The legend of King Arthur has grown and evolved over time, from a blatantly nationalistic “yay for England” propaganda piece about this one English king who conquered Norway, France, and Italy into the legends of the knights of the round table and their episodic adventures against an assortment of villainous knights and savage monsters (perfect for being recounted in an evening by the fire by the local storyteller), to the embalmed beauty of Victorian poetry reinterpreting the legends to reinforce their social norms, and finally in modern works where the characters of King Arthur are largely treated as common knowledge to be played with and almost never appearing as a story to be told by themselves. Stories change and evolve over time, and that’s fine. This blog post is going to spend a lot of time complaining about BBC’s Merlin, so I want to point out up front that the problem isn’t that they made changes at all, it’s that the changes are so thorough that it’s hard to recognize what, besides the names, they’ve actually retained from the existing Arthuriana.
I’m going to do better than that, though. I’m going to fix it. I’m going to rewrite BBC’s Merlin into a show that can work as an episodic BBC TV show made for a family audience while still actually having anything at all to do with Arthuriana. This is going to require significant changes to the original, but at the end of it there will be (an outline of) a piece of media that serves as a progression of the legends, a new telling for a modern audience and format, rather than using famous names as a crass marketing ploy while telling an almost completely unrelated fantasy story.
Let’s start with…
In The Original Legends: Merlin is a half-demon intended by the forces of Hell to serve as the Antichrist, which gives him sorcerous powers, but his mother asked her priest what to do with him, and it turns out just baptizing the boy immediately frees him from his evil destiny without removing any of his magical superpowers. When he was thirteen years old, Uther’s predecessor Vortigern was trying to build a castle, but tremors in the earth kept knocking it down. Upon learning that a half-demon was living nearby, he assumed that killing the kid would solve the problem (like medieval savages do), but Merlin told him to investigate a hidden cave beneath the foundations, where Vortigern found two dragons fighting with one another. Being not equipped to handle a pair of fighting dragons, Vortigern granted the dragon-infested wilderness to Merlin as backhanded thanks for his assistance and left to go build his castle somewhere else.
By the time of King Uther, Merlin had become an accomplished wizard and was a valued adviser to the king. Uther wanted to sleep with Igraine, the wife of his duke Gorlois, super badly, and Merlin used his magic to disguise Uther as Gorlois so he could sleep with Igraine without her knowing. When Igraine gave birth to Arthur from that wedding, Merlin spirited him away to the household of the good knight Sir Ector, telling him nothing of the child’s history, only that he must be kept safe and raised as a true and noble knight. Merlin then vanished into the wilderness while Uther subsequently got himself poisoned by Saxon vikings (note to historical pedants: No, they weren’t technically vikings, but close enough). Merlin placed a sword in the stone along with a prophecy that whoever pulled it free would be the true king of the Britons, and one day Arthur turned up, pulled it loose, and became king. Merlin went on to become Arthur’s advisor, and was sometimes an incidental enemy of Morgan le Fey in that role, but the two of them were on good terms whenever Morgan wasn’t actively trying to murder Arthur.
Merlin’s end came when he was smitten by a maiden named Nimue (Nimue is sometimes the name given to the Lady of the Lake, but this isn’t the same Nimue). Nimue, terrified that Merlin will use his magic powers to force himself upon her, asks him to teach her all of his magic. Merlin eagerly agrees, but once Nimue knows everything, she entombs him forever within a mountain. It’s never made clear whether or not Nimue’s suspicions about Merlin were valid, but she does not go on to become an enemy of Arthur and in some versions of the story even serves as discount replacement Merlin after she imprisons the first one (so far as I know, there’s no version of the story where this is her actual plan – she entombs Merlin purely out of self-preservation because she is frightened by the intensity of his attraction to her).
In The BBC Show: Merlin is a teenager with some inherent magical powers, which is a bit of a problem, seeing as how King Uther, reigning monarch of the day, has a homicidal grudge against everything remotely magical. He is sort-of apprenticed to Uther’s court physician Gaius, who was once a sorcerer but forsook the art when Uther turned against it. He teaches Merlin how to do magic (often reluctantly). Merlin gets up to adventures with Prince Arthur, who is about the same age (and the sword in the stone plot has been completely excised – everyone knows Arthur is Uther’s son and he never lived with Sir Ector). Merlin is also sometimes advised by a dragon imprisoned beneath the castle’s foundations, who disdains Uther for his war on magic and hopes to use Merlin to depose Uther and install Arthur, who is kinda sorta better in that he’s not willing to outright murder random peasants for being suspected of witchcraft, but is still a huge jerk about magic. Merlin spends his time pretty equally divided between protecting King Uther from magic and protecting magic from King Uther. It’s entirely unclear why letting the nation’s homicidally bigoted dictator be assassinated would be a bad thing, when his significantly less homicidal son would unambiguously inherit the throne. Eventually, Uther abdicates out of mellodrama-induced depression and Arthur is installed in his place, which is mostly for the best, because despite the pompous jacakss exterior Arthur can generally be counted on to do the right thing.
Nimue shows up as the major antagonist of season 1, although she is far older than Merlin rather than the other way around and there is never any attraction between them. After Merlin refuses the offer to join her and rule the galaxy together, she is defeated, and is subsequently replaced by Morgana as the primary antagonist. Morgana is Uther’s daughter and also a sorceress, and by the third season of the series she has come to powerfully resent both Uther and Arthur for their anti-magic bigotry, turning from flip-flopping anti-hero to full-on villain. At the end of season five, Arthur and Mordred confront one another at Camlann and are mutually slain. Morgana is hunted down by surviving knights of the round table, while Merlin tries and fails to get Arthur to the Isle of Avalon in time to revive him from his mortal wound. There’s a bit about how he will be revived again in Albion’s hour of greatest need, but the show then flash forwards to 2012, at which point that has apparently still not happened.
In The Chamomile Version: It makes sense to start with Merlin, because he’s the protagonist, but there’s actually relatively little change in broad strokes here, because Merlin is mostly in-character and works. He can go ahead and be a teenage peer of Arthur instead of like fifty years his senior, Uther can have a grudge against magic which requires Merlin to hide his talents, and he can be the protagonist and thus the dedicated nemesis (rather than occasional, incidental opponent) of villains like Morgana/Morgan le Fey. Having a mentor who teaches him magic is a good idea, so we can keep Gaius, too. Many of these characters have problems of their own which we’ll get to later, but there’s no problems with their relationship to Merlin.
The only major relationships we’re changing are Arthur and the dragon. Arthur needs to be less of a pompous dick to everyone simply because that is wildly out of character for Arthur, who was notably dedicated to the notion of equality (the whole point of the round table is that it had no specific head or end, which means that there was no hierarchy of knights from one end to the other – everyone was equal) and justice (the kingdom prospered under him, after all). We’ll talk more about Arthur later, but in this version although Arthur is initially hostile to magic, the episode where he finds out Merlin is a wizard and has to deal with that is going to happen in season one. Not episode one, but still, early on. Arthur’s role in the legends is that of one who healed a divided land by bringing druids, Christians, and vikings together (second note to nitpickers: Yes, yes, I know, but it doesn’t actually matter), and there’s no reason to have that theme teased and then completely ignored the way the show does.
So far as the dragon, we’re going back to two dragons, because drawing a distinction between the forest-y druid-y magic and the ice viking magic will allow us to recreate things like the Battle of Badon Hill using ice viking monsters as the Saxon side without casting all of magic as the villains. The ice magic guys are genuinely awful, but the forest magic guys are generally only villainous out of retaliation against King Uther and one of Arthur’s first acts once he ascends the throne will be to heal the schism between the knights of Briton and the magical ranger/druid people of the woods.
These dragons were the foremost powers of the two magical sides, and so long as they were active, the knights were always on the defensive. During a major battle between the two, Uther and his knights were able to subdue them both, and subsequently drove the forest and ice creatures back into the wilderness. The previous king having been killed in the war (we’ll talk more about that later), Uther is crowned in his place in recognition of his heroism, and he builds the castle of Camelot atop the hill where he’d imprisoned the two dragons, building it up to be the largest and mightiest castle in the land, to prevent the magic creatures of the wilderness from ever capturing it and releasing their terror monsters on the world again.
The two dragons hate each other as much as Uther, and when Merlin discovers them, the red dragon of the woods tries to convince him that Uther must be overthrown for the good of Albion, while the white dragon tries to convince him that he should destroy Camelot completely, because they will always hate him and only when they have been driven out will he be safe. Each of these two dragons has extensive knowledge of their respective magic domains (i.e. forest-y nice magic and frosty scary magic) and Merlin will have to consult them for advice periodically throughout the first season. He’ll always go to the red dragon first, but eventually there’s going to be an episode where he needs the white dragon’s help and will have to convince the white dragon to help him by crossing some kind of moral boundary. Being this is meant to be a family friendly show, it’s gonna be, like, stealing something rather than eating a baby, but still.
We don’t have much room left before I hit my wordcount target of 2,000-ish words per post, so let’s cover a relatively minor character, Gaius.
In The Original Legends: There is no Gaius in the original legends, he’s a new character made for the show.
In The BBC Show: Gaius is Merlin’s mentor, a relationship already covered in the section on Merlin above, and his only other major relationship is his strong loyalty to King Uther. He stands by Uther’s actions on the grounds of loyalty, regardless of the merit of those actions on their own, despite the fact Uther straight-up executes named characters for crimes we as the audience know they didn’t commit and which Uther has only tentative evidence of. That happens in season one. It’s amazing to me that Uther didn’t immediately shift into full-on villain to be immediately deposed at that point.
In The Chamomile Version: Gaius’ role as Merlin’s source of magical knowledge was always limited, because Gaius no longer practices sorcery and largely supports Uther, who hates magic with a passion. We’re gonna go ahead and limit Gaius’ mentorship of Merlin even more, by having him refuse to teach Merlin completely. Instead, in episode one Merlin has to go and seek out the dragons imprisoned beneath the hill to get magical instruction. Gaius still protects Merlin, even after learning that Merlin has been learning magic behind his back, because he only supports Uther’s magic ban out of loyalty to Uther, not because he thinks any harm will inherently come from learning magic. He tries to dissuade Merlin from meddling with forbidden arts, but also keeps Merlin’s head off the chopping block when he inevitably pursues them anyway. He has been Uther’s court physician for the entirety of his reign, and serves as a source of backstory. At some point in season one we need a flashback episode to show how Uther became king and why he hates magic (we’ll discuss that in detail when we get to his section), and the framing story for that is going to be Gaius telling Merlin the backstory in order to explain that although Uther is generally a good and just king, he absolutely hates magic, and that this moral blind spot is not going to be resolved by any demonstrations of goodwill or friendship with his son Arthur, that Merlin must keep his magic secret for so long as Uther is king, no matter what.
Merlin, Arthur, and Guinevere get up to shenanigans together throughout the second half of season one (after the relationships between them have been established and Merlin reveals his powers to both of them), and Gaius becomes one of the more competent older figures who tends to bail them out when they get in over their head. The episode prior to the climax, Gaius is forced to bust out actual sorcery to save them, and Sir Kay sees it happen and reports it to King Uther. We’ll get into Sir Kay later, but right now, suffice to say that he’s a young knight generally friendly with Merlin and company, but who is not in on Merlin’s secret and has no idea how badly he’s backstabbing his friends by reporting Gaius’ magic use to the king. Gaius is imprisoned and awaits a trial that shall surely end in his execution, and his life being in danger serves as the impetus for Merlin going to the white dragon for help, as there is nothing the red dragon can do to save him.
In a conversation with Gaius right before he goes off to steal a MacGuffin for the white dragon, Merlin promises to keep Gaius safe like Gaius has always kept him safe. Gaius picks up on how vague the promise is and tells Merlin for the love of god do not go to the white dragon for help, that’s the evil one. He’d rather die than serve as the leverage the white dragon uses to corrupt Merlin. Merlin lies and reassures Gaius that he hasn’t been speaking to the white dragon (in exactly the same way he initially lied about speaking to the red dragon).
Merlin’s MacGuffin theft allows the white dragon’s allies hiding in Camelot (probably recurring villains of season one) to free him from underneath the castle. The red dragon, also released, rises to try and fight the white dragon, but is overpowered by the white dragon’s deadlier battle magic. Knights attempt to contain both dragons, and the white dragon wreaks bloody revenge on them, killing both King Uther and Sir Ector (more on him later). Gaius, freed by the destruction wrought on the castle as the dragons made their way out, saves Merlin and company one last time by busting out the fullness of his arcane might, wounding the white dragon badly before his abjurations fail and he succumbs to the dragon’s white fire breath. After Gaius is killed, Merlin and company are able to defeat the wounded white dragon, driving it off to go find the places the ice monsters have hidden themselves, to reforge them back into a mighty and terrible kingdom. The red dragon has returned to Vivienne to help her do the same. The board has been cleared of veterans and mentors, and now Merlin, Arthur, and Guinevere stand on their own.