The previous two decades of television have seen a plethora of Arthurian stories come to life. Each series has had its own distinct flavour, from Merlin’s quirky humour to Camelot’s sex appeal, but none compare to MGM+’s epic new rendition of Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King. While the series has elements of pagan mysticism, it is significantly more concerned with being grounded in the realism of its historical setting. Though the pagan priestesses and even Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) have intuition, they are not all-powerful beings capable of otherworldly magic.
The Winter King is a vast novel of a warrior’s ascent to power during uncertain times set in late antiquity in Great Britain, following the Roman conquest and amid a battle with the Saxons. In this version, Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) is not the true successor to the throne, but rather a bastard son given power to protect the seat of Dumnonia from enemies both within and beyond the country.
De Caestecker is practically unrecognisable as Arthur, especially to those who remember him as Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and not only because he spends the whole of the first episode beaten, pummelling, and covered in blood. His cinematic presence is that of a legendary ruler. He commands every room he enters, even when those rooms are plotting to kick him out of the country.
He expertly portrays Arthur as both a hesitant king and a faithful warrior, capitalising on the characteristics that appeal to him to both his contemporaries and the viewer. Despite the fact that few versions of Arthurian mythology focus on Arthur’s position as a warrior, De Caestecker renders it credible and engaging. When his exile ends, you feel he has been fighting forces outside of Britain for years.
While Arthur is the principal character of The Winter King, he is not the series’ sole protagonist. Cornwell’s novel is recounted as a recounting of historical events by the Saxon-born Derfel, and while the series cuts away the narrative styling, many of the stories are explored via Derfel (Stuart Campbell). Derfel’s perception of Arthur is fully coloured by the fact that he saved his life as a child, which turns him into an untrustworthy storyteller.
Even without Derfel putting pen to page to describe Arthur’s story in The Winter King, the screenplays significantly draw from the novel to the letter. Each character is formed by Derfel’s view of them, whether it’s Arthur’s skill and war prowess or Derfel’s love and admiration for Nimue (Ellie James).
All previous conceptions of the mythical Lady of the Lake pale in comparison to James’ portrayal of Nimue. She is unrepentantly stubborn and confident, despite the fact that the script calls for her to be punished for these qualities. Her connection with Derfel is at the centre of the first half of the season, and even when they disagree, they remain united.
There are entire moments between Derfel and Nimueh that are word-for-word what Cornwell penned three decades ago, but they feel considerably more vibrant and real with James and Campbell bringing them to life. Whereas the novel depicted their relationship as shaky and one-sided, The Winter King seemed eager to persuade the viewer that they truly love one other — and not only because that’s what Derfel is rewriting history to say.
The Winter King, like the novel that inspired the series, is harsh on its female characters. They can be strong and fearless, but their strength is rapidly and brutally stripped away by rape. The Winter King is far from the first or last series to use rape to develop characters or introduce new motivations, a tendency most prominently seen in Game of Thrones and Outlander. This narrative technique is an unintended consequence of numerous adaptations that take from fantasy works published in a different age.
While part of this savagery is historically accurate—invaders did rape and plunder the nations they conquered—it has no place in literature based on fanciful works. There are other methods to deprive a woman of her agency without depriving her of her god-given abilities or compelling her to carry her rapist’s kid because a deity appears to have commanded it. Cornwell’s novel is not particularly gratuitous in its depiction of the rape, even if Derfel is a little aloof in his description of it, and the series follows a similar pattern.
It is portrayed out of focus and is not treated as tawdry or titillating. While the scenario is brief, there are long-term consequences that are given adequate emphasis. The series aims to depict the aftermath of the attack, albeit the recuperation phase leaves plenty to be desired, owing primarily to the standpoint from which The Winter King’s realm is shown.
It’s a little perplexing that a series co-created by a woman (Kate Brooke) and largely produced by women (Jane Tanter, Julie Gardner, and Catrin Lewis Defis) didn’t try to improve on these issues with Cornwell’s novels, though perhaps we should credit them with ageing up Nimue and removing the book’s predatory plotline between her and Merlin, as well as transforming the female characters into actual, well-formed people Aside from the sensitive subject of rape, The Winter King’s creators have substantially improved on what Cornwell wrote in the 1990s.
Derfel remains The Winter King’s untrustworthy narrator, while the series has wisely moved away from the novel’s first-person style. Rather than hearing about Arthur’s quarrel with his father Uther (Eddie Marsan), the series allows it to play out with considerably more personal details than Derfel learned afterwards. Derfel is at the centre of The Winter King’s realm, yet he is not the sole arbitrator of its existence, as portrayed in the novel. This allows the narrative a lot more leeway, especially because De Caestecker’s Arthur and James’ Nimueh are the series’ most engaging characters.
The ensemble cast of The Winter King is a veritable who’s who of British television. Marsan’s appearance as King Uther is brief, much like Uther’s role in the story, but he delivers a noteworthy performance. ruler Uther is a recognised ruler, but he is not renowned as a decent king, and Marsan presents him as such with ease. By purpose, the series begins in the midst of a very emotional moment for both of them, with Marsan and De Caestecker creating a convincing chemistry that heightens the scene’s betrayal. With just the first half of the 10-part series available for review ahead of the debut, it appears like The Winter King is on schedule to properly adapt Cornwell’s first novel.
Owain’s narrative is maybe one of the more memorable towards the book’s halfway point, and the series does an amazing job of setting it up. Daniel Ings, like De Caestecker’s stunning transition into the soon-to-be-king, is practically unrecognisable as Owain — especially to those who adored him in Channel 4’s Lovesick. Owain is a fascinating character, though Cornwell’s work doesn’t give him much room for development or subtlety. Thankfully, the series does. Ings is given a lot of material to work with, which serves to flesh out Owain’s character and prepare viewers for his next narrative.
Martello-White is a terrific casting choice for Merlin, even if the script underutilizes him. Merlin is a subordinate figure in Cornwell’s version of Arthur’s life, but The Winter King weaves him into the tale more effectively than the novel does. He is present to establish his function in the lives of the protagonists, to teach the Druid magic systems, and to serve as omnipresent guidance on which most of the characters base their judgements.
Martello-White and De Caestecker make excellent scene partners, albeit infrequently. In this version, Merlin is more of a father figure to Arthur than Uther ever was, and that relationship will undoubtedly leave viewers wanting more.
Simon Merrells as the terrifying and loathsome Gundleus, Tatjana Nardone as his Pagan lover Ladwyss, Valene Kane as a much-improved version of Morgan compared to the novel, Steven Elder as the mild-mannered Bedwin, and Andrew Gower as Sansum—who we have only seen the beginnings of—round out the ensemble cast. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, The Winter King presents each character in such a way that you can understand where their character may go, even if they aren’t well-known personalities in Arthurian tales.
If you loved the political intrigue of House of the Dragon’s power struggles for the crown, The Winter King is the perfect series to hold you over until Season 2. While there is magic—expressed via practical craft steeped in Druidic and Pagan practices—the rich narrative of Cornwell’s universe is not what most people perceive when they think of King Arthur, Merlin, or Morgan. The series is mostly on the warring factions of the British Isles, filled with corrupt warlords attempting to gain power. The conflicts are violent, and the politics are constant.
The Winter King is a visual feast, from the costume that flawlessly depicts the simplicity of the era to the lived-in settings and gorgeous vistas against which the drama is set. All of these qualities are to be anticipated from a Bad Wolf-produced series, which has already created A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials. The writing is amazing since it pulls substantially from the original source material while still adding something unique.
That kind of one-to-one adaptation is uncommon in book-to-film adaptations, and it will undoubtedly thrill Cornwell aficionados. The Winter King is a must-see for everyone who enjoys Arthurian tales or is yearning for the next great historical epic. If the novel is any indication — and it is — the second half of the series will have fantastic performances and heart-pounding scenarios.