Nimue, dressed in a scary mask and cloak, puts on a good show. Spreading a ring of fire around her, she tells Gundleus to leave, or she’ll make his soul scream for the rest of time. (Magic in The Winter King is of the visions-and-prophecies variety than the more immediately useful shoot-lightning-from-your-fingertips kind.) Gundleus and Nimue already had beef earlier in the story, and so here, he rapes her.
It happens in the book, so you might ask what the programme makers were supposed to do – just… not have Nimue raped? Let her walk around, as a woman in an historical fantasy show, un-raped? There’s such a thing as fidelity to the material, people. The responsibility of adaptation mustn’t be taken lightly.
Except that in the book, Gundleus also plucks out one of Nimue’s eyes, but that part was left out on screen. Too icky, hot on the heels of a baby murder? Prosthetics too laboursome? Whatever the reason, now it’s just the rape. Keeping it classic. The old faithful.
That’s not all that’s been changed from the book. Nimue is also no longer Merlin’s lover, presumably because the optics of the wise mage boning someone he adopted as a child are less favourable these days. The cast is also visibly more diverse and reflective of the multiple tribes, invaders and kingdoms battling in post-Roman rule Britannia. The almost-25 year culture gap between The Winter King novel being published in 1995 and the show arriving in 2023 has been shrunk successfully. But the rape has stayed in.
Maybe for reasons of realism? Rape was a sad fact of ancient life and sometimes weaponised in times of war? So were tooth decay and elephants, but neither feature here. Swap the rape for the eye-plucking and the story as a result would not change a bit. Gundleus would still be as evil – the man stabbed a baby to death, he’s already not on Santa’s nice list. Why overegg the baddie pudding?
Perhaps because to some extent here, it’s a plot point. Gundleus believes that Nimue’s priestess power is linked to her virginity (a theme in some mythology, and one that author Bernard Cornwell also used with the character of Iseult in The Saxon Stories series.) By raping Nimue, Gundleus thinks that he’s removing her mystical threat as well as dominating and humiliating her.