Well. Ahem. I just finished my Arthurian Lit class.
I'd like to call into question first the idea that there's "one" Arthurian legend. Second, certainly the BBC's Merlin tramples Malory's popular Morte d'Arthur, yes, but it returns to a
If you're going to depart from the legend, you'd better know what you're doing. And they do.
The Cliff's Notes version:
- There are lots of versions of Arthur, going back to the 5th century or so.
- Malory is getting flattened here, no doubt. That's the one we know.
- The writers have gone back to an earlier (and historically more influential) version of the legend: Geoffrey of Monmouth,
10th1100s, i.e., the 12th century. Sigh. I do this all the time with dates.
- From there they take off from a discrepancy between Malory and Geoffrey: did Uther raise his son or was Arthur orphaned? Malory says orphaned. Geoffrey says Uther raised him till age 15.
- Then they mix together all the gazillions of versions of Arthur in a soup and serve it up every week.
- Why do this? The element of surprise. (And they may be showing off. ;)
Negotiating the Boundaries of Legend
Every storyteller runs into a snag when they attempt to retell a well-known legend: the reader already knows the ending. Narrative tension is lost. For Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and La3aman this posed no difficulty. Familiarity helped create plausibility for their histories and translations of histories. Storytellers like Marie de France, Chretien, and the Gawaine poet avoid the problem by setting their narratives in Arthur's court, drawing in the reader, while focusing on Gawaine or Yvain or Erec as the hero. The reader can genuinely fear for Gawaine's life in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight as the ax descends since he is not the once and future king (Gawaine 2260). Most modern interpretations rely on the popularity of the name "King Arthur" combined with a fuzzy familiarity with the legend. The 1981 film Excalibur returns to Malory's grotesquerie to shock viewers who vaguely expect chivalry of the round table. T. H. White adds an entire book on the youth of the orphaned Arthur, fills it with modern concerns, before returning to the legend. Likewise Bradley's The Mists of Avalon shifts to a woman's perspective for a modern feminist view, while also following Malory's accepted plot.
The BBC's new series Merlin takes a whimsical new tack: the writers cut the legs out from under the legend altogether so the audience no longer knows where they stand.
Within the first episode, Merlin is the same age as Arthur, Uther is alive during Prince Arthur's youth, Guinevere is a blacksmith's daughter and servant to Morgana—who is not Arthur's sister at all but Uther Pendragon's ward. Who knows? Perhaps Arthur won't even become king. Through such radical changes, five key touchstones of Malory's Morte d' Arthur, 1) kingship through drawing the sword from the stone, 2) Arthur establishing the round table, 3) marrying Guinevere and being cuckolded with Lancelot, 4) the treason of Mordred, and 5) Arthur's departure for Avalon, are undermined within a few episodes. Even if all five still occur, the story must unfold differently. Far from ignoring the popular Malory version, the writers count on its familiarity, toying with audience expectations. Essential foreshadowing in the series—such as the unexpected identity of Mordred as a druid whose people have been executed by Uther—couldn't be as effective if the viewer didn't know the original plot.
Have you ever blown a bubble within another soap bubble? It is a delicate task to build a story within another story, touching at certain junctures while ignoring others. Ignore too many and the believability for the audience will collapse. Keep too many, and the new story will be absorbed into the old. The tension between the two stories will be lost. More than just a new narrative, an additional subtle layer of tension between the old and the new story is created. This tension develops from expectations fulfilled, deviated from, and unfulfilled.
It is this tension between a master narrative and a sub narrative that marks the difference between a simple singular story (or novel), and an epic. Epics are not one story, although one version might take hold of the popular imagination: epics are a multiplicity. As the many variations of Arthur's legend attest, such master narrative-subnarrative tension is by no means new. Tolkien called it the "web of story," not a surprising perspective from a student of epics.
Thus the myriad versions of Arthurian myth are only deviations from an original if viewed (inappropriately) with the novelist's eye, seeking one Writer (or perhaps, Writer) for one Definitive Text (Definitive Text). These settle like a happy snowflake on Malory as the Definitive Text by virtue of his popularity, or perhaps skip back to Geoffrey of Monmouth as the Original Writer, missing the point of epics altogether. Does one imagine that Arthurian storytellers repeated their tales by rote, only altering them through faulty memory and happenstance? The very fact that variation continues to breed demonstrates the legend of King Arthur is still a living epic.
Whether the listeners, readers, or viewers accept the new variation, however, is a matter of skill. Marie de France's technique of exploring new narratives within Arthur's court is far less dangerous than breaking with the original plot. By departing from the story, the Merlin series first must find new touchstones to tie it to Arthurian myth for it to ring true.
The BBC's Merlin situates itself in Arthurian canon by returning to Geoffrey of Monmouth's version. In Geoffrey, Arthur is raised by Uther until age fifteen (Monmouth 208, 212). This narrative strategy opens fertile new ground (since Geoffrey tells us nothing of Arthur's childhood), wipes the slate clean of Malory's orphaned Arthur (Malory 13), while reminding purists of drastic differences between existing canonical texts. Checkmate. Merlin consciously signals its source by placing Geoffrey as a character, an historian, within the series.
Geoffrey's themes furthermore flavor and underpin Merlin. Prophesy and destiny is the overarching theme, quite unlike Arthur's deserved fall as written by the fallen knight, Malory, or the theme of courtly love found in Marie de France. The dragon under Vortigern's castle (Uther's castle in Merlin) is still the source of prophesy, but rather than a portent read by the boy Merlin (Monmouth 171), Geoffrey's version is inverted, and a dragon gives prophecies to the boy Merlin. Geoffrey's repeated concern for the people (particularly the Britons) permeates the new series, leaving behind Chretien and Malory's fixation on knights and aventure. In texts like Chretien's, the peasants only appear as "rough common folk," a "mob" that is forced to retreat by a count's switch (Chretien, Erec 11). The series rings true to the populist spirit of Geoffrey while lending a new flavor for those used to Malory's knights errant.
Multivalent details from a variety of Arthurian sources then knit the series into the myth. Some are lifted directly, others mixed and rewritten. A poisoned well in the second episode is right out of Geoffrey, where a poisoned well kills Uther (Monmouth 211). In Merlin, the faeries of La3man (La3man 247) who bestow tecosca (blessings) and gessi (curses), abide in Avalon, where they can bestow immortality, for a price. Their attempted ritual sacrifice of Arthur reformulates the attempted sacrifice of Merlin in Geoffrey (Monmouth 167) and the Historia Brittonum (Historia Brittonum 30). A poisoned silver chalice from Malory that nearly kills the young Tristan makes an appearance in episode three, where it nearly kills the young Arthur. In Geoffrey, an assassin disguised as a physician kills Aurelius (Monmouth 200), while in the sixth episode of Merlin, a dangerous sorcerer, Myrddin (the name itself a reference to Welsh versions of Merlin) disguised as a physician attempts to kill Uther. Throughout the series, Merlin himself hides as an assistant to the court physician who is also a former sorcerer. Merlin's writers toy with the audience's knowledge that Uther dies young, dangling possible deaths by poison and by sorcery, then drawing him back from the brink.
Borrowed details are not enough to create a convincing Arthurian atmosphere, as they could easily seem superficial, a "triteness" of appropriation tacked on like glitter (Tolkien 58). Merlin helps convince the reader by borrowing details with attention to their original context.
Broader patterns in medieval legend, such as the three tests of a warrior's mettle, appear in Merlin's eleventh episode. Arthur is tested three times for knightly virtues such as generosity, mercy, and self-sacrifice. He fails the test of humility and nearly fails the quest. In episode nine the knight Tristan, who appears in Malory if not Geoffrey, is brought back from the dead. He rides into the castle to challenge Uther's knights -- much as the Green Knight does in Sir Gawaine and the Green Night. Like the Green Knight, he cannot be killed (Gawaine 444).
Both the undead Tristan in Merlin and the magical Green Knight in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight represent penance for past mistakes and failings (Gawaine 2392). Gawaine must pay for his overconfidence in dealing the deadly blow to the Green Knight and for cheating to save his own life. Teasing out one element, the knight in Merlin who accepts the challenge is overconfident. But the deeper ethical context of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight regarding the relationship between honor and pragmatism – can a knight be chivalrous when he greedily protects his own life at cost to his principles? (Gawaine 2374) – also appear in the Merlin episode. Uther must pay for having killed his brother-in-law Tristan although Tristan challenged him, blaming Uther for the death of his sister Ygerna. Uther's victory is bitter and unjust, because ultimately his selfish desire for a son was responsible for his wife's death. But is Uther responsible for either death? Arguing for Gawaine-esque pragmatism, Uther insists he was forced to fight Tristan or else die himself, and that he did not know the sorcery used to guarantee a son would kill his wife. Yet Uther cheated his fate and like Gawaine, must face the ignoble truth.
The combination of Uther and wrongful sorcery reaches deep into Arthurian myth, reminding the audience of the sorcery that led to Arthur's conception in Geoffrey, Geoffrey's translators, and Malory (Malory 13), when Uther disguised himself as Gorlois, Ygerna's husband, in order to sleep with her (Monmouth 207). Although the story of Arthur's conception is different, Uther and Uther's motivations, his passionate pursuit of his own desires at the expense of others and willingness to dismiss the consequences as necessary pragmatism, remains intact. Unlike Gawaine (Gawaine 2375), Uther blames others for his mistakes and sets out to destroy the very sorcerers who helped him bring about his downfall. By the end of the season Uther is almost universally hated.
To What End?
For a new Arthurian narrative to avoid seeming spurious, it must fill (one might say exploit) a gap in the existing story. Not add something new and out of place but draw out what is suggested already. One might say Wace's round table (Wace 245) was already present in the equality of the nobles of King Arthur's court. Arthur's even-handed generosity is essential to his characterization since Geoffrey (Monmouth 212). The symbol merely needed to be revealed.
Buried in the subtext of Monmouth is a question: how is it that Arthur, raised by Uther Pendragon, is so different from his father? Geoffrey of Monmouth does not account for the radical differences between a man who pursued the wife of his Duke, remorselessly starting a war, and the young man who unites the kingdom. For Geoffrey, and the BBC's dragon in Merlin, it's a matter of Arthur's destiny. For the modern reader, fate is an insufficient explanation. People are not created in the image of Aristotle's pure forms but have some hand in shaping their fate.
Thus the most radical departure of Merlin: the character Merlin himself, who vacillates between fate, personal ethics, and human failings. In no prior variation is Merlin a contemporary of Arthur. In Geoffrey, Merlin gives prophesies to Vortigern, helps Aurelius then Uther, and appears no more. Here the series draws upon Malory's Merlin who remains by Arthur's side throughout his life, while melding him with the boy prodigy Merlin who appears in Geoffrey (Monmouth 167). Yet changes to Merlin make little difference because Merlin everywhere is used as machinae. He fulfills Uther's desires (Monmouth 207), resolves Arthur's heritage (Malory 13), and in Merlin, saves Arthur's life time and again. Yet the BBC's Merlin is young, his magic not yet reliable, and right or wrong, he makes decisions of his own. This characterization strikes a balance between the wild Welsh Myrddin Monmouth drew upon (as referenced by the town of "Kaermerdin," Monmouth 167) and the unearthly prophet of "The Prophecies of Merlin" (Monmouth 171-185) by reimagining Merlin as a boy growing into wisdom.
Navigating Modern Politics
The BBC's boy Merlin negotiates the differences between the modern world and the medieval. Much as Geoffrey in the
Characters are drawn with complexities familiar from the "realism" of the novel. Arthur struggles to balance his own sense of justice with his father's vendetta against sorcery. Merlin takes Geoffrey's plea on behalf of his Britons a step further as a plea for modern democratic equality, emphasizing the gulf between the noble and peasant when Lancelot is not permitted to join Uther's knights due to his peasant birth. Themes of prejudice (against sorcerers and the like) are added to the mix and emphasized by casting a black actress as Guinevere, while a feminist reading is also taken into account when the audience learns that Morgana used to defeat Arthur in weapons practice.
However, the most notably modern element is an elision. Christianity, so central in the Arthurian legend with Malory's rendition of the grail quest and ever-present monks and bishops in Geoffrey, is markedly absent in the BBC series. A bishop isn't even found in the background of Arthur's coronation as heir apparent. It's a perplexing absence until one realizes that the Archibishop of Canterbury would have side with Uther in the prejudiced vendetta against sorcery. This would pit the church against both the protagonist, Merlin, and the hero, Arthur, an awkward and politically fraught position. The current Pope has already decried Harry Potter. Far safer to pit Merlin and Arthur against a beloved but ruthlessly pragmatic king. While an essential flavor of authentic medieval society is sadly missing—a lack more anachronistic than the presence of tomatoes—Merlin has deftly navigated the shoals of a modern interpretation.
Chretien de Troyes. Erec and Enide.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur.
Marie de France. The Lais, translated by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, Baker Academic, (c) 1978.
Monmouth, Geoffrey. The History of the Kings of Britain, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, (c) 1966.
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, edited and translated by James Winny, Broadview, (c) 1992.
The Romance of Arthur, edited by James J. Wilhelm, Garland Publishing, Inc., (c) 1994.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader, Curtis Publishing Co., (c) 1966.
Wace. Le Roman de Brut.
My apologies for not being available for much comment. Of course I write this sort of thing when I'm hopelessly busy. I hope it's not too dry. Also, forgive that I haven't italicized all the text names. I'm in the middle of finals and probably shouldn't be posting this at all.
ETA: Sorry about the dates. I'm forever calling the 1100s the "tenth" century. It's the twelfth, yes, yes it is. (And to think I've a history minor.)