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Series / Merlin (1998)

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Merlin is a television miniseries released in 1998 that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizard Merlin, starring Sam Neill in the title role, Miranda Richardson as the antagonist Queen Mab, Martin Short as her henchman Frik, Isabella Rossellini as Nimue 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, besides the source material.

Provides 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, Mordred's 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.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Vortigern has a small chuckle after Merlin encourages him not to worry about lacking patience when the king possesses so few other virtues.
  • 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 as a benevolent fairy queen. Here, she is a dark pagan goddess (the counterpart of the good pagan goddess, the Lady of the Lake). It is justified though, as Mab is driven to using unscrupulous means to try and save herself and the other Fair Folk. Ambrosia even mentions that Mab used to be loving and benevolent, but that her desire to survive has made her cold and without love in her heart.
    • Also King Constant, when he appears at all, is usually a good king in Arthurian stories.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • It is 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.
    • Morgan le Fay as well. Sure, she seduced Arthur and concieved Mordred, but she had been grievously wronged by Merlin and Uther, and really was just a lonely, miserable girl underneath it all.
  • All Myths Are True: In addition to the usual Arthurian mythos, more than the usual amount of Celtic folklore is mixed in, mostly in the form of Queen Mab.
  • All There in the Manual: The novelizations; one big explanation exclusive to them is that the version of the story Merlin tells doesn't have Mab in it (which is what Frik is commenting on at the end), which helps resolve the apparent contradiction that Merlin is actively trying to get everyone to forget about her telling stories about her.
  • 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.
  • An Axe to Grind: Mordred.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Mordred to Arthur. He's also quite dismissive to his mother.
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end Merlin, Nimue and Frik are pretty much the only characters left standing.
  • Apologetic Attacker: "I'm sorry, Mordred", Arthur gasps during the final battle, seemingly apologizing not only for the wound he's about to inflict, but for all his mistakes that led them to this point.
  • Arcadia: Merlin and Arthur's childhood homes, and the dream-like sanctuary created for Nimue and Merlin by Mab appear to be the forest version of this - a small cottage with plentiful friendly animals all around, allowing a simple, peaceful life at home with nature.
  • Archnemesis Dad: Lot to Gawain, temporarily.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Mordred.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Early on, a thrown Saxon axe is seen, remaining level and upright as it travels through the air.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Vortigern may be aging, but he is still a deadly force on the battlefield as the king.
  • 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 - although it too is undercut by Merlin's voiceover, and it is when he first sees and lusts for Igraine.
    • Curiously averted with Arthur who is not actually crowned onscreen, but has an Awesome Moment of Recognition instead - 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, leading to cheers and embraces all around.
  • Bad Boss: Vortigern has killed several soothsayers and architects for the problems constructing his castle. When he dismisses the current set after Merlin points out the real problem (an underground river undermining the foundation) they make a run for it before he changes his mind.
  • Badass Baritone: The Rock of Ages, to be expected when voiced by James Earl Jones.
  • Badass Boast
    • 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.
    • Merlin even manages to get one in.
      Merlin: I'll kill you any way I can Vortigern...but I will kill 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.
  • Bastard Bastard: Mordred, so very much.
  • Battle-Halting Duel: It's not really much of a duel, but when Merlin and Vortigern face off and Merlin splits the lake ice with Excalibur, sending Vortigern to a frozen, watery grave, it certainly catches everyone's attention. Some combatants literally pause in mid-swing to stare at what just happened.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Very, very strongly averted when Nimue is disfigured with an enormous scar across her face that Merlin cannot heal, after narrowly escaping a dragon. Ouch.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The Lady of the Lake accepts her impending doom because "It's fate."
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: A villainous example. Morgan le Fay converts to the Old Ways simply because they were the only people ever to show her kindness.
  • Bed Trick: Arthur and Mordred are both conceived in this way.
  • Beta Couple: Frik and Morgan le Fay.
  • Big "NO!": Mab lets out a pretty epic "Morrrrdreeeeed!!!" when Arthur deals him a fatal wound, echoing magically throughout her immense cavern, complete with dramatic zoom.
  • Bishōnen: Mordred is a rare live-action example.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mab and Mordred are defeated, Merlin and Nimue get to spend the rest of their days together but Arthur is still killed in battle.
  • Blood for Mortar: An example from No Man of Woman Born; Vortigern consults a soothsayer to find out why his castle keeps falling. The Soothsayer (taking false information from Mab) tells him to mix the blood of a man with no mortal father into his mortar and the castle will stand. Merlin, who was the only candidate found, knows that there's a spring under the castle, so he's basically building on water.
  • 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...
  • Body to Jewel: Mab's crystal tear which she gives to Vortigern to protect him in battle. It doesn't help.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Intentionally pulled by Morgan le Fay, who seduces her half-brother Arthur in the guise of a Celtic queen, with the encouragement of Mab and Frik.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Frik is stripped of his magic when he turns on Mab.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Ambrosia pulls this on Mab, despite being seriously ill at the time. Mab does not take kindly to it.
    Mab: Where's Merlin?
    Ambrosia: You've lost him! Well, I must say that's typical. You've been sliding down the ladder of success so quickly these last few years, you must have splinters in your backside! [Mab furiously uses her magic to make Ambrosia's medicinal drink scalding hot]
    Mab: Don't provoke me, Ambrosia! I'm in no mood for your jibes!
  • Canon Foreigner: Roots in literature aside, Mab is otherwise a completely original creation for the film.
  • Carry a Big Stick: Frik wields a fairly hefty club at the battle of Camlann; he is briefly seen smashing in the head of one of Mordred's knights with it.
  • Casting Gag: Guinevere's father is played by Nicholas Clay, who was Lancelot in Excalibur.
  • The Chessmaster:
  • Chekhov's Skill: "I think I have one last trick."
  • The Chosen One: Arthur and Galahad.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: If people stop believing in magic, fairies and magical beings, they can no longer affect you.
  • Composite Character:
    • 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 Corbenic) 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.
  • Cool Horse: Sir Rupert, a talking horse that Merlin uses as a mount for most of the story. He's still alive by the Distant Finale.
  • Cool Old Guy: The Rock of Ages, a pagan elemental deity inexplicably named after an 18th century Christian hymn.
  • Cool Sword: Excalibur, naturally. Absurdly sharp and blessed by the Lady of the Lake.
  • Court Mage: Merlin. Mordred derisively refers to him as Arthur's "pet wizard".
  • Covers Always Lie: Oddly, the sword on the DVD box cover doesn't resemble Excalibur at all, though viewers will probably assume it is that.
  • 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Vortigern vs. Merlin.
  • 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.
  • Dark Action Girl: Mab largely avoids taking part in combat but when Merlin comes to confront her she puts up a damn good fight.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ambrosia. Merlin, Frik and Mordred also get in on it at times.
  • Decapitated Army: Vortigern's army surrenders and fighting stops after their king is killed. Of course, he was killed by a freakin' wizard using a magical sword to seal him under the surface of a frozen lake.
  • Decomposite Character: Nimue and the Lady of the Lake are two different people here.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Several examples. Merlin has no father, as his mother Elissa was impregnated magically by Mab. Elissa dies in childbirth, and Merlin's adoptive mother Ambrosia is later killed by Mab. Arthur's father Uther commits descends into madness and suicide, but not before killing Morgan Le Fay's father Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall.
  • Death by Childbirth: Merlin's mother Elissa.
  • Demoted to Extra: Galahad, Gawain. The former is a child during the story and, as a result, only appears briefly and is left at home when Lancelot goes to court.
  • 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.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: One of Frik's many quirks.
    I'll tell you from personal experience that elves are so short, that when it rains...they're the last to know. [he and Morgan burst out laughing] Because of their size, you see...
    • When Mab and Frik come crashing through the entrance to Tintagel:
    Mab: We thought we'd come in the traditional way...through the door.
    Merlin: It's traditional to open it first.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Merlin's ability to tell the future comes in either visions or in dreams.
  • Driven to Villainy: The decline of the Old Ways has forced Mab to abandon her compassion in the desperate struggle to preserve herself and her people.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending Merlin and Nimue spend years thinking the other to be dead, and almost everyone else is dead, but they are eventually reunited. Merlin uses the last of his magic to restore their youth, allowing them to spend the rest of their lives together.
  • 11th-Hour Ranger: Frik accompanies Merlin to confront Mab at the end.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: For all her flaws, Mab does show some for love Merlin, however twisted. In a private confrontation with Nimue, a frustrated Mab makes it clear that she both loves and hates the son she created. A more straightforward example being her relationship with Mordred who becomes her next surrogate son and one that happily does as she wishes, she shows genuine grief at his death.
  • 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.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: It takes a while for Mab to realise that Merlin will never fulfil the destiny she'd planned for him. She even admits at a late juncture that she had, despite everything, held out hope that Merlin would come around and reconcile with her. Considering all the damage she'd done to him and Nimue by this point, not to mention Merlin telling her, to her face, that he would stop at nothing to destroy her for it, it was never on the cards.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mab. She's essentially the matriarch of the "family" consisting of her, Frik, Morgan le Fay, and Mordred.
  • Evil Sounds Raspy: Mab has a low, raspy voice in contrast to the Lady of the Lake's smoother tones.
  • Evil Twin: Miranda Richardson is Acting for Two as both Queen Mab and her sister, the Lady of the Lake.
  • 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.
  • Excessive Evil Eyeshadow: Mab wears a lot of heavy makeup.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Lord Lot.
  • Failed a Spot Check: The structural problems in Vortigern's castle are caused by a stream under the building site that you can clearly see from the base camp. Somehow nobody working on the project noticed this until Merlin came around and spotted it immediately.
  • The Fair Folk: The Fey, of whom Mab is the queen.
  • Fatal Flaw: For Vortigern, it's his Pride. For Uther, it's Lust.
  • Faux Affably Evil: As an adult, Mordred is just dripping with glib charm and hammy speeches.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Vortigern takes this approach both to the Christian God and magic, despite the abundant evidence of the supernatural, and an actual pagan god, staring him in the face. Although it's not that he doesn't believe in them, he just doesn't ''care'' about either.
  • For the Evulz:
    • The only time Mab does something for this reason is when she shows Elaine that Lancelot is committing adultery against her with Guinevere. Frik comments on it, earning a physical rebuke despite Mab admitting to it.
    Mab: [talking to Mordred] I've made sure Elaine knows that Lancelot and Guinevere are lovers!
    Frik: Isn't that rather... unworthy of us?
    Mab: Yes, it is unworthy...but I don't like to be told, Frik!
    • Any happiness Mordred is seen having on-screen relates to the misery of others.
  • Fountain of Youth: One of Merlin's explicit powers.
  • 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.
  • Genius Bruiser: Merlin
  • Gilded Cage: Vortigern keeps Nimue in one to make sure her father stays loyal to him.
  • Glamour Failure: Uther's magical disguise doesn't affect Morgan, and she realizes who he is almost immediately.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: Queen Mab's main motivation. If the old faith continues to decline, she and the rest of her people will die.
  • Goth: While not technically one, Mab's appearance is very much reminiscent of Morticia Addams.
  • Green Thumb: The first magic that Merlin uses, to pull Nimue out of a mud hole. He later uses the same power again to defeat a dragon!
  • Guile Hero: Merlin. Nimue also gets into it, managing to convince Vortigern to release Merlin, while being kept as a hostage herself.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: King Vortigern.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Merlin
  • Has Two Mommies: Merlin. Three, counting Ambrosia.
  • 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.
    • Frik turns against Mab after she kills Morgan.
  • Heroic Bastard: Arthur.
  • Heroic BSoD: Merlin, after he loses Nimue and Arthur. He gets better shortly after.
  • Hot-Blooded: Mordred
  • 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."
    • 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." Arthur manages to impress him enough to take it, many years later.
  • 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."
    • When young Merlin is given a vision of old Merlin, the older version advises him to not start giving advice and immediately starts chuckling at his own joke. Although given all that would come later he probably should have listened...
  • 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."
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Mab
  • 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 only appears briefly as a child. The epilogue and novelization say he led the rebuilding after the war and found the Grail.
  • I'm a Soothsayer, Not an Architect
  • Instant Oracle: Just Add Water!: The Lady of the Lake.
  • Ironic Echo: A couple between generations of kings:
    • King Constance is introduced with the line "Kill the prisoners!," emphasizing his madness. Uther utters the same line after becoming corrupt and losing Merlin's trust and aid.
    • When Merlin tells Uther his selfish lust will lead to war, Uther confidently tells him "so be it, I have Excalibur" - prompting Merlin to take it away and drive it into The Stone. As Merlin leaves Uther's son King Arthur while he is preparing for another war, Arthur hopefully tells him not to worry; "I've still got Excalibur". Merlin's only response is to blink and walk away.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: None of Mordred's accusations of Arthur's hypocrisy are wrong, but are definitely made just to stir up unrest instead of making any kind of moral point.
  • Just Ignore It: How Mab is defeated.
  • Kick the Dog: All of the villains have their moments.
  • Killed Off for Real: Elissa, Ambrosia, Vortigern, Uther, Elaine, the duke of Cornwall, Morgan le Fay, Lord Lot, Arthur, Mordred, Mab.
  • Knight Templar: Mab. According to the novelizations, King Constant was one during his reign.
  • Lady of Black Magic: Mab to a tee: the elegant goth aesthetic and the most powerful magic user in the series. Morgan has ambitions of being this but never even gets close.
  • Last Kiss: Between Frik and Morgan le Fay.
  • Last of His Kind: Merlin, as he lampshades himself, is the last of the wizards.
  • Like a Son to Me: Merlin sees Arthur this way.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Lancelot. Mordred also looks like this, or at least he would if he wasn't scowling or smirking all the time; he acts more like he has Barbarian Long Hair.
  • 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.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Merlin summons one during the final battle against Mab. The shield is simple and sturdy; the summoning is whip-fast and looks awesome.
  • Luke, You Are My Father: Mordred, when he shows up in Camelot.
  • Lust: Uther's lust for Igraine is a rather extreme case. Merlin puts it best. "Hundreds are dead because you have an itch."
  • Magical Gesture: Used by intermediate wizards, called hand wizards. Merlin never progresses beyond this level and continues to use gestures to cast his spells.
  • Magical Incantation: A beginner's stage of magic use, before they move on to being hand wizards.
  • Magic Knight: Merlin isn't just a spell caster, but can also kick ass with a sword, as proven when he wields Excalibur.
  • Magic Land: The Land of Magic.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: Mab does this when Ambrosia refuses to send Merlin back to her. Ambrosia was already sick and dying and this is enough to finish her off. The novelizations aptly mentioned that Mab was the inspiration for the banshee.
  • Making a Splash: Merlin puts this power to great use. Even just a little strengthening of a waterfall can work wonders.
  • Mama Bear: Ambrosia. Merlin describes her as being "like a tiger" in protecting him.
    Ambrosia: And you can tell Her Royal High and Mighty Queen Mab that magic or no magic, if she harms you in any way, I'll have her guts for my boot laces.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mab, Frik, Morgan.
  • Master of Illusion: One of the most frequently used spells in the series. Frik uses them to make himself and Morgan Le Fay look beautiful, while Mab creates an illusory world to trap Nimue and Merlin in.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Uther and Guinevere are both immediately taken with the paramours that will prove their undoing, but it's worth noting that Mab has a hand in each incident. Was it purely their lust that damned them, or might they have kept it in check without Mab's supernatural influence stoking the fire? Uther in particular is so madly bewitched by Igraine that one is left to wonder. But then, madness ''is'' in his blood...
  • The Mentor: Merlin becomes this for Arthur.
  • 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 out of malice, although she does use his love for her to entrap him. At the duress of Mab, yeah, but it's the thought that counts. Then, towards the end, Nimue is the one who ends up trapped by magic in a cave. Finally, an aged Merlin comes back to Nimue and uses the last of his magic to restore their youth so they can live happily ever after.
  • Mirror Character: 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?"
  • Monster-Shaped Mountain: The Rock of Ages is a sentient mountain resembling a man lying half-buried in the ground. Merlin asks it to hold Excalibur until a worthy wielder appears.
  • Mundane Utility: Vortigern demands some. What good is a soothsayer if he can't tell you why your tower keeps falling down?
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: As part of his Face–Heel Turn, King Uther has the Duke of Cornwall killed in order to claim his wife.
  • Mutual Kill: Arthur and Mordred.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Arthur's reaction when Merlin informs him that the woman he slept with was Morgan le Fay.
    • Merlin has his own such reaction when he realizes that Uther had Cornwall killed, especially in the novel.
  • Named Weapons: Excalibur, obviously.
  • Necessarily Evil: Mab claims, "With evil all around me, I can do nothing but evil, to survive." Nimue shortly after tells her, "That's too easy."
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Merlin chooses Lancelot to defend King Arthur's throne, but this ultimately leads to Lancelot's affair with Guinevere, and Arthur's downfall.
  • 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.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Mab's spells slowly lose their power after she vanishes, and eventually fail.
  • Off with His Head!: King Constant's execution in the prologue, not seen thanks to Gory Discretion Shot.
  • Oh, Crap!: Vortigern's last expression.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: The Rock of Ages will only let a truly good man draw Excalibur.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: On Mab's advice, Vortigern attempts to have Merlin and Nimue sacrificed to the Great Dragon of the North, a Celtic-looking dragon with antlers, wings, and six legs. Despite its strange appearance, it's a fairly standard fire-breathing western dragon which tries to devour our heroes before Merlin manages to defeat it with magic.
  • Our Elves Are Different: They're small, short, quick and the target of some of Frik's jokes.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: In addition to The Fair Folk, the smaller winged variety also exists.
  • Our Gnomes Are Weirder: Frik. He claims that gnomes come in all shapes and sizes, and he's "the tall kind."
  • 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.
  • Parental Substitute: Ambrosia, to Merlin, as he notes in his narration. Sir Hector and his wife fulfill this for Arthur, on Merlin's insistance. (Though Hector's wife only appears in the novelization.)
  • Perspective Flip: From Merlin's point of view.
  • Perspective Magic: Merlin plucks the moon out of the sky and it becomes a glowing coin that he rolls around his fingers. He then says something about appearances being deceiving and points at the sky to show the clouds pulling back from the moon.
  • Pet the Dog: It's buried deep, but Mab seems to have legitimate familial feelings for both Merlin and Mordred. Likewise for Mordred toward "Auntie Mab."
  • 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.
  • The Philosopher: Merlin, even as he narrates.
  • Playing with Fire: Mab
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Frik
  • Plucky Girl: Nimue. Getting Merlin out of Vortigern's dungeon.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Mab's master stroke has some elements of this: She heals Nimue's scars and enchants an idealised space for her and Merlin to live happily together within. All things considered, this is a remarkably kind way to keep Merlin out of the war between Arthur and Mordred, but also extremely effective.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Merlin, to Vortigern:
    Vortigern: (taunting) Are you going to use some of your magic on me, Merlin?
    Merlin: I'll kill you any way I can, Vortigern, but I will kill you.
  • Pride: Vortigern's Fatal Flaw, noted by both Mab and Merlin. "Only one tear was shed for Vortigern, and his pride had cast it away. He paid for it with his life."
  • Pretty Boy: Galahad, his feminine-sounding voice also contributes.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The Lady of the Lake prophecies that the ideal, pure-hearted defender of Arthur's throne can be found at Joyous Gard, where Merlin finds Lancelot. Subverted when it turns out Lancelot fails in his task, and then Double Subverted when it turns out that his son Galahad was truly the pure-hearted one that the Lady of the Lake sensed.
  • 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 Fey Goddess and Merlin very much hopes to destroy her religion and utterly erase her from existence, it's pretty literal as well.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Vortigern's forces, as he takes over England.
  • 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.
  • Rescue Romance: Merlin and Nimue. They'd met earlier in the day but become much closer after he pulls her out of a bog.
  • Royal Blood: Arthur is quite surprised to learn he has it.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Uther, Arthur.
  • Same Language Dub: Agnieszka Koson, who plays the teenaged Nimue, was dubbed by Isabella Rossellini who plays Nimue as an adult. The only time Koson's voice is heard is her screams when Nimue is trapped in the bog.
  • Samus Is a Girl: In Merlin's Apprentice.
  • Sapient Steed: Sir Rupert, Merlin's horse.
  • Scary Stinging Swarm: A heroic version: when Mab unleashes a pack of griffins to try and kill Arthur, Merlin, seeing a beehive in the branches of a nearby tree, uses his magic to direct the insects to attack the monsters. The stinging proves too much for the griffins, forcing them to retreat.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: Nimue spends several decades trapped inside the cave after it seals itself because Merlin left.
  • 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.
  • Screw Destiny: Both Mab and Merlin take this approach.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Frik's reaction upon meeting Morgan for the second time.
  • 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.
  • Servile Snarker: Frik
  • Smug Snake: Mab and Mordred.
  • The Sociopath: Mordred is a pretty good example, being an outwardly charming, charismatic young man who wants to conquer Britain and who laughs upon seeing his mother murdered by Queen Mab.
  • So Proud of You: Merlins says this to Arthur just before the final battle with Mordred.
  • Spiritual Successor: To John Boorman's Excalibur, with its focus on Excalibur, Merlin and mysticism; both draw on Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and generally hit the same story beats, but some like Morgana/Morgan Le Fay's seeing through Uther's disguise prior to his seduction/rape of Igraine, Uther wielding Excalibur prior to Arthur, a belligerent enemy lord convinced to recognise Arthur's kingship after Arthur hands Excalibur to him, a literal circle of people inspiring the construction of the Round Table, Mordred's Rapid Aging and the exact way Arthur kills Mordred are specific to both. Trevor Jones composed the soundtrack to both productions, too.
  • Spell Construction: The less construction needed, the stronger the wizard. The best wizards do it by pure thought.
  • The Spock: Frik
  • Stab the Sky: Arthur, after pulling Excalibur from the stone.
  • Stupid Evil: King Vortigern, who is puritanical, distrusting, and uncompromising, often to his own detriment; both Mab and Merlin call him stupid to his face. However, to his credit, Vortigern is not entirely unwilling to take advice that goes against his beliefs, and allows the imprisoned Merlin free rein of his encampment when it is pointed out to him that the wizard needs fresh air and sunlight to use his powers.
  • Super Strength: Implied with Mordred.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Vortigern. "Why is it that I surround myself with a bunch of incompetent fools?"
  • Taking You with Me: King Constant has all of the prisoners killed right before Vortigern takes his castle. "Let the whole world die, if I die."
  • Talk to the Fist: Mordred grandiosely accuses King Arthur of tyranny, and is about to make a speech about how the assorted nobles should depose him. Arthur responds with a well-deserved backhand.
  • The Magic Goes Away: At the end of the series, after performing his final act of magic to restore his and Nimue's youth, Merlin states, "That's the end of magic."
  • The Time of Myths: A constant theme. The whole thing that Mab is battling against is the slow, lingering death of magic.
  • This Is Reality: Merlin, at the beginning of the narration. "Once upon a time... No, no, that's not the way to start. You'd think this is a fairy tale, and it isn't."
  • Time Abyss: The Rock of Ages claims his memory goes back to before the dawn of time.
  • Trickster Mentor: Frik, to Merlin.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Subverted by Arthur. Mab claims that he will be 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. Doubly subverted by Uther himself, who at first was a much better and more merciful ruler than King Constant, but went the same way in the end.
  • 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.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The kings of Britain have a serious tendency to mistreat their allies and vassals in spite of loyal service.
    • Vortigern takes Nimue captive on the suspicion that her father might possibly betray him to Uther, despite him being nothing but loyal and pledging his entire army to Vortigern's service. After Merlin shows him why his castle kept collapsing, Vortigern rewarded him by knocking him out and throwing him in a cramped dungeon, only releasing him when he became so ill that Vortigern worried he might die, which Vortigern didn't want...because Merlin hadn't finished giving him a prophecy that might help Vortigern defeat Uther.
    • Uther, likewise, betrays one of the dukes who helped him defeat Vortigern and become king, simply because he wanted Cornwall's wife for himself. When Merlin helps him get Igraine without combat (in order to stop him from killing hundreds more in his siege of Tintagel), Uther betrays Merlin's request and has Cornwall and his men killed anyway. Because he didn't immediately hand over his wife to Uther, apparently.
  • 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 somehow figured out how to "conveniently leave out" the part where he got his head chopped off and died, not even that can make Merlin's Apprentice fit continuity.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Frik, when Morgan le Fay is killed.
    • Likewise, Merlin when he hears that Arthur slept with Morgan le Fay.
  • Villainous Demotivator: Mab
  • 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.
    • All the villains display this, except Frik. Uther (though he's initially a hero) and Vortigern are bold warriors who lead their battles from the front, Mordred seems to enjoy combat as though it's a thrilling game, and Queen Mab and Morgan le Fay enact some pretty audacious schemes to defeat Merlin and Arthur.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: According to Mab, though, it's only an illusion. Frik's favorite trick, by the way.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • It's not clear what, exactly, the stone in the crib actually did other than ominous foreshadowing and an excuse to spend more time with child Morgan le Fay. Its purpose was explained more thoroughly in the novelization. (It cursed Arthur with impulsiveness, which ultimately led to his ill-fated quest for the Holy Grail, and thus Guinevere's affair with Lancelot.)
    • The purpose of the magical tear Mab gives to Vortigern is also left unanswered; although in this case, it's because Vortigern himself had rejected the aid of magic in his battle against Uther and Merlin, believing only in his own ability to win.
      • It's implied that it protects him from harm. At one point, several of Uther's soldiers mob him, drag him off his horse, and stab him repeatedly with daggers. He survives it, presumably due to the tear. Merlin dropping him in the lake is fatal, either to the mystical nature of Excalibur or because the tear's protection is limited.
  • What Have We Ear?: When a young Morgan le Fey first meets Merlin and aks him to show some of his magic, Merlin performs this trick. Morgan immediately calls him out for the fact that this is just a Sleight of hand trick, and reveals she knows how to perform it herself.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Mab has ended up like this, as pointed out by Ambrosia.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: When Merlin hears about what happened with Morgan le Fay, he lets Arthur have it. He does it again, to Guinevere and Lancelot, after their affair.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: "Now see what you made me do!"
  • 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!" He misses on the last servant.
  • 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 Are Better Than You Think You Are: In their final conversation, the Lady of the Lake comforts Merlin over his guilt that his choice of Lancelot brought about the death of Arthur and the ruin of Camelot.
    The Lady of the Lake: It's human to make mistakes, Merlin, and part of you is human...the best part.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The Lady of the Lake's attitude to fading away with the changing times. Queen Mab disagrees. The Rock of Ages falls somewhere in the middle, uninterested in Mab's quest to renew faith in the old ways but secure in the belief that he, at least, will live on forever.
  • 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. Uther wish to kill Vortigern who killed his father and Morgan hates Uther because he Killed her Father.