The Modern Merlin
Every decade since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was published in 1138, the urge to reimagine the Arthurian legend for a modern audience has bubbled up from some enduring cultural wellspring. And what could be more appealing than the Golden Age of Camelot? The fellowship of equals for the Knights of the Round Table; justice and power aligned with the good; pretty girls wooing and armor-clad heroes jousting. The past thirty years in film have been no exception — however, the results have been mixed. The ever-present shine of plate mail in Excalibur (1981) helped to create one of the most interesting allegorical re-tellings of the rise and fall of Arthur and the Round Table, including an extended digression into the quest for the Holy Grail in the second half of the film. Sam Neil’s turn as the wizard of legend in the 1998 Hallmark mini-series Merlin brought a fascinating outsider perspective to a Camelot marked by a world of changing faiths and cultural attitudes towards druidic paganism known simply as the “Old Ways”. On the other side of the fence we have the Richard Gere starring vehicle of First Knight (1995), which can only be praised for its innovative use of cinematography in the night charge of the Round Table and the fact Sir Sean Connery is the Arthur we have all collectively craved. The less said about the “demystified” take on legend that the highly improbable, completely fictitious King Arthur (2004) presents, the better.1 Suffice to say it is extremely problematic to demystify a fictional character who was shaped from vague historical sources by Geoffrey of Monmouth to curry favor with the pan-England/France Norman court.2
It is into this frothy stew that the BBC have thrown their latest television offering, Merlin (2008), in hopes of capitalizing on the latest taste for fantasy created by Harry Potter and the successful three-series adaptation of Robin Hood (2006-2009). Set in the years before the shining city of legend, a fresh-faced Merlin (Colin Morgan) arrives in Camelot looking for his place in the world. A rousing sight of the City On The Hill quickly crashes into the gritty reality of this Camelot — a public execution in the city square. Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) is king, magic is banned in the kingdom and we, like the dumbstruck Merlin, look on as strict rule and injustice rule the day. The series, however, is neither as dark nor as serious as the introduction suggests. Aside from the occasional ham-handed reference to destiny, the show has a rather light touch, brought mainly by Colin Morgan and Anthony Head’s quick turns of whimsy and a writing/production crew that have a true sense of fun within the mythos. The supporting cast is mostly competent, especially newcomer Bradley James who plays an arrogant but maturing Arthur. The only sour note comes from Katie McGrath as Morgana, who is given but two modes — “angry” or “bitchy”– and whose character depiction swings wildly from sympathetic to cold-hearted to flirty (giving me dry heaves as she makes eyes at Arthur3).
The show has all of the elements that fans of fantasy television will enjoy: a lovely series setting in Wales and at the Chateau de Pierrefonds in France; fine period costuming4 ; a brassy, Wagner-esque score (provided by Rob Lane) that would raise eyebrows in any show that had less of a mythic clout; and not-unimpressive magic effects for a television budget in the form of time-stops, the visage of the Great Dragon, and usually at least one or two episode-set pieces, like the cobwebs woven over Uther’s court by a singing enchantress in “The Dragon’s Call” (1.01), or a truly show-stopping display of magical prowess as Merlin defends his village in “The Moment of Truth” (1.10). Care is given to the portrayal of magical disciplines such as enchantment, alchemy, casting, seeing and druidic power, giving us hints of a fully-fleshed out world of magic beyond our reach. The generalized space created by Merlin‘s lack of historical reference, costuming, or period-specific decoration5 creates a sense of timelessness–a common thematic device used in Arthurian romances that attempt to stave off the historical certainties of the Arthurian court.
There is much to be said about the show’s portrayal of Merlin and its interesting, if problematic, relation to Arthurian myth. The details are all here, if arranged in peculiar order. Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur Pendragon, rules the kingdom of Camelot with an iron fist and swift punishment for those who disobey — a stubborn, flawed, but sympathetic man who is more an amalgamation of Vortigern the Unlucky and Uther than any single character from the mythos6. While they wear the mark of Pendragon, the golden dragon, the dragon himself is not a symbol of luck or power — he is a prisoner in the caverns below Camelot. Merlin, a powerful if untested and untrained wizard, is thrust into the position of “kingmaker” by dint of saving Prince Arthur’s life, repeatedly, as his servant. Morgana Le Fey as the king’s ward has a relationship with Arthur that closely approximates that of a sibling. Excalibur appears with its equivocal “take me” and “cast me away” engraved on either side of the sword, forged by Merlin and the Great Dragon to defeat an undead lich, but cast into a lake to keep it out of the hands of Uther. Lancelot makes a guest appearance as a love-smitten wooer of Guinevere, the maid servant to Morgana. Even Geoffrey of Monmouth turns up briefly as the Court historian / geneologist / librarian, who safeguards the validity of the kingdom’s records. Despite the details, the elements that truly distinguish Arthurian myth — the Knights of the Round Table, the shining Camelot, the pan-European view, the struggle for territory and ideals, the passion and betrayal at the heart of the system of chivalry and courtly love – seem to be lacking from the first series of Merlin. While hints of larger conflicts and turmoil outside of Camelot are sewn into the fabric of the show, such as the party of Bayard that come to sign a treaty in “The Poisoned Chalice” (1.04), for the most part the show retains a feeling of introversion and cloistered interest only in the events within the limiting walls of Uther’s kingdom.
The inclusion of details that set even the steeliest Arthurian lit fan’s heart afire mask the show’s most radical departure from Arthurian myth — namely in the relationship between Arthur and Merlin. The mythic relationship between these two has Merlin as a “kingmaker” in the most literal sense. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain7, Uther, inflamed with desire for his dear friend Galoris’ wife Ygerna, turns to Merlin for magical help to attain his object of desire. Merlin, sensing Uther’s desperation and himself in desperate need for a good king, provides Uther with a magical potion that allows him to slip into Ygerna in the guise of her husband. Born of this union is Arthur — and Merlin, in his role as facilitator, is the symbolic author and father-figure of Arthur’s legend. Later when Arthur assumes the throne as a young king, Merlin acts as wise adviser to the young, idealistic king before disappearing from Camelot under mysterious circumstances.
Instead of drawing from Arthurian myth, our modern Merlin turns toward more contemporary sources for thematic inspiration for the Arthur-Merlin relationship. Chief amongst these inspirations is Smallville; the creators themselves have cited Smallville as giving them the idea for the general concept of the bildungsroman of young, mythic figure who must keep his powers shrouded from figures of authority for the sake of his own life. The parallels between the shows, however, run deeper: as between Lex Luthor and Clark Kent in Smallville, timelines are compressed so that Merlin and Arthur both find themselves as young men, eager to make their marks on the world, forming a friendship that is strained by the inherently unequal nature of their positions (as servant and prince respectively), and the potential danger that a revelation of Merlin’s secret could bring. Uther Pendragon, usually shuffled out of the Arthurian story as soon as possible8, instead fills in as a modern father-figure for Arthur — one part Lionel Luthor, one part Prince Charles — an equivocal and formative figure who may yet become the driving force behind Arthur’s desire for utopia. While Arthur’s initial antagonism towards Merlin gives way to a closer, more trusting relationship, reminders of class conflict between Arthur and Merlin — Arthur’s joking about the indecorous nature of buying a drink for his servant, Arthur’s search of Merlin’s quarters during the course of an investigation into a magical plague — are constant. And unless there is development upon this theme in the second season, I fear, the class friction between Merlin and Arthur will only reinforce and naturalize class attitudes rather than, as Arthurian myth attempts to do, abolish ideas of class difference that took the form of (for the time) progressive and radical reimagining of the hierarchy between king and vassal.
While Merlin could be dinged for its at-times procedural, formulaic feel (oh no a plague! Timmy’s trapped down that well!) that no doubt derives in part from its kinship to Smallville, the greatest criticisms should be aimed at its poorly-explained past, penchant for shocking twists! that gloss over any thematic development of its characters, and constant desire to resort to an uneasy status quo. Nowhere are these elements more prevalent than in the weakest episode of the series, “The Beginning of the End,” where we learn that the creepy-eyed druid boy that Merlin and Morgana smuggle from Camelot is none other than! Gasp, reveal! If you know anything about Arthurian literature, you can see this twist coming a mile away and it is as unimpressive as it is uninventive. Now, not only does the fate of Camelot no longer rest in the hands of familial betrayal–it is the return of the repressed, sins of the father’s anti-magic policy that will come to visit the son. An interesting, if bleak, prospect that the future Age of Arthur is already “destined” to end before it begins. Except the show does not pursue this destiny angle any further, and the druid boy’s appearance has all the feeling of a stunt appearance for the “gee whiz” recognition factor.
Despite the failings of Merlin, I find I cannot be overly critical of the show given the generally sad state of fantasy television. Good fantasy shows generally tend to be hybrids of procedurals and canceled all-too-quickly, like The Dresden Files (2007). Quest / mythic fantasy finds a much more dismal expression — one needs only to watch the BBC’s adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Color of Magic (2008) and Hogfather (2006) to confirm this sentiment.
In the final sum, thematic quibbles aside, Colin Morgan’s brash young Merlin and Tony Head’s magnetic Uther make Merlin season one a worthy entry to Arthurian lore, and worth a watch. For general viewers looking for a small taste of romance and magic, I would recommend “Lancelot” (1.05); for die-hard Arthurians, “Excalibur” (1.09) presents an interesting take on the Green Knight, the act of single combat, and the origin of the sword Excalibur that is sure to delight.
Edited by David Jordan.
- Because, obviously, when you throw a lot of leather and blue tattooes at a problem, that’s the real King Arthur talkin’. ↩
- Take that David Franzoni. ↩
- For those of you who don’t know, there’s about a five-hundred year tradition of Morgana Le Fay being Arthur’s half-sister. Gag. ↩
- We’ll leave aside the fact that period costuming is rarely to never accurate. It is, at the best, adequate to give the impression of the period. That is to say, Merlin does a hell of a lot better than The Tudors (2007) ↩
- Who puts a Fleur-de-lis in a Briton court? ↩
- Vortigern the Unlucky is best known in Geoffrey of Monmouth as the king who discovers Merlin, and whom is plagued by two dragons who are trapped in rocks under the site of his tower. ↩
- While Geoffrey of Monmouth is not the only source, nor the definitive source of the myth, it was the first and most enduringly influential of all of the versions of the Merlin/Arthur myth, so I choose to cite it here. ↩
- Uther’s seizing of Ygerna was in the past difficult to reconcile with the utopia of Camelot and the rules of courtly love; however, this Camelot is no utopia, and we can’t even be certain, from veiled references to Uther’s stormy past encounters with magic, that he seized his (now deceased) wife by force. ↩
Leave your response!