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Netflix’s ‘Cursed’ turns the legend of King Arthur on its head. Here’s how

Katherine Langford is shown in a scene from Netflix series "Cursed"
“Cursed” is a retelling of the Arthurian legend focused on Nimue, the teenager destined to become the Lady of the Lake, played by Katherine Langford.
(Netflix)

This story contains spoilers from the first season of Netflix’s “Cursed.”

The first time Nimue unsheathes the Sword of Power in the series premiere of “Cursed,” she is standing atop a large rock trying to fight off a pack of wolves in the rain.

As she raises the blade above her head, its markings glowing with magic, the significance of the moment is palpable. With her first swing, Nimue beheads a wolf — and promptly gets the sword stuck in the stone she is standing on. She has to pull it out before she is able to continue defending herself.

Portrayed by “13 Reasons Why’s” Katherine Langford, Nimue, who is destined to become the Lady of the Lake, is the central character in Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller’s fantasy series reimagining the Arthurian legend. Based on the pair’s 2019 illustrated YA novel, the 10-episode first season is out now on Netflix.

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The premise of this origin story is that before King Arthur and his famous adventures, the sword meant for the one true king was wielded by a queen.

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Katherine Langford in a scene from the Netflix series "Cursed"
Nimue holds up the Sword of Power for the first time in an episode of “Cursed.”
(Netflix)

“A part of this legend has always been the sword stuck in the stone,” said Zetna Fuentes, who directed the first two episodes of the series. “This was a moment where we felt we could play on that. … It was fun to find those nods to the legend that we could also turn and do it in a different way.”

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Stories about the British hero King Arthur have been told and retold for centuries. Wheeler and Miller’s shared affinity for these legends, and their hopes of bringing something new to the lore, led them to focus their story on Nimue — one of the names associated with the Lady of the Lake.

“Nimue is the key to it all,” Miller said. “She’s the thread to which we’re exposed to everything about the mythos that we associate with Camelot and Arthur and all the other aspects.”

Wheeler explained that the existing imagery and mystery around the Lady of the Lake character is what captivated them.

“That image of this woman’s arm reaching out of the water and offering the sword to Arthur, it evokes all of these interesting questions,” said Wheeler. “Who was she? What is her relationship to Arthur? Why does she have the sword? And as we began to work backwards from there this idea that a woman held the Sword of Power before Arthur felt like a story worth telling.”

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Devon Terrell in a scene from the Netflix series "Cursed"
Arthur (Devon Terrell) examines the Sword of Power in an episode of “Cursed.”
(Netflix)

In “Cursed,” Nimue is a Fey teenager with powerful, and sometimes uncontrollable, magic. Because of her powers, she grows up as an outcast in her village. After a religious order of intolerant zealots massacres her people, she sets off on a journey to deliver the Sword of Power to Merlin, per her mother’s dying wish.

Over the course of the first season, Nimue stands up against the warring human factions in order to help save the remaining Fey.

According to scholars, there are numerous iterations of the Lady of the Lake, whose earliest appearance can be traced to French literature of the 12th and 13th centuries. Some authors have portrayed her as good, while others have portrayed her as evil.

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Besides the stories about how she gave Arthur the sword Excalibur, different versions of the character are known for raising Sir Lancelot, who became one of the most famous knights of the Round Table; enchanting and imprisoning Merlin the magician; and accompanying Arthur to Avalon. In some stories, she even replaces Merlin as King Arthur’s advisor.

In approaching the show, Fuentes explained that they were of course aware of the literature and various film and TV adaptations around Arthurian legends, but they didn’t feel beholden to any previous interpretations of the characters or their stories.

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Matt Stokoe in a scene from the Netflix series "Cursed"
Gawain (Matt Stokoe) has known Nimue since she was a child.
(Netflix)
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In addition to Nimue, “Cursed” is peppered with familiar characters from the lore including Arthur, Merlin and Gawain. The show’s iteration of Arthur is a young mercenary who hungers to be more than a man burdened by his father’s debts, while Merlin is a drunk who can no longer use magic. Gawain, also known as the Green Knight, grew up in the same Fey village as Nimue.

“Seeing it through Nimue’s eyes as a character who we know exists, in our minds, sort of before the traditional story begins gave us some latitude,” said Wheeler. “It gave us an opportunity to introduce these characters in different ways.”

The scholarship is divided on whether King Arthur, the legendary literary figure, was also actually a historical figure. Geoffrey of Monmouth is credited with popularizing the legend of King Arthur through his 12th-century book, “The History of the Kings of Britain.” Some historians believe Arthur could have been based on an actual warrior from the 5th or 6th centuries, while others believe he’s a composite of various figures, and still others believe Arthurian legends are not based on anybody real.

Core elements of Arthur’s story, from various sources, that have been remembered the most over the years include how he pulled a sword from a stone (or anvil) to prove the legitimacy of his claim to the throne; his Knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail; his tutelage by Merlin; and his marriage to Guinevere.

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Shalom Brune-Franklin in "Cursed"
It turns out Sister Igraine (Shalom Brune-Franklin) has another name.
(Netflix)

In the legends, Arthur is generally understood to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Igraine — a back story that differs from the character in “Cursed.”

Over the course of the show’s first 10 episodes, characters who were initially introduced under one name are eventually revealed to be characters with much more significant ties to Arthurian legend.

Sister Igraine is revealed to be Arthur’s sister, Morgana. The young Fey boy Squirrel turns out to be named Perceval, while the Weeping Monk — raised to be used as a weapon against the Fey by the Red Paladins — reveals he is also Fey kind and used to be called Lancelot. Plus, the Viking captain known as the Red Spear is actually Guinevere.

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Morgana is more commonly known in the legends as Morgan le Fey, another woman whose characterization has fluctuated from benevolent ally to villainous nemesis with magical abilities. This ambiguity appears to be played up in “Cursed” as Morgana, a faithful ally to Nimue and all Fey kind, gains some mysterious powers.

Gawain, Lancelot and Perceval are all Knights of the Round Table. Gawain is known to be a skilled knight. Arthur’s nephew, Lancelot, is probably most remembered for his romantic entanglements. Perceval is central in the quest for the Holy Grail.

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Daniel Sharman in a scene from the Netflix series "Cursed"
The Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman) tracked and destroyed Fey villages for the Red Paladins.
(Netflix)
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Guinevere is best remembered not only for marrying Arthur, but for her affair with Lancelot, which leads to the end of Camelot. Like many of the women in Arthurian legends, she has often been defined more for her role in the men’s stories. But the Guinevere in “Cursed” is also a warrior with her own story. — another way the show sets itself apart from the classic lore.

Wheeler relishes the freedom to reinterpret these characters, but says the goal is to take them to a more recognizable place.

“Something Frank was very insistent upon, and rightfully so, is that we can change them, we can push them, we can stretch them, [as long as we] remain true to them,” said Wheeler. “And make sure we know our map back to who these characters are.”

“Even if we aren’t telling you who these characters are, in some ways, their destiny’s already set,” said Miller. “We know what we’re aiming toward.”


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