Wednesday, March 30, 2011


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."


  1. Well, yes and no. The familiar "matter of Britain" is highly colored by Mallory's 15th-century interpretation, which was certainly late medieval and highly Roman Catholic. But if one sets the historical Arthur (whoever or even if he might have been)in the 6th century we are dealing not so much with a medieval context, but late antiquity merging into Dark Ages Britain. Rome took her legions away in the early 5th century but the Britons continued to think of themselves as Roman in citizenry and culture as long as that could hold out against the successive tides of barbarian invasion and migration that characterized all of western Europe. British Christianity of the time began to develop in ways distinctive from continental Catholicism, as is readily apparent from the confrontation of the mission of Augustine of Canterbury (late 6th century) with indigenous British/Welsh Christianity and even more so the effects of Irish/Scots mission work from the north. From Augustine's perspective, he was almost re-evangelizing the island, an attitude that understandably grated against the sensibilities of the natives (the peoples of Britain other than the invading Germanic Jutes, Saxons,and Angles).

    But none of that disputes your main observation that the producers and writers of the "Merlin" television series have done violence to the facts, such as thay can be known (5th and 6th century British/English history is awash with difficulties--they don't call these the Dark Ages for nothing). It appears as though they substituted Druidism for British Christianity, when in actuality the latter had largely expunged the former by this time, aside perhaps from the extreme hinterlands. Sounds to me as if they're borrowing heavily from Marian Zimmer Bradley's "Avalon," which casts Christians as the bad guys.

  2. Thanks, Ken. Excellent background.

    I’m distinguishing the literary Arthur from the historical Arthur. Given the semicomedic nature of the TV series, I don’t fault it too deeply for failing to reconstruct the conditions of 6C England.

    Even so, I think it’s a lazy habit on the part of too many directors, producers, and screenwriters to create historical dramas which never make a good faith effort to depict what it actually felt like to live back then. What was life like back then? That’s inherently interesting. For some reason, many directors, producers, and screenwriters fail to appreciate the dramatic potential in reconstructing the past. To place their characters in a realistic setting.

    But my deeper criticism lies with their handling of the literary Arthur. That’s why I spoken of the Arthurian “legend.” Sure, it’s largely unhistorical.

    In its own way, the literary Arthur is just as anachronistic as the TV series. But while the literary Arthur (and his entourage) may not be true to history, that forms the basis of the Arthurian tradition. The characters may be legendary, but they figure in the literary tradition, and a televised or cinematic rendition ought to work within that literary tradition.

    Mind you, I have no objection to the imaginative adaptation of the literary tradition. In the nature of the case a literary tradition is subject to various permutations. It evolves over time. In modern times, Tennyson, T. H. White, and C. S. Lewis (among others) creatively adapt the Arthurian legend–not to mention the artistic, pre-Raphaelite depictions.

    My main problem is the way in which the TV series has written Christianity out of the Arthurian legend. Mind you, I think Medieval Catholicism was often decadent. But it does preserve a Christian vision, a Christian witness, however garbled.

    Again, I enjoy the TV series on its own level. It can be sweet, touching, and humorous. But the outlook is fundamentally shallow and godless.

  3. I've loved Arthur since starting in with Stephen R Lawhead's imagining of the legend. He's faithful to the Christianity of it all, and gets close to the history. Because it was my first, it remains my favourite.

  4. I’m distinguishing the literary Arthur from the historical Arthur.

    Ah. Then your comments on the television series are certainly apt.

    I know there have been attempts in recent cinema to take a more historical approach to Arthur, and even then the production of which I am aware was faulted for depicting him as a pagan Roman military leader battling the Saxons. If memory serves, the script was unkind to British Christians in that film as well. It almost leads one to think there might be some industry-wide ax-grinding going on, no?

    I have a book at home on the evolution of the Arthurian legend. You might find it interesting. I'll pass along the details later.

  5. Anyone have comments on one of my favorites movies of all time "Excalibur". Most people say it's a cheesy film, but I love it.

  6. The book to which I referred yesterday is Christopher Snyder's The World of King Arthur, published in 2000 by Thames and Hudson. I acquired my copy through a used book seller at a very reasonable price.

    It's been many years since I saw Excalibur. From what I recall it has style but, like many John Boorman films, a lot of quirks, too.

  7. The Holy Grail is renamed Chalice of Life?!? The men of the Round Table are Knighted not by holding oath to the Saints and England but simply told to Rise you are now Knighted?!? Zero Christian Crosses just odd shapes of trees on flags?!? King Arthur marries an African lady!?! Not a single reference to The Crusades?!? Those who oppose Paganism are vilified and made to look evil in nearly all episodes?!? Magic spells are cast not in Old English/ Welsh / Gaelic but in some odd tongue I don't even want to investigate?!? I really think the director is an Atheist from California or maybe Vermont!