The Modern Merlin

In Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the legendary characters of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin have something like a father-son relationship. Merlin, the right-hand man to King Uther, removes infant Prince Arthur from the grasp of his father, and places him in the loyal family of Sir Ector (6). Merlin devises a plan for Arthur’s true identity as king to be known and, when the boy becomes of age, Arthur is the only man able to pull Excalibur from the stone Merlin has enchanted (11). However, “counselor” is not the only version of Merlin there is. Even in Le Morte Darthur, he appears as a hunter (11), a teenage boy (22), and an old wise man (23), using various disguises and forms to conduct his business of establishing Arthur’s reign of peace.

Perhaps Merlin’s default form is not the middle-aged advisor seen in Le Morte Darthur, but is actually a young teen. BBC’s 2008 television series entitled The Adventures of Merlin imagines that Merlin is a boy equal in age to Prince Arthur, and becomes the legendary wizard alongside Arthur as he becomes the legendary king. This take dismisses the prince’s alternative upbringing in the house of Sir Ector, but uses Merlin’s presence in Arthur’s life as his friend and brother as the catalyst for the evolution from Uther to Arthur’s reign. By portraying the prince and the wizard as equals, and by promoting equality and tolerance in other ways, Merlin relates to modern-day social issues, and appeals to modern-day adolescents. Although still loosely based in Arthurian legend, Merlin does not accurately represent Le Morte Darthur, but instead re-invents the story to make meaning for a modern audience.

Class Structure

The portrayal of the character of Merlin, is an awkward, clumsy, and headstrong teenager. He is respectful, but with a streak of cockiness. Arthur is portrayed as a juvenile young prince, but not with the sense of equality and justice that we see in other Arthurian legends. In their first scene together, Arthur is bullying a servant by making him carry a target for dagger-throwing practice. While the prince demonstrates his prowess and status by victimizing the servant, he evokes cheers from the possy of knights that surround him. This fits the traditional figure of masculinity and class structure. Merlin doesn’t realize that Arthur is a prince, and admonishes him in defense of the servant. Merlin has a strong sense of justice and kindness, coinciding with the desire for peace and justice in the classic character of Merlin. In this scene, Merlin speaks to Arthur as an equal at first; he addresses him as “friend,” jokes around, and mocks the prince. He jabs Arthur with witty, baiting remarks. But Arthur remains the strong, masculine prince. He allows Merlin some fun, but maintains the class structure by jailing Merlin.

The scene of Merlin and Arthur’s first meeting establishes their class hierarchy, while also highlighting their equality. The brutish Arthur takes masterful swings at Merlin, while Merlin ducks and evades each blow using a combination of secret magic tricks and distracting verbal digs. If Merlin represents intellect and Arthur physicality, the scene makes the case for equality between the two opposing forces. This is a common thread throughout the series; while Arthur is the strong, warrior-knight growing from prince into king of Camelot, Merlin is providing protection from over the prince’s shoulder by using magic and strategy. This brain-and-brawn dynamic highlights equality in a modern-day context because, although Prince Arthur’s physical strength seems central, Merlins secret actions are vital to Arthur’s ultimate success. They both require each other to accomplish their victories; neither is less valuable in fact, despite the social class disparity.

Class structure, and the necessity of its fall, continues to be emphasized throughout the series. Guinevere (Gwen) begins episode one as a lady’s maid to Uther’s ward, Morgana. Gwen is as common as Merlin, and, however unlikely, the series allows a break-down of this classic social hierarchy. As Arthur becomes king upon Uther’s death, and under the influence of Merlin, tolerance and increased egalitarianism replaces the hatred and ignorance of the old reign. By the end of season four, Arthur falls in love with Gwen and makes her his queen. Lancelot, who first appears in the fifth episode of season one, is also of common birth, and becomes a knight despite his low social status. Both of these characters are high-born in the original legend, but are depicted as rags-to-riches characters here. This positions the series as a critique of discrimination and class structure. Arthur, over the course of several seasons, becomes more than tolerant toward commoners and outcasts of society. This social-equality narrative is more closely related to reform movements of today than the rhetoric of the Middle Ages. Class structure today is not formalized, but is still present, and the series attempts to highlight equality and tolerance in order to promote these values for the modern day.

Magic & Prejudice

In the world of Merlin, as opposed to Le Morte Darthur, magic and enchantments have been outlawed by King Uther, punishable by death, for 20 years. King Uther is an oppressor to all subjects that conduct magic, mainly the Druid community. He hunts them down, publicly executes them, and uses fear-mongering to unite his kingdom against sorcery. In episode one, a witch attempts to assassinate Prince Arthur, providing justification for the shunning of magic arts. These people hide in society, are prevented from being themselves, and are unfairly blamed and misunderstood. Merlin, who becomes servant to Prince Arthur by preventing the assassination, happens to also secretly be the most skilled wizard of his generation.

The treatment of these people echoes like a sort of homophobia; the druid community have no rights, they are hated and feared, and are treated like other-than-human. This subversion creates an opportunity for Merlin to show the value of magic to Prince Arthur over time, and to redeem sorcery in the kingdom. This dynamic parallels social issues of today; as Arthur learns tolerance and acceptance toward paupers and Druids, so teenagers today should learn the same toward homosexuals and other marginalized communities. In this way, the series promotes modern-day values through re-interpreting the legends of King Arthur for an adolescent audience. The young teenage wizard must delicately balance the need to hide his secret magical powers, while also protecting Arthur, and he serves as a role-model for those teens with dangerous secrets today.

Adolescence

Merlin himself is a fresh, appealing role-model for young viewers because he is a teenager and defies the elderly-gray wizard expectation. Although he does use magic to appear as an old wizard at times, permitting the traditional Merlin visage to remain true, the audience is able to follow Merlin’s story as he begins his journey to become a legend. Like most teens, he is still discovering his place in society and his self-identity. He feels like he is an outcast, especially due to his dangerous secret. The first episode almost reads like a high-school drama: Merlin is a scrawny, audacious nerd facing off the bullying quarterback. He even leaves clothes on the floor in once scene, and receives a parental chiding from his Uncle Gaius, then has an emotional breakdown after being assigned as Arthur’s manservant. This rendition of Merlin smacks of hormonal-teenage-boy, which drives the ancient, wrinkly wizard character of Merlin into a funny, engaging character for the twenty-first century, and his kind-heartedness and justice-oriented passions makes him a strong, moral hero for today’s youth.

 

Perhaps the most poignant demonstrations of how the series’ rhetoric is focused on modern issues is not the presence of statements concerning social equality, but is the avoidance of issues that detract from that mission. Although “magic” is outlawed in Camelot, that is the extent of religious elements to be found. The characters do not pray, there are no depictions of the crucifix or the Virgin Mary, they do not attend mass, and do not discuss sin or human failing. Uther’s motivation for outlawing magic is not religious, but prejudice masked as domestic protection. A non-religious, secular representation of the Middle Ages is also more widely acceptable to an audience of today. Displaying a form of religious adherence would not only contest the advocacy for equality, but would alienate potential viewers.

Another missing element in the series is the portrayal of classical courtly love and chivalric values relating to women. The women in this series are smart and strong, and although there are occasional women in need of rescue, and women of temptation that lead to a male character’s downfall, chivalric values are simply assumed. Women are not raped, widows are cared for, and there are little to no risque jokes at the expense of women. The series portrays romance like innocent, budding puppy-love, which adheres to the teenage audience. To portray the old-fashioned courtly love as shown in Le Morte Darthur would be distasteful to a modern audience, as it objectifies women, promotes extra-marital relationships, and distracts viewers from the central message of social equality.

The series is not an epic romance with a love triangle, but more of a buddy-film and a bildungsroman. Historical accuracy is abdicated in the series in these areas because it wants to promote equality to a wide, adolescent viewership. Editorial decisions made in the premise of the series positions it as a critique of discrimination and class tolerance, and purposefully avoids discussing religion or archaic courtly love. Youthfulness and innocence in the show breathes life into dusty old legends, while also offering important understandings about issues facing the young modern world such as class, intolerance, inequality, and discrimination.

 

Works Cited

  • Jones, Julian. “The Dragon’s Call.” The Adventures of Merlin, season 1, episode 1, BBC One, 20 Sept. 2008.
  • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998, 2008.