A television miniseries released in 1998 that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizardMerlin, starring Sam Neill in the title role, Miranda Richardson as the antagonist Queen Mab, Martin Short as her henchman Frik and Helena Bonham-Carter as Morgan le Fay.The story covers not only the rise and fall of Camelot, but the phase in the legendary history in Britain that precedes it. Unlike the traditional version where he suffers from Mentor Occupational Hazard, Merlin stays active throughout the entire reign of King Arthur, with some details altered to fit the story more from his point of view.The series is also influenced by other Celtic/European legends and folklore. It introduces Queen Mab, a fairy first attested in Romeo and Juliet, as the leader of The Fair Folk and the Big Bad of the Arthurian legend who manipulates traditional villains Morgan le Fay and Mordred. Other magical creatures like gnomes, griffins and even a talking mountain appear.The series was followed by a novelization in the form of a trilogy in 1999. In 2006 it received a sequel, Merlin's Apprentice, which had less to do with traditional Arthurian legend, had some Continuity Snarls and was not as popular as the first movie.Not related to the 2008 series of the same name.
This series contains examples of:
Absurdly Sharp Blade: Excalibur. So sharp that just parrying a regular sword will cut the lesser weapon in two, which makes you wonder what Mordred's axe was made of/how heavily enchanted it was.
According to the novelization, the axe was a form of the black sword Caliban, an Artifact of Doom that Mab helped Mordred retrieve, which shapeshifted to become a weapon more suitable to Mordred's desires and is an Absurdly Sharp Axe.
Acting for Two: Miranda Richardson plays both Mab and her sister, the Lady of the Lake.
Adaptation Explanation Extrication: Several scenes were deleted for the VHS version. Among them, a description of the workings of magic. This makes it difficult to understand Frik's later comment about Merlin never progressing past being a Hand Wizard. (In case you were wondering, the first level is magic via incantation, the second level is magic via hand gesture, and the third level is magic via thought alone.)
Back in for the DVD, thankfully.
Adaptational Villainy: The few references to Queen Mab in English literature make her out to a benevolent fairy queen. Here, she's a dark pagan goddess (the counterpart of the good pagan goddess the Lady of the Lake).
Alas, Poor Villain: It's a bit hard not to feel for Queen Mab as she fades from existence along with the last of the world's magic and the Old Ways, crying out for Merlin and Frik to look at her, rasping that she loves Merlin as a son while her voice grows increasingly thin and hoarse.
Ambition Is Evil: Morgan le Fay is entirely motivated by getting herself closer to the throne.
Anachronism Stew: The setting is closer to the period of the late Roman Empire than most adaptations of the legend, with Iron Age costumes, armor and weapons. However, the terms "knight" and "Sir" are still used.
The setting is called "England" too early, as the term came into being after the Anglo-Saxons were established as the dominant power in the British Isles instead of the Britons or Celts (now the Welsh). The Saxons are here only stated to be recent arrivals.
Normandy is also mentioned as the place where Uther gathers his armies against Vortigern. The area gained this name only after year 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo was granted the lands to protect them from the rest of the marauding Norsemen.
That could just be Translation Convention, though. Almost all of the place names should really be different, and they wouldn't be speaking modern English with American accents either. Or an Antipodean accent, as in the case of Sam Neill.
Some of Frik's disguises seem to reflect the future; for example, his dashing swashbuckler-character wears 18th-century clothes and wields a smallsword (yes, a smallsword, not "a small sword") that isn't going to be invented in centuries. But then, Mab does mention that the fairykind sometimes see into the future.
One of the doctors/astrologers mentions the planet Uranus which wasn't discovered until 1781.
Awesome Moment of Crowning: Vortigern makes a horrible subversion early on, by beheading King Constant, picking up the crown and putting it on his own head while smiling in a prideful, self-satisfied way as his soldiers cheer. Uther later delivers a more true moment.
Curiously averted with Arthur who is not actually crowned onscreen - he draws Excalibur from the stone, Merlin presents him to the lords, then the film cuts to gathering armies because some lords have challenged him for the throne. But Arthur averts a war by giving their leader Excalibur to strike him down if he can. The rebel leader feels the magic of the sword and declares Arthur to be the true king.
Vortigern apparently (and amusingly appropriately) didn't seem to think his through:
Vortigern: You're too slow, like my enemies. They think before they act. I act before I think! That is my advantage!
The Rock of Ages does better:
The Rock of Ages: I cannot die. I am the Rock of Ages. I will live forever...on the edge of dreams...
Mordred, in typically chilling fashion.
Mordred: I'm sorry, Father, but I'm going to destroy you. And this time, your pet wizard won't save you.
Badass Normal: Arthur, Uther, Vortigern, Lancelot, Frik after he loses his powers. Special mention also goes to Ambrosia, who declares that if Mab harms Merlin in any way, "Magic or no magic, I'll have her guts for my bootlaces." Arthur in particular goes up against Mordred, a bonafide Super Soldier, and still manages to handily defeat him, only getting killed in the process because he hesitates to land the final strike.
Blood Oath: Merlin swears not to use his powers except to defeat Queen Mab. To ratchet up the significance, he cuts his hand and lets the blood drip to the ground, in front of Ambrosia's grave, while swearing, "On Ambrosia's grave, and on the grave of my mother." It takes several years, but eventually Mab figures out a way to make him break his oath...
Morgan le Fay is a composite of both the legendary sorceress and Morgause, Morgan's sister and the true mother of Mordred in the Arthurian Cycle. Every one of Morgan's defining aspects in Medieval tradition (her healing powers, her magical studies under Merlin, her unhappy marriage to King Urien and the resulting lovers she takes from among the knights of Camelot, her rule over Avalon and her taking of Arthur there after the Battle of Camlann) are gone. The character is really Morgause in all but name.
Lancelot's wife Elaine also counts, as she has traits of two women from Arthurian Mythology who were both named Elaine. On the one hand, she's Lancelot's wife (Elaine of Astolat) and on the other, she's given the fate of the other Elaine (the Lady of Shalott) what with her vision of Lancelot in a magic mirror and her body floating past Camelot on a funeral barge.
Cruel Mercy: A case where it is the villain doing it to a much less evil character. Mab takes Frik's magic, leaving him to wander the world as a powerless gnome, with his true love dead, having nothing but his misery and pain, unable to do anything about it. When asked why she didn't kill him, she responds, "Because that's what he wanted me to do."
This backfires on her, though. Frik takes up arms against Mordred and outlives her and the rest of the Old Peoples.
Damsel in Distress: Nimue, several times. Inverted in one occasion where she gets Merlin out of Vortigern's prison with only persuasiveness and the use of her political leverage, while being kept as a hostage herself.
Dialogue Reversal: Played for a laugh. Merlin is asked by Morgan Le Fay, eight years old at the time, to show her a magical effect. He performs a coin-behind-the-ear trick. Morgan Le Faye says it isn't real magic, which it usually wouldn't be, and Merlin challenges her to perform it. When she is successful, Merlin's response to her success is to admit: "you're right, anyone could do it." Interestingly, calling Merlin's coin "just a trick" is itself a Meaningful Echo of his explanation of the moon trick to Nimue.
Dirty Coward: Lailoken, Vortigern's soothsayer. Somewhat justified in that he has seen many of Vortigern's previous soothsayers executed.
Enemy Mine: When Vortigern allies with Mab, Merlin figures that the enemy of the friend of his enemy is his friend, and thus allies himself with Uther, admitting upfront to Uther that this is his reason for joining him.
Enfant Terrible: Mordred, as a young boy, attempts to throw a knife at Merlin. According to Morgan, it's his way of demanding attention.
Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Duke of Cornwall is referred to simply as "Cornwall." In the actual mythology, his name was given as Gorlois or Hoel.
Excalibur in the Stone: Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone are portrayed as the same weapon, though both the myth of it being given by a Lady of the Lake and Arthur pulling it from the stone are true. Merlin was given the sword by the Lady of the Lake first, and later plunged it into the Rock of Ages to keep it from Uther, where Arthur eventually drew it from.
Four Element Ensemble: The novelization explicitly says that there are four elemental beings: Mab (Air), The Lady of the Lake (Water), the Rock of Ages (Earth) and the Great Dragon (Fire).
Freeze-Frame Bonus: If you slow down the video during the flashing transition between the scene where Merlin confronts Arthur about Morgan and the one where Mab meets Nimue in Avalon, you will see three frames of Mab leaving Camelot after her and Frik's celebratory dance there and just one of Frik sitting alone in the castle afterwards looking sad. (Presumably because he has just handed over Morgan to Arthur.)
Functional Magic: Explained quite a bit more in the novelizations than in the movie.
The Hecate Sisters: Though not mentioned in the series, the novelization repeatedly brings up the triple nature of the Celtic goddesses, going so far as to mention that Mab is the only remaining aspect of a triad that was made up of Maiden, Mother and Warrior.
And when Merlin attempts to make contact with the Maiden aspect, Mab is no longer able to hear, so he instead reaches Nimue. This is before he meets Nimue in person.
Also present in the women in Merlin's life, Nimue being the Maiden, Elissa the Mother and Ambrosia the Crone.
Heel-Face Turn: Nimue's father turns against Vortigern and joins Uther when Vortigern attempts to have Nimue sacrificed.
Lord Lot eventually sees the error of his ways and acknowledges Arthur as king.
Humans Are Flawed: A recurring theme. Merlin comments about how his largest problem with judging men was that he always expected too much from them and always saw the good in them without seeing the bad. Later, the Lady of the Lake makes a short speech to Merlin after he learned that he picked the wrong person to be the guardian of Camelot. "It's human to make mistakes, Merlin, and part of you is human...the best part."
Humans Are Bastards: When Merlin asks the Rock of Ages to hold Excalibur "until a good man comes to take it from you," the Mountain King says, "Then I will be holding it forever...if not longer."
Hypocritical Humor: The Christian ban on killing unless it's a "holy cause", at least according to Vortigern and his court.
"How very convenient, they kill when it suits them."
If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him: As Vortigern kills King Constant and takes his crown in the prologue, Merlin makes some commentary to this general meaning. "One tyrant smoothly passed the crown to another, even worse."
Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Subverted, as no one is without their faults and entirely pure. When the Lady of the Lake tells Merlin that he needs to find "a man pure in heart" to protect the throne from Mordred, he quips, "I've tried to find him before. He doesn't exist."
It turns out this was Galahad, who had no part in the movie whatsoever. The novelization says he led the rebuilding after the war and found the Grail.
Love Hurts: Merlin says it best: "Oh, they hurt, memories. Memories of love, they hurt."
Love Triangle: The traditional one between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere also involves Elaine, who is in a relationship with Lancelot when he is first introduced and eventually dies of heartbreak as a result of his relationship with Guinevere.
Merlin and Nimue: Here, of all places, this trope is subverted and inverted. Aside from demonstrating a few illusions that he insists are "tricks," Merlin doesn't teach Nimue any magic, and neither of them betrays the other. Then, towards the end, Nimue is the one who ends up trapped by magic in a cave.
Although she does use his love for her to entrap him. At the duress of Mab, yeah, but it's the thought that counts.
Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Mab intended to create a powerful wizard who would lead the people back to the Old Ways. What she does is create a powerful wizard who hates her and will do everything he can to destroy the Old Ways.
Not So Different: Mab tells Merlin that she is fighting and causing evil because she must save her people, and the ends justify the means. Merlin later gives the same excuse after helping Uther seduce Igraine, causing Sir Rupert to grumble, "Now, where have I heard that before?"
Our Gryphons Are Different: Their bodies resemble those of dogs and their wings are more like the "patagium" of flying squirrels. Their weakness is bees.
Out-Gambitted: Merlin completely pulls the rug out from under Vortigern when he hears exactly what he is planning, and then brings the knowledge of his plans to Uther, allowing the latter to prepare for the attack and win the coming battle handily.
The Power of Love: As pointed out by Ambrosia, this is one of the attributes that Mab no longer possesses, having presumably lost it in her struggle to survive. Merlin also explicitly states that magic cannot create love.
Prophecy Twist: Merlin takes what the Lady of the Lake says about finding the right man on a certain island a bit too literally.
Put on a Bus: Lancelot and Guinevere disappear from the story after he carries her away from Camelot. Merlin acknowledges this.
Rage Against the Heavens: Merlin gets an epic rant against Mab after the deaths of his mother and Ambrosia and the scarring of Nimue, and then again right after Arthur is born. Though he's addressing Mab, the feel of both scenes, on the beach with the tide coming in the first time and on a rocky bluff in the middle of a rainstorm the second time, seems to specifically invoke this. Of course, given that Mab is a FeyGoddess and Merlin very much hopes to destroy her religion and utterly erase her from existence, it's pretty literal as well.
Religion of Evil: By the time the story starts, the Old Ways have been reduced to this, thanks to Mab's desperation and loss of touch with the world; it's pretty outright stated by Ambrosia that even Mab used to be kinder when she was more prosperous.
Scars Are Forever: Nimue's disfiguring scar cannot be healed, even by Merlin's magic, though Mab is able to make it vanish temporarily. Subverted right at the end, when Merlin finally manages to heal it and simultaneously restore both their youth.
Shoot the Dog: Merlin assisting Uther in seducing Igraine with his magic.
Smooch of Victory: Merlin gets this from Nimue twice. The first time, it's his "reward" for giving her and her party directions. The second time, it's part of the aforementioned Rescue Romance. Nimue's companions find it amusing, and Nimue herself lampshades it the second time.
Turn Out Like His Father: Subverted. Mab claims that Arthur is damned because of his father's sins, that his reign will only bring bloodshed. However, Arthur proves to be a much better man and ruler than Uther was. Incidentally, Uther was also a much better and more merciful ruler than his father, King Constant, was. Well, at first, anyway.
The Unchosen One: Deconstructed. Merlin recruits Lancelot, believing him to be the perfect knight who will be best fit to guard the throne while Arthur is away. However, it turns out, Merlin picked the wrong knight, and it was actually Lancelot's son Galahad who would have been the perfect knight, with the result that Lancelot only makes things worse with his adulterous relationship with Guinevere. Oops.
Unreliable Narrator: According to Frik, and by Merlin's own admission, a few things were omitted from the story. Merlin claims he didn't think anyone would believe it if they heard it the way it really happened.
Some observers have used this theory to allow the sequel Merlain's Apprentice to fit into continuity. Whether this is Fan Wank or not is open to interpretation.
Unless Merlin conveniently left out the part where he got his head chopped off and died, I don't think even that can make Merlin's Apprentice fit continuity.
Villainous Valour: Vortigern very nearly wins the war through the sheer audacity of his winter attack and is always shown leading from the very front. He also refuses Mab's mystical protection, although Merlin dismisses that as stubborn pride.
William Telling: The first we see of Mordred is him practicing archery with a group of servants standing with apples on their heads. "If you gentleman don't stop trembling, I might miss and kill you all!"
Wizard Beard: Merlin, in the present when he is old. Averted through most of the series.
Wizard Duel: The climactic final battle between Merlin and Mab.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Mab pretty much says this twice, first for Merlin's mother Elissa, then again for Morgan le Fay. She lets the former die, and kills the latter directly. Apparently, all she needed them for was to give birth to the child she wanted.
You Killed My Father: Thanks to her ruthless policies, Mab manages to give Merlin three separate excuses to go against her, all relating to her harming the people he loves.