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Credit: Netflix

Netflix's Cursed proves we need more women in Arthurian adaptations

Contributed by
Jul 20, 2020

Netflix's epic fantasy series Cursed is an Arthurian retelling with an important twist – for once, the story is centered around a woman.

Though there are dozens of versions of the legend of King Arthur, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's early Historia Regnum Britanniae to Chretien de Troyes' famous 12th-century romances and Sir Thomas Malory's medieval epic Le Morte d'Arthur, they all tend to tick many of the same boxes. A destined king. A powerful wizard. And stories that are predominantly about men.

No matter which version of the legend you're talking about, female characters are rarely the focus of the plot. Those that do exist are frequently banished to the fringes to serve as love interests, mothers, motivational aides, or memories. They have little power or agency over their own lives and, what's worse, the story doesn't really need them to.

Even the female figures whose names you do recognize from this legend aren't exactly what you might call three-dimensional. Queen Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot brings down a fabled kingdom, but the original texts give us almost no idea of who she in her own right. Igraine gives birth to Arthur, but we don't really know how she feels about the really shady and disturbing circumstances around it.

This is precisely why the arrival of Netflix's Cursed feels so exciting.

Warning: Spoilers for Cursed within.

Credit: Netflix

The series doesn't just take a relatively flat female character and give her a brand-new origin full of agency, strength, and bravery. (Though, yeah, it does that a lot.) It also makes the important choice to tell its entire story from a feminist perspective, centering not just Nimue but a half dozen other women as well, who all have their own arcs and agendas within the larger world of the show.

The difference this makes is nigh incalculable. And it's a valuable road map for other adaptations of this legend to follow in the future.

In most versions of the King Arthur story, the witch Nimue is a powerful enchantress who seduces Merlin and steals his magic, often imprisoning him in a tree or cave afterward. In many of them, she's also the Lady of the Lake, a supernatural being who is the keeper of the sword Excalibur. And that… is kind of all we know about her. Many texts don't even agree on what her name is, referring to several similar female characters as Niniane, Vivian, and Nimue almost interchangeably. So, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that the Lady of the Lake is traditionally not a figure of great interiority.

Until now.

True, the Nimue of Cursed isn't the Lady of the Lake when the show begins — but she certainly seems well on her way to that destiny. Here, she's a young Fey girl charged with delivering an ancient sword to the wizard Merlin. Along the way, she proves herself a fighter and a leader, kicking butt even as she inspires others to stand up against the oppressive religious organization that seeks to persecute all those who possess magic. And through her, Cursed shows us that, despite literal centuries of tradition, the story of Arthur is still one that can — and should — have space for women in it. (And will ultimately turn out all the stronger for it.)

Granted, this isn't a straight adaptation of any Arthurian tale we know, but it has enough of its pieces to feel familiar, sending its characters on distinctly new journeys but hanging on to certain core truths about who they are and what they believe in. Cursed purposefully expands that circle of central figures to include the legend's women — and gives those same female characters distinctly different stories, each of which has little to do with the men in their lives.

Credit: Netflix

From the Viking warrior maiden known as the Red Spear, busy fighting for vengeance, to the unstable Sister Iris, willing to murder in the name of her God, to Morgana embracing darkness (and possibly Death itself) in order to rescue her friend, these are the kinds of women we rarely see, and certainly never all at the same time. Their choices aren't always good, smart, or even understandable ones. But they shouldn't have to be. Lancelot still gets to be a hero even though he sleeps with his best friend's wife, after all.

Cursed isn't the only recent Arthurian adaptation to fully embrace its female characters as necessary parts of the story it's telling. Though BBC drama Merlin focused primarily on the adorable bromance between the young wizard and Prince Arthur, it also explored Morgana's complex descent into darkness and gave Guinevere's character more depth than ever before by making her both the daughter of a blacksmith and a woman of color.

But, let's be real: As iconic as Katie McGrath's Morgana is — and she is extremely iconic — she's not enough. Neither is Cursed's Nimue for that matter, despite her sword skills and powerful magic. After all, these characters are hardly the only women in Arthurian legend who have languished for far too long on the sidelines. Isn't it time to give them all a chance to shine?

Isn't it time we got a proper retelling of the Lancelot and Guinevere story, one that actually shows us Guinevere's perspective and the reasons behind her choices? (Is she unhappy as a bartered bride? Is Arthur cold to her? Is Lancelot just that hot?) Shouldn't we get the chance to see Elaine of Astolat do literally anything else besides die of heartbreak in order to serve as a cautionary tale for a man? And what of Igraine? She's got an entire life outside of her most famous offspring, one which involves surviving rape and gaslighting and bearing several other children. What becomes of her after Arthur is born? Who was she before she became a wife?

These certainly sound like stories worth telling. Netflix's Cursed has proven it's more than possible to stay true to the spirit of the King Arthur legend while giving the women of this tale space to shine. Here's hoping that other platforms and writers pay attention.

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