Rewriting Merlin: Arthur and Uther

Merlin was a 2008-2012 BBC show that pretty much butchered Arthuriana from front to back, wrenching characters so badly out of their originally established personalities in service to its repugnant and inconsistent morals that it may as well have been a completely original fantasy work (and also would have benefited greatly from nominal good guy Uther murdering fewer innocent people). This series of posts is me rewriting the show to better reflect the original legends while still keeping it appropriate for a family show in episodic format starring Merlin, not Arthur. Significant changes are necessary to make this work, but many of the changes made to the show are unnecessary, and not only that, they actually make the show worse.

We’ve already done Merlin and his mentor Gaius, so today we’re going to focus on the biggest supporting character in the cast, Arthur, and his father, Uther.

Arthur

In The Original Legends: Arthur is the illicit son of Uther and Igraine, the wife of one of Uther’s dukes. He was spirited away by Merlin at birth to avoid being slaughtered by the Saxons after Uther and all his knights were poisoned. Raised as an ordinary knight by Sir Ector, he is revealed as the rightful king of Britain when he pulls the sword from the stone, enchanted by Merlin to yield only to Uther’s progeny. Many of the lords of Britain refused to accept Arthur’s right to rule, particularly the invading Saxons, who were collecting tribute from all the defeated British lords after Uther’s demise left them disorganized and unled. Though Arthur only controls about half his father’s realm de facto, he is soon joined by many powerful knights, marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom (though Uther’s realm was the largest, there were like twenty smaller kingdoms on the isle of Britain at the time) named Guinevere, and gets a round table, which becomes a symbol of the equality and justice that will ultimately mark his reign.

After subuding multiple rebels, Arthur confronts the Saxons at the titanic Battle of Badon Hill, and though the victory was costly, Saxon power was broken. None on the island would challenge Arthur’s right to rule until the end of his life. The sword in the stone is not Excalibur. It’s actually kind of flimsy, in that Arthur breaks it fighting an evil knight soon after Badon Hill, and the Lady of the Lake gives him Excalibur to replace it. Not only is Excalibur itself basically invincible, but the sword’s magic scabbard makes Arthur literally unable to die.

His half-sisters (children of Igraine and Gorlois) Morgana, Morgawse, and Morgan le Fey, especially the latter one, were sorceresses who constantly plotted his downfall, and their efforts to have him killed make up the large part of his action in the middle of the legends, when the focus shifts to his knights gallivanting about the countryside rescuing maidens and stabbing chimeras to death. At some point, Morgan le Fey gets Arthur’s scabbard of invulnerability away from him, but the subsequent assassination attempt fails anyway. King Arthur did little questing himself (though he did sometimes do some gallivanting of his own), and instead mainly maintained peace and prosperity throughout the land. Also, in some versions he conquers some or all of Norway, France, and Italy, either because the Roman Empire tries to reassert its rule over Britain (the idea that western Rome still stands at the time of Arthur is not remotely historical, but never mind that) and Arthur rejects them on the grounds that Britain had to fend off the Saxons all by themselves and so Rome has no right to waltz in and demand fealty now that peace has been restored, or else Arthur goes around conquering places just for funsies.

Arthur’s best knight Lancelot and his queen Guinevere begin an affair, and when it is discovered, Lancelot flees to his homeland on the French coast after rescuing Guinevere from execution, because that is what you did with adulterers back in the day. Many knights of the round table leave with Lancelot, and with his followers decimated, Mordred, his illicit son by Morgan le Fey (back before they knew they were related and she was trying to assassinate him), starts an uprising. With an army of mercenaries and disloyal knights, he confronts Arthur at Camlann. Both armies are killed nearly to a man. Arthur slays Mordred, but suffers mortal wounds in the process. His last remaining loyal knight on the island, Sir Bedivere, returns Excalibur to the lake from whence it came and then gives Arthur’s body to the fairies of Avalon, where he shall rest until Britain has need of him again. Apparently the Blitz wasn’t desperate enough times, though, so it’s gotta be one Hell of a wake up call that gets him returning to England.

In The BBC Show: Arthur initially shares his father’s disdain for magic. And doesn’t really forsake that disdain until the last episode of the last season, when he lays dying on Camlann. He was raised as Uther’s prince, not as an ordinary squire of Sir Ector, and is an arrogant bully. Though there is a heart of gold deep down and Arthur always does the right thing when lives are at stake, his standard mode of conducting himself is that of the elitist jackass keeping the lesser nobles and the peasants in their place. There are no wars or other major military confrontations, and instead Arthur is opposed primarily by his sister Morgana, a sorceress who resents the anti-magic bigotry of Uther, and later the only slightly more restrained anti-magic bigotry of Arthur. Morgause is a gish (i.e. skilled with both swords and spells) and serves as the primary villain of season two and factors heavily into Morgana’s fall to full-on villainy. Morgan le Fey is not a thing. The Saxons do not figure as major antagonists, though they do come up as a rival kingdom sometimes, and there is never any invasion of Norway, France, or Italy.

In The Chamomile Version: If Arthur doesn’t believe in, at minimum, an equality amongst the knights of the realm, he is not Arthur. The defining feature of the round table is that it is round, and that rather than a hierarchy of knights from most to least important going from the head of the table to the end, everyone is equal when seated at it. You could do a thing where Arthur is a hypocrite who believes in equality amongst the knights but who is still an elitist jerk to the peasants and hates wizards, but why? Better to just have Arthur believe in treating everyone equally, without the out of character exterior of jackassery.

This leads to the second pointless break from Arthur’s character, there is no reason for him to be known to be Uther’s son. In fact, since we’re not medieval nobles and we believe in democracy, we can and should make Arthur’s background even more humble than it was in the original myths. Sure, he’s still secretly Uther’s son, but he was smuggled away at birth by Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, who was hoping to raise him in her own realm so that he could lead an army to usurp the throne from his father and avenge the wounds caused to her people by Uther and his predecessor Vortigern. Unfortunately for her, she lost the baby halfway through in an ambush, and he was discovered by a peasant family, who raised him as their own. As the show begins, Arthur has come to Camelot along with Sir Ector, his new boss, who has been called in to replace Sir Bedivere, crippled in a fight with a manticore or something (we’re going with “crippled” instead of “killed” for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is that “a named character died” is about as dark as 12-and-up television can get, and we want to keep that off the table for now so we have room to escalate). Sir Ector’s son Sir Kay hits it off with Arthur, who has always dreamed of being a knight, and Sir Kay starts teaching him swordplay. Maybe Arthur can’t be a knight, but he can at least be a man-at-arms, which is the next best thing, and who knows, if he proves himself worthy on the battlefield, King Uther might raise him to knighthood.

Our season one power trio is Merlin, Arthur, and Guinevere, with Arthur and Guinevere soon learning Merlin’s secret and (after the obligatory episode of freaking out about it) agree to keep it secret. Sir Kay is not in on the secret, and as the season goes on and our three leads earn a reputation for mostly well-intentioned snooping, he decides he wants to help. Nervous about him discovering Merlin’s magic, the power trio would rather he didn’t, but have no good excuse not to let him come along. When he sees Gaius using magic to save the three of them in the penultimate episode, he assumes he’s just doing his duty as a knight by reporting this to King Uther, and has no idea that Merlin has the same powers, and that all three of his friends have made peace with the idea of good magic.

When Arthur learns that Merlin is going to work with the white dragon to save Gaius, he opposes the idea, first with words, and then with force. Like, he’s not gonna stab Merlin or anything, but he will punch him and tie him up so he can’t cast spells. Merlin clevers his way out of that conundrum and ends up completing his task for the white dragon, which brings doom on all of Camelot, killing King Uther, Sir Ector, and Gaius.

In the aftermath of season one’s ending, the armies of the winter fey are regrouping and will soon be on the march. The nobles of Camelot are bickering over who is going to be the next king, and by the midpoint of episode one, Merlin’s got the sword in the stone working and, with the support of Sir Bedivere, King Uther’s most trusted knight and the only veteran survivor of the dragons’ escape, they have the social capital they need to convince everyone to give it a tug. Eventually, for whatever reason, Arthur gives it a pull, and of course it comes free. Basically everyone immediately agrees that this is a magical trick by Merlin to install one of his friends on the throne. Sir Kay supports them, but they get driven from Camelot by angry knights who think they’re trying to stage a coup. For the rest of the season, Merlin and company wander around to various locations, trying to find out what the white dragon is up to and find some way of thwarting it, and making friends and allies along the way as Arthur builds up his knights of the round table: Sir Tristan, Sir Lancelot, Sir Palamedes, and so on. At the season midpoint, Arthur and his knights try to go all Seven Samurai on a village in the warpath of the approaching ice viking army, but are defeated.

Arthur, who up ’till now has been wary of any magic not directly originating from Merlin, is forced to head to the forest magic wilderness and make alliance with Vivienne. While the front half of the season revolved around knights, the back half revolves around fairies and druids. This is also where we meet Morgan le Fey, Arthur’s half-sister whom Vivienne successfully smuggled to the wilderness along with Arthur and raised as a sorceress. Morgan le Fey is Arthur’s first and strongest ally in this strange and magical land, and with her support, Arthur is able to rally the fey folk of the woods to help him confront the approaching ice army. The bickering nobles of Camelot were totally unprepared for the army and themselves overrun, and with word of Arthur and his knights’ deeds having spread across the land, many of the knights who fled Camelot flock to Arthur’s banner as he rallies at Badon Hill. There, he meets the forces of the white dragon in a titanic battle. Both dragons are killed during this rematch, but ultimately the forces of goodness win the day, the forces of the ice vikings are driven back, and peace is restored.

Uther

Uther’s role in the original legends and in the BBC show has been pretty well covered in Merlin’s, Gaius’, and Arthur’s entries, so I won’t repeat them here except to mention again that Uther is an unrepentant murderer and it is never clear why it would be at all a bad thing to let one of the various magical assassins who fling themselves at him throughout seasons one and two to succeed, or indeed, why it wouldn’t be perfectly moral and upright for Merlin to personally undertake such an assassination himself.

Our Uther is just as villainous, but also perfectly capable of defending himself from magical assassination attempts. Preventing Uther from being killed is not a priority for Merlin and company, and indeed, many season one episodes revolve around protecting other people from Uther, smuggling them out of the city before they can be caught by knights and so on. Merlin and company do not ever attempt an assassination, but that’s not because of moral objection, the topic doesn’t ever come up because Uther’s knights would easily win a confrontation.

I’ll rewind to season one and focus on the backstory that makes him so hostile to magic. Uther’s predecessor Vortigern got himself into a war with the red dragon and the fairy forest under his protection. The reasons why are backstory to backstory and not important, what matters is that Vortigern started losing in a big way, so he made a dark pact with evil sorcerers to summon up the ice vikings and their white dragon to fight against them. After just a few months of that, the white dragon got tired of Vortigern trying to assert his authority over the armies of winter, and devoured him.

Uther and Gorlois were the two leading contenders to replace Vortigern, and not only that, both were in love with the same woman, Igraine. Despite their rivalry, both agreed they would need to put aside their differences if either of them were going to have a kingdom to rule. On the eve of their battle to capture the two dragons, Igraine chose Gorlois over Uther, and they had an impromptu marriage before spending the night together for fear they would never have another chance. Just as Igraine had feared, Gorlois was mortally wounded in the fight. Many suspected Uther had arranged Gorlois’ death, but Gaius (relaying the story) doesn’t think that Uther would ever stoop so low, and neither did Igraine, who remarried to Uther. Igraine’s first child was Morgan le Fey, daughter of Gorlois from that night before the battle. Uther raised her like his own daughter, until Arthur’s birth a few years later, when Vivienne came to steal them both, Arthur for his claim on the throne, and three year old Morgan because she thought Arthur would benefit from having another normal human to grow up with. Uther’s knights were unable to prevent the kidnapping, but they reported that the culprit had used magic to escape. Igraine fell ill from stress, and soon thereafter passed.

Uther suspected a fairy curse was responsible, and began scouring the countryside for any sign of magic. Whenever he found a magical creature or sorcerer or anything else that smelled of anything arcane, he would demand they take him to his lost children, and when they could not, he would kill them all. If they couldn’t lead him to his children, he would avenge his wife instead. Without the power of their dragons, neither the creatures of the ice nor of the woods were able to fight back, and instead they went into hiding. The knights’ demands of captured fairies to take them to Arthur and Morgan or else be slain are, at this point, just formalities on the way to the slaying. Uther never did find his son, nor his adopted daughter.

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