Swords and sorcery in The Winter King

By Gen Terblanche11 December 2023

Swords and sorcery in The Winter King

The Winter King is a 10-episode period drama series set in Britain’s dark ages, and based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles trilogy of novels (Season 1 covers the first two thirds of the first novel). Eight years back, Uther (Eddie Marsan), High King of fifth-century Dumnonia, exiled his illegitimate son Arthur Pendragon (Iain De Caestecker). Now Arthur is returning to his homeland as a grown warrior. He’s sworn to keep the peace between the British tribes, and to protect the kingdom from the invading Saxons until his newborn baby brother is old enough to take the throne.  

There’s more to the tale than just Arthur. The Winter King offers two additional points of view. Arthur’s closest allies are his mentor Merlin’s (Nathaniel Martello-White) protege Nimue (Ellie James), a powerful druidess, and their friend Derfel (Stuart Campbell), a young warrior who Arthur rescued from the Saxon death pits of Gundleus, the King of Siluria.  

All three of their lives, loves, destinies, and loyalties are at stake on the eve of Arthur’s political marriage to Ceinwyn (Emily John), daughter of King Gorfydd (Aneirin Hughes) of Powys (nephew of Gundleus). And when Arthur falls for Ceinwyn’s lady in waiting, Guinevere (Jordan Alexandra), he breaks the fragile peace between their two kingdoms. Read on for a prophetic glimpse into Arthur, Derfel and Nimue’s stories.  

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Watch The Winter King now. New episodes on Mondays.

Rough magic 

The Winter King S1 is now on Showmax

“We’re going back to the roots and telling the true version of the Arthur story. And giving a much more authentic, believable, accessible and raw version of the story,” says director and executive producer Otto Bathhurst. So while there’s a touch of magic to the tale, The Winter King is more aligned with Viking-style tales like The Northman. “The whole presence of magic in the show is something we thought about a lot and toned down a lot. Unusual stuff happens but it’s very grounded in reality,” says Otto. “In those times, your relationship with the stars, animals, and symbolism was much, much stronger. What they would consider to be obvious and as symbolism is something we think is magic.” 

Arthur 

“Arthur’s quite a forward-thinking and natural born leader. Some of his methods, especially for the time, are seen as unorthodox. But he’s ambitious about getting his plans across and about making real change. He’s all about getting rid of old traditions that don’t serve the country anymore and trying to find new ways of doing things,” says Iain. “What really interested me was the idea of what it means to be a leader and the mental and physical toll that has on someone.” 

The Winter King S1 is now on Showmax

The physical toll is taken not just through the strain of political manoeuvring, but through doing some of that manoeuvring while on horseback, swinging a sword. “We tried not to make the sword fighting feel like an action movie, it’s not meant to be overly fancy, it’s meant to feel real and brutal,” says Iain. “The other side of it is horse riding, which I’d never really done before I tried this. Riding a horse is like driving the best sports car you can think of, but it’s alive. It’s a mad feeling when you really get to the stage of cantering and galloping; it’s like flying. I’ve got a lovely horse who’s called Shovel who’s massive, but he’s just a proper gentle giant and he loves his grass.”  

As for that famous sword, Otto chips in, “My favourite stuff is with King Arthur and Excalibur in the armoury. We’ve got a very interesting twist on Excalibur in this story and it’s much more of a slow burn than an immediate discovery. Just watching him slowly build the relationship with the sword and what it means for him and what it does is amazing. How it represents the truth for him is going to be a very cool part of this story.” 

The swordsman 

The Winter King also centres on Derfel’s (pronounced dare-vel) journey from being treated like literal trash, to becoming a great warrior – and his love for both Nimue (pronounced nimway) and Arthur.  

The Winter King S1 is now on Showmax

“From the first moment Derfel sees Arthur, he understands truth for the first time – a character that’s so honest and so everything Derfel wants to be when he grows up. Arthur provides a role model. It can look like he’s kind of fanboying him. I think he just sees somebody who’s also a little bit lost, and they connect on so many different levels,” explains Stuart. His feelings for Nimue have a similar tone of awe. “You might think of it as being entirely romantic, but he sees her as a wild goddess or a wild cat or someone that’s just unbelievably unattainable, with so many amazing, fantastical qualities. She’s Derfel’s best friend at Avalon. The two of them, for the last eight years, have navigated this world and they don’t really know much else apart from Avalon,” Stuart adds. 

The sorceress 

Merlin originally takes Nimue under his wing when she washes up on the shores of Avalon as the lone survivor of a shipwreck. “Merlin finds her to have an innate connection with the Gods which is quite a rare thing to be able to express,” says Ellie. “It’s quite a raw telling of some of the worst things women can go through. There’s one moment where she really gets attacked and it seems from there everything falls apart for her, because there’s a big world with lots of politics and a lot going on. She gets abandoned by nearly everyone apart from Derfel.” 

The Winter King S1 is now on Showmax

When Merlin sees love growing between Nimue and Derfel, though, he presents her with an impossible choice. “He tells her that if she wants to live a life of being a druid priestess and have his position, and be so connected to the Gods, she can’t be with Derfel,” warns Ellie. “Magic for Nimue is how she relates to the world. There’s magic in everything, she has a really strong connection to nature, signs and symbols. Reading into them is a big part for her. She’s a clairvoyant, she has visions. For her it’s her life and she sees everything through a lens of magic. She doesn’t doubt that she has these abilities and that’s why Merlin doesn’t doubt it, because they’re not made up, and everything comes to a head,” says Ellie.  

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