While there have been plenty of alternative takes on the King Arthur myth on TV before, new Netflix series Cursed takes things in an even more unusual direction, centring the iconic Lady of the Lake (also called Nimue) as the lead character and hero apparently destined to save her civilisation.
"The way I put it is that the Arthurian legend's like this big story - and Cursed is a chapter we've never seen before," series star Katherine Langford told RadioTimes.com.
"And in that sense it's quite liberating and freeing because it's a fresh slate."
But who is Nimue? How does she appear in the Arthurian myths, and how different is the new Netflix series? Read on to find out.
Who is the Lady of the Lake?
Even the most casual awareness of Arthurian myth might bring about a mental image of the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious underwater being who holds aloft King Arthur’s mighty sword Excalibur, passing it to him from beneath her watery domain…assuming he didn’t first get the sword from a stone somewhere. The myths and legends tend to vary over centuries of retelling.
"When we think of the Arthurian legends we think of Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table," Langford said.
"But we don't really know a lot about the other characters in that legend. Specifically this powerful, iconic character of the Lady of the Lake - she is so prolific and yet we have very little to no information about her."
Confusingly, there’s also technically more than one Lady of the Lake. Her most familiar form, an unnamed woman living under a lake who bestows Excalibur on King Arthur, sees her grant the sword in return for a favour from the King – sometimes, this ties into a feud with Sir Balin which ends in her death. In other tales, she appears again at the end of King Arthur’s life to reclaim Excalibur.
Another Lady of the Lake, called Nimuë (with or without the accent), Vivian or some variation of the two, is an enchantress who crops up in some crucial stories, some of which have been adapted less in more modern retellings. In French chivalric romances of the 13th century she acts as the foster mother to Sir Lancelot, raising him after his parents die and later using her magical gifts to aid him on his quests.
In the 'Lancelot-Grail' or Vulgate Cycle version her powers are more nefarious, refusing to love Merlin until the latter teaches her his secrets at which point she magically seals him in either a tree or lump of stone. Some other French tales make her explicitly evil, a true foe to the court of King Arthur, while some even conflate her character with that of Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur’s sorceress sister and longtime enemy to Camelot.
In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, one of the most influential versions of the story, Nimue is more sympathetic. In these stories she seals Merlin away to halt his unwanted advances, and replaces him in court as the King’s main source of magic – later, she helps carry the wounded Arthur to Avalon for his eternal sleep. Still, that hasn't stopped the character being portrayed as a villain in more modern versions of the story.
Who is Nimue in Netflix’s Cursed?
The Nimue (pronounced Nim-Way) of Cursed apparently conflates both versions of The Lady of the Lake, which is fair enough considering how much the legends vary anyway, introducing her as a young woman living among her fairy people the Fae and grappling with strange abilities.
Later, she’s thrust into a war for survival and supremacy, with various factions desperate to get their hands on the cursed sword Nimue’s mother entrusts her with. A sword called Excalibur…
The series (and the illustrated novel by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller that it’s based on) essentially works as an origin story for the Lady of the Lake, presumably explaining how she ended up as a watery supernatural creature, as well as the rise of the future King Arthur and Camelot.
Beyond conflicting backstories about her royal lineage or tragic parents (one or both of whom may have died at her lake) the Nimue/Lady of the Lake in Arthurian myth doesn’t have much information about her history. In other words, Cursed the book and Cursed the series are largely treading new ground.
"Though there's a lot of beautiful art and a couple of folklore influences and things that have been created about her as the Lady of the Lake, there's really nothing about her before she becomes that iconic figure," Langford said.
"Nimue's story hasn't really been told, and in that sense it gave us a lot of creative freedom....to be able to retell a story that has been retold hundreds and hundreds of times through a lens that's completely fresh."
Though with that said, the character’s iconic literary appearance – a lone hand, holding a sword from the lake – appears to have influenced the series' creators, with trailers riffing on the image by having Langford emerge from the water with Excalibur, ready to wreak violence on her enemies. Not your grandad’s Lady of the Lake, for sure.
- Our Cursed review
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