Saturday, May 14, 2011

Merlin redux

I've been watching the BBC show Merlin (which Steve also blogged about here). I watched the episodes out of sequence though, since I was originally just dipping into them and not expecting to watch too many of them. But I believe I've seen all of them now.

1. Overall I really enjoy the show. I think I most appreciate its lighthearted tone. It doesn't take itself too seriously despite the fact that the Arthurian tales could be interpreted sacrosanctly. I found the episodes "Beauty and the Beast" (two-parter), "Goblin's Gold," "The Changeling," and "Queen of Hearts" particularly amusing.

Probably predominantly for personal reasons, I enjoyed "The Last Dragonlord" best of all. "The Lady of the Lake" is up there as well.

I also appreciate the coming of age story with the various characters. We all know how they'll turn out but it's fun to watch the journey. The writers and producers do a good job penning and filming stories about Merlin, Arthur, and the rest during their transitional period from young adulthood to adulthood, full of wonder and awe, lives brimming with endless, hopeful possibilities, blossoming the young adults into the men and women we've come to know so well in literature and elsewhere.

I could say a lot more about the things which I find quite agreeable. But I think I'll save that for a future post.

In this post I'd like to focus mainly on some of the things which I find disagreeable.

2. As a general note and for background, I should say I've read a lot of the historical Arthurian tales in the past. Unfortunately I didn't take to most of them. For example, I've read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but I don't recall enjoying it. I've tried reading Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur but couldn't quite take to it either. Perhaps I should've tried Stephen Baines' rendition. I did enjoy T.H. White's The Once and Future King though. Quite a bit. However, White's is the only modern one I've read. Like I've never read The Mists of Avalon, Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, or Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy, for example.

But one big reason I don't think I quite took to the Arthurian tales is because they seem to be written with an overly conscientious and pedagogical eye. Plus, since a lot of it is tied to Medieval Catholicism and it seems is meant to be read in light of this sort of other worldly, overly saintly morality, it doesn't resonate with me. By turns it's also meant to imbue a chivalric code in would-be knights - or so I understand. I suppose I can appreciate the Catholic morality and saintliness as well as the chivalric code from a historical perspective. But I can't see them as anything more. Yet it's also hard to shelve them while reading the stories, at least in my mind. So I suspect that's a large part in why I didn't really take too well to the Arthurian tales, personally.

However, the mythos resonates with me. Particularly the aspects which do have some firmer biblical antecedent. Like King Arthur as a sort of Medieval King David. A Messianic figure. Or Camelot as perhaps a Medieval type of God's coming kingdom where righteousness will reign.

Also, there are other broader aspects which resonate with me such as the knights serving their king faithfully, rescuing fair maidens, going on quests and adventures, and so forth. I think this aspect probably speaks to most guys.

I guess, bottom line, I just don't find the stories themselves particularly appealing, even at the same time as I did and do appreciate the myth or legend of Arthur and his knights.

3. I think the CGI could be a lot better but maybe the producers are on a tight budget.

4. The acting isn't spectacular but it's far better than most other TV shows. On the whole, I'm very happy with the acting.

However, there are a couple of notable exceptions and one in particular stands out. I think the actress who plays the Lady Morgana is a very bad actress. Sorry to say but I think she acts like she belongs on a daytime soap opera. Perhaps her sole redeeming feature is she's easy on the eyes. It's more than a minor criticism, too, because Morgana or Morgana le Fay is such a pivotal character in the BBC series and, as I recall, also in the Arthurian legends themselves.

Far better is the actress who plays Morgause. Although she's not as attractive, she has far more charm (no pun intended!).

5. Also, I don't think the actress who plays Guinevere is particularly beautiful. She's certainly not ugly by any means. But I wouldn't call her a beauty. She is, however, quite a delightful actress. She makes Gwen a very affable character. She makes Gwen into someone whom we could see becoming one of Arthur's closest friends and confidantes.

BTW, I suppose it's not exactly kosher for me to judge a woman's looks like this. But I'm pointing this out because Guinevere's beauty (and, granted, charm) in the Arthurian tales is important insomuch as it leads Sir Lancelot astray, which in turn sets into motion a series of events which in the end lead to the downfall of Camelot - or so I recall. If so, then I'd think it'd be truer to the tales to cast a classically beautiful actress in the role. Would kings, nobles, and knights be tempted to a love affair otherwise? (Not to mention, on a lesser note, having a classically attractive woman play Guinevere would, at least as far as I understand, also be more in line with the Roman de la Rose's rather aristocratic view of feminine beauty. See C.S. Lewis' The Allegory of Love for instance.)

That said, perhaps the producers don't wish to be true to the tales. Perhaps they wish to break from the tales to some degree. Maybe they wish instead to imply that Arthur and Lancelot love her despite the fact that she isn't most stunningly beautiful woman they've ever laid eyes upon. If so, that's cool.

I do like how Guinevere in this series is a simple servant though. (Although this might be an unfair comment in light of what I said about feminine beauty above!) In addition to Lancelot not being of noble birth, and thus ineligible to become a knight, this adds an extra dimension in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. For Arthur, Guinevere is forbidden because she's a commoner. But not so for Lancelot. I wonder if this means the series writers will cause Lancelot and Guinevere to fall in love first, and then Arthur to come in between their love, rather than, traditionally, the other way around?

6. It might've been cool to see the show cast a not so handsome and dashing actor in the role of Sir Lancelot a la TH White's interpretation. But I suppose that'd be too unexpected. But if the show wants to cut against the grain by, say, casting a not so beautiful Guinevere, then why not a not so handsome Lancelot?

7. There are a few inconsistencies.

a. For one thing, as Steve pointed out to me and with which I agree, the magicians or sorcerers in the series seem relatively easy to apprehend. Not to mention relatively easy for Uther Pendragon to stamp out in his Great Purge and war against magicians and their kind. I would've thought otherwise.

b. For another, how can Merlin, on the one hand, defeat the most powerful wizard of all time i.e. Cornelius Sigan, but then, on the other hand, have such trouble defeating lesser creatures?

c. Why does Merlin have such qualms about killing Morgana, even after he has already poisoned her, and has sufficient reason to kill her given that he finds out she'll do anything to overthrow Uther and also have Merlin himself executed? And that she has tried to kill him? Why does he merely continue to keep a watchful eye on her? Surely he could off her without others being able to find out whodunit?

Of course, it wouldn't make for a good story if Morgana were killed off so quickly. But still it seems a bit unbelievable that Merlin doesn't really try. Well, except for once when he tries to poison her; and also once he does leave her to die after accidentally causing her to fall down a series of stairs, only to later revive her life. Although Morgana was a close friend, she's betrayed their friendship many times over. Where does Merlin draw the line? Especially with his other friends' lives and especially Arthur's life on the line as well?

d. Also, take the fact that since magic is forbidden by Uther on pain of death, Merlin has to be discreet about its use. At the moment, it seems like Arthur and Merlin's relationship hasn't developed to where Merlin can trust Arthur with the secret that Merlin has the ability to use magic. So Arthur has to be unaware whenever Merlin uses magic. At the same time, Merlin has made it his solemn duty to protect Arthur's life.

Plot-wise, I think there are only two viable options if Arthur is on-screen when Merlin needs to rescue him in a way that's unbeknownst to Arthur. Either Arthur has to be preoccupied in the battle and not pay attention to Merlin or Arthur has to be knocked unconscious so he's not aware Merlin is using magic to help Arthur.

Or, well, Arthur could see Merlin using magic but not be sure if that's really what's taking place (e.g. such as when Merlin's childhood friend Will covered for Merlin). But overusing this third option would, one thinks, lead to Arthur's increasing suspicion of Merlin.

In any case, after watching so many episodes, the viewer comes to expect one of the two options to occur. This could in turn possibly fail to generate excitement or the like in the viewer after we've become accustomed to expect it. It could become monotonous.

Fortunately I don't think that's happened so far. The writers have still been able to make it entertaining even though we know that Arthur will either be unconscious or preoccupied when Merlin uses magic to save the day. Hopefully it'll remain that way.

But as Steve pointed out to me, the problem is that once the cat's out of the bag with Merlin's magical abilities, there's no going back. It'd be a turning point in the relationship between Arthur and Merlin. So I understand the writers have to tread carefully.

8. I think the following is questionable. I'm not totally sure I understand why Merlin's mother Hunith would place Merlin in Gaius' care and protection given that Gaius is so close to Uther, an apparent ally of Uther's as far as she knows, and apparently turned a blind eye to others practicing magic during the Great Purge.

On the upside, I suppose she trusted to some extent her husband Balinor's estimation of Gaius as a good man who helped him escape (as far as I know she never met Gaius herself before Merlin moved in with Gaius). Also, I can understand a mother wanting the best for her child, wanting him to become the master magician that he perhaps could be if tutored by someone like Gaius.

But even in light of all these things, it'd still seem to me to be a terribly huge risk for her to agree to place Merlin in Gaius' care and right under the king's nose. Right into the lion's den as it were. Obviously she thought it worth the risk, but I don't know if other mothers could say the same.

Then again, it could be that she only had a choice between the lesser of two evils or something along those lines.

9. Although it's entirely understandable, there are anachronisms. I don't mind most of these at all. But two do stand out to me.

a. First, Gaius or others talking about infected wounds and other modern medical and scientific aspects. I don't think they'd know about microorganisms being the cause of disease at this time! Well, unless they meant something else by "infected." Or unless denizens of Camelot were far more scientifically advanced than other peoples.

b. Also, I don't know that there were too many Africans or other ethnicities in Britain during this period. I thought it was mainly Britons? Maybe Angles and Saxons too? I think the show would've been placed in a period before the Norman Conquest? Even if not, I don't know how distinguishable the Normans would've been from other Caucasians? Certainly I wouldn't expect them to look African.

Not to mention I'd expect if there were Africans, then they'd have faced quite a larger number of hardships, as well as more severe hardships, than what Gwen and her family seem to face. Not that they have an easy time as it is, but I don't think Gwen would've been a servant to the king's ward in the court of Camelot, to take one example.

But I suppose this is done in the name of political correctness.

Then again I'm probably also trying way too hard to ascribe or at least see historicity in what everyone knows is plainly myth or legend.


  1. Anyway, the socinian loudmouth Theodore Beale (Vox Day) has been issuing screeds against the attributes of God. Who wants to rifle through the invective?

    See, for example:

  2. I initially had some issues about the inconsistancies in the magical power of Merlin. I finally reconciled these discrepencies by acknowledging the following: Merlin is young, he is discovering his 'gift' in a hostile environment under the very loose tutelage of an out of practice guardian. Yet Merlin's powers trancsend the boy, that is it is a power much older and of greater presence than the person of Merlin. This is why the Great Dragon recognises Merlin as a kindred being from the 'old religion' and why Merlin's powers work effectively when he carries out the method described by the dragon.