Sitting at a Round Table: Merlin in Retrospect


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Never could I ever write nearly as much insightful commentary about the legend of King Arthur as there already is. There are people who have dedicated their lives to studying the Once and Future King with his duel kingdoms. I can, however, talk about King Arthur as a life-long fan of the legends. I’ve always been an Arthurian girl – and I always will be. There’s something amazing and inspiring about the legends of Arthur and his knights. Whether it’s uniting a nation with Lancelot, or even the quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur will remain one the of the West’s greatest myths.

Because of that status, there are a lot of retellings of the great and mythic Arthur. Some are awful, some are great. And some are Merlin. More recent adaptations of the tale have taken the side of telling the story through the eyes of Merlin, the old wizard who sometimes helps, sometimes hurts, but is always there. There is no true tale of Arthur without Merlin.

And that’s where Merlin comes in.

Back in 2008 a new high fantasy series started on BBC1. It was an adaptation of Arthur’s story – but it was told through the eyes of Merlin. Except, Merlin isn’t an old man – he’s a young man. This version of the story puts Arthur and Merlin as peers, despite the fact that Merlin ends up being the prince’s servant.

So, Merlin comes to Camelot seeking Gaius, the old doctor, for secret magic training.It’s secret because Arthur is not king, his father still is, and Uther Pendragon has banned magic in the kingdom. So even though magic is intrinsically part of who Merlin is, he’ll be killed if he practices his craft. On the flip side of that, though, it’s his destiny to serve and protect Arthur and, of course, he has to use magic to protect the prince.

Destiny is a big part of Merlin. Whether it’s Merlin’s destiny as it intertwines with Arthur’s (“Two sides of the same coin” as the Great Dragon would say), or whether it’s about Mordred’s seemingly avoidable betrayal. Destiny is important – and it will never be broken. As sure as Lancelot will fall in love with Gwen, and Morgana will be evil. It was always Arthur’s destiny to die, just as it was always Merlin’s destiny to send him to Avalon; to wait for him to return. And destiny is a big part of the Arthurian myths from which Merlin is pulling. The destiny of Lancelot and Gwen’s betrayal, the destiny of Mordred’s return, and the destiny of Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred. King Arthur is a story to write home about – and Merlin delivered with its telling of myth and destiny.

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So, there are two caveats to Merlin. The first is that it’s an all-ages show. Which doesn’t seem like a big deal, I know. I mean, look at the other BBC1 shows that are all-ages. It’s in pretty good company with Doctor Who. However, that means there are silly things. Really silly. Stupidly silly. Thing you’ll want to forget ever happened because they’re just that ridiculous.

The second caveat is that no matter how masterfully the writers blend in mythic elements into the story of Merlin, they also have some problems. Namely some interpersonal relationship continuity, and Morgana’s entire storyline. There are a lot of friendships that I feel like end up getting forgotten. There are times when Merlin is accused of trying to kill Arthur, and the knights believe him guilty, Gwaine chief among them. This is despite the fact that Gwaine is actually Merlin’s best friend, a point that is not brought up after it’s uttered in passing. Merlin and Gwen’s relationship seemed utterly forgotten once she was made queen. Plus Arthur and Merlin’s relationship often feels as though they had never gone through half of the things that made them closer.

Okay. Morgana. Morgana is the big one. I really love Morgana, I just hate what they did to her. Morgan le Fey is an interesting character in the mythology of Camelot. She is, however, ultimately part of the circle of women who are, in their own way, working against the good of the crown. Arthur is our hero. We want to see him succeed – that’s the whole point of him. He is a rallying point – a symbol of hope. He always has been and he always will be. Morgana is the woman who tries to destroy him, first by herself, and then with their son Mordred (in mythology, not actually in Merlin). On the other side of the circle of evil women is Gwen, the woman who betrays him for another knight. The latter doesn’t ultimately occur in the show. Gwen ends up ruling Camelot after Arthur dies, but the former is rather important. The vilifying of women is important.

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The story of Arthur is, in all actuality, the story of Christianity vs. Paganism in Europe. That was part of the point of him. And one of the things that was happening strongly in Christian literature at that time was the vilifying of female characters. The female characters would betray you, lead you astray, or try to kill you for no good reason. They were unable to be reasoned with, and they were vengeful beyond belief. And that’s were Morgana comes in.

The writers created a great character. Morgana in the first few seasons is charming, and warm, and lovely. She’s complex and interesting. Then, however, comes her transformation into the character of myth she was always destined to be. And, honestly, it felt like she died. It felt like the lovely and complex character they’d created just up and died, and they replaced her with an exact replica of the one from the 5th and 6th centuries’ stories. She’s irrational, cannot be reasoned with, and she is vengeful. Man, is she vengeful. And no one is really sure why. Like, the main reason she kills Uther and tries to kill Arthur over and over again, doesn’t feel like a good enough reason. It never has, and it never will. Morgana’s characterization once she goes dark side is my biggest complant about the entire series, really.

Overall, though, the story of Arthur and Merlin is a love story, so it’s easy (albiet still really disheartening) to lose the female characters. But plantonic love, or otherwise, is actually irrelevant to this tale. It is a love story, in that it’s a story of devotion – straight from the pages of history. And even though they’ve altered the story a bit (okay a lot) it still remains the story of Avalon, its king, and the magician who made it all possible. Those moments that are right out of the history books? They’re absolutely stunning and beautifully executed. Merlin will be remembered as one of the great, longstanding Arthurian adaptations, and it will surely be missed.

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Long live the once and future king!

-Emily Frances Maesar

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