The first time Merlin appeared in the Netflix series Cursed, I thought I had found a characterization of him that I could hate more than T. H. White’s. Drunk and arrogant and ready to betray others, I would have turned it off if the main female character had not been so intriguing. My dislike of White’s Merlin is quite opposite: he is silly much of the time, and I do not buy the idea of a person living backwards.
Cursed’s Merlin was redeemed for me when he said, “Why can’t I die?” His actions also become gallant, but it is the understanding that eternal life is impossible to live that made him sympathetic in my eyes. White almost redeems his Merlin for me when he sends Arthur into an ant colony to teach him about war.
My favorite Merlin remains Mary Stewart’s. The child Merlin in The Crystal Cave is believable, and the man he grows into makes normal mistakes while seeking a vision for his land. The landscape, culture, and mythology are well drawn. Merlin’s magic and visions make sense in the context Stewart describes.
It is, I think, the question of Merlin’s magic that makes it so hard to do this character well. The trouble is that the world of his story is already given. The writer does not have free rein. When building a magical fantasy world from scratch, authors have freedom to create their magical system and establish its relationship to non-magical society.
The Camelot stories, however, are well established. The kings were Uther and then Arthur. The pattern of the court varies depending on whether the date is in the fifth century or the twelfth, but once the era is chosen for a retelling, we know a lot about the history, mythology, and culture of that time. The author has to work with what is known. And, therefore, Merlin’s magic has to fit the era and the given world.
In the British television show Merlin, the fact that Christian leaders in Britain opposed all practices that the hierarchy thought of as “pagan” becomes crucial. Uther has outlawed magic. As a result, Merlin has to hide his power while using it to protect Arthur.
The conflict between older Celtic and Druidic mythology with rising Christianity also shapes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. She makes “Merlin” a title rather than a name and calls her druid harper Taliesin. He is a revered old man who fathered several of the significant characters. She also includes, as Stewart did, another dimension of the legends which suggests that Merlin went mad later in his life.
While Bradley conflates the characters of Taliesin and Merlin, I keep them separate in my Cup, Sword, and Stone trilogy. In my version of this tale, Merlin is a Druid who came to possess the grail, a vision stone that had belonged to the ancient goddess Cailleach. This he passes to Taliesin when the harper accompanies Lancelot home to France to defend his land from invaders. My novel Shattered: When Winds Blast tells of the aid that the grail gave to Taliesin and Lancelot and the need to eventually hide the stone. Interwoven with that tale is the story of three Canadian youth given the task of finding the grail and returning it before Cailleach unleashes her wrath and brings winter in August.
Someday I may return to Merlin’s story and Camelot and try my hand at constructing a character and landscape that make sense. But given how hard it is, I may not risk more than his cameo appearance in Riven: When Storms Collide and Shattered: When Winds Blast.