How Netflix’s Cursed Brings Magic Back to King Arthur
Hannah Collins
Cursed nimue
Cursed nimue
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of Netflix's Cursed.
While magic and mysticism have always been integral to the legend of King Arthur, they've never been dominant, overriding forces. With human knights and kings at the myth's forefront, magic plays more of a sidekick role; coloring the stories' landscape and steering key moments. As Arthurian romances bridge the gap between different eras of British history, mages like Merlin and enchantresses like the Morgan Le Fey represent the country's wild, pagan past, while Arthur's reign signifies its tamed unification. Netflix's Cursed, however, reframes these age-old tales to bring the former to the fore in a way that's both feminist and environmentally conscious.
The series does this most noticeably by taking the focus away from Arthur and placing it, instead, on Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. In the original legends, Nimue has an important role to play at either end of the Once and Future King's life. Some stories tell of her molding him from a young age to be a great ruler, as well as bestowing Excalibur on him. She also ushers his spirit to Avalon -- a mystical afterlife -- when he's close to death, allowing him to rest until his country needs him once more.
Cursed's Nimue, played by Katherine Langford, remakes the character from the ground up: giving her a solid origin story as a Fey girl who is scarred at a young age when a demon bear lures her into the woods. Her strong connection to The Hidden --  a mysterious force that whispers to her -- and her "tainted" power often results in the people around her getting hurt by vines or other natural elements whenever her temper flares. When she unleashes this power on a Red Paladin, a member of a fanatical Christian group bent on eradicating the Fey, the Church brands her the Wolf Blood Witch and puts a bounty on her life. Armed with the Sword of Power, Nimue is torn between using the weapon to barter for peace, or using it to keep her position as Queen of the Fey.
How close to the original legend is this characterization of Nimue? Well, like all things King Arthur, it's complicated. A single magical origin is hard to pin down. Early French sources paint her as a guardian angel to Lancelot, her adopted son. The Perceforest makes her descended from a fairy called Morgane, herself descended from gods. Other times, she's afflicted with an enchantment that draws men like Merlin to her, leading to a pretty toxic relationship to unfold. Cursed sheds any reliance she has on men and makes her magic her own to use.
In doing so, it also humanizes Nimue without losing any of her mystique. Though she's an innately magical person, owing to a mixture of blood, circumstance and fate, Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller's story grounds the character by making her vulnerable, emotional and conflicted about her identity and path. The series also changes hers and Merlin's connection for the better -- making them an estranged father and daughter rather than tortured lovers. Merlin's potent magic could also factor into Nimue's abilities in ways neither of them has yet considered.
Merlin, who is unwelcome in the Fey world due to his alliance with the kings of men, is wary of her potential. At 700 years old, he's lived long enough to see Nimue's people pushed into the shadows by his own kind. And with the human vs. Fey war, Cursed uses magic to make another political statement. "First, they took the rivers, so the Fey lived in the forest; then they took the trees, so the Fey hid in the caves, some to the mountain rocks, some to the underearth, then the men built mines… and so it has been for 1,000 years."
The Fey are made up of individual tribes whose designs borrow from animals and plants, as well as Celtic culture -- most notably, circular motifs like the Triskelion, which can be seen braided into their hair, used as markers on the road to signpost Fey safehouses and on the Sword of Power's hilt, betraying its Fey origin. Rather than any "race," they make for a clearer stand-in for indigenous Celts and Pagans while their aggressors, the colonizing forces of Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Christianity.
In tying magic to geography, and to a people visibly molded and intimately connected to that geography, Cursed ultimately makes King Arthur not a story of female empowerment but also an environmentalist fable; one where those who are of the Earth fight to defend themselves and, by extension, it, from the "civilizing" powers of patriarchal humans who use belief to burn down the forests and pollute the rivers with blood.
Based on the novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler, Cursed stars Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Peter Mullan, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Daniel Sharman, Sebastian Armesto, Ella Prebble, Scarlett Rock and Daniella Gad. The series is available for streaming on Netflix now.