The Medieval (and Not-So-Medieval) History Behind Netflix’s ‘Cursed’


Left: Girflet Watches as King Arthur’s Sword is Retrieved by the Lady of the Lake (detail), from The Quest for the Holy Grail and the Death of Arthur, about 1316. British Library, Ms. Add. 10294, fol. 94. Right: The Lady of the Lake Telleth Arthur of the Sword Excalibur, from Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893. / Wikimedia Commons

Looking for history in the latest version of King Arthur.


By Dr. Larisa Grollemond
Assistant Curator, Manuscripts Department
J. Paul Getty Museum

By Dr. Bryan C. Keene
Adjunct Professor of Art History
Pepperdine University


Introduction

For those of you watching Cursed, there are spoilers ahead. 

The elusive Lady of the Lake from the legends of King Arthur is the leading character, Nimue, in Netflix’s new action-and-magic-packed series Cursed. Based on the 2019 graphic novel of the same name, Cursed draws upon over a thousand years of Arthuriana, the literary and visual traditions about the mytho-historical ruler of early medieval Britain.

In ten episodes, viewers meet many familiar figures—including Merlin, Guinevere, Gawain (as the Green Knight), Morgan le Fay, Percival, and Lancelot (the last of which is a major reveal)—but the backstory of each, like those of Nimue and Arthur, is given a welcome refresh.

The Many Medieval Arthur Legends

In the Middle Ages, King Arthur was inserted into numerous historical and chivalric texts. Here he appears dressed in French Gothic fashion. Tristan Speaking to King Arthur, Queen Genevieve, and Knights, about 1320–1340, Jeanne de Montbaston. Tempera colors, gold paint, and silver and gold leaf on parchment, 15 1/2 × 11 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 5 (83.MR.175), fol. 337v. / Getty’s Open Content Program

There are as many medieval variations about the Lady of the Lake and her role in giving Arthur the Sword of Power—or alternately how Arthur pulled a sword from a stone—as there are theatrical and cinematic versions of the young man’s journey to kingship. Arthur is thought to have lived in the 5th or 6th century CE, and legends of his life proliferated especially in the 12th century (building upon earlier oral and written stories).

In the 1130s, British cleric and writer Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain, in which Arthur defeated the Saxons, wields the sword Caliburnus (which in French becomes Excalibur), and established himself as King of the Britons. We also meet Arthur’s beloved Guinevere, and in other texts by the author, we encounter the prophet-seer (wizard) Merlin.

A bit later, in the 1170s–90s, the French poet-composer Chrétien de Troyes added the court at Camelot, the quest for the Holy Grail—the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper—as well as the knight Lancelot and his love affair with Guinevere, and Morgan le Fay as Arthur’s sister. Around 1200, the French poet Robert de Boron told of the famed Sword in the Stone and provided a lengthy Christian backstory for the Grail.

The definitive version of the tale from the period is English writer Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (Death of King Arthur, 1485). In this account, Nimue is the chief Lady of the Lake.

The legend developed gradually over time, and the artwork that sometimes accompanied manuscripts about Arthur usually reflected the costumes and architecture of the period in which they were created.

A King Arthur Story for Every Generation

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859), based on Malory’s Arthur legend, inspired photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to stage friends and family members as characters from the story. So Like a Shatter’d Column Lay the King and text of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, 1875, Julia Margaret Cameron. Albumen silver print, 13 3/4 × 10 7/8 in.The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.732.1.2.11. / Getty’s Open Content Program

Arthur stories almost always tell us much more about the social priorities, expectations, and values of the creators or historical moment in which they’re made than they do about the Middle Ages. Many literary retellings and the artwork associated with them have shaped our ideas of who Arthur is, some of which are more indebted to the medieval source material than others.

Perhaps the most influential modern literary version of Arthur is T.H. White’s 1958 The Once and Future King, which portrays the legendary king as a 14th-century ruler and casts Nimue as a water nymph and enchantress who ultimately traps Merlin. White leaves behind the possible historical origins of the 5th/6th-century British king and embeds the idea of Arthur firmly in the later Middle Ages. Numerous stage and cinematic tellings of the story rely on White for plot and setting to varying degrees. The Broadway musical Camelot (1960), Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963), Excalibur (1981), and First Knight (1995) all find inspiration from White. Nimue only appears in the stage version, and while Sean Connery is, admittedly, a pretty memorable King Arthur in First Knight, all of these tellings reflect a nostalgic (and ultimately ahistorical) idea of the European Middle Ages as entirely populated by white people and embedded in 19th-century romantic ideas of chivalry and stories of unrequited love.

Arthur stories can also take the form of political commentary. In the satirical Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and its musical adaptation Spamalot (2004), Arthur shares how the Lady of the Lake gave him Excalibur. The response from the peasant is a classic line: “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”

In the last twenty years, filmmakers have attempted to revive the “historical” King Arthur, adding a grittier layer to the otherwise tame modern versions of the tale. King Arthur (2004) and Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) both set the story amid the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the former, Clive Owen stars as Arthur and Keira Knightly is the warrior-archer Guinevere who is depicted as a pagan working with Merlin, the leader of the Woads (Indigenous Britons fighting against Roman rule). In the latter, Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur in a film with Vikings, magic, and a cameo from the Lady of the Lake. These films give us a sense of how tenacious the legend is. The silk costumes and overall Gothic settings of the 20th-century films have been substituted for leather and various early medieval time periods when peoples migrated to or invaded Britain.

Arthuriana 2020

From past to present, most Arthur stories were written or produced by white men, and Cursed is no exception—it’s by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. But in Cursed, Arthur is Black and Nimue is the powerful warrior-queen of the fey (magical beings). Cursed fits nicely within this well-established tradition of updating the legend for the present. One stereotype perpetuated by the Arthur series is that medieval people were superstitious of magic. Both Cursed and the 2008 BBC series Merlin play up that idea.

However, Cursed sets itself apart from other Arthur adaptations through bold plot and casting decisions that align well with medieval fantasy and history. The legendary storyline now includes a powerful female lead, lesbian nuns, a central conflict between fay-folk and the church, and actors of color in several prominent roles including that of Arthur, all of which may seem surprising at first given how masculinist, heteronormative, non-magical, and white-washed previous cinematic versions of the story have been. But this should not surprise viewers. Medieval Europe was home to queer individuals and relationships, as well as Black knights and citizenry.

The 13th-century Dutch Legend of Sir Morien (also called Moriaen) also tells of a Black knight of the Round Table. Black Africans lived in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as soldiers in armies, ambassadors at court, clerics and pilgrims, and enslaved members of households. (This history is explored in the Getty exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art.) Europeans were also well aware of Black rulers, and sometimes created legends about powerful African kings. And ideas about race developed in myriad ways during the Middle Ages.

We’re encouraged to see the more diverse cast of Cursed and are looking forward to watching Dev Patel star as the legendary knight Sir Gawain in the upcoming film The Green Knight. This tale follows one of the most well-known knights of the Round Table in his quest to accept a combat challenge from the mysterious Green Knight (based, like many of the Arthur stories, on a 14th-century chivalric romance). The trailer alone is chock full of interesting medievalisms that might offer a glimpse into what Arthur and his knights represent to us today.

We admit that viewers of Cursed may be confused about when the show is meant to take place: a key heroine presents as kin of a Viking marauder (they were around from the 8th-11th centuries); at one point Merlin references Charlemagne, the 8th/9th-century Holy Roman Emperor who reigned centuries after Arthur’s supposed rule, and later refers to Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire until 1453. Throughout the series, we see wondrous English Romanesque ruins (including Waverley Abbey) and Gothic cloisters (such as Lacock Abbey). And the Pope’s Red Paladins are something like inquisitors, who hunt down heretics (or magical beings in Cursed).

Though Cursed sometimes seems to suffer from the historical weight of its centuries-old characters, it’s worth a watch as the newest attempt to update the Arthurian stories and characters we’ve all come to know (and maybe even love). Get to know Nimue, and along the way, you’ll gain new insights about badass Guinevere, washed-up Merlin, loyal Percival, tough-guy Gawain, mysteriously cruel Lancelot, and emerging-leader Arthur.


Originally published by The Iris, 07.31.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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