Sword of Power by her wounded mother, who exhorts her daughter with her dying breath to deliver the sword to Merlin, the famed sorcerer.
We soon come to learn that this ancient sword was forged with fey magic, capable of obliterating hordes of enemies, and that it is the last hope of Nimue’s endangered people. Certainly this sword is a riff on Excalibur, the legendary sword bestowed to King Arthur by none other than the Lady of the Lake. While some legends conflate Excalibur with the mythology surrounding the sword in the stone, a weapon that only the rightful King of England could remove from where it was lodged in rock, current scholarship suggests that these are two separate swords.
In most tellings, Arthur first meets the Lady of the Lake when she rises from the water to offer Excalibur to him. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Excalibur comes with strings attached, as the Lady offers the sword only if Arthur promises to someday fulfill a request from her. Years later, she travels to Arthur’s court to collect the favor, requesting the head of Sir Balin, whom she blames for her brother’s death. Arthur refuses the request, while an outraged Sir Balin decapitates the Lady of the Lake. An outraged and embarrassed Arthur banishes Sir Balin, then holds a sumptuous funeral for the Lady of the Lake. However, scholars believe that this unnamed Lady of the Lake, who bequeaths Excalibur to Arthur, is not Nimue, as Malory takes care to explicitly name Nimue in other stories.
Many of Cursed’s early episodes revolve around Nimue’s long and winding journey to deliver the Sword of Power to Merlin. She encounters Arthur in her travels, reimagined in this story as a charismatic sword for hire born into poverty, completely without royal blood. Legend has it that, when Arthur was fatally wounded in his final battle, Nimue was among the Ladies of the Lake who recovered Excalibur from the water and bore Arthur’s body away to Avalon, an enchanted island where he could heal from his wounds. Though Cursed sees a romance blossom between Arthur and Nimue, it’s Nimue’s relationship to Merlin that has the most literary precedent.
In almost all versions of Arthurian legend, Nimue is the architect of Merlin’s downfall. Nimue is often depicted as an apprentice of Merlin’s, along with other familiar sorceresses like Morgan le Fay and Sebile. Merlin lusts after Nimue, though storytellers disagree on her reaction to his affections; some write that she returns his feelings in kind, while others maintain that she feels persecuted by his sexual advances and wishes to be left alone. Whatever Nimue’s feelings, Merlin’s story always ends when she consigns him either to death or eternal imprisonment, using one of his own spells to lock him away in a prison that takes forms including a crystal cave, a tree, a magical tower, or a hole in the ground beneath a heavy rock. Merlin, who has the gift of foresight, sees his imprisonment coming, yet is either powerless or unwilling to change his fate.
Depending on the telling, Nimue’s motivations for imprisoning Merlin vary. In versions where she returns his affections, she imprisons him to keep him to herself, visiting his prison each night so that they may lie together. In stories like Le Morte d’Arthur, where she has grown tired of his relentless sexual advances, Merlin’s confinement is depicted as justice served, with Nimue desperate to rid herself of him. Once Merlin is out of play, Nimue replaces him as the court mage and becomes a trusted advisor to King Arthur. In Le Morte d’Arthur, she goes on to save Arthur’s life on multiple occasions, rescuing him from attacks at the hands of his enemies.
In a mid-season shocker, Cursed twists Nimue’s relationship to Merlin in a surprising new direction. Yet elements of their dynamic remain the same, with a significantly more experienced Merlin advising Nimue on how to harness and control her powers of sorcery. Though depictions of Nimue are as broad and varied as the Arthurian legendarium itself, the character, in all her forms, was remarkably ahead of her time, with more agency and complexity than was permitted to most women in medieval stories. Cursed’s Nimue may not look quite the same as her literary forebears, but one thing’s for sure: the Nimue who sentenced her harasser to eternal imprisonment would probably cheer on this Nimue as she takes up the sword.
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