Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part I – For the Love of Camelot!

Merlin chuck

The first of a series looking at Arthurian legend on the small and big screens.  First up is the throwtastic family fayre of Merlin.  Massive spoilers guaranteed for those who are yet to take the trip to Camelot.

CONCLUDING FIVE TERRIBLY SUCCESSFUL YEARS, MERLIN’S FINAL SEASON COMMENCED A YEAR AGO THIS WEEKEND.  As 2013 sees Albion traded for Atlantis on the long Autumn evenings, it feels a good time to look back at a show that proved many wrong, and also that Arthurian legend is still ripe for repossession.

 “In a land of myth, and a time of magic… the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.”

So began each episode, firmly setting the tone for The Adventures of Young Merlin.  In his review of the first episode of Atlantis, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wryly commented that the show has the same boy’s public school vibe as Merlin – and it does.  Aside from myth, the show cuts into a similar vein as Harry Potter, conjuring up a class obsessed buddy show – although Atlantis could really do with a similar intro spiel.  With special effects limited by its television budget, a lot of the series’ appeal had to come from its interplay.  That put a focus on a script that received criticism for its modern English when it first started (all but gone by the end of its run) but that proved to be eminently sensible.  After all, what language would be historically accurate?  Unfortunately however, not many shows have an inbuilt universal translator or telepathic circuit and people take that badly.

Atlantis has taken the opposite approach to Merlin, starting in the modern day that Merlin briefly finished in. The camera could have easily cut from the South West country road that Merlin endlessly walks to the boat from which Jason surveys the ocean depths.

Different Fish

But Atlantis is a different fish to Merlin, despite its surface similarities.  The new show has a wealth of myths to draw on, and not necessarily all Greek (Jason is palling up with Hercules rather than Heracles after all).  In the first episode the main hero landed in an Atlantis that sounded a lot like Crete, took on the mantle of Theseus and defeated the minotaur.  There isn’t a golden fleece in sight, but it will surely come.  Atlantis may have significant crossovers with Merlin cast and crew, but it’s come with significant new blood – not least Howard Overman elevated to co-creator.

Following loosely in the boy wizard’s footsteps, Atlantis has immediately eased itself of Merlin’s early constraints.  Despite a singular base in one city, presumably in the Mediterranean, that may as well be Camelot in Albion, its setting brings an easier route to adventure and story.  The show’s intrepid trio have thousands of tales to draw on.  Although Merlin brought in various British and Celtic myths, from its various fantastic creatures to the aes sídhe, it was always set in the stone of Arthurian legend.

‘The Future of Camelot, Albion, and the United Kingdoms’

But as John Hurt’s Great Dragon intonated in the opening of every episode, this Merlin was a young boy, and a servant, for the whole run of the show.   No matter how many nods and references there were to the legends of Arthur, the audience knew that this was just laying the groundwork for the famous myths to come….  Well, that was the ruse that remained for a considerable time, in fact, pretty much up to the time that its cancellation was announced.  With every nod and appearance of an element of the myth, Merlin wasn’t hinting at what was to come after all – it was interpreting them just as Spenser, White, Malory and countless others had before.  In these days of old and bloated knights, it’s refreshing to see Arthur locked as a young king, because when Merlin ended, the whole legend had been told.

Most parts of Arthurian lore were acknowledged from the love triangle of the throne, the lady of the lake, Uther Pendragon, Excalibur, the sword in the stone and round table as well as bringing in the likes of Tristan, Isolde and the Fisher King.  By the final season many parts were in place, overshadowed by the road to Camlann.  In five years it covered pretty much the whole caboodle, not necessarily in the expected way or order, but it got away with it all rather brilliantly.

There’s a number of reasons why.  Perhaps most importantly, Merlin got its casting spot on.  The mix of the characters and chemistry more than overcame plots that frequently fell into the old ‘Oh we’re off for a quest because one of us has fallen ill’ mould.  While some of the characters remained a little underused, even wasted for long stretches, such as Sir Gwain and Guinevere, others flourished in leisurely story arcs.   In the case of Morgana, seldom has a character been allowed such time to develop from light to dark.  Katie McGrath had precious little to do for two seasons, but more than made up for it (well, went manically over the top) when the character’s power was realised.

The Great Purge

Merlin’s real strength was using and abusing the myths as it saw fit.  With such a successful chemistry and easy reliance on its strict formula, with its deus ex machina dragons, it eeked out parts of the myth throughout the series.  It laid simple, never over the top, plot strands with the confident and correct opinion that it really didn’t need to worry about being slavish to any version of the myth.  The quest, a medieval-going-on-modern castle set-up and the consistent suppression of magic were kept at the show’s core.  With a fixed base, the show could explore its established geography of kingships across Albion, laying down bases to return to and build on without being slavish.

The Changing Seasons

A quick summary of the five seasons shows the neat and steady unfolding of the myths.

  • Season one took a while to get swinging, despite introducing Lancelot, Excalibur and finished with a cameo from the Cup of Life.
  • Season two brought a twist on the Lady of the Lake and ended on the dragon lore with the last Great Dragon released (physical, not metaphorical here), a literal representation of magic that other adaptations have used a little more opaquely.
  • Season three played a longer game, with excursions to the Fisher King seeding the way for a finale where everything stepped up a gear.  With the addition of Sirs Gwain, Percival and Elyan, it sees Morgana seizing Camelot, the quest for the cup of Life, the formation of the Round Table, the return of the Lady of the Lake and the recovery of Excalibur.
  • Season four doesn’t keep Uther around for long and has soon deepened the myth with Morgana fully rogue and Arthur on the throne.  Nathaniel Parker adds a superb touch of class as the dastardly Agravaine de Bois (a character confused throughout myth).  Lancelot sacrifices himself, it turns out permanently, and by the finale Arthur is drawing the sword from the stone.
  • Season five jumps forward three years into an age of prosperity where Guinevere sits on the throne next to Arthur.  But the gathering doom of Camlann grows closer as Mordred resurfaces to earn his knighthood.

Despite its leisurely pace and skilful nods, it’s a shame that there wasn’t one more season, perhaps with Merlin taking on the mantle of Camelot physician and hand of the king from Gaius.  Many wanted it, but the format of the show would have been utterly broken by Arthur discovering and accepting Merlin had powers for any length of time.  The fact they never adapted Gwain and the Green Knight though, that’s almost unforgivable.

Since Doctor Who reclaimed Saturday nights for family drama, many shows have failed.  The most notable casualty was Demons, but even Primeval and Robin Hood were limited successes.  Merlin managed it with ease, taking support and leads from its far older brother and eventually breaking into a later peak slot that crossing the watershed without sacrificing its family fun.  By the series’ end, while Doctor Who struggled with over complications and split seasons, Merlin remained one of the most consistent shows ever seeking to entertain on a Saturday night.  No wonder it took a bite out of the X-Factor.  Against all odds, Atlantis is surely in good stead.

More Merlin? In Part 2: For the Hate of Camlann! – I take a look at the closing ‘Mordred trilogy

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