Friday, 05 October 2012

'Merlin', 'Camelot' and Why Aithusa saved Morganna

I've been waiting for an inspiring enough topic to pitch me back into blogging, and there is a kind of comfort in that the one that came along is a continuation of a favourite I've previously developed: adaptations of the story of King Arthur. I have been following two recently, Camelot, a cinema-scale epic featuring Joseph Fiennes (as Merlin) and Eva Green (Morgen), and the British series Merlin, a lighter adaptation with mostly unknown actors, which I've mentioned before. Specifically, Merlin has struck me as bad on so many levels that I'm fascinated by what the source of its appeal is. It certainly has both interested and moved me more than Camelot, despite the latter's stylistic superiority and impressive cast.

Some ideas of how these two compare might already be apparent from the short descriptions given above. Camelot, with its seeming Game of Thrones/Rome ambitions, is violent, sexual, dark, clearly adult-oriented. Its textures and style suggest an appeal to historical resonance, if not accuracy, and it includes in its narrative (one feels it sometimes revels in) the more disturbing aspects of the story that have been boiled into it over the ages. Merlin, on the other hand, has a flat, cartoonish feel and a soundtrack reminiscent of the Gummy Bears. It clearly doesn't take its historical resonance too seriously and has cleaned up the story (so far) of its more uncomfortable elements in what I can only guess is an attempt at being child-friendly. And yet, I have found myself watching it almost compulsively while Camelot seemed to drag on endlessly.

The chiefly characterizing feature of Merlin is that it is a story about the characters' Becoming before Camelot's Golden Age, as if this angle had never been taken before. Actually the mythic resonance of the story lies precisely in the fact that it is built on an inescapable trajectory, and the art of the majority of retellings lies not in the depiction of What Happens but in How They Got There. Even the focus on Merlin as the central character is not new. What is new is that this telling offers Merlin, not as the bearded magical mentor, but as a youth himself, a kind of magical parallel to Arthur's Becoming. A dragon's prophecy that Arthur and Merlin are 'two sides of a coin' anchors the point of this angle. Even so, this twist might have worked against the series if the relationship between the two boys had not been written with such a bitter-sweet charm. Since magic has been outlawed and demonized, Merlin has to hide his gifts whilst simultaneously protecting the boy he gradually grows to believe in and alone bearing the burden that he and Arthur are the foundations to the kingdom that is to come. This alteration to the tale regarding the persecution of those with magic and Merlin's youth is a simple one and combines in Merlin his traditional role of guide and protector to Arthur with an adolescent vulnerability that is appealing on many levels. More importantly it adds a tension to the story that has a high emotional factor; not only is there the danger to Merlin should his nature be discovered, but there is the painful question of Arthur's reaction to the discovery of Merlin's identity. While there is little art in the transparent dialogue between the two boys, their mutual affection actually comes through with a touching fragility. It is clear that Arthur values, is even dependent on, Merlin's friendship, and that Merlin has a painful need for Arthur's acceptance. This is the kind of emotional effectiveness, even subtlety, that is missing from Camelot, where there are no narrative quirks that enable an access to the humanity behind the underwhelming given of Arthur's goodness.

The third significant factor figuring in Merlin is Morganna, based on the staple-Arthuriana character Morgan Le Fay. Morgan Le Fay is another area where Camelot disappoints. Here, as elsewhere, she is conniving, envious, boringly malevolent. Merlin originally seemed to figure her as something more complex; the ward of King Uther (Arthur's father) with a sincere affection for Arthur, Merlin and Guinivere, and a fierce sense of justice, especially regarding Uther's oppression of magic. However, this character became increasingly dark, eventually becoming simply annoyingly malicious. That was my assessment until the surprising end of Series 4, where after a formidable battle, she is inexplicably healed by a white infant dragon called Aithusa, a creature that was previously identified to Merlin as an omen of good for Camelot. Why did Aithusa heal Morganna?

Morgan Le Fay is often called the antagonist of King Arthur and his knights, but actually her legend is far more complicated. Her appearances in Arthurian legend date back to some of the earliest sources, which also identify her as both Arthur's sister and a Fay (a way of saying she was 'of Fairy', meaning she has a link to magic) from the beginning, but of all the characters most traditionally associated with the legend, her character has coalesced around the most contradictory roles. The most nefarious deeds ascribed to her include trying to kill Arthur, sending monstrous warriors to test the knights of the Round Table and attempts at exposing Guinevere's adultery, but, oddly, she also appears as an ally, a gifted healer, one of the queens who receive Arthur's body after his death, and strongly associated with the magical island of Avalon, mostly a good place. She is a truly enigmatic figure, whose very human motivations seem complicated and deepened by her link to a mysterious mysticism. Al this means that she is actually the most unpredictable character in retellings, and affords the most space for thematic exploration. It's therefore really annoying to me that few retellings have exploited this potential, preferring to depict her as uninterestingly evil, a vain, often over-sexualized sorceress with an irredeemable lust for power and undiluted hostility towards Arthur. A prominent exception is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which she is a central character, and which brilliantly combines all her contradictory, traditional roles in what adds up to a truly complex and sympathetic character, in my opinion thereby fulfilling the height of her tantalizing potential. Morgan Le Fay is Arthur's half-sister and the female counterpart to Merlin, and her relationship to magic and political power often says loads about the depiction of women in the narrative. As such her presence has always, for me, highlighted a potent tension between a female mysticism and male chivalry that I think is inherent in the story (a dualism with heavy qualifiers, but, I think, one that ultimately holds). In any case, she has always been far more appealing to me than Guinevere, who cannot seem to escape definition through her relationships to her husband (Arthur) and her lover, (Lancelot).

Aithusa's healing of Morganna in Merlin gestures enticingly to the contradictions embedded in Morgan's legend. These contradictions may have happened accidentally, but, as in Bradley's version, they have enriched the story and acquired an integrity of their own, so that in seeing the vacillations of human behaviour in them, they can enable us to envision the sheer voluptuousness of human complexity. As a story about Becomings, will the series attempt to account for the traditional roles played by this mysterious figure? I would love to see Merlin's decisions complicated not by Morganna's power, but by her, for want of a better word, goodness.

Of course, this is not to say that the series doesn't have an awful lot to be desired. But to me, it has effectively accomplished that which begins good art, interesting the emotions.