Arthurian Annotations: Gillen And Mora’s ‘Once And Future’ #6 Had Us Asking, Who Is Nimue?

by Olly MacNamee

By now I would hope people have caught up well and truly with the first story-arc of Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain’s  Once and Future (BOOM! Studios) so I’m not spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this contemporary Arthurian fantasy series. If you haven’t, then maybe come back another time, but on the eve of Once and Future #7 coming out, I thought some readers may want to know all about Nimue – A name uttered by a very demonic looking Merlin who emerges at the end of Once and Future #6, from the Otherworld – and her place in the Arthurian legend.

Even looking at the high age of chivalry as established in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, women were often depicted as femme fatales who often lured menfolk into traps of a sexual nature through the dark arts. The history of literature is, sadly, full of such females and an indictment of the misogyny throughout history. Literature, like other media from any era, can be a good litmus test to that historical periods beliefs and values. And, like other cherished myths, legends and fairy tales they can seem very outdated by today’s standards. 

Thankfully, King Arthur is also an endearing legend that can be adapted for a modern audience as it has time and again, in literature, films and comics. Gillen is the latest take on an old favorite, and one that has already seen stronger, more independent female characters come to the fore on both sides.

We’ve already covered Galahad’s birth from a similar scene in a previous column, and I dare say many will be more than familiar with the central temptress and incestuous half-sister of King Arthur, Morgan Le Fey, but not too many people will have heard of Nimue, who herself, like the champion of the Holy Grail, has morphed and mutated over the centuries. With her inclusion I have to consider just what Gillen’s long game is as it cannot be a coincidence he’s included two important figures who’s roles have changed rather dramatically over the years. 

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne Jones

It is interesting to note that in Malory’s late Medieval retelling Nimue is identified firstly as ‘chief Lady of the Lake’, linking her to the sword Excalibur and appearing at Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding early on in this saga, before entrapping Merlin, who is then never seen again for the remainder of this hefty retelling. It’s this story of entrapping Merlin that is shared by earlier the earlier, French source, the prose Post-Vulgate Cycle. Good or bad, it would seem Nimue is forever destined to be Merlin’s jailer. 

Although, in the more courtly Le Morte d’Arthur, an elderly Merlin falls in love with the much-younger Nimue (I know, right?) who traps him under a rock (and/or in a tree) and replaces him as Arthur’s mage and advisor. By contemporary standards it’s probably a punishment we can get behind given the severe age difference, but such stories from our fabled past are full of these unequal, unfair and oft-times arranged marriages.

However, we can also see Nimue, in Malory’s recount, as a prototype model for ‘Girl Power’. If anything, one could put forward the argument that her role in the remainder of this book in replacing Merlin, is one of empowerment and self-reliance. She is the mistress of her own destiny, which can’t be said for too many women, fictional or real, of that period. One of the few female characters who aren’t fought over or wanting to capture men through magic. After all, she goes on to marry a Round Table Knight, but while pretending to be the good lady wife at home continues to offer Arthur advice at pivotal moments throughout the king’s life. She is hardly the villainous, duplicitous enemy she is being hinted at in Gillen’s story. A good example of a female ‘mentor’ archetype, but one seemingly all but ignored by subsequent writers happy enough to continue to put forward the tired paradigm of King Arthur and Merlin. But it’s this version of Nimue – as Merlin’s enchantress, student and jailer – that chimes truer to her origins to be found in French literature. A source of so many additional Arthurian tropes and conventions that at any point I sometime except Asterix and Obelix to make an appearance.

Merlin and Nimue by Arthur Rackham

In the French source – the aforementioned Post-Vulgate Cycle – Nimue (also known as Vivien, Eviene, Viviane, Nineve, Nina, Viviene and Niniane; once again reflecting the fluidity of element within this legend) is a young girl but a rather wily one who uses her time with the besotted old fool to learn from him. So, similar to the Nimue of Malory’s later version. A padawan to Merlin’s Jedi Master. Or, is that a Sith Lord and his apprentice, with the latter destined to overthrow the mentor?

But, in the French Post-Vulgate Cycle there is even more of a backstory to this enigmatic character.  In this prose retelling Nimue – or rather Vivian – is named as Lancelot’s fairy godmother; a matriarchal role that Gillen’s Elaine has in common with this Arthurian throwback, it would seem. Well, more the wicked witch, for now, but In the character of Elaine we also have a leader, mother, fighter, enemy.  She seems to have been cast as one thing in this first story-arc only to be forever transformed through narrative into something else, just as Nimue has been transformed herself through the ages. 

Either way, Merlin is trapped forevermore by the young enchantress, just as Merlin is similar enchanted by Morgan Le Fey in John Boorman’s Excalibur. While there are certain elements of the Arthurian legend that are set in stone and integral to the legend we know today, there are other elements that are still fluid. 

To think that Nimue had such a large role in Malory’s seminal text that so many creators have been influenced by, and never really risen from her role as Merlin’s captor is somewhat strange on reflection. There’s certainly a great retelling in there somewhere for the right kind of writer.

Merlin and Nimue by Sir Edward Burne Jones

Although, with the era in which the legend first grew and evolved, it’s not surprising that it’s the female characters that are less solid, less important and often the cause of pain. 

Women in the King Arthur canon do not get a good press. But, with novel like The Mist of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Gillen’s own Once and Future, things are changing, and have been for some time now. That’s the beauty of legends such as this one; they can absorb both the good and the bad of any society, and culture and reflect it back to us through archetypes and archetypal stories such as the well-trodden ‘Hero’s Journey’ – stories that sing through the ages to us and speak to us through the sand of time. Who knows what role Nimue will play in the second story-arc, kicking off in Once and Future #7 out from BOOM! Studios Wednesday 25th March. Or, Merlin, the half-demon for that matter. Hmmm, looks like I’ve got the subject for my next column, doesn’t it?

Once and Future #7 is out March 25th from BOOM! Studios.

You can read more thoughts and Arthurian annotations here and play catch up as well as find a preview of this week’s new issue too.

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