Overt sexual desires. A quick temper. Manipulative tendencies. These are just a few of the character flaws that a “bad boy” protagonist in literature often can demonstrate and still be upheld as the narrative’s hero. Yet if a female character exhibits these traits, she is condemned, even vitriolically so. Arthurian literature is not immune to this misconception, as seen in Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Although Tennyson demonizes Vivien as maliciously manipulative and refuses to give her human complexity or realistic motivations, Malory chooses to combat the double standard by characterizing Nimue as opportunistic and shrewd, but still a character aligned with good.
Tennyson presents Vivien with little, if any, complexity; in Idylls of the King, she is an spiteful vixen who targets Merlin and flirts with him as a cruel game. He describes Vivien as being “born from death” (Tennyson, line 44) and skillfully concealing her “bare-grinning skeleton of death” (Tennyson, 50). She plots to capture “the hearts of all this Order in mine hand” (Tennyson, 56) but after being rejected by Arthur, turns her sights to Merlin in order to ensnare him forever through his own spell, “fancying that her glory would be great / According to his greatness whom she quenched” (Tennyson, 217-18). Quite simply, she is hungry for the power for the sake of power; she has no personal grudge against Arthur’s court, no humanizing element behind her vendetta,