I am part of that small group of people obsessed with what we call “Arthurian Legend.” It may seem odd that there is a subculture following King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table the way trendier people follow vampires, but books and movies set in Camelot have become a cottage industry over the last 40 years. The BBC series Merlin is the most recent incarnation of this epic story.
In this particular version, Merlin, Arthur, and the other main characters are teenagers. Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, is the king, and much of the primary conflict in the series stems from the fact that Uther has outlawed all magic as the result of some long-past traumatic experience. The problem is that magic, in Camelot, is very real. It’s a gift some people are born with that can be used for either good or evil. Uther, however, is committed to the idea that all magic is inherently wicked and must be stamped out.
It would be possible to detect an anti-Christian subtext in which Uther represents a repressive religious worldview, but the context of the show doesn’t allow for anything that specific. Nothing about Camelot is grounded in anything resembling real history. The castle and costumes suggest a 12th or 13th century milieu, but there is no reference to Christianity, the church, or a religious system of any kind. There is only the “old religion” of magic against which Uther fights. Icons from the original stories that previously had specifically Christian significance, such as the Holy Grail and the Fisher King’s spear, are here just generically “magical.”
At first, I found this lack of historical or religious context odd, but now I think it is one of the show’s strengths. While certain episodes have clear allusions to the European witch hunts of the 14th and 15th centuries, the viewer is not forced to interpret them only as commentaries on the medieval church. Uther, in these episodes, can easily symbolize any fundamentalist tyrant from Bloody Mary to Joe McCarthy.
Everything about Merlin screams “fairy tale.” The series is shot at a real castle in northern France, but even the castle is not really real. The 12th century ruins were totally remodeled by Napoleon III to look like a romanticized medieval castle. The walls gleam with an otherworldly radiance, and it is, hands down, the cleanest castle I have ever seen. In a cinematic age when “gritty” is considered a compliment, it is startling to see something as breathtakingly beautiful as this world. It’s like watching a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life complete with dragons, unicorns, and farting trolls.
For someone steeped in the “authorized” versions of Malory, Tennyson, and T. H. White, the hardest thing to process about Merlin is the way characters and plots from the traditional versions are tossed into a salad bowl, mixed together, and served to the audience in completely new ways. While the essential temperaments of Merlin, Arthur, and the other main characters remain the same, some of the secondary characters and familiar plot lines have been drastically altered. I have, however, come to appreciate the way in which the story has been “sanitized” without cutting out its heart. While the original legend contained multiple accounts of adultery, incest, rape, and general debauchery, Merlin is true to its fairy tale roots and consistently glosses over the seamier side of things. I enjoy being able to watch Merlin with my 10-year-old son and only have to worry about whether a particular monster is a little too scary.
My primary criticism of the show is that the normal aging process seems to have been outlawed along with magic. I understand the reasoning behind filling a show for teenagers with unbelievably good-looking 20-somethings, but there seems to be no one between 25 and 60 left in Camelot. With the exception of Merlin’s wise old mentor Gauis, the dictatorial middle-aged Uther, and the occasional parental figure, grown-ups don’t exist. But this dearth of adults may simply be another example of Merlin’s fairy tale heritage. As every child knows, fairy tales are about the journey toward adulthood, not what happens once you get there.
But in a decontextualized post-modern fairy tale in which no religion but magic exists, where everything is beautiful and sanitized, and everyone is young, lovely, and clever, what 500-year-old themes still resonate? The answer turns out to be profoundly theological. Throughout the series, it is prophesied that Arthur’s courage and vision will bring about an ideal kingdom marked by justice and mercy. From the first, Merlin is told his duty is to protect Arthur so this golden age can come about. But the creators of Merlin have also chosen to retain the tragic ending of Arthur’s story by revealing early on that this golden age is ultimately doomed.
The tragedy of the Arthurian legend has always been that a sinful humanity cannot sustain a just society for very long. Noble aspirations are corrupted and ideals are inevitably compromised. But the story is not ultimately pessimistic. Yes, man’s sinfulness may prevent God’s kingdom from ever being realized on earth, but Arthur reminds us that the fight still matters. What is important is not that Arthur and Merlin failed, but that they tried. At the risk of being branded a heretic, I sometimes think of Arthur and his Knights as being akin to the saints described in Hebrews 11:13: “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.”
Gen-Xers and Millenials are often accused of being cynical and self-absorbed, but Merlin, Arthur, and their friends are committed to doing right regardless of the consequences—even unto death. If there is anything these kids are not, it is cynical. Over and over again, they make sacrifices for the greater good that are truly heart-wrenching. And a few episodes have been as profound as anything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (but without all the sex and blood-sucking).
Merlin is about more than being true to one’s calling. It is about the responsibility we all have to use that calling to fight the good fight. For anyone not averse to the fantasy genre (and farting trolls), Merlin is a show well worth watching. Not bad for a teen-centered, post-modern version of a medieval myth.