Is the question that nobody has asked me about how I’ve been spending my limited free time this month.
Re-immersing myself in the BBC TV series Merlin is the answer that I’m sharing with everyone anyway.
BBC Merlin fascinates me, both in the ways it deliberately diverges from what “everyone knows” about the Arthurian legends and in how it twists those bits of the legends it has chosen to keep.
Now by Arthurian Legends I mean the works starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, going through Robert de Boron, Wace, Chretien De Troyes and other’s contributions and finishing up (time wise) with Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485. That’s the thing about Arthuriana, there is no One True Arthurian Legend from which all others sprung, there are just a heck of a lot of variations on a theme; Arthur was first mentioned by the Welsh poets back in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, there have been many, many re-telling since Mallory’s work. However for my purposes it is the body of Arthurian work written between the start of the 12th century and the end of the 15th century that I’m comparing the BBC Merlin storylines to.
– Please note that if you haven’t watched BBC’s Merlin yet but think you might want to and do not wish to read a significant amount of spoilers you need to stop here –
Arthur and Merlin were not contemporaries in the legends. Merlin was at the very least the same age as Uther if not significantly older. Merlin, not Nimue, was the one who used magic to allow Uther to get Igraine with child and that magic was a glamour to make Uther look like Igraine’s husband Gorlois so she’d accept Uther into her bedchamber, not using the equivalent of the Holy Grail to create a child in a barren womb.
Morgana was Uther and Igraine’s true born daughter, younger than Arthur. Morgause was either another daughter of Igraine and Uther or a daughter of Uther born out of wedlock well before Uther married Igraine. Both Morgana and Morgause have been cast as villains in various tales in the legends but their motives for their actions are entirely different than those given to them in the show.
In Geoffrey’s story Arthur was brought up at court, with both Igraine and Uther very much alive, and Uther dies of poison/festering wound/old age when Arthur is about fifteen. It is later tales that have Merlin whisking Arthur off to Ector’s care as a tiny baby and raised unaware he is the heir to the throne, only finding out his true parentage one Uther is dead or dying. It was Robert de Boron who introduced the story of the Sword in the Stone, Wace who named it Excalibur, and Excalibur was not the same sword as the one that the Lady in the Lake bestowed on Arthur. And neither of those swords were made magical by burnishing them in dragon fire.
The biggest difference though, is the magic. Magic is simply a given in most of the stories, something that exists and is accepted by both the characters in the stories and most of the people who would have read the tales at the time they were written. No one in the legends goes to war on magic, it is never banished from the kingdom of Camelot (which doesn’t exist until Arthur builds it, Uther had no hand in it), there is no great purge committed by Uther on Igraine’s death (Igraine outlives him in all of the legends). Most of the versions of the legends make Arthur a Christian King fighting under the banner of God/Jesus/the Virgin Mary but magic and miracles and unicorns and dragons and questing beasts are still there and still a fairly universally accepted part of life at the time.
Merlin’s magic is never hidden or denied. He doesn’t wander the world lost after Arthur’s death. By the time Arthur and Mordred mortally wounded each other at the Battle of Camlan, Merlin had been trapped by Nimue/Vivianne in a tree/crystal cave for many, many years and was entirely out of the tales. Morgana is the one who, with her nine priestesses, bears the wounded Arthur across the lake to Avalon to be healed and wait for his time to come, when he will return to Albion at its hour of greatest need. Magic book-ends Arthur’s life but he is fully aware of it, and accepting of it, for the whole of his existence.
Every time I look at BBC Merlin I find myself trying to work out what they were hoping to achieve with the changes they made. Merlin hiding his magic certainly creates some fantastic tension, as does Uther being alive, an unbending tyrant, and a significant influence on Arthur for a far greater period of his life than in the legends. But what appeared to be the overarching plot of the series – Merlin and Arthur together restoring magic to Camelot and uniting Albion– as set out in the very first episode, never happened. And it felt, to me, all the poorer for it.
I’m not asking for a happy ever after here. The legends are the story of a brief period of golden peace and hope in an age seemingly filled with despair and misery. The show is no different. But if they genuinely wanted Arthur to become someone worthy of the title Once and Future King he needed to not only accept magic but return it to his kingdom, attempt to make reparations for the harm Uther caused and still fail at the end despite that (because the damage Uther did was too great to undo). As it was he merely better than his father, which wasn’t exactly a difficult proposition and all those flashes of greatness came to late and never delivered on the promise of the first two seasons. Worse, Merlin became an active part in the continued oppression of those with magic, an antithesis of who he claimed to be.
I believe that the writers thought that if they removed the central tension of Merlin having to hide his magic that the show would falter and lose its way. I think that happened because they kept it there. There were so many wonderful elements to the show, so much they could have used in different ways. It’s still a really entertaining series (for all the plot holes you could drive a coach and four through without touching the sides) and I still enjoy watching but I do find myself wondering what it would have been like if they’d taken a different path. One where Arthur found out about Merlin’s magic far sooner, one where the central tension did not rely on a secret but an avowed attempt to atone for a sin that Arthur may not have committed himself but one he helped perpetuate.
It’s over ten years since the TV series ended but the fandom still remains active and I’ve read a lot of really good stories over the years, many of them including a reveal of Merlin’s magic to Arthur far sooner than in the show. I had thought that my fic writing days were over for this fandom but there is a single point, early in season 2, where changing one decision would have completely reshaped the whole of the series and my mind will not let go of it. I might end up with a lot of words I never share with anyone, I might end up with a novel length fan fic to put on AO3, I just don’t know. But I do know that if I don’t let myself work with the ideas that make me happy then I’m doing myself a disservice.
Tl:dr I’m going to try my hand at Merlin fan fic again. It may never see the light of day but I’m going to have fun regardless.
*If you didn’t know know I wrote fan fiction I’m not surprised since I haven’t shared any fanfic since 2017. You can find every that I have left up on AO3 if you happen to be interested; most of it is BBC Sherlock based though and there’s very little BBC Merlin. Not because I didn’t write a lot for that fandom, I did. It’s just that because most of my Merlin fic was on ff.net (I didn’t have an AO3 account until 2012 and I was writing Merlin fic well before that) and a very small but rather rabid section of the BBC Merlin fan base began a vigorous and unpleasant bullying campaign against me (because they did not like the direction I was taking my fic) it was easier just to ditch the account as a whole and leave only a couple of the most innocuous ones on AO3.
Looking back at those fics – I keep all my writing because a) you never know when some of it might be useful and b) I like to look back and see how my style and abilities have changed – I still like what I wrote and there are bits that I would like to expand on and play with some more. Plus these days I’m far more comfortable in my own skin and wouldn’t back down from the fight, should any of those who disliked me so much try to rekindle it.
One thought on “You’ve been doing what?”
Gosh I have learnt a lot from this post. I had no idea there was so much variation from the legends and the series. In my naivety I really enjoyed the series but looking at it with your knowledge I can see why it would have been frustrating. Really interesting read, thanks for sharing.
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