Analyzing the Realistic Approach of ‘The Winter King : A Gritty Arthurian Epic Tale


The premise of the MGM+ series “The Winter King,” which was adapted from a trilogy of books by English author Bernard Cornwell, is heavily influenced by the legend of King Arthur. However, in actuality, the drama behaves more like earthbound historical fiction than it does like a fantasy or fairy tale. In the five episodes made available in advance, this Arthur Pendragon (Iain De Caestecker) neither draws a sword from a stone nor encounters any dragons.

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The Winter King

The pragmatic issues that “The Winter King” deals with are natural resources, national sovereignty, and the political coalitions needed to secure them. Though their skills are presented as subjective belief that is in quiet battle with burgeoning Christianity, characters like Merlin (Nathaniel Martello-White) do contain glimpses of the supernatural.

In this regard, “The Winter King” resembles “Game of Thrones” more closely than some of the higher-budget, openly fanciful shows created in the mold of the popular HBO series. After all, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin drew inspiration from British history when creating the source material, and “The Winter King” creators Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore, along with lead director Otto Bathurst, are tapping into the same well by basing the film on Arthur’s quest to unite the warring kingdoms of Britain against the Saxon invaders.

But while “The Winter King” may appeal to lovers of “Thrones” and dadcore nonfiction books alike for its more realistic portrayal of King Arthur’s origins, it also lacks the deep, nuanced characters that transform dry facts into gripping fiction.

The story of “The Winter King” opens with Arthur being banished from the kingdom of Dumnonia, which roughly corresponds to modern-day Devon and Cornwall in southwest England, since he failed to defend his half-brother during a fight. It doesn’t take much for King Uther (Eddie Marsan), who already hates his bastard son Arthur for being a live reminder of his transgression, to turn his sorrow over losing his heir apparent into rage.

But before leaving, Arthur saves Derfel (Stuart Campbell), a hurt Saxon orphan, and brings him to Merlin’s Avalon, which is more of a sanctuary than a fantastical island. Derfel then develops as the series’ main character. We see Arthur’s return, decades later, into the power vacuum his father left behind after Uther’s death, from his point of view.


After a few hour-long episodes, “The Winter King”‘s setup is finally complete. This is the result of a protracted prologue that is heavily loaded with information. Finally, a dynamic begins to take shape: During his time spent overseas, Arthur developed progressive viewpoints, including his aversion to human sacrifice and his vision for a united Britain, which he intended to carry out in his capacity as de facto regent for his infant half-brother Mordred. Funny enough, Arthur’s hairdo illustrates his modern leanings: whereas the majority of the other male characters have long, historically accurate hair, Arthur has a close-cut, modern fade.


By telling Arthur’s journey from Derfel’s perspective, the show is forced to tell a cliched coming-of-age tale while also obscuring Arthur’s inner existence. From the outside, Arthur appears to be a wise, almost messianic figure who works the fields alongside his people and declares his hatred of war while having never lost a battle. There is no depth behind the persona that is shown by either the writing or De Caestecker’s performance. Derfel, played by Campbell with some bad accent work, admires Arthur and yearns for Nimue (Ellie James), a young druidess bound to celibacy and Merlin’s protege.

The Winter King

“The Winter King” takes place before Mordred develops as his older sibling’s antagonist, and before Arthur marries Guinevere, who is expected to make an appearance in the second part of the season. The series, however, falls short of making its protagonists as realistic as its environment, despite its compelling concepts regarding the waning of paganism or the emergence of a national identity. The heroes of “The Winter King” are still the stuff of legends, despite its attempt to make the sixth century seem real.


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