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Archive for the ‘King Arthur on TV’ Category

I have been slowly working my way through reading the entire Prince Valiant comic strip as Fantagraphics brings out each volume in the series. My reviews of Volumes 1-6 can all be found on this blog and reviewers for Volumes 7 & 8 will be forthcoming. One commenter to one of these blogs was kind enough to inform me that there had been a Prince Valiant television series in the 1990s, shown on the Family Channel. Somehow I missed The Legend of Prince Valiant when it aired from 1991-1994, but I was curious to watch it, and now having done so, I can say that it is extremely well-done and its being a cartoon in no way detracts from its value or quality. In fact, after the BBC’s Merlin, I would say it is the best King Arthur television series, far surpassing the 1950s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, the 1970s Arthur of the Britons, and the 2011 flop Starz’s Camelot (all of which have been reviewed here in blogs). For its character development, story arc, episode plots, and overall entertainment value, The Legend of Prince Valiant deserves high praise.

PrinceValiantOneThe series is available on DVD, complete with 65 episodes, plus interviews with some of the writers, creators, Noelle North (the voice of Rowanne), and many other bonus features. Each episode runs 23-24 minutes. The episodes need to be watched in order because of the story arc running through the two seasons, which really makes the series standout from most cartoons and many television series in general.

To describe all the plots and characters in The Legend of Prince Valiant and how the series differs from the Prince Valiant comic strip would take many blogs, and in general, I don’t feel comparisons are always that helpful to make. Television is a different medium than a comic strip so it naturally requires some different adjustments be made. But I think Hal Foster would have been pleased with this show. It is faithful to the spirit of his work while updating the story a bit to the 1990s in terms of themes and content—but all the fun and adventure is there with the themes being a bit more serious in message than in the comic strips. In fact, the Prince Valiant of this series is a bit wiser and gentler and what is required of him on his path to knighthood is more developed than what I remember in Foster’s strip. I also appreciated that Prince Valiant’s haircut was made a bit more modern because sometimes I just shake my head over his girlish looking medieval haircut in the comic strip (and Robert Wagner’s in the 1954 film Prince Valiant).

The storyline mainly follows the beginning episodes of the strip, beginning with Valiant’s father losing his kingdom of Thule and fleeing to the fens of England where Valiant grows up and then begins his journey to Camelot to seek knighthood. Along the way he meets Arn and then Rowanne (a female main character was invented for the series, and she is a welcome addition), and after several episodes, they reach Camelot. From that point, the show deviates from the strip but retains its energy and appeal. Valiant and his two friends seek to become knights, something Valiant achieves first. Most of the episodes are individual adventures, but the characters develop over time and characters from previous episodes keep reappearing. Major moments in the series include Valiant fighting to win back his father’s kingdom, his meeting Aleta and falling in love with her, Mordred plotting against Camelot, and ultimately, King Arthur’s death.

The end of the series left a few things hanging—notably that Valiant and Aleta are engaged but not yet married, and Rowanne’s relationship with Prince Michael and Arn’s feelings for her also. Valiant is named Arthur’s heir—in the strip, his granddaughter is Arthur’s heir. How this series treats King Arthur’s death was a surprise to me, and I won’t give away the details, but I will say that the outcry against Arthur’s death in the BBC series Merlin would not be heard by viewers of this program. While a gentler ending to the legend makes it less effective in my opinion, The Legend of Prince Valiant was a “family” show geared toward younger viewers than was Merlin, so I will forgive it in this respect.

That said, as a family show, The Legend of Prince Valiant has definite appeal to adults, and some of its storylines and themes are quite daring for the program. In fact, in the interviews on the DVD, it’s pointed out that the themes of tolerance, liberty, and others often opposed the morals of Pat Robertson and the 700 Club that owned the Family Channel. The program won awards for its high concept, values, and television writing that “advances the human spirit,” and it deserved them. I wish it had been more of a model for family and cartoon entertainment, had not ended so soon, and had many more followers both in terms of viewers and other shows following its example.PrinceValiant2

I was also thrilled by the talent employed in the show. Noelle North, who did the voice of Rowanne, also was Slouchy Smurfling on The Smurfs (my favorite cartoon of all-time). Aleta and Valiant’s voices were by the same actors who did the voices of Disney’s title characters in Beauty and the Beast, Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson. Benson especially did a fantastic job, showing all Valiant’s character traits, his voice ranging from soothing and thoughtful to strong-willed and angry. Tim Curry (Sir Gawaine) was the only person doing a voice whose name I knew before watching the series, but all the actors were quite fabulous in their voice work. I also liked that two of the show’s writers, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who are interviewed on the DVD, also worked on the television series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (one of my all-time favorite television shows, largely because it also has an Arthurian twist to it).

Watching The Legend of Prince Valiant is time and money well-spent and should give any fan of the comic strip or the Arthurian legend weeks or months of satisfying entertainment. I am sure it will not be long before I re-watch the entire series. I only wish there had been more of it.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One, to be released in June 2014. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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I have lately found myself very interested in Sir Palomides, the Saracen Knight of the Round Table. What was a Saracen doing at King Arthur’s Court, and just what is meant by “Saracen” in these stories? Palomides is described as a Saracen in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and perhaps we can assume that term means he is a Muslim, although there were no Muslims yet in sixth century Britain; the time of King Arthur was a good century before the Prophet Mohammed established Islam. But nor was Malory trying to recreate a sixth century world—his setting is more akin to the High Middle Ages. “Saracen” was also a very general term that could refer to anyone from the Middle East at the time actually, but it was also synonymous with “Muslim” in this time period. Malory and other medieval writers make little mention of Palomides’ religion, however, other than to say he was a Pagan. Most versions of the legend say he was the son of King Escabor of Babylon, who traveled to Rome and saved the life of the emperor and later traveled to Britain and saved King Pellinore’s life. The stories are vague—did Palomides come to Britain with his father? Pellinore is known for his role in following the Questing Beast and he states that only one of his family can pursue and kill the beast, but it is Palomides who eventually does kill the beast—does this mean Palomides is in some way related to Pellinore? If there were any real sources behind Palomides’ story, they are lost. At best, we can assume he was to be seen as a model of a Pagan who was later baptized as a Christian.

One important part of Palomides’ story is his great love for Isolde, the mistress of Sir Tristan. In fact, at one point Tristan defeats Palomides and makes him swear no longer to pursue Isolde or bear arms for a year—a harsh sentence indeed. I never did like Tristan anyway and I’ve always found his and Isolde’s long love story a tiresome and lengthy digression from the good stuff in the Matter of Britain.

Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede by John Erskine

Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede by John Erskine

So I was both excited and doubtful when I heard that John Erskine, back in 1932, had written a book titled Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede. (Palamede is an alternate spelling for Palomides just as Tristan is sometimes spelled Tristram and Isolde as Iseult.)

Erskine’s book starts out well enough. Palamede is in his father’s kingdom wanting to find out more about the world and he has heard tales of King Arthur and his knights from his tutor. In time, he decides to set off on an adventure and find the chivalrous and noble heroes he has read about. He is quickly disappointed, however, when he arrives in Cornwall and meets King Mark, Tristan, and Isolde. In fact, the only character not disappointing to me, other than Palamede, in this book is Brangain, Isolde’s maid. One of the tales of Palomides is that he rescued her from robbers who had tied her to a tree. In Erskine’s version, the local people follow vegetation and pagan beliefs, and so they chain her to a tree and it is believed the spirit of the tree will impregnate her. Palamede comes along to her rescue then, and of course, she falls in love with him, but I won’t give away what happens between them.

King Mark, Tristan, and Isolde all turn out to be quite obnoxious in Erskine’s story. The book is written in that satiric, tongue-in-cheek tone that was common in this era as postmodernism was arising—it’s the same tone as Evelyn Waugh in Helena or T.H. White in The Once and Future King. It’s the kind of tone that I find tedious—an attempt to be funny that is strained by being prolonged for more than a few appropriate pages into an entire book; it has an underlying meanness to it that shows the author laughing at and even sometimes despising his characters. And Erskine’s characters are so unlikeable that in their arguing and bickering, there were times when I felt as if I were reading a play by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill about a dysfunctional family, rather than something Arthurian.

In the end, I was disappointed by this book. Palomides deserves better than to be the subject of a comical novel that can’t take its subject seriously. Here is the only Saracen knight in the Arthurian world and he becomes the object of satire. What was he really doing there in the Arthurian world? Erskine’s subtitle “Restoring Palamede” refers to how Palomides was often cut from the tales in later retellings that focus on Tristan and Isolde’s love—perhaps these later versions of the Victorian period or thereabouts wanted to clean up the story—no interracial or interfaith relationships allowed—but to restore Palomides properly requires a more serious tone, one perhaps that our current age of multiculturalism and diversity will be able to fulfill in a way that could not be done in the 1930s. I hope some author will restore him properly. Sadly, even the 1990s The Legend of Prince Valiant cartoon television series and the more recent Merlin BBC series did not restore him properly—The Legend of Prince Valiant substituted a black knight named Sir Bryant, and Merlin had a black knight named Sir Elyan, who was Guinevere’s brother. Why was there no Sir Palomides? Are modern writers afraid to depict a Muslim within the Arthurian world, or is he, rightly so, seen as an anachronism since there were no Muslims in Arthur’s time? Either way, Palomides deserves a new and respectful reinterpretation. Perhaps, I will make a try of it myself in my upcoming Arthurian novel series….

Erskine wrote many other books including another about the Arthurian legend, Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation (1926). I fear from this book’s subtitle I won’t like it much better, so I won’t run out to find a copy any time soon. But I also know that my dislike of satire is a personal taste, and anyone interested in Palomides might still want to give Tristan and Isolde: Restoring Palamede a try.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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The end of the fabulous BBC series Merlin caused a lot of ruckus among fans when Arthur died. I was very surprised by this reaction and the outcry that Arthur would die, though it mostly came from people who knew nothing about the Arthurian legend. Among those who do know the legend, there were many comments all over the Internet about how the series was not that good anyway, and several people compared it unfavorably to the British ITV series Arthur of the Britons, which aired in Britain from 1972-1973 for two seasons. When I read these comparisons, I thought “Arthur of the Britons? Why have I never heard of this television show?”

Arthur_of_the_Britons_coverI quickly looked it up and found that I could watch the entire series of twenty-four episodes for free on YouTube, so I immediately set to it, and almost as immediately, I was glad it was on YouTube where I could watch it for free because I sure wouldn’t have wanted to pay for it. I can only think that all these people singing this show’s praises and claiming it was superior to Merlin were remembering watching it as children and the impact it had on them. Unfortunately, it does not hold up well today.

Do I dare compare Arthur of the Britons to Merlin? One complaint about Merlin was how it had little to do with the legend, but Arthur of the Britons cannot claim to be any more about the legend. Here are just a few of the differences between the shows:

Merlin
* Set in a fictional kingdom of Albion
* Includes most Arthurian characters, including Arthur, Merlin, Uther, Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Morgana, and Mordred. Of course, many of them are greatly reinterpreted.
* Arthur’s father is Uther
* Magic is a key part of the series.
* The show has an arc focused on the role of magic at Camelot and the Old Religion vs. Camelot’s secular order.
* A series finale after five successful seasons.
 

Arthur of the Britons

* Set in post-Roman Britain
* Includes only Arthur, Kai, and Mark of Cornwall
* Arthur was raised by Lud, who also raised Kai—we can assume Arthur’s father is Uther Pendragon, but there is no mention of Uther. That said, in the legend, Arthur does have a foster-father, though his name is Sir Ector and he is Kai’s father.
* The show is historical and realistic.
* There is no arc, other than attempts to fight or make peace with the Saxons. There is little in the way of plot from one episode that leads to the next, making each episode more like a short story while Merlin is more like a novel, and therefore, more of a complete and unified work.
* No series finale since the show was cancelled after two seasons.

The two series are very different and not really that comparable as a result. I give Arthur of the Britons credit for its historical efforts, but even these efforts are rather weak. Merlin, of course, has the advantages of advanced technology and special effects, although those are not a requirement of a good program. Character development and plot are of far greater value, and those two elements are what are most lacking in Arthur of the Britons.

The series has no real plot. We know that the Romans have left Britain, Arthur is the leader of the Celts, and he is fighting against the invading Saxons. What little plot exists concerns him trying to band the other Celts together to fight the Saxons and also to make peace with the Jutes to aid in the fight with the Saxons, and later, to make peace with the Saxons. There are some smaller storylines, such as that of Rowena, the daughter of the King of the Jutes, whom Arthur feels some attraction for, but she only appears in a few episodes in the second season. Even the individual episodes are weak on plot. Part of that flaw is the result of each episode being only about twenty-five minutes long, while Merlin episodes are closer to forty-five minutes so there is more room for plot and character development. The lack of plot in many of the Arthur of the Britons episodes is very apparent, especially in the first season where little happens in an episode. In one episode, “The Challenge,” all that happens is Kai and Arthur physically fight with each other while everyone else looks on. The episode goes on and on and is downright boring. In fact, many of the episodes are boring, although during the second season, the scripts improved and the plots became more like plots, though they remained simple.

The lack of character development in the series is another major problem. In the series’ first episode, Arthur calls together the other Celt leaders to try to form an alliance and get them to follow him. We are not told why Arthur is the leader—he is never called “king” which is probably in keeping with the series’ efforts to be historical. He is rather a chieftain. It is never clear why, however, he is the leader. Arthur has been raised by Lud, himself a warrior. His foster-brother, Kai, is not Lud’s son but simply also raised by him. Kai is actually a Saxon. No explanation is given for how or why Lud decided to raise Kai (or Arthur for that matter), although in a couple of episodes Kai’s loyalty is called into question or he is seen as a traitor by the Saxon people. Lud’s own past is not told or explained at all. Nothing is said of Arthur’s parentage. (If I missed any of these points, I plead boredom as the reason.)

None of the characters really develop as the series continues. The only character who is in any way dynamic is Mark of Cornwall, played by Brian Blessed, who at least tries to change from being the boisterous, wild, tough leader he is. The episodes he appears in are some of the best since he livens up an otherwise often quiet and dull storyline.

I do appreciate the show’s efforts for historical accuracy or at least historical atmosphere. The series was likely based in the research of the last couple of decades prior to its airing, including archeology digs at Cadbury and an effort to distance Arthur from the High Middle Ages and set him back in post-Roman Britain of the fifth and sixth centuries. Unfortunately, I think the effort to be historical ended up being demeaning to the Celts so that it seemed like they had nothing at all. Not once is a castle depicted in any episode, yet the Romans must have left behind villas, stone walls, etc. not to mention what the Britons would have built before the Romans came. We know the Britons had hill forts, but where are they? Only small villages are depicted and these only have wooden walls around them no higher than six feet tall, when they have walls at all. How could any leader protect anything in these flimsy settlements? A group of warring Celts would at least build a fort to protect themselves and their property. And the population of Britain is grossly underestimated—probably the result of the program’s low budget and small cast numbers, but even when there are battles and skirmishes, it never looks like more than twenty people are fighting one another, and not a single village shown could possibly have more than one hundred people living in it. There are no depictions of London or any other major city of the time.

One complaint I had about Merlin was that the concept of the Old Religion was never fully developed or clear, but Arthur of the Britons makes even less of an effort to consider religion or be historical about it. There are a few characters who become Christians, but it is not clear if Arthur and his people are Christian or pagan. At times, Arthur refers to “the gods” but there is a Christian cross on his shield, and when he considers marriage in the last episode he wants the “abbot” sent for. Perhaps, the television show was trying to walk a fine line when it came to religion—or was it just bad writing? I think it had to be bad writing because at least the character Rolf is shown as converting to Christianity so religion was not taboo for the series.

Some of the comments I saw online about why people liked the show had to do with how handsome Michael Gothard (Kai) was. Another compared Arthur and Kai to rock stars of the time with their haircuts. By 1970s standards, maybe these men were attractive, but rock star haircuts are hardly historical, and I was especially surprised by Rowena’s short, cropped haircut. I can’t honestly say that anyone in the program stood out as attractive looking enough to warrant a cult-following for the show.

We all have favorite television shows that when we watch them years later no longer hold their charm for us. I can only think that Arthur of the Britons is one of those and any preference for it is based in nostalgia. Despite Merlin’s faults, it survived for five seasons, long enough to have a series finale and have countless fans disappointed that it was ending. I could find no reason for why Arthur of the Britons was cancelled, but regardless, cancelled it was, so I doubt it was much of a hit when it first aired. In fact, the quality of the first season is so poor I’m surprised it had a second season, but even the improved storylines of the second season could not save it.

Those looking for a historical version of the Arthurian legend will be the most likely to enjoy this series, and it does have its moments, but despite the faults of the more recent film King Arthur, it is probably a better historical depiction of the period that also has some entertainment value. Still, we can only hope that the great historical King Arthur film or series is yet to come because we’ve had nothing but B films so far. (Even though Camelot is my favorite movie, it is not a perfect Arthurian film since it is lacking in many of the plot elements and stories, but that’s another blog.)

ITV produced several other programs in the 1950s-1970s, including The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, which I have written about on this blog previously. It is a bit more comical of a series, but far superior in its plots and its efforts. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot is a series I would watch again. I’m afraid Arthur of the Britons is not.

There is actually very little information to be found online about Arthur of the Britons. The best site appears to be at Wikipedia for those who want to learn more about the series, and all the episodes are currently available at YouTube.

Merlin remains, in my opinion, the best Arthurian television series ever made. That said, I have not seen the Prince Valiant cartoon series, which I have heard good things about and plan to watch in the near future, so stay tuned.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Merlin has ended, and unlike King Arthur, it doesn’t seem likely that it will be the once and future TV show, despite countless fans on Facebook and across the Internet trying to convince the producers to continue it.

And as much as I love this show, I’m glad it has ended gracefully, before it “jumped the shark,” before it was cancelled without an ending.

Merlin310_2289The series finale offered few surprises in my opinion, but that is because we have heard the tale of King Arthur so many times before, and despite the original elements of the series, which often seriously diverged from the legend, I doubt any viewer who knows the Arthurian legend would have been content with any other ending than Arthur sailing off to Avalon.

It’s unlikely anyone will read this blog who didn’t see the episode, so I won’t summarize the plot here, but go watch the last two episodes of the series if you haven’t already.

For me, this series had a serious amount of content that needed resolving in this final episode. The strength of this storyline throughout has been the prohibition of magic in Albion, imposed by Uther and then by Arthur, and how Merlin has successfully kept secret his identity as a sorcerer from everyone, while trying to aid others with magic and often fighting those with magic who sought to harm Arthur, most notably Morgana. The series has done a tremendous job of highlighting this tension throughout, and in the last two seasons especially, we have seen Merlin come into his own, slowly using his powers and even revealing himself to his enemies before destroying them. And despite my earlier blog about the Old Religion and magic and the inconsistencies that exist in its treatment in the series, what has mattered most to the storyline has been how Merlin reconciles his magic with his relationship with Arthur, as Arthur’s servant in greater ways than Arthur knows.

And the series reconciles this issue with great ease and class. In the final episode, Merlin appears as a sorcerer, identity unknown to all except Gaius, at the Battle of Camlann, using his power to defeat the enemy, and having everyone realize a sorcerer has saved the day for Camelot, even Arthur admitting that the sorcerer won the battle. But Merlin cannot save Arthur from being slain by Mordred. Surprisingly, Arthur lingers for a couple of days after Mordred runs him through with a sword, while when Arthur stabs Mordred, he dies immediately.

Now Merlin must figure out how to save Arthur before Morgana can find him, and because he was slain with a sword forged in the dragon’s breath, he can only be saved if brought to Avalon, a journey that requires secrecy and a couple of days’ journey, allowing Arthur and Merlin to have the discussion they have put off all these years.

Merlin, in despair, tells Arthur how upset he is that he could not save him which leads to his revelation that he has magic and is a sorcerer. The result is Arthur’s initial disbelief, then anger that he has been lied to, even wanting Merlin to leave him, and finally, Arthur’s understanding of why Merlin kept his powers a secret, and of the great help Merlin has always been to him.

I admit, at this point, when Arthur tells Merlin he has something to tell him that he never told him before, I thought the show was going to give into the “Merthur” fans and have Arthur tell Merlin he loves him. It was for me a bit of an uncomfortable moment, for the Merthur fans (those who want to see a gay relationship between Arthur and Merlin) have not been too far off—Merlin’s closeted magic can easily serve as a commentary on closeted gay people within our own society who are unappreciated and unjustly considered to be deviant—but the show gracefully skirts these undertones (which may or may not be intentional—I’ll leave it up to each viewer to decide) by having Arthur simply say, “Thank you.” And thank you is enough for Merlin, and that moment is enough to resolve the show’s greatest tension. It is a powerful moment. Perhaps one of the very best in television history.

What happens next is not so surprising. Morgana makes one last attempt to kill Arthur, but Merlin successfully kills her, slaying her with Excalibur, a dragon breath forged sword just like the one she created to kill Arthur. To some extent, I found Morgana’s death scene anti-climactic, and more disappointing for me is that Morgana and Arthur did not reconcile in the end, for in the traditional legend, it is Morgana who comes to Arthur when he is dying to take him to Avalon. Morgana truly got the short end of the stick in this show—I almost wanted her to win in the end—she’s a great character who deserved redemption of some sort and the reconciliation of the Old Religion with Camelot—but perhaps that was too much to expect, too much happiness for what is basically a tale of tragedy.

Not only does Morgana not take Arthur to Avalon, but nor are there the traditional three other queens who accompany her, and there is no Sir Bedivere to tell Arthur to throw the sword into the lake. Merlin takes on all these roles. Merlin tosses the sword back in the lake and the hand reaches up to grab it. The dragon arrives and tells Merlin not to despair for all has happened as it should and Arthur is the once and future king who will return in Albion’s hour of greatest need, and then Arthur is placed in a boat and floats off to Avalon.

As for Albion, the throne passes to Guinevere. I don’t really want to know what happens next because it will be inferior to whatever came before. I had hoped we’d learn that Guinevere was at least pregnant with Arthur’s child, but no such hint. I imagine she’ll end up marrying Sir Leon since he’s at her side proclaiming her queen.

And then we see Merlin as an old man walking along the shore by the lake, and suddenly, a bus passes, a jarring moment letting us know that Merlin still waits for Arthur’s return, but also one that makes Albion appear to be part of our real world and not a fantasy kingdom. I’ve always believed the show intentionally created a fictional world, including fictional neighboring kingdoms, so it would not be caught up in the issues of depicting a sixth century, historical Britain. So I found this modern moment jarring, as well as the references in the last few episodes to Saxons, without any explanation of who they were. Albion is not England nor Britain, yet the show ends on this odd note trying to connect the two. I’d have been fine without that final scene.

My qualms with the series overall are few, however. Long ago I stated it was the best Arthurian TV series ever made, far surpassing the short-lived 2011 Starz Camelot series that was a complete disaster, or even the fun 1950s British The Adventures of Sir Lancelot series. Is it perfect? No. There has yet to be a perfect Arthurian film or television program, but Merlin gets an A- for effort. Finally, I think Colin Morgan has proven himself to be a great actor in this series and I hope it leads to big things for him—just not another Merlin series. Please, I understand the fans’ demands, but don’t destroy Merlin with a spin-off or sequel series. Like with Gone with the Wind, we need to leave well enough alone. Let there be many other Arthurian TV shows and films and books—I hope there shall never be an end to them. Just let Merlin be the great TV show it was without degrading it. Congratulations to the writers, producers, and cast for ending it well.

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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

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With the SyFy channel’s hiatus in showing the last episodes of Season 5 of Merlin, I’ve been going through serious withdrawal, and I’m still trying to piece together just what are the details in the series about The Old Religion, magic, and the history of Albion. For that reason, I was thrilled when I discovered there were a series of novels written as tie-ins to several of the Merlin episodes. For those interested, the website for the book series is: http://www.merlin-books.co.uk/

Unfortunately, the books are very difficult to find in the United States, and many of them at Amazon are being sold for hundreds of dollars. I was able to locate a copy of Merlin: The Nightmare Begins at Amazon for a reasonable price, and I was delighted when it came in the mail to see it was a hardback which I hadn’t expected. Unfortunately, my delight ended there.

Merlin: The Nightmare Begins

Merlin: The Nightmare Begins

I am sure many fans of the series will enjoy these books, especially younger readers, but I was very disappointed. I have read movie and book tie-ins before and I know they are usually written as an afterthought and they usually don’t give more information or plot or characterization than the movie or TV show itself, but some of the reviews I read of the books in the series, not Merlin: The Nightmare Begins specifically, did say that some additional information is in the books. I admit that I didn’t re-watch the episode that ties in with this book (“The Nightmare Begins, season 2, episode 3), but nor did I find anything additional in the book that was worth mentioning. I was happy to order this volume specifically because of my interest in the series’ depiction of magic and the Old Religion, and this book details how Morgana has nightmares and leaves Camelot to seek the druids, who make her realize she is not crazy but has magic herself.

Unfortunately, the writing in the book was very dull, pedestrian, and did nothing to make the story more interesting or intriguing. In fact, halfway through reading, I took a nap. Then I woke up, thinking maybe I was just too tired to read, but the book didn’t get any better when I returned to it. It took me about three times as long to read this book as it would have to watch the episode. I’d have been better off to watch and enjoy three episodes of Merlin than to read it. Moments in the storyline that were caught in the film that contained humor, charm, action are all lacking in the retelling of this story.

Perhaps some of the other books are better. I would go so far as to read another one if I could find it at a reasonable price, but it is unlikely, as I first intended, that I will want to collect the entire series.

It’s too bad because I really love the series Merlin. I think it’s the best Arthurian TV series ever made, and it probably surpasses most if not all of the Arthurian movies, despite criticism it has received that it has little to do with the actual Arthurian legend, but its production qualities are very high in my opinion. Sadly, the book series’ production value is not up to the TV series’ standards.

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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

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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.

The Disir

The Disir

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.

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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

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In the third episode of Season 5 of Merlin – “The Death Song of Uther Pendragon” – the series takes a real shift, and although I didn’t feel the episode as complexly well-plotted as some, it did provide plenty of dramatic atmosphere and interest.

Arthur Arthur and Merlin both have key life-changing moments in this episode. The two are traveling when they come upon a group of villagers about to burn a witch. Arthur decides to order them to release the witch – something they point out would not have been done by his father, but Arthur replies that he is not his father. Despite his being in agreement with his father about forbidding magic in Albion, he is not as stringent about it.

The witch thanks him for his saving her, although it is too late for her. Before she dies, she gives him a horn that can allow him to speak with the dead. Soon after, the three year anniversary of Uther’s death approaches, causing Arthur to want to see his father again. He and Merlin then travel to the Stones of Nemeton (which look a lot like Stonehenge). Arthur blows the horn and enters through a light that appears where he speaks to his father, but the meeting is not cordial. Uther upbraids him for making commoners into knights and marrying Guinevere and destroying tradition. Then he orders Arthur to go before he his trapped in the spirit world. Unfortunately, as Arthur leaves, he looks back in his father, resulting in Uther having the ability to leave the spirit world and visit Camelot.

Uther’s ghost is a far cry from King Uther, a troublesome spirit intent on having Camelot ruled the way he used to. After doors fly open, a chandelier falls, and other strange events happen, Merlin realizes Uther is haunting the castle. Arthur is not convinced until Uther’s spirit goes after Guinevere, trapping her, throwing things at her, and trying to burn her. Fortunately, Gaius has a potion Merlin and Arthur can drink to help them defeat Uther.

In the final battle, two key things happen. First, and only after Arthur is knocked unconscious, Merlin stands up to Uther, who laughs at him as a servant boy until Merlin reveals he has magic and tells him he was always wrong about magic. I loved this scene where Colin Morgan’s eyes flare and he steps into his power (just as happened when he revealed his magic to Agrivaine last season). Arthur rejoins the battle and blows the horn to send Uther back to the spirit world. Uther tries to warn him that Merlin has magic, but the horn’s sound drowns out his words. Merlin’s secret is safe still. But, secondly, it is key that Arthur has confirmed he will not live in his father’s shadow. He tells Uther he had his chance to rule, and now it is Arthur’s turn.

Although this episode is not tied to the bigger overarching plot of the Arthur-Morgana conflict, I think it is a key scene because it shows Arthur thinking for himself and I suspect it is hinting toward the time when Merlin will be able to reveal to Arthur that he does have magic.

SyFy, in advertising this episode, made a point of talking about the bromance between Arthur and Merlin in this episode. Many fans want to believe there is some gay erotica going on here, but I think it is clearly Merlin’s loyalty to Arthur that makes him affectionate toward him. If they were not master and servant, wizard and king opposed to magic, they would be able to express themselves more clearly to one another, but all the tension and magic would be lost. It’s so much more fun watching Arthur hit Merlin and then claim it’s horseplay.

Bring on the last 10 episodes of the series. I will be watching. Who knows? Maybe this time the story of Camelot will have a happy ending.

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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

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