I’ve been watching the British TV series Merlin. While it’s not great art, it has a certain gentle, good-natured, light-hearted quality that’s fairly unusual in contemporary TV fare. It also has excellent ensemble acting.
The show makes no pretense of historical accuracy in reconstructing the 6C English setting in which the Arthurian legend is situated. And I don’t expect that.
What’s striking, but not surprising, given the ideological bias of the entertainment industry, is the way in which the series completely dechristianizes the Arthurian tradition. In the ostensibly medieval world of the series, there is no church, no Trinity, no Christ, no Bible, no angels or demons, priests or bishops, heaven or hell.
There’s something called the “Old Religion,” but there doesn’t seem to be anything supernatural about the “Old Religion.” In Merlin, magic is just a way of channeling the forces of nature.
The worldview of Merlin is a world apart from the worldview of the Arthurian tradition, which was awash in Medieval Catholicism.
In the Arthurian tradition, King Arthur is a Christian knight. The Fidei Defensor. His kingdom represents an outpost of Christendom, supplanting the heathen faith with the Christian faith. That’s a central theme: the battle–quite literally–between Catholicism and paganism. Chivalric Christianity.
In the Arthurian legend, Merlin is a half-breed: his mother was a nun while his “father” was an incubus. His paranormal powers are occult powers.
Of course, this is “history” written by medieval monks. Hagiographa. Still, it’s instructive to contrast the traditional Arthurian legend with the thoroughly secularized TV series. To take a few examples:
At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them.
The king [Arthur], after his general pardon granted to the Scots, went to York to celebrate the feast of Christ's nativity, which was now at hand. On entering the city, he beheld with grief the desolation of the churches; for upon the expulsion of the holy Archbishop Sanxo, and of all the clergy there, the temples which were half burned down, had no longer divine service performed in them: so much had the impious rage of the pagans prevailed. After this, in an assembly of the clergy and people, he appointed Pyramus his chaplain metropolitan of that see. The churches that lay level with the ground, be rebuilt, and (which was their chief ornament) saw them filled with assemblies of devout persons of both sexes.
Upon this the messengers hastened to the governor of the city, and ordered him, in the king's name, to send Merlin and his mother to the king. As soon as the governor understood the occasion of their message, he readily obeyed the order, and sent them to Vortigern to complete his design. When they were introduced into the king's presence, he received the mother in a very respectful manner, on account of her noble birth; and began to inquire of her by what man she had conceived. "My sovereign lord," said she, "by the life of your soul and mine, I know nobody that begot him of me. Only this I know, that as I was once with my companions in our chambers, there appeared to me a person in the shape of a most beautiful young man, who often embraced me eagerly in his arms, and kissed me; and when he had stayed a little time, he suddenly vanished out of my sight. But many times after this he would talk with me when I sat alone, without making any visible appearance. When he had a long time haunted me in this manner, he at last lay with me several times in the shape of a man, and left me with child. And I do affirm to you, my sovereign lord, that excepting that young man, I know no body that begot him of me." The king full of admiration at this account, ordered Maugantius to be called, that he might satisfy him as to the possibility of what the woman had related. Maugantius, being introduced, and having the whole matter repeated to him, said to Vortigern: "In the books of our philosophers, and in a great many histories, I have found that several men have had the like original. For, as Apuleius informs us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates, between the moon and the earth inhabit those spirits, which we will call incubuses. These are of the nature partly of men, and partly of angels, and whenever they please assume human shapes, and lie with women. Perhaps one of them appeared to this woman, and begot that young man of her."