I tend to have a slightly prickly relationship with myths and legends, probably because I’ve read too many of them. My feelings about King Arthur and his knights are pretty muddy since on the one hand it’s this grand sweeping drama with knights and quests and sorceresses – these are a few of my favourite things – plus the Arthurian legends have inspired a remarkable number of fantasy books and what’s possibly my favourite poem ever, Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallott. On the other hand, Arthur is sort of a jerk and almost all of the women around him are characterised as untrustworthy because sexism. Then there’s Merlin, the very definition of the elderly mentor trope, down to the long beard and general tendency to speak in riddles.
So when I first heard about the BBC series The Adventures of Merlin, my reaction was a vague ‘what’ and it went in the ‘probably will irritate me’ mental box. To be honest, that’s where most Arthurian retellings end up, and Robin Hood ones too. A few months ago, though, I caught some of the series repeating on TV and liked what I saw, enough to start from the beginning. That was the start of a five season binge watch plus a fanfic feeding frenzy and it happened to coincide with me writing a speech about fairy tale retellings for an event at my local library. In this post I will be talking about the process of a retelling, using Merlin as an example of how it can be done well, and how you can really stuff it up. It will be absolutely ridden with spoilers and forceful opinions. You have been warned.
So Small For Such a Great Destiny
The really wonderful thing about folklore is that there’s so much of it, and it’s soaked so deep in the cultural subconscious that as a storyteller, you can play with it in all kinds of ways without losing that instinctual punch of recognition. Everyday names and phrases can become weighted with centuries of symbolism when the right context is evoked – and because everyone knows the context, at least vaguely, a writer can have enormous fun playing with the reader’s expectations. The same goes for most classic literature, actually, hence the unending parade of Jane Eyre adaptations and Austen spin-offs.
The first ingredient you need to produce a good retelling is an original concept, a way to make the old story new again, such as adapting the setting, altering the character dynamics or coming at the story from a previously neglected perspective. Merlin winds back the myth of King Arthur to when the legendary monarch was a headstrong young man and in an extra twist, makes Merlin the same age. While he’s still most powerful sorcerer in the land, that is unfortunately the land of Uther ‘I Execute All Things Magical On Principle’ Pendragon and thus Merlin must keep his gifts secret, while using them to keep Arthur alive long enough to succeed the throne. Morgana Le Fay is the king’s beloved ward; Guinevere is her loyal serving maid.
When we first meet Merlin he’s a gawkily adorable teenager fresh from his small village and overawed by the magnificence of Camelot. Even the sight of what’s presumably his first public execution can’t crush his optimism. Born with an innate and irrepressible gift for magic, it comes naturally to him to use that gift for anything from rescuing an old man from a deadly fall to moving a cup closer when he’s tired. It takes a lot of explaining for him to understand how dangerous that habit is. Gaius, the court physician and Merlin’s guardian in Camelot, moves into the elderly mentor role by training him in spellcraft while Kilgarrah, a dragon imprisoned in the caverns beneath the castle, gives cryptic advice whenever necessary. And sometimes when it isn’t.
Arthur, meanwhile, starts out as an entitled, arrogant bully with daddy issues and great hair. Merlin has no reason to like him throughout the entire first episode – reasons to actively dislike him, in fact, given that the second time they meet Arthur beats him up very efficiently in a messy street duel – but he doesn’t even hesitate to save the prince from a vengeful witch who has infiltrated Camelot. It’s an interesting moment, because it’s the first time we see Merlin use his magic to kill. He doesn’t have time to think, only react, and he instinctively protects Arthur, who is helpless against the witch’s spell.
It’s also important to me because it sets up what will be Merlin‘s status quo. Magic users are relentlessly persecuted yet when it comes to an actual fight, only another sorcerer is a true opponent, leaving the mundane citizens of Camelot (including its knights and royal family) as collateral damage.
In a Time of Myth and Magic
Deciding on setting is a crucial aspect of writing a retelling. A story is always shaped by the place and period of history in which it plays out and even entirely fictional settings need some grounding context to make them plausible. Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings are historical reimaginings, such as Juliet Marillier’s heart-wrenching Daughter of the Forest, set in medieval Ireland, or The Tower Room, in which Adele Geras plays out Rapunzel in a 1960’s boarding school.
Merlin is a teen fantasy TV show based off a very old, very much embroidered legend. Going in, I didn’t expect the teeniest grounding in historical fact, which is lucky because Merlin glories in anachronisms and absurdities, from Prince Arthur announcing he’s ‘going undercover’ to the giant scorpions that apparently infest the woods. The setting is a sort of Dark Ages default: horses, flaming torches and a rigid social structure. Appointed Arthur’s manservant after the witch incident in episode one, Merlin struggles to comprehend how entrenched these class boundaries are. Unfortunately, the script writers struggle with it too.
The basic set-up works fine. Merlin’s habitual insubordination is rather charming; he’s genuinely terrible at the duties of a manservant, as Arthur frequently reminds him, but their dynamic is based on that push and pull, constantly testing each other’s boundaries. Gwen’s working relationship with Morgana is similarly consistent – there’s much more trust but also a clearer understanding of the rules, which makes sense as Gwen’s lived in Camelot all her life. Both Arthur and Morgana have a tendency to flex their authority when they’re angry or insecure, but strong bonds of loyalty and respect bind all four protagonists throughout the first two seasons.
That Uther shares no such respect for his social inferiors is made clear early on – I mean, he’s willing to let a servant die just to win an argument with his son – and it’s strongly implied that the nobility tend to share his attitude. That’s not really shown, though, as we see almost nothing of Uther’s court beyond the small circle of main characters, so there’s not much in-universe social context against which to judge a character’s behaviour. Laws are fairly arbitrary, obviously invented solely to serve a plot point. When Arthur has borderline breakdowns in seasons four and five over whether he’s changing too much too fast, it looks like panic rather than the political insecurity of a young monarch who doesn’t have the full support of the nobility. Why? Because we barely see the nobility. Traditional upper class values are represented by Arthur’s treacherous uncle Agravaine, who advocates things like executing one’s cheating girlfriend, and visiting nobility who are almost always the villain of the week in disguise.
Am I taking this too seriously for what is, as I said, a teen fantasy show? Probably! But therein lie two more problems. The first, a younger audience deserves decent plots and coherent world-building every bit as much as adult viewers do. Also, Merlin never really settles into an intended demographic. A good deal of the humour is distinctly childish, damaging character development in favour of clumsy slapstick, while other storylines delve into grim and ambitiously emotional places. When writing a retelling – when writing anything – it’s crucial to have a consistent tone. Merlin never achieves that.
There are also all kinds of in-world details that the show never gets around to explaining properly, like why a monarch who despises magical creatures as much as Uther would keep a dragon on his crest (tradition, I assume, it’s the reason behind a lot of stupid things that happen in Camelot, but no one ever asks the question) or how, in fact, a magic-hating monarch could manage to slaughter dragons wholesale when they can only be killed with magic. How exactly does he perpetuate a reign of terror against sorcerers when a lone magic user is capable of lifting a hand and simply flinging grown men about like ragdolls? As Lloyd Alexander put it: “Once you have a magical object, the magic has to be limited. If it isn’t, you will end up having logical problems. For instance, if you have an invicible weapon…the story is over. Whoever has it, wins!”
Uther’s systematic oppression of magic users raises all kinds of real-world comparisons, of course. Minority groups have been (and are being) persecuted for everything from religion to ethnicity to sexual identity, and it is a classic genre trope for magic users to suffer injustice for their difference, as people suspected of sorcery have throughout history. To draw that parallel, however, you have to offer an in-universe power balance or what’s meant to look like bigotry ends up looking like perfectly reasonable terror.
For example: every one of the second-generation royals on the show suffers at least one serious violation caused by magic. Vivian is enchanted to adore a man she could hardly manage civility toward before, Elena is possessed by a Sidhe and Mithian is terrorised by acts of magic. It’s usually played off as comedy, but Arthur is inflicted with two ‘love’ spells, leading to wildly uncharacteristic behaviour, and Uther goes so deep under the influence of a troll that he literally cannot see what’s in front of him. In both cases it’s nothing short of sexual assault. In season four, Gwen’s old love for Lancelot is re-awakened by a magical bracelet and neither she nor Arthur ever find out that her betrayal was no choice at all. Both Gwen and Uther suffer a mind-altering magical torture, in Gwen’s case leading her to a second involuntary betrayal.
It’s logical to assume many mundane citizens have suffered similar injustices. There was that time a dead sorcerer tried to conquer Camelot with gargoyles, and how about when the cursed cat girl with wings went on a killing spree? Even our hero, Merlin, is capable of abusing magic. In order to rescue Arthur from an attack on Camelot in season four, he uses an enchantment that reduces his king to childlike dependence. It’s well-intentioned, but a massive breach of trust that he then exploits by berating Arthur while he can’t defend himself.
Crucially, there seems to be no method for mundane humans to protect themselves from magic. Only sheer force of numbers can overwhelm a powerful sorcerer, and even then there’s the question of containment. Prison doesn’t work, they can just blast their way out. Keeping hostages is a possibility…if you’re a morally bankrupt monarch with inexhaustible resources. If Arthur had ended up legalising magic – as I feel the show should have allowed him to do – he’d have had a nightmare enforcing his policy.
The magic of Merlin is bound up with the highly non-specific ‘Old Religion’, another minority group persecuted by Uther Pendragon. They have a lot of prophecies that really only exist to bully everybody into various plot positions (there’s an episode in season five when a group of priestesses known as the Disir try to blackmail Arthur into religious conversion which, as an atheist, was very unsettling to watch). This is symptomatic of the show as a whole: magic is always a plot point, and a messy one at that.
I write fantasy. This exasperates me NO END.
The Once and Future Queen
It’s a double-edged sword, recreating a familiar and beloved character, because the biggest fans will be the most impossible to please. Me, for instance! I adore fairy tale retellings, have ALL THE OPINIONS and can be consequentially brutal about what I don’t like. I can’t say I’ve ever had that level of attachment to the Arthurian legends, but I have a defined sense of what they are to me: a sun-drenched vision of greenwood and golden fields where shining knights ride toward tragedy and lovers passionately express their devotion through sword fights and early death. It owes an enormous amount to ‘The Lady of Shallott’, and the medieval-esque picture books I loved as a child.
The wonderful thing about a retelling is that you are meant to challenge and surprise. That’s the point.
The central quartet of Merlin are Merlin himself, Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere, though she’s better known in the show as Gwen. She probably experiences the greatest level of reinvention. Traditionally the nobly born queen at the centre of a kingdom-crippling love triangle, in Merlin she’s a blacksmith’s daughter, Lady Morgana’s maidservant and the most sensible, down-to-earth person on the show. She’s very beautiful, yes, but it’s her honesty and sense of justice that catch Arthur’s attention. She’s also mixed race, the most noticeable part of a diverse casting trend. Merlin doesn’t hit every note right on this front, but it isn’t for lack of effort. While she does technically cheat on Arthur with Lancelot, it is not her conscious choice, nor is it the beginning of Camelot’s downfall – she repairs her relationship with Arthur like a grown-up and after his untimely death, goes on to rule the kingdom alone.
Gwen is marvellous. She deserves treble the amount of screen time she gets.
However, in what’s entirely a script-writing failure and no reflection on the actress whatsoever, Gwen’s romances with both Arthur and Lancelot are clunkily constructed and move forward in awkward bounds with little effort at emotional development or shared experiences in between. Even after their marriage, Gwen and Arthur share minimal plot space and Arthur is always slightly on ceremony with her. ‘Epic romance’ is not a low-maintenance concept. Placing two attractive characters in the same space and adding violins won’t cut it; it takes a careful arc of development to make that romance feel earned, and shortcuts are very obvious.
The Problem of Morgana
Morgana is introduced as a clear-cut heroine, a warrior princess with a fairy tale face. She is a loved and loving part of the Pendragon family (with all the getting locked up in dungeons and inventive assassination attempts that involves), close to Arthur and Gwen, fond of Merlin, brave in the face of Uther’s fury the way no one else can be. That neither she nor Arthur knew they were related during their prickly season one flirtation (which later shifts into a far more sybling-like dynamic) neatly acknowledges the incestuous storyline of the traditional legends without demonising either character – though Uther is either an idiot for not recognising his charges’ sexual chemistry or a criminally irresponsible guardian for knowing how they felt and valuing his reputation over an intervention. Or both! Uther is a multi-tasker.
In five seasons Morgana goes from a key member of Team Good to its primary antagonist, from Gwen’s best friend to her torturer, from having Arthur’s back to stabbing it. It’s a big twist, to put it mildly, and not carried off with particular elegance.
It’s been suggested that her path to villainy was set in motion by meeting her half-sister Morgause and that possibly Morgause ‘mandraked’ her (the same magic Morgana later uses to warp Gwen’s loyalties). That’s a compelling idea, but has some fairly major flaws. Morgana was drawn to Morgause the moment she met her. Even if their blood relationship turned out rather tenuous, what with the paternal switch-up, Morgause showed a strong loyalty to Morgana and a fiercely protective streak that continued right up until her death. Morgana might not have understood entirely what Morgause wanted from her at the end of season two, when she became the conduit for a powerful sleeping curse upon Camelot, but she put herself willingly into Morgause’s hands and had a better chance than anyone at working out what was happening once the curse took effect. Yet she did nothing to protect her family, her home or her people.
The problem with Morgana is that no one in Camelot takes her seriously. Uther mistakes her criticism and later, her rage, for girlish naivete. Gaius chooses to drug and dupe her, hoping to suppress her powers, rather than trust in her ability to handle them. Partially to protect her, it’s true, but also because she is a complication he doesn’t want to deal with. Arthur remembers acts of kindness that were actually acts of manipulation; Gwen mistakes flashes of malice for humour.
The signs are there right from the start. In the second episode of season one, when Arthur is placed into competition with the formidable knight Valiant, he gets the most support from Merlin and Gwen – neither of whom has much to like about him yet apart from his good looks and athleticism. Morgana, meanwhile, has a spat with Arthur and declares she wishes Valiant would win. Gwen takes it as a joke, even when Morgana insists it’s not. Later, Morgana helps Arthur defeat Valiant with quick thinking and a sharp sword; her instinctive loyalties to her adoptive family are strong. But when they break, they break irreparably.
Morgana is not kind or sweet. She’s driven. It is a classic Pendragon trait – from her father’s anti-magic crusade to Arthur’s obsessive need to save the day – and like all Pendragons, personal drama tends to triumph over practicality. Morgana is devoted to the people she loves…until she loves someone else more. She despises injustice, but as she comes to grips with her magic, that drive is warped into a brutal need to prove herself worthy of Camelot’s throne by murdering anyone who gets in the way. Right from the start she’s willing to fight and lie and scheme to get what she wants. She is Mordred’s rescuer rather than his mother and wants the throne for herself, not the boy.
None of this makes her evil – actually, it’s what makes me like her. Beauty and charm and badassery are not a surefire recipe for heroism; ferocity and cunning do not automatically make a villain. Unfortunately, a mix of plot contrivance and narrative mismanagement frequently make Morgana’s plans look unnecessarily over complicated at best and appallingly incompetent at worst. Her arc of character growth and descent into a monomaniac power struggle just happens too damn fast.
This is partially remedied in seasons four and five. Despite her determination to see him dead, Morgana is still struck hard by Uther’s death, and she’s shaken by encountering Arthur. She wants Gwen at her side, even if brainwashing is the only way to keep her there. Though she does not understand Merlin’s real position at Camelot until the end, she wants to understand what makes him tick. These are the kind of grace notes that give a character depth.
The problem isn’t that Morgana became a villain. No one in this show keeps their hands clean for long: Arthur was the sword hand in a genocidal regime, Merlin nearly destroyed Camelot by releasing a vengeful dragon, both kill countless times for what they see to be the greater good. Even Gwen can be ruthless when necessary. The problem is that Morgana wasn’t the spectacularly excellent villain she could have been.
It’s indicative of a wider trend in the show. Each season’s primary antagonist is female, with a fairly reasonable grievance against Camelot, but their actual plans tend to be messy and incoherent. The legendary Nimueh is given almost no backstory and wasted on just one season. Morgause fares a bit better, keeping a more consistent tone, but the link between female power and villainy is unnervingly consistent, backed up with season one’s Sophia, season three’s Catarina, season four’s Lamia and in season five…well, take your pick, there’s Sefa, Kara, Eira, the Disir.
I certainly don’t think it’s intentional. There are great female characters who get positive arcs, including Elena, Mithian, Annis and Merlin’s mother Hunith. And I delight in a well-crafted female villain. But in a show dominated by male characters, not to mention male authority, there’s not enough balance.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
As I mentioned at the start, I have never cared that much for Merlin and Arthur in the legends. Nor, for that matter, in most retellings I’ve encountered. Colin Morgan gives Merlin a quirky, vulnerable charm, no easy task when Merlin is blasting his enemies away every other minute. Bradley James, meanwhile, infuses the legendary king with such genuine warmth and complexity that even the U-turns of conflicting scripts and some seriously unnecessary slapstick couldn’t ruin the character for me. Let’s be honest, he may be a mighty warrior, but this version of Arthur rules mainly through personal charm and a headstrong inability to accept to word ‘impossible’. Also, Merlin does his level best to get rid of anyone who so much as makes him sad.
The initial passionate dislike between them rapidly gives way to a loyalty that is staggering and a little scary in its intensity. Off the charts chemistry gets cemented by an entire first season that’s basically them rescuing each other from all things under the sun while everyone looks on indulgently.
(SERIOUSLY. Merlin’s mum spends an entire episode assuring Merlin that Arthur cares about him; Gwen and Morgana gossip about them and Kilgarrah insists their bond is inescapable. Camelot is full of closet romantics.)
Were these events taking place between male and female protagonists, it would be almost certainly be the set-up of an endgame romance. Bearing in mind Foz Meadows’ fantastic article on proof of love in fictional relationships, it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t precisely what happens. Arthur and Merlin get the most screen time of any two characters, share an incredibly intimate level of domesticity, see the worst and best sides in each other. Arthur’s relationship with Gwen depends heavily on Merlin filling in the gaps and she casually accepts Merlin’s presence in all kinds of private situations, including their wedding anniversary picnic. In episodes where Arthur and Merlin are kept apart, they spend the entire time pining, sulking or searching for each other. The finale has Arthur dying in Merlin’s arms, using his last breaths to thank him, and Merlin patiently awaiting his king’s prophesied return. That, right there, is unmistakably the arc of a romance.
Of course, the show never acknowledges this openly, because we can’t have nice things.
This Land and All Its Peoples
Which brings me to the subject of diversity. This is an important aspect of retellings, since literary history has not been kind to the experiences of anyone not white, straight, male and/ or cissexual. When retelling a familiar story, it’s much more interesting to explore the neglected possibilities rather than re-treading the same old ground.
As I’ve already said, Merlin makes an effort with racial diversity. There are characters of colour in a variety of major and minor roles, including several knights. Unfortunately, none of those knights make it to the end of season five. That could have been handled better.
As for sexual diversity, well, there are no openly gay characters. Instead we get deniable subtext: Arthur and Merlin’s entwined destinies, Morgana and Gwen’s close and eventually badly twisted bond, Princess Elena’s romantic uncertainties, Gwaine’s flirtation with Merlin. The characters most strongly coded as gay (i.e. openly express attraction towards someone of the same sex, are not in a pre-existing relationship with someone of the opposite sex – like I said, burden of proof is STUPID) are antagonists: the Witchfinder, a war-mongering rival king and his creepy jester. All the most positive relationships go under the official label of friendship.
Stories about friendship are fantastic. We can never have enough of them. But if they have the chemistry, structure and narrative space of a romance, it’s doing everyone a disservice to pretend they are something else.
For the Love of Albion
So where does this particular retelling take us? The Arthurian cycle is, at heart, a tragedy and Merlin holds true to its source material. Each of the central four protagonists ends in heartbreak. Arthur falls on the battlefield at Camlann without having united the kingdoms of Albion. Merlin, for all his sacrifices, fails to save his beloved king and is forced to wait for his return from Avalon. Morgana dies bitter and unmourned. Gwen inherits a throne through the death of her husband, and peace through the death of a woman who was once her closest friend. No one gets trapped in an oak tree or fades away in a convent, but loss permeates season five in a way that you’d never have predicted from watching season one.
The saddest thing, to me, is how seasons four and five focused heavily on the personal troubles of Camelot’s heroes rather than the political events that would have given weight and purpose to all that tragedy. Arthur’s policies as king are frustratingly vague; he ends the persecution of the druids and intervenes in the attempted execution of an accused witch, but magic is still illegal and he’s openly distrustful of sorcery. He has alliances with several fellow monarchs, yet it’s clearly not the legendary union. He only learns about Merlin’s magic at the very end of his life. Prophecy, it turns out, is a kick in the teeth.
Camelot will be fine. It has Gwen. But it isn’t really Camelot the viewer cares about, it’s the characters we followed to get there, and all of them end in grief.
Long Live the King
The story, however, doesn’t stop there. Because along came the fans, and with them the wide world of fanfiction. ‘Tis a glorious sight to behold.
Fandom is a remarkable middle ground. The material still belongs to the original creators, but it becomes the playground of its audience and there is genuinely no limit to what they’ll do with it. What results is a kaleidoscope of the inventive, the intelligent, the hilarious and the flat out weird. It’s kind of beautiful.
The fic for Merlin is a fascinating concept from a reteller’s perspective because it’s a mix of reimagining the show and reimagining the legend and both at the same time. ‘Canon’ stories take place in the fictional world established by the show, some trying valiantly to mesh it with history while others plunge headlong into fantasy. Modern AUs translate familiar plot lines into a different setting, imagining the lives the characters might lead in the modern day; historical AUs take place during different periods, including the Regency, Victorian England and both World Wars. There are even mash-ups transposing the characters into another fictional universe, such as ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Princess Bride’.
A retelling always responds to the flaws the author perceives in their source material. Issues not addressed in the show, and sometimes in the legend, can be addressed in fic and different solutions offered. Side characters never granted much narrative space are allowed to shine; non-traditional romantic relationships, some between characters who never meet in the show, take centre stage. Slash pairings may not appeal to every reader, but there’s no denying that they are a necessary defence against a traditional media that still refuses, on the whole, to acknowledge non-heterosexual relationships in anything beyond minor parts and throwaway references. It’s all a matter of perception, but those perceptions sometimes make a great deal more sense than the canon line.
Every legend, folk story and fairy tale has multiple iterations for a very simple reason. People tell the stories they need to hear. What works for one time, one place, one audience, must evolve for each generation. It is the reason classics are adapted time and time again; the reason for adaptations and reinventions. Stories are wild things. They are meant to change, and grow. Above all, they are meant to be shared.