I’m not going to talk about Guinevere. She hogs all the limelight and gets to be all romantic and stuff, but really what has she done to deserve all the applauses and bouquets? She swans around Camelot being queen and has it away with Lancelot. Well, so what? Yes, he has his shiny armour and curly dark hair (sigh), but really, when you are married to King Arthur you ought to be a little more circumspect. No, I’m not going to talk about her, I’m going to talk about Vivien.
|Merlin and Nimue Aubrey Beardsley|
If I had to be someone from Arthurian legend, I’d be Vivien, or Nimue as she is sometimes known. Her life starts out tragically, born on a battlefield beside the corpse of her father and her dying mother. Surely in such a situation, things can only get better. She wanted revenge against Arthur for the death of her parents so she takes his father-figure from him, Merlin.
The Victorians loved her. What a woman. If you think of the average patron of the art, when faced with a picture of an older man being ensnared by a sexy young sorceress, I’m guessing they had mixed feelings. This shows in the portrayals of her. Take for example our friend Frederick Sandys…
|Vivien (1863) Frederick Sandys|
|Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti|
This is Sandys at his most Rossetti, but to stunning effect, just look at the peacock ‘tail’ behind her. Like Burne-Jones’ Morgan Le Fay, Vivien holds a sprig of daphne, but the position of the hands brings to mind Bocca Baciata, apple included. Nice sneaky boob flash too. No wonder Rossetti accused Sandys of plaguerism.
Speaking of Burne-Jones, his is probably the best known picture of Vivien.
|The Beguiling of Merlin (1874-76) Edward Burne-Jones|
He is getting a good beguiling here, lucky devil. I love the binding in her hair that looks almost like snakes, possibly referencing Medusa again. Also his clothes and hers seem to be wrapped drapes, possibly hinting at how Merlin is being caught in a web of magic. The scarf stretching from one shoulder to the other especially seems to restrain him. I love that Merlin is shown without a beard, as I usually think of him looking somewhat like Getafix in the Astrix books.
Yes, that’s more like it, although I’m not sure I think of Merlin carrying a golden sickle and eating wild boar. Mmmmm, wild boar. Anyway, back to Burne-Jones. This wasn’t the only Merlin and Nimue picture he did, he also produced this one…
|Merlin and Nimue (1861) Edward Burne-Jones|
The figure of Nimue was allegedly drawn from Fanny Cornforth, and some people choose to interpret this as being proof that the sensitive Burne-Jones found Fanny ugly and evil. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, as he also did Hope from her, but I’m on my high horse, so I better dismount.
Thank you Julia Margaret Cameron for giving me a good beard-y Merlin. Of two images of Merlin and Vivien, I will show you this one first…
|The Beguiling of Merlin Julia Margaret Cameron|
No, it isn’t your average Victorian wedding photo, nor is it a dodgy Santa’s grotto, but it is Vivien casting a bit of saucy magic on a not-unwilling Merlin. The old wizard takes the attractive young woman on as his apprentice and teaches her his most dangerous spells. That can’t possibly end badly…
|Damn your sudden yet inevitable betrayal!|
This is a marvellous photograph of Vivien or Nimue turning Merlin’s magic against him, her posture casual as she destroys him. Treacherous woman! Thinking about it, it is a pretty brave character to show. She is a woman without status who uses her own cunning to trap one of the most powerful wizards, using his own magic, and she does not meet her comeuppance. She has nothing to lose and so risks everything to get revenge on King Arthur, not by hurting him directly like Morgan Le Fay attempts. Vivien strikes at Arthur through Merlin, who is at once his father and his power-source.
In Idylls of the King, Tennyson describes Vivien as being the serpent in the garden of Eden, as she ‘writhed towards him’, and embraced him with arms that ‘clung like a snake’. Now that reminds me of possibly my favourite Arthurian picture…
|The Temptation of Sir Percival (1894) Arthur Hacker|
Sadly, this isn’t Vivien, but the devil in a floaty dress, sent to tempt the saintly Sir Percival. A common trait in evil women is apparently the inability to wear shoes, never trust a barefooted woman, she is up to no good. I love the expression on his face, he seems to be saying ‘Get off, I am not sharing!’
The thing about Vivien is that she doesn’t pay for her crime, she succeeds and that’s the end of her story. For the most part, Merlin is not shown as deserving his eternity of helplessness, unless you are particularly against wizardry. I think she is an amazingly liberating anti-heroine, a bad girl who wins. Thinking about the audience this was playing to, it’s breath-taking to think that some sort of punishment wasn’t written into her story by the Victorians. Guinevere goes off to die miserably in a nunnery for her adultery but no-one messes with Vivien. Mind you, she was powerful enough to take Merlin out, so no wonder they left her alone, she wouldn’t go quietly.
I’m off out to beguile someone, I may be some time. I’ll see you for another three-day weekend, and our theme will be the Victorian response to British History. See you on Friday!