Enticed by the prospect of homoerotic subtext, shitty BBC CGI, and Colin Morgan’s cheekbones, I have finally committed myself to watching BBC Merlin properly. And in these respects I was thoroughly nourished by, at the very least, Series 1.
Merlin retells the Arthurian legends with a focus on the style inspiration of Gandalf and Dumbledore, Merlin (except he looks more like the style inspiration of the Beatles here). After moving to Camelot, which incidentally seems to be the only kingdom in the realm to actively persecute sorcerers, Merlin somewhat accidentally becomes the prattish Prince Arthur’s manservant and discovers that their destinies are entwined. Oh joy.
Merlin thus far has certainly endeared itself greatly to me, with its engaging (if not slightly ridiculous) plots, witty script, quality filming (ignoring the signature shitty BBC CGI), loveable cast/characters, and truly superb acting. It’s not perfect, of course, with its at-times cringe-worthy tokenism and Arthur’s Misguided Medieval Sexism (but to be fair, this could be part of his Series 1 Dickness and may change), but it does try, which is more than I can say for a lot of media texts.
It’s actually quite interesting watching a show which retells the Arthurian legends in light of my English class this semester. I’m doing a unit called Narratives of Romance and Adventure which requires me to read a whole heap of stuff from the Odyssey through to Robinson Crusoe – that is, a lot of old-timey legends. Excluding, in fact, the Arthurian legends. Nonetheless, what I’ve learnt so far about Old English and old-timey legends and romance has helped me understand Merlin more. For instance, it’s interesting to think of this show as not so much an adaptation of the “original” legends, but a continuation of the history of reinterpretation. The legends themselves started out separate before being drawn together, after all, and have been retold again and again through traditions oral and written – and now visual. With young characters and Merlin usurping Arthur as hero of the story, the tale turns away from focusing on the unchallenged glory of manly men and engages with the characters and their often less-than-perfect personalities and motivations.
The weirdest thing is probably that they’re using Old English for spells, even though they probably would have spoken Old English at the time, so technically Merlin would just be yelling the equivalent of “gimme a light” when conjuring fire. It’s a wonder weird shit doesn’t happen around him more if the language of spellwork is his own everyday language. If they’re going to establish the Druids as the Old Religion, they should technically be doing the spells in Gaelic or something.
I do like how the showrunners also use Merlin as a vehicle for exploring class inequalities. For example, the injustice of how Merlin, as a servant, is considered an unreliable witness against the word of a knight is criticised in Episode 2. Episode 5 also features Lancelot, who is barred from knighthood due to his common birth. Although, in disguise, he manages to meritocratically prove himself worthy, he takes his leave when his deception is discovered despite Arthur’s attempts to advocate for him.
The characters on Merlin are particularly fascinating, with hidden depths dredged out in each episode; it will certainly be interesting to see where these personalities go in the following series. Merlin himself comes off initially as a “sweet summer child”, strolling into Camelot with a spring in his step and a smiley crinkle in his eye. He’s personable (to everyone but Arthur), humorous, a bit endearingly slow, and seemingly only owns three shirts. He cries in practically every episode. He is also possibly the realm’s shittiest manservant, spending most of his time vanquishing monsters, strolling around the castle, or falling over
with the clumsiness of a Mary Sue as opposed to doing Actual Manservant Things. Yet he is loyal to a fault, ruthlessly killing anyone who lays even a malevolent eye on those he loves without second thought. He’s reckless, thinking only in the short-term and often endangering those around him. In this tension, we are made aware of his magical power – a raging tempest with the façade of innocence.
Arthur, who more or less acts as Merlin’s corresponding Platonic half, is accordingly a very different man altogether. Outwardly an arrogant prat of gigantic proportions, displaying very odd manifestations of “chivalry” and “honour”, we come to understand Arthur’s insecurities and qualities as the episodes unfold. Arthur Pendragon is possibly the dictionary definition of emotional constipation, likely the result of his oddly Freudian, fucked-up relationship with his father Uther (he’s also motherless, so go forth and psychoanalyse, dear reader). In spite of his prickly exterior, he truly does cares for people, as evident when he defies his father to support Lancelot’s participation in the knighthood and when he hares off in search of a cure for poison ingested by Merlin despite the consequences the furious Uther makes him face. The potential here for character growth, spurred on especially by Merlin’s presence in his life, has been set on its trajectory.
The relationship between the two is the show’s focus as they fall into an easy camaraderie after a slightly rocky start. They also quite quickly develop very strong feelings for each other, risking their lives to save the other’s so early on in the show; it’s no wonder that the homoerotic reading of this show is so widely-accepted (I mean, they basically shoot blowjob metaphors at each other when they first meet). Magic can even be read as a gay metaphor, with the stigma surrounding it in Camelot, Merlin basically being a closeted sorcerer, and Morgana’s fear when she discovers her powers.
Something else I’ve been really liking about Series 1 is how each episode has a bit more of a focus on the other main characters. I’m particularly looking forward to how Gwen and Morgana will be developed later in the series, actually. We only catch glimpses of Gwen, but she’s immediately likeable as she welcomes Merlin, cares for her father and Morgana, and when she rebukes Arthur’s prattishness. I adore how they didn’t get a white actress for her (Karen Gillan actually auditioned for her role. I literally cannot imagine anyone but Angel Coulby being Gwen) because of how significant she is in the legends. Although, it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll try to make us ship her and Arthur, since it currently seems that her relationship with Lancelot and Arthur’s relationship with Merlin are stronger than the relationship between the two.
Morgana, on the other hand, is developed a bit more as the headstrong and compassionate ward of Uther. Like Merlin, she has the ability to be extremely lovely to everyone except Arthur, and though both she and Arthur find Uther’s rule prejudiced and unjust, she is a lot more active in defying him than Arthur. In the latter, we see the emergence of the great nemesis Morgan le Fay – but uniquely, not because of inherent evil, but a desire for justice.
So I guess, overall, Series 1 has been a treat and I’m pretty pumped for the next one! Bring it on, I say.
Best things about Series 1: the Questing Beast, Merlin’s feather-duster hat.
Worst things: Nimueh’s excessive smirking.