Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Merlin from J.H. Brennan's Grail Quest series

Of all the wizards in fantasy and history perhaps none is more famous, more well-known, and more often name-dropped than Merlin.  Whether you call him Merlin, Merlin the Magician, the Wizard Merlin, Myrddin, Merlyn, Merlin the Druid or even Merlin Emrys people, even people who've never read a single book about King Arthur, know of this famous wizard.  So involved with the English language is Merlin that he is name-dropped by writers looking to add a pedigree to their own magical creations from numerous classic superheroes to J.K. Rowling herself.
In fact Rowling's Merlin name-dropping is a perfect example of the character's archetypal role as a great figure of magic and mystery.  Not only do wizards and witches in the Potterverse use exclamations such as "Merlin's beard" as a mild oath, but also there is an Order of Merlin to which noteworthy magical types belong, including of course that august headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Rowling's use of Merlin is a prime example of how the character is at once fixed in the English speaking world's public consciousness while simultaneously being mutable and thus able to fill varying roles within a narrative providing, if not verisimilitude, certainly a magical pedigree.  Rowling's example is, however, a most egregious one.  According to her Potterverse Merlin spent his formative years at Hogwarts where he was sorted into Slytherin, but despite this he was a champion for muggle rights.  His role as King Arthur's adviser is still a part of his character.  Hogwarts was established circa 990 A.D. but King Arthur's reign was in the late 5th to early 6th centuries.  Thus Merlin could not have attended Hogwarts during his formative years at all, but such is the power of using the character's name that it goes unnoticed.  Except by me, obviously.

I could recount the many origins and stories of Merlin here, but that is beyond the scope of this post.  I will instead hit the highlights: Merlin was born a cambion to either a nun or princess; he was born fully able to speak on the day he was born; he was a prophet and became a wizard of some repute; he served as adviser to British kings and shaped the destiny of the land by engineering the conception of Arthur; he set up the sword in the stone to reveal Arthur as king; he advised Arthur until he was done in and imprisoned by Nimue, his former pupil after whom he lusted.  He was always an enigmatic figure fond of disguises, riddles, and like most wizard types he kept his own counsel and did things his own way, often with an imperiousness that defied his role as a servant to kings.

Who is Merlin?  How does he look?  How should he look?
Two possible Merlins, the left being a Halloween costume.

If you consider the setting of 5th and 6th century Britain, Merlin should probably have a beard, wear homespun robes, a fur trimmed cloak and perhaps some Roman items and clothes as well.  As a mystic, prophet and magic-worker we would expect him to have fetishes and totems about his person, and carry a staff.  This is a good contrast to the knights with whom he associates, who wear heavy armor and carry swords.
From the Shadows Over Camelot board game: a more druid-like Merlin
Yet also Merlin is known as a wizard and wizards have a certain visual shorthand to identify themselves.  Often in works, like T.H. White's Once and Future King or Mallory, Camelot is pictured as existing in a Golden Age, and as such Merlin is pictured as having fine robes and the classic wizard's hat.
Merlin from Disney's  The Sword In the Stone , itself an adaptation of the first T.H. White Arthur novel
Irish author J. H. Brennan worked with both traditional pre-Mallory images of Merlin, post-Mallory images of Merlin and his own native sense of humor to create the Merlin of his Grailquest series of adventure gamebooks for young adults.  In Brennan's work Merlin is Welsh, a prankster who enjoys disguises and shape-shifting, has a preoccupation with maintaining his pension (for which reason he employs an "apprentice" named Pip-the lead character and the alter ego of the reader) which requires the completing tasks for King Arthur, and generally has a comically curmudgeonly attitude.  Brennan's work shows a definite T.H. White influence as well.  Merlin is perfectly capable of great magic, but seems to rely on Pip to do the dirty work.
Merlin from J.H. Brennan's first Grailquest book.  He displays the "classic" wizard look of long robes adorned with astrological symbols, a pointed hat and long beard.
And here, a bit like a garden gnome
In film and television a number of Brits have taken up the role of Merlin in various works.  One of the early stellar examples of the character was performed by Scottish born Nicol Williamson in John Boorman's Excalibur, a work heavily based upon Mallory.
Nicol Williamson in Excalibur
Williamson, a fine actor, did a wonderful job as perhaps the most memorable character in a film full of memorable characters.  The film featured Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and a young Liam Neeson, all great talents, but it is Williamson's Merlin who stands out to this day.  Williamson infused the character with a combination of gravitas and boyish charm, by turns being a caring adviser to his king and fearsome wizard.  His outfit of bulky robes, staff and gleaming skullcap, a departure from the more traditional wizard hat, enhanced his character as one who not only remembered the "old religion" but was a functional part of it.  He rarely shows much magic, but when he does it is spectacular, the old ham.  As far as performances go, I honestly put his at the top of the heap for really making a Merlin.

Sam Neill (whose credits include Jurassic Park among others) played Merlin in a television miniseries of the same name that began before Arthur, starting with the birth of Merlin and casting the boy as a champion of magic in a world that was rapidly losing it.  In the series Merlin clashes repeatedly with the unseelie Queen Mab and her ally/servant Morgan Le Fey.  Neill's Merlin is more of a heroic nice guy type and spends much of the film with no beard and a more natural earth tone look.  Loose robes, layers, a staff and a fantasy druid image make for the character's defining look.  The whole production was full of magic and effects and this Merlin does not hold back in his use of magic.

English actor Joseph Fiennes played Merlin for the single season of the Starz original series Camelot.  Fiennes's Merlin had a dark, sinister aspect and was very much a manipulator of events and people.  While one would not call him "good" he was devoted to the kingdom and supported Arthur as adviser, or when necessary puppet master.  In Camelot Merlin was a kingmaker.  The Starz series took many deviations from the sources traditionally used, but Fiennes seemed to have captured much of the spirit of the half-demonic original Merlin.  Early suggestions that he did not use magic, but was simply an intelligent politico, proved unfounded when he fully demonstrated his powers.  His look was a blend of evil monk, Darth Vader and Medieval chic, looking a bit like he did in Shakespeare In Love, only older and meaner.

Which brings us to the current state of Merlin.  The BBC series Merlin (also known as The Adventures of Merlin) is a retelling of the great English legend of Camelot, King Arthur and his lifelong friend and adviser, Merlin.  Heavily influenced by showings of the American series Smallville, this BBC program copies the basic principle of the Superboy series by having Merlin be a young man who must keep his power hidden due to a ban on magic in Camelot.  The series features dual protagonists in the form of Merlin, the young sorcerer, who is the servant of Arthur, the prince of the realm in the first seasons but becomes king in season 4.  Merlin's outfit (and indeed the majority of the outfits) is a combination of modern attire and faux medieval clothing.  Indeed Merlin wears an outfit that evokes young Clark Kent's own in Smallville featuring a mixture of red, blue and brown.  Throughout the series Colin Morgan, the actor who plays Merlin, presents a character with charm, humor and just enough drama to keep things interesting.  This Merlin is young, was born with great magical power (he is a dragon lord) and is tasked with a great destiny to aid Arthur in making a better world.  Often Merlin finds himself at odds with Arthur on matters of magic and politics, but their friendship is genuine.  Merlin's powers are a combination of natural abilities and learned spells, which he is taught in secret by his mentor, Gaius.  The show and the characterizations are major departures from the traditional versions, more superhero really, but it works.  The show is entertaining and has just enough of the old style Celtic and English tales to keep me intrigued.  In a nod to the traditional character Merlin sometimes uses an aging spell to take on an alter ego, the aged magician Emrys (his name according to the remaining druids of the land).
Colin Morgan as Merlin with his Superman colors

Morgan as "Emrys"
In his Emrys disguise Merlin effectively has his "Blur" (the alter ego of pre-Superman Clark Kent), which allows him to hide his identity and safely work magic or face down his nemesis, Morgana.  Merlin/Emrys also shows great humor as this guise allows him to snipe at Arthur and the other knights much as the original Merlin of legend was wont to do.

Many forms has Merlin in legend and media; which is fitting to the original character, who enjoyed disguises and mind games.  Currently I think Colin Morgan is the best Merlin going thanks to his superb acting and the excellent scripts.  He may not wear robes or a beard or a hat or even carry a staff, but then Merlin is a wizard for all times and now is his time, as it always was.

Keep your pumpkins lit (with faerie fire).

No comments:

Post a Comment