Can you hear the violins? BBC’s Merlin and the Arthurian Canon

I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.

The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)

The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.

Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):

GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]

ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]

GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]

The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.

              In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.

In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.

[i] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[ii] Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 297-298

[iii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2, my transcription throughout

[iv] Malory, 47 and 53

[v] Merlin, “The Changeling” 3.6

[vi] Merlin, “The Sword in the Stone, Part 2” 4.12

[vii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[viii] Merlin,“The Darkest Hour, Part 2” 4.2

[ix] Merlin, “The Darkest Hour, Part 1” 4.1

[x]  Merlin, “Lancelot” 1.5

A Game of Cowards: Thoughts on the Last Honourable Man of Westeros

(Obligatory spoiler warnings ahead for those of you who live in a hole and haven’t seen/read A Game of Thrones. Not that I have anything against Hobbits. But I’m assuming if you haven’t seen/read GoT/ASOIAF then you wouldn’t be interested in reading this blog post anyway.)

Eddard Stark. The Last Honourable Man Left in Westeros. One can say that “the game of thrones” doesn’t really start until the very end of the book. Ned’s not really a player in the game. Or, if he is, he’s playing correctly by the rules while everyone else is stealing from the bank and sleeping with each other. But Ned’s so damn honourable that he thinks everyone else is playing by the rules too. While he doesn’t trust anyone, Ned still has a core faith in people’s decency. Sure, he acknowledges that: “The Lannisters appetite for officers and honors seemed to know no bounds” (p. 258), yet when faced with the evidence of murder and treason, Ned’s still professes, “no, I will not believe that, not even of Cersei” (268).

There’s a striking difference between Ned and King Robert when they feud halfway through the book. Ned argues vehemently against the idea of killing innocents. Repeatedly Ned returns to the image of dashing the head of the infant prince Targaryen against a wall. A mere babe, snatched from the hands of his mother. To Ned, this is the ultimate act of evil. And so, when Robert demands the death of Daenerys, Ned reacts with horror at the thought of “murdering a child” (p. 294). Robert of course insists on the deed in order to secure his throne. What’s one more death in the grand scheme of things?

Yet, when the council suggests poison as a way of killing Dany (that way the Dorthraki wouldn’t even know it was murder and there would be no repercussions), Robert complains:

“Poison is a coward’s weapon”

P. 296

Ned quickly points out the hypocrisy:

“You send hired knives to kill a fourteen-year-old girl and still quibble about honor?”

P. 296

The thing that Ned still doesn’t see is that Robert’s honour is about image and perception. He needs to be seen as a strong king, a good one, even though he knows in his heart that he’s failed. But Ned’s honour is bone deep. Consider his adoption and fostering of Jon Snow. What could be more honourable than lying and sacrificing your image in order to save the life of an innocent?

The A Song of Ice and Fire series along with it’s television adaptation is a story of corruption. But with the first book, Martin delicately shows us this rot through the eyes of innocents. There’s Jon, so convinced of the bravery and honour of the Black Brothers; Catelyn, who naively thinks her sister will sacrifice safety for duty; and Sansa, who sees the court as a “beautiful dream” (p. 252), complete with Joffrey as her golden prince. Even the death of Ser Hugh doesn’t jolt Sansa out of the dream, as she compliments herself on stoically observing his death. Death means little to the court and the commoners:

After they carried off the body, a boy with a spade ran onto the field and shoveled dirt over the spot where he has fallen, to cover up the blood. Then the jousts resumed.

A Game of Thrones p. 248

Such a simple image, but so appropriate for the theme of the book: shoveling dirt to cover up blood so that they can get on with their sport.

The first book is narrated completely by people of honour and innocence. Even Tyrion Lannister has been manipulated by his family’s game. Here are our protagonists. Although later books introduce other point-of-view characters, and Martin is renowned for creating grey characters that the audience ends up rooting for, these 8 pov characters introduce the reader to the world of ASOIAF. It’s through their eyes that we see the corruption of Westeros. And through their thoughts that we set up our moral compass to read the rest of the series.

But with Ned’s death, that moral compass is shattered. With the death of the last honourable man of Westeros, honour itself dies. Each pov character from that moment on has questionable scruples. And that includes our remaining 7 pov characters because they have lost their innocence. With Ned’s death, they see the blood and rot under the mud, and each character has to adapt – and adapt quickly – if they’re going to survive the game. Which means, becoming players themselves: cheating, vicious, rotten ones.

All the Times a Cell Phone Would Have Been Useful in HP & Chamber of Secrets: A List. (Movie edition)

Well. As the title says, if a cell phone (or a normal phone; hell, even a pay phone) were to work in the Wizarding World, you would have a very thin story. It baffles me that the wizards don’t have some sort of telephone equivalent. I mean… talking through fireplaces? What if you live in a tiny little flat that doesn’t have a fireplace?

In any case, here are all the moments in the second film where *I* think a cell phone would be useful (feel free to add more)

…… obligatory spoiler warnings ahead ⚠️

  • Harry thinking all his friends have abandoned him because they haven’t sent him a letter via owl post. (Check your email, Harry. I’m sure Hermione would use the internet when she’s home).
  • The Weasleys coming by flying car to investigate why Harry hasn’t answered their letters.
  • Harry getting lost in Diagon Alley (side note: what’s up with Knockturn Alley? Why is there such a sketchy looking place right next to the Disneyland of the HP world?; side note 2: the Weasley family didn’t seem all to concerned that Harry hadn’t gotten to Diagon Alley..)
  • Harry and Ron getting stuck on the wrong side of platform 9 3/4 (okay. So this one actually gets pointed out in the book; That they could’ve just WAITED for the parents to come back, instead of panicking and flying the car. But honestly. Any kid with a cell phone would automatically think “I’ll just call/text/whatsapp my parents” before they would think “I know. I’ll take the illegal flying car. And leave my family stranded at the station.”)
  • When Hermione figures out what the monsters is and rushes out of the library with a torn piece of paper. (As if Hermione would ever desecrate a book, let alone a library book!!); A whatsapp or fb messenger group would have been real handy at that point. “Guys. It’s a basilisk using the pipes to travel. Carry a mirror to check corners so that you don’t look directly at it.”
  • Aragog. If they HAD gotten eaten by the spiders, they could’ve gotten a video out first. (Handheld cell phone footage of that scene from Ron’s perspective would be AWESOME.)
  • When Ron gets trapped in a cave-in with Lockhart. I can see the text. “I’m trapped beneath the school with a lunatic. Send help.”
  • And finally: Any time in the *entire series* where Dumbledore is away and there’s an emergency. 🤷🏽‍♀️

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.

The Voice in My Head Sounds like Martin Freeman

Thoughts While Re-reading Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide

Cover of Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Although I remember Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (book adaptation 1985) as a favourite read, I approached the prospect of re-reading the novel with a mixed sense of pleasure and hesitation. Although I couldn’t remember the specifics of plots and scenes, I recalled moments of amusement and contemplation from when I read the book the first few times.

Given all that, it took me awhile to figure out why I was reluctant to read the book again. It took me about 20 pages to put my finger on it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of those texts where the film adaptation (2005) has completely rewritten the imaginary world I had created in my head! Within the first page of chapter one, in fact, with Adams’ description of his main character, Arthur Dent, the image that leaps into my mind is that of Martin Freeman. From that moment, my inner narratorial voice itself speaks with Freeman’s voice. Now, this may be because Freeman has a distinctive voice that is easily recognisable, or because Freeman is a phenomenal actor, but the effect it leaves on me is one of resentment and discouragement. Despite watching the film only 1-2 times, as the first 20 pages unfolds, the story that runs through my head is the movie itself. Freeman getting irate in his bathrobe. Enter Mos Def stage right. And, given that Mos Def’s character, Ford Prefect, is described completely differently in the book (“His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backwards from the temples”), I think it’s understandable that I’m put out that his image replaces the character I had originally imagined in my own head.

movie poster of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Mos Def as an actor. He brings a charm to any role. And, I suppose in this day of inclusion, the thought to change the character stemmed from a requirement to make sure that all the characters didn’t look homogeneously the same (especially as half of them are aliens); although, of course, this moves risks casting Mos Def as a token character. (We won’t dive into my thoughts on the lack of representation for the ginger community, and the implications of re-casting the “alien” character with another visible minority.)

So I don’t necessarily object to casting Mos Def in the role of Ford Prefect. But I am dejected that my original picture of him has been lost.

Interestingly, Roger Egbert’s review of the 2005 film states that: ” You will find the movie tiresomely twee, and notice that it obviously thinks it is being funny at times when you do not have the slightest clue why that should be. […] I do not get the joke.” His review relays that the film was inaccessible for those who were unfamiliar with the book; indicating that those who remember the narrative and scenes were likely those who were already familiar with the book.

Did the movie (or other adaptations) replace the book adaptation version in your head? Or is there any book/film adaptation that was ruined for you as a result?