Netflix’s new series Cursed gives viewers yet another spin to the Arthurian legend. Cursed takes a historically flimsy relationship between King Arthur (Devon Terrell) and the Lady of the Lake, or Nimue (Katherine Langford) and offers something deeper. Instead of depicting Nimue as a mystical lady who simply hands over a special sword to Arthur, Netflix’s version of Nimue (and her relationship with Arthur) is more nuanced, giving them their own special story, and Nimue a lot more power in, and out of, the relationship.
The original versions left a lot to be desired, but here’s what the Arthur story looked like before Cursed flipped the script.
King Arthur & The Lady Of The Lake
First thing’s first: There have been many different versions of the story of King Arthur and his magical sword Excalibur. In one version, Arthur, the secret son of the king, proves his worthiness by extracting Excalibur from stone. In another, he depends on the help from the mysterious Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur the sword. All we really see of the Lady of the Lake is a hand that emerges from the lake and hands Arthur his blade of destiny. The most popular version of the water enchantress was written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485 called Le Morte D’Arthur.
The Lady of the Lake herself has been depicted as a Celtic goddess, or a fae of the Gwagged Annwn of the lake ferries in Welsh folklore. In fact, there have been many “Ladies of the Lake” according to legend, including Morgan Le Fay. Vivien, who also went by Nineve, Nimue, or Niniane is the most renown Lady of the Lake who put Merlin under her spell. The all-mighty wizard Merlin could not help but become enchanted by Nimue, who keeps Merlin away from King Arthur, replacing Merlin and becoming Arthur’s on-call magician.
The Lady of the Lake’s character ebbs and flows throughout each retelling of the story, but the common theme is that her purposes is to serve Arthur, and in some versions, she bewitches, seduces, and enchants Merlin and eventually seals him into a tomb and leaves him to die. It’s unclear what the Lady of the Lake’s motivations are, but in most of the tales, she’s a combination of both good and evil, largely a tool to move the male characters’ stories forward.
So, before Cursed, Arthur and Nimue never had much contact beyond her giving him the sword. Giving her a romance with Arthur, and an actual backstory, is a huge change.
Arthur & His Sword Of Power
The Sword of Power, known as Excalibur in most versions of the Arthur tale, was written about as early as 1136 in Geoffrey Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, when Excalibur was still called Caliburnus. Excalibur, which has popularly always been associated with Arthur, actually belonged to Sir Gawain, the son of Arthur’s sister. As legend has it, Arthur let his loyal knight Sir Gawain (who winds up being his romantic rival in Cursed ) borrow the sword, but it was eventually given back to Arthur.
To complicate matters, sometimes Excalibur is referred to as the Sword in the Stone, but in other versions, they're totally different swords. It's confusing, I know, but that’s largely because it's unclear even where the legend of the sword came from. Since it was transcribed from the 6th to 8th centuries through oral tradition, there's no calcified origin of Excalibur.
As a rule though, Arthur’s sword usually has some kind of magical, powerful element to it. In the version Cursed is based on, the Lady of the Lake gives Arthur Excalibur after Merlin tells her to do so, because Arthur destroys his other sword in battle. Later, Arthur is badly wounded and tells his knights to give the sword back to the Lady of the Lake. Knight Sir Bedevere reluctantly throws the sword back into the lake; the sword and the water enchantress disappear after that.
In Cursed, this magical sword is destined to end up with the Lady of the Lake, again, but under far different circumstances.
What About Arthur & Guinevere?
She was known for her beauty and loyalty to her king — until she fell for Lancelot, Arthur’s most loyal knight. Like so many other sexist tales of women “ruining” men (Helen of Troy, Yoko Ono and The Beatles, Jessica Simpson and the Dallas Cowboys), their affair is depicted as the death of the Knights of the Round Table and Guinevere’s unfaithfulness to Arthur is said to be the reason why Camelot fell (Lancelot is fine though). In typical medieval fashion, as a woman, Guinevere is negatively depicted, because ladies’ desires were considered evil. Still, Guinevere ends up choosing Arthur over Lancelot, and even after Arthur dies, remains a widow forever, so their “love story” remains a well-known one.
While Guinevere does seem to be introduced on Cursed in order to create a love triangle, it stands to reason that in this version of the Arthurian legend, Arthur won't be able to blame any of his shortcomings on her sexual desires.
How Cursed Changes Arthur — & Gives Him A Back Seat
Throughout the many iterations of the Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake is more of a symbol than a person — an important character who is treated as a mere accessory. So, the goal in Cursed is to take some of the focus off Arthur and portray the woman who changes his life as a real person.
The series asks questions many of us wondered but never thought to ask: Why does Nimue have the sword? Why the heck does she even bother giving it to Arthur? And most importantly, who is she? Cursed’s Nimue is a teen Fey whose mother is a high priestess. She is eventually chosen to lead her village, but flees because she is scorned by many of her people. The series not only centers Nimue, but creates a necessary origin story that eventually pushes her forward and empowers her to become the Lady of the Lake — something ancient texts failed to do.
Because of this backstory, the tables have gloriously turned, and it’s Nimue who has the sword. She actually has agency and while she develops a romantic relationship with Arthur, she has the control. And rather than making Guinevere and Arthur’s well-known romance central to the series, Cursed gives the spotlight to Nimue, with Arthur as her romantic sidekick.
Though Arthur initially thinks otherwise, Nimue is the one meant to have the sword. She is no longer someone who is in the story just to seduce Merlin and deliver a legendary gift to a king. She’s a leader with her own destiny and desires. In this version, thankfully, Arthur appreciates that. The two characters appear destined to be together from their first meeting, and by the first season’s end, their love for each other is clear — as is the fact that Nimue is the one with all the power.
By experiencing the Arthurian legend through Nimue’s eyes rather than Arthur's, the mystery around the traditional Lady of the Lake has finally been dispelled. She's now see a powerful young woman who is not Arthur’s watery muse, but the hero he lives to serve.