Just what is “The Old Religion” in the BBC series, Merlin? And can magic be separate from religion or are the two forever entwined? The answers leave open many questions.
Throughout the series, magic is outlawed in Camelot because of the problems it has caused and the threat it poses to Uther and Arthur’s reigns. And throughout the series, it’s clear to the viewer that Uther is unreasonable in his treatment of magic because we are made to feel sympathy for Merlin, who has magic but must keep it a secret or suffer banishment or death. And while Merlin uses his magic for good and to protect Arthur, saving his life in several episodes, magic remains a sort of loose cannon, also used by plenty of other characters for evil, or at least, to fight against Camelot, the enemy of those who practice magic.
But besides magic, there is also The Old Religion, and I admit that I am confused by just what The Old Religion represents. Very little about The Old Religion is clear in the series. We know there are places sacred to The Old Religion and we know it has its followers, including the Druids. We also know that those who have magic are aligned with The Old Religion, although they use their magic in different ways, all claiming to act for The Old Religion—and revealing, just like any religion in the real world, that The Old Religion has its fanatics.
Just what is The Old Religion? And does one have to be a practitioner of it to possess magic? The answer to the second question is apparently, “No” since Merlin has magic but in no way has been seen practicing anything close to a religion or even seeking out information about The Old Religion. The first question is a lot harder to answer.
Religions are based on a belief system, but the belief system of The Old Religion is very vague in Merlin, and I assume it’s being made up by the writers of the program as the series goes along. In the fifth season, we hear Morgana proclaim that she is the High Priestess of The Triple Goddess. How did this happen? How did she become high priestess—we are not told. I assume it’s a hereditary title to some degree since Morgause, her sister, was also a high priestess, although so was Nimueh, who is no relation to Morgana and Morgause. In the “The Disir” episode, Arthur states that he cannot allow sorcery (akin to The Old Religion) to return because he has seen how Morgana uses “sorcery” (magic, The Old Religion) for evil.
In the fifth episode, “The Disir,” King Arthur is summoned by the Disir to receive the judgment of the Triple Goddess by sending a message to him through a sorcerer named Osgar. Arthur responds by traveling to the cave where the Disir live. The Disir are sort of a mix between the three witches in MacBeth and the three weavers of Fate in Greek mythology. Arthur enters the cave of the Disir with his armed knights, which is sacrilegious since the cave is a holy place of the Triple Goddess. The Disir seek to zap (for lack of a better word) Arthur, but Mordred steps in the way to protect him. Arthur and his knights return to Camelot with the wounded Mordred, who is likely to die. Arthur then petitions the Disir to heal Mordred. They give him an ultimatum: embrace magic or the Triple Goddess will seal your fate. Merlin, in one of his most dramatic moments, forsakes his own true self as someone with magic to tell Arthur there is no place for magic in Camelot, but he makes this statement thinking it best that Mordred die because he has had a vision that Mordred will kill Arthur. However, when Arthur refuses to accept magic, the Disir allow Mordred to live anyway because, as Merlin then realizes, Mordred is the Triple Goddess’ punishment upon Arthur because Mordred will ultimately kill him—or at least, so Merlin understands it from dreams he has had of Arthur’s death.
Where is the justice in The Old Religion? Yes, Arthur is arrogant and unreasonable at times, but regardless, magic and the Old Religion are obviously very dangerous to Camelot. Nor does The Old Religion seem to have anything to do with good and evil as do most religions.
According to http://merlin.wikia.com/wiki/Magic_of_the_Old_Religion: “The magic used by most human sorcerers and sorceresses comes from the Old Religion. In some way, the essence of magic coincides with the Old Religion itself. The Old Religion is, in fact, not only considered to be a simple belief or worship, but an animated or almost living essence or force of the universe, that holds everything in balance. In the episode Le Morte d’Arthur, Nimueh told Merlin that “the Old Religion does not care about who lives and who dies, only that the balance of the world is restored”: this indicates that the High Priestess regarded it as an animated force with a will of its own.”
In my opinion, an old religion that’s only about balance and not right from wrong isn’t a religion worth following—and so ultimately, while I sympathize with Merlin, the Old Religion seems irrational and Arthur’s realm is better off without it.
Still, I am puzzled by the religion’s name. Why is it not just Religion? If there’s an Old Religion, wouldn’t there also be a New Religion? But the series is vague about this matter as well. If anything, Camelot appears to be completely secular. I don’t recall a bishop or priest showing up in any episode of the series, and in episode 13 of season 4, when Arthur and Guinevere “marry,” they really don’t. No one marries them. Arthur simply places a crown upon Guinevere and proclaims her queen, and it’s implied that she is now his wife as well—I suspect that the series purposely omits a marriage scene because who would marry them, since a priest implies a religion? That said, in episode 5, season 5, the key episode with the Triple Goddess, Osgar, who delivers the summons from the Disir to Arthur, when he is seen in the woods by the knights is called a “heretic.” How can you be a heretic unless you are in disagreement with a religious belief system? Yet Camelot apparently has no religion.
If there is no New Religion, just The Old Religion, then there’s just religion, and considering how it is treated, religion is rightly deemed bad by Uther and Arthur.
Still, with religion constantly being mocked and ridiculed in our real modern world, one has to ask whether the series Merlin is anti-religion? I would almost say yes except for one fact—the series’ hero, Merlin, has magic, and although he doesn’t appear involved with The Old Religion, he would not have magic if The Old Religion were not part of his heritage. Therefore, conclusions about The Old Religion are difficult to come to. Is the series then, intentionally vague, or have the writers not really thought out The Old Religion issue, or must we wait for the series to end to draw our conclusions? This series has impressed me by how it continually has gotten better with each season, but is a compromise between the ideals of Camelot and The Old Religion something that Merlin can finally pull off—and is there anything more important for the series to pull off? We’ll have to wait for the end of Season 5 to see.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is currently working on a series of novels about Arthur’s descendants. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com