MAY / JUNE 2011: BY LYDIA WATSON
One legend has intrigued people for generations: the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have been told in many different ways over the years from an animated version about a clumsy boy discovering his true purpose to the heartbreak of a King finding out his finest knight is in love with his wife. These tales often focus on Arthur: who he is, how he became king, or how he deals with being king. In the background but just as much a part of the legend as Arthur is, is Merlin, the mysterious wizard, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always powerful and there to help Arthur.
One story that is rarely told is the story of Merlin. He’s always there, already powerful and he knows the destiny of Arthur and is helping him toward it. But what if Merlin’s journey was just as difficult and confusing as Arthur’s? In 2008, the BBC aired it’s new series Merlin, about just that. The beauty of the Arthurian legends is there is no wrong way to tell the story. Though there are certain characters and events that many consider canon, the story lends itself to interpretation.
Merlin has many of the same characters and tales familiar to Arthur fans, but they are presented in a fun and creative new way. When the show begins, Merlin is young man still learning to control his magic in a land where it is forbidden and punishable by death. Merlin is sent to Camelot to live with the court physician when his mother realizes he needs to learn to control his powers. A man who once studied magic as well, Gaius helps train and guide Merlin as he begins to understand his powers. In this version, Arthur is not a child unaware of his heritage but an over confident, arrogant prince ready to blindly follow his father, Uther. Breaking with usual tradition where Arthur is unaware of his heritage until Merlin tells him, this provides an interesting new dynamic between the beliefs of Arthur and his father, especially as he grapples with his hatred of magic and quick judgment against those who use it
The story grows around Merlin meeting Arthur and becoming his servant. The first episode introduces a dragon living beneath the castle who tells Merlin it is his destiny to help Arthur become the greatest King Camelot has ever known, but he can’t do it without Merlin’s help. However, Merlin is none too pleased to learn he must be a part of Arthur’s life. The first season revolves around Merlin and Arthur trying to work together, and more often than not, Arthur getting frustrated with Merlin, and Merlin doubting his destiny to help Arthur. Yet despite their troubles in the beginning, the two eventually grow to become friends, even if Arthur rarely likes to admit it. During all of this, Merlin must continue to protect Arthur, sometimes from outside forces trying to kill him and even at times from the prince’s own stupidity, all without revealing the secret that he’s a wizard. This usually means that Arthur gets all the glory while Merlin must continue to hide in the background
As the series continues we are introduced to the familiar characters of Guinevere, Morgana, Nimueh, Lancelot, Gawain, the Lady of the Lake, and even Excalibur. Each one enters Arthur’s life and helps him grow and become the King he will one day be, whether they are good or evil. The dragon continues to give Merlin answers in riddles, challenging him to continue to protect Arthur and later providing an interesting twist to the story, leaving the viewer unsure if the dragon’s intentions are good or not.
One unique difference in this version is the fact that Guinevere is a lady’s maid to Morgana, and Morgana a ward of Uther. Guinevere, not being the princess she is often portrayed as, adds interesting conflict to the story as Arthur begins to fall in love with her knowing he will never be allowed to marry a servant. Morgana, often portrayed as Arthur’s aunt, is later discovered to be his half-sister and becomes one of the series’ best antagonists.
The show at times can be campy, clearly not having the budget of bigger BBC shows like Doctor Who, but with often brilliant and witty writing as well as superb acting from the main cast, this show is a fun and exciting new take on Arthurian legend. Each episode takes the time to build the relationship between Arthur and Merlin and further bring about the story that will one day be so well known. If you’re a fan of Arthur and looking for an enjoyable take on this legend, Merlin is definitely a show not to miss. ■