While I’m wrapping up a couple of books, let’s take a detour to an interesting chapter in Arthurian fiction, the 1998 miniseries Merlin. I saw this when it originally aired on NBC all those years ago, and it was my introduction to both Helena Bonham Carter and Lena Headey. For about a five year period at the dawn of the millennia the basic networks were really into fantasy and fairytale reimagining miniseries (I cannot reveal the amount of times thirteen year old me watched The 10th Kingdom… and that was over six hours).
Merlin the series starts right from the jump introducing its own lore of Merlin’s birth. Queen Mab, leader of the fairies and sister to the Lady of the Lake, is fearful that the new religion (Christianity) will overtake the old (paganism) and they will disappear due to being forgotten. Mab creates Merlin, in hopes that he will be the magical prophet for the ‘old ways’.
Queen Mab is a fairy that is first mentioned in Romeo and Juliet and since then she’s been bobbing and weaving all-through literature for centuries. This series is the first time that Mab has been connected to the King Arthur legends. There’s always been room to play with Merlin’s origins, as some legends have him as the son of an incubus and a mortal woman. I think replacing this with a fairy queen was a smart choice, especially since Merlin is supposed to be the last representative of the old ways.
Merlin grows up among humans and is called away to learn magic in his teens. Here we get another deviation from the lore as Merlin really doesn’t like magic. As he begins to hate Mab more, his disdain for magic grows to the point where he rejects Mab’s destiny for him and tries not to use magic. There’s a time jump and the rest of the story hits many of the same notes as other Arthur tales.
Sam Neill’s Merlin is very different from other iterations and his relationship with magic. Not only is this version ambivalent towards it, he’s also only a “hand wizard” (his magical ability is limited) and he doesn’t really see the future… Except for the one time he does with King Vortigern because that sequence is based upon literature and I guess they didn’t want to change it too much? It just seems out of nowhere in this version.
Merlin is a miniseries that had good ideas and themes but they only touch the surface. Here’s two examples:
When Merlin is being taught magic he is told that there are three levels. First you learn incantations, the next level is creating magic by hand, and the third, the most powerful, is just using your mind. Merlin is always at the second level. Throughout the series his power keeps coming up short against Mab. I thought this was going to be his drive to ‘go to the next level’, so he can defeat Mab. Nope.
The second is Merlin’s relationship to Mab and how that shapes his relationship to Arthur. Mab is the domineering parent who planned out their child’s future without their input. It’s no surprise that Merlin rebels. After Merlin helps Uther gain the throne Merlin is distraught when he turns out to be pretty rotten. Merlin becomes obsessed with creating the perfect noble king. Merlin then in turn does to Arthur what Mab did to him. Since Arthur is bound to be king by blood he doesn’t really have a means to rebel like Merlin did.
I think this could’ve been so interesting, to delve into this relationship dynamic with Merlin and Arthur but alas, the audience is given nothing except a bland-toast Arthur. They never confront the fact that Merlin repeats Mab’s same mistakes with him.
There’s some elements that date it, notably the CGI and special effects, along with Martin Short and his brand of humor. Short plays’ Frik, Mab’s minion who teaches Merlin magic and is able to shape shift. Could’ve done without some of it, especially when Short does an awful Chinese impression for a hot second (I, out loud, said ‘oh nooooo’). That’s probably the cringiest moment throughout.
I think people’s nostalgia is going to measure their enjoyment of this miniseries. I didn’t dislike Merlin and it was very interesting revisiting and picking out different elements I didn’t notice before, good and bad. I don’t know if I would recommend this to someone who has never seen it. Not unless you’re a hardcore King Arthur fan.