Saturday, April 27, 2013

Holy Moses! Is That Merlin?

Watching the final episode of Merlin roused a myriad of emotions in me, as it did for the show’s devoted fans. Most, from my understanding, were/are enraged that Arthur died, and that a number of the promises made to the audience over the last five years, especially that of Merlin being able to practice magic openly, went unfulfilled. I know there is a growing movement of people whose goal is to bring back Merlin - to erase the season 5 ending and produce either a season 6, or a mini-series, or even a movie that provides a more satisfactory ending.

I’m all for that. I love Merlin and I, too, want more. But I was not as devastated by the ending as many others were. I think there are two reasons for that: 1) I was somewhat prepared, having peeked at the last 10 minutes of the final episode on YouTube before I even started the final season, so I knew Arthur’s demise was imminent, and 2) I also knew that, according to the legends, Arthur was destined to die before his time at the hands of Mordred, and to be buried at Avalon, with the belief and hope that he would return again - he is, after all, the Once and Future King.

Do I lament the end of the series? Certainly. Do I think the final scene of Merlin in modern times was horrendous? Yes. Do I wish the show had answered more questions and kept more of its promises? Absolutely. But to expect a truly happy ending might have been too much, even for a series which often altered the legends to fit its narrative. Because the legends say Arthur dies. The legends say Arthur is the savior. He will come in Albion’s greatest time of need. He will rise again.

Sound familiar?
This is not an uncommon motif, the idea that a great man, perhaps a warrior, most definitely a savior, will die too early, but will rise again. It appears in ancient myths around the world, and is, of course, central to the Christian faith. Jesus died for us, Christians believe, but he will come again.
Most of us in the western world are familiar with the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian belief, regardless of whether or not we consider ourselves Christian.  Most people who know something about the Arthurian tales and legends also know the stories are grounded in Christian ideology.

Although I was vaguely cognizant of that as the series played out, it came to the forefront again as I watched the final two episodes, especially the scene in which Merlin sees his father in the Crystal Cave. Here’s a transcript of part of that scene:

Balinor: “Merlin...”

Merlin: “Are you here? Are you real?”

Balinor: “Dead or alive, real or imagined, past or present: these things are of no consequence. All that matters is that you heed the words of your father who loves you. Do not let go, Merlin. Do not give in. You’re more than a son of your father. You’re a son of the earth, the sea, the sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and you were born of that magic. You are magic itself. Believe what your heart knows to be true: that you have always been, and always will be.”

Merlin, after thanking his father: “I follow in your footsteps...”

Balinor: “Your journey has only just begun. You wield a power you cannot yet conceive of. Only at the heart of the Crystal Cave will your true self be revealed. Move towards the light. Destiny awaits. Don’t be afraid. Trust in what you are. Trust in what will be.”

Merlin: “Good-bye, father.”

Balinor: “There are no goodbyes, Emrys. for I will always be, as you will always be.”

Ooh. Ooh. I LOVED this scene. It gives me chills again, just to read those words. Who can hear that and NOT see the Christian imagery? It’s as if Jesus is talking to God in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s the Gospel of John, in the idea that Merlin/Emrys has always been and will always be.

As I was watching it, I exclaimed to myself (silently, lest the cats think I'm crazy), Merlin IS the Holy Spirit! He works in the world with very few knowing. He is the light of the world. He is the Holy Spirit to Arthur’s Jesus. And Arthur as Jesus figure is not hard to see, right? It’s in the medieval legends, and it’s here in modern-day “Merlin,” as well: the great man who wants to do what’s right and bring good into the world, who will be betrayed and die young, but who leaves us with hope, as it has been foretold he will come again.

Then came the final episode.

We see Merlin stride to the top of the mountain, garbed in long, flowing robes, staff grasped firmly in his hand. As he raises the staff to cast his spells, his white hair and beard blow in the wind. Was I the only one who suddenly thought I was watching Moses in “The Ten Commandments”? And is it not fitting imagery? Merlin leads his people out from the Saxons... and the evil of Morgana, as Moses led the slaves out of Egypt. Moses parts the Red Sea; Merlin hurls lightning bolts and repels the dragon. Even their names start with M and have the same number of syllables! Hee hee.
Once I had that image in my head, I couldn’t help but cast the rest of the characters according to their Christian counterparts. It doesn’t work perfectly; some people I can find no logical Judeo-Christian figure for, such as Morgause. If you know of one, let me know! And others, especially Merlin, fit in more than one role. I’m O.K. with that.

Also, a disclaimer: I am not an expert in all things Arthurian, nor in all things Christian. Not by any means. And while I could have spent time doing research on both, I opted not to, as that seemed a large rabbit hole in which to jump. One could easily write a dissertation on Christian imagery in the Arthurian legends - and I’m sure many already have. Maybe somebody someday will even analyze this BBC series in depth for how its narrative and symbols fit into the Christian context of Arthurian myths. But that person won’t be me. I’m not an expert on this Adventures of Merlin series, either, having watched it once, in the space of a month, and without reading up about it on the Merlin wiki or without investigating many of the Merlin websites out there.

Nonetheless, this is what I came up with:

Merlin = Moses & Holy Spirit
He works in the world, but in some ways is not of the world. He, and we, are constantly reminded he is different, even from those who also have magic. He is Emrys, which means immortal. I love the humorous scene in Episode 7 of season 5 in which Old Merlin (or “The Great Dragoon”) challenges the prison guards: when they ask him who he is, he answers, “I am who I am, and I am who I was, and I am who I shall always be.” It makes us laugh, but it speaks truth, too, if we see him as the Holy Spirit, right?

Arthur = Christ
He is born of magic, much like the miracle of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary. While this Arthur is certainly not sinless, he is often described as being “pure of heart” or “having a good heart.” He is betrayed by someone he thought was his friend. Mordred spears Arthur in the side, much like the Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side. I believe Arthur dies on the 3rd day after his wound, as Merlin is trying to get him to Avalon. Arthur is destined to die, but he will rise again. He will return when the need is greatest. He is Hope personified.  

Guin = Mary Magdalene
Yes, some may take umbrage at this. Dan Brown was not the first, however, to suggest a relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Regardless of what their relationship status may have been, we learn that Mary Magdalene is not of high social status, and in the beginning Guin is a servant. Even Guin’s infidelity may bring up echoes of Mary Magdalene’s association with being a woman of low morals.

Morgana = Lucifer
Or Satan. But specifically Lucifer - she is the fallen angel. She deserts her father, challenging him for power, just as Lucifer deserted God. She works with snakes! Even her hair was looking more Medusa-like by season 5. She is evil, lusting for power.

Mordred = Judas
He becomes a close confidante of Arthur’s, a favored knight. And then he betrays him. How many pieces of silver does it take to craft a dragon sword?

The Knights = The Disciples
Gwaine, Percival, Elion, Leon. They are Arthur’s disciples. I think in medieval lore there were twelve, whereas here we get the fearsome foursome. Fivesome if you count Lancelot, I guess. But they are loyal to Arthur through and through. Christians are sometimes described as “soldiers of Christ,” and here we have actual soldiers - knights - pledging their fealty, their loyalty, their allegiance, to Arthur until their dying breath.

Gaius = John the Baptist
I was stuck on Gaius for a little bit, but then I realized he comes before Merlin, and is learned in magic, but just a shadow of what Merlin will be. He knows who Merlin truly is, and helps him on the path toward his destiny, just as John the Baptist does for Jesus. The name Gaius also reminds me of Gaia, meaning earth in Greek, tying him to the Celtic/druid/natural world traditions. He is of both worlds, the new and the old.

Balinor = The Lord
He is Merlin’s father. He is also a Dragon Lord. Hearing father and lord makes me think of the God the Father, and Jesus our Lord. I also liked the idea that Merlin becomes a Dragon Lord, and what is Arthur’s and Morgana’s surname? Pendragon. Meaning Chief Dragon. So Merlin is a Dragon Lord, Lord also of the Pendragons. Think of how much he impacts the destiny of both Arthur AND Morgana. He rather is their Lord, isn’t he, but washing their feet as a servant, much as Jesus did.

Camelot = Eden/Paradise
The promise of a better Camelot is the promise of paradise on Earth again.

The Dragons = Wisdom / Conscience
I don’t know what to make of the dragons, to be honest. I know they appear in medieval Christian imagery, especially the idea of the knight slaying the dragon. In this modern TV series, we have two: the great black dragon Kilgharrah, and the small, white dragon Aithusa. A brief look at Wikipedia told me dragons are often associated with nature/the universe, with power, and with wisdom. This makes sense, as Merlin often goes to the dragon for aid, for his wisdom. Sounds a bit like the Tree of Knowledge - which was guarded by a snake, right? And dragons are often depicted as snake-like. Reaching? Probably, but it works for me!


Other Christian imagery pervades the series. One episode deals with the Cup of Life, also known as the Holy Grail, which, according to Christian lore, Jesus used at the Last Supper, and which Joseph of Arithmathea used to collect Jesus' blood while he was on the cross. It can restore life. We see the unicorn, a symbol of purity and grace that was also sometimes seen as a symbol of Christ. We see a griffin, a kingly creature that also came to be associated with Christ in the medieval period.

None of these ideas are new. I haven’t thought up anything revolutionary. But the fact that these characters, these ideas, this story isn’t new actually was comforting to me. Because the great message of Christianity is one of hope, is it not? Hope that we will not perish forever, but will have eternal life. Hope that goodness does not permanently die; it will rise again.

And sadly, in Christian belief, the great truth is that without Jesus’ death, this hope would not have been activated. He had to die for us to be redeemed. And thus to follow our comparison, Arthur HAD to die to activate the hope of his great return. Did he have to die to end the series? No, of course not. We could have had a quite blissful ending in which Arthur and Guinevere and Merlin all live happily ever after in Camelot for years. But Arthur would eventually die. Would Camelot then be lost forever? Having the idea that he will return gives us hope that all is not lost.

Of course this series, and the characters of Arthur and Merlin, don’t completely follow a Christian ideal. I love the fact that Merlin and especially Arthur are flawed. They have real-life quirks. They are often blind to truth, and stubborn, and silly. They are human.

Then there is the idea of magic and sorcery, not an idea we read as much about in the Bible, right? But here we hear about the Old Religion, and Merlin seeks a blending of the old and the new. This makes the Unitarian in me happy: the blending of the Old ways and the new ways. The idea that faith systems are not inherently evil or wrong - it’s how the people in those belief systems choose to behave. Magic is not good or bad in and of itself; it’s how it is used.

And that is why the ending didn’t devastate me as much as it could have. Merlin’s grief is all-consuming, and I felt that grief keenly. To see such a friendship severed is excruciating to bear. But I choose to believe that Merlin and Arthur are never truly apart, for while they may be divided physically on Earth, they are two sides of the same coin. They are soul mates (not in a shipping/sexual way, people, as I blogged about here.). They are the Holy Spirit and Jesus, each in each other.

And as much as I, and many other Merlin fans, wanted a time in which Merlin could use his magic freely in Camelot, I think we are left with the promise that that will happen. In Guin’s time. For she has now learned of his secret, and she seems approving. Morgana has finally been defeated. Good has triumphed over evil.

And we are left with the promise that Arthur will return. Hope reigns eternal.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Merlin and Arthur and Merthur - Oh My!

Warning: Spoilers ahead, including season 5!

I admit it. I’m addicted to the BBC series “Merlin”. I only started watching it via Netflix a few weeks ago on the recommendation of my dear friend Kary, who kept raving about it. A few weeks, and I’ve already inhaled seasons 1-4. I’m now waiting on season 5, which hasn’t aired in the US yet and thus isn’t available on Netflix. It’s, uh, arriving in the mail tomorrow from Amazon. 

I already know how the series ends, however, because of the magic of the internet (thank you, YouTube. I think.) and my impatient nature. See, I started a Pinterest board to pin up pics of the stars of the show, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, but kept coming across images from the final season. With good reason - it is is a powerful ending. Powerful and amazing and sad. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I’ve always had an interest in the Arthurian legends. The characters of Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere and Lancelot are known to about anyone familiar with Western Civ. I’m pretty sure I took a class in college or grad school that read through some of the lit, as I have vague memories of L’Morte d’Arthur and Geoffrey of Monmouth. So that brought up a natural curiosity about the show: what spin would it put on the stories? Would it stay true to the mythology? And how are they going to get away with such a young, cute Merlin?

And he is cute, which is another reason I happily dove into episode 1. I have always been a sucker for a good-looking man, and this show promised at least two. I also, er, like shows and books that, um, apparently are aimed at 14 year old girls (Twilight, anyone?), so the “Camelot High” tone, as Kary described it, of the 1st season, was quite fun. The silly, improbable plot twists - in season 1 and throughout the series - are mostly fun, too. Some of them you want to roll your eyes at, others seem impossibly clever (Guinevere as a servant?). 

The show also very smartly draws you in using familiar but effective tropes. First, as already stated, most of the myths and legends are somewhat familiar to us, so we think as an audience we know what to expect. But not completely - just enough to keep us (or at least me) hooked, and to have us (me) nodding, “Oh yeah!” when certain events (Excalibur) or characters (Sir Gwaine) pop up. Second, we know secrets the characters don’t. Kind of like Merlin, who knows all about Arthur’s destiny and Merlin’s own role in it, when no one else does (O.K., outside of Gaius). So we feel armed with secret knowledge, and that keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering if and when the characters will see what’s really going on. We know Morgana has turned evil long before most of the characters do. Same with Aggravaine. And of course we’re privy to Merlin’s magic, something he must keep hidden from very nearly everyone, which makes us feel more connected to him, as if we’re in league with him. 

The characters are familiar, too - not just because of who they are in historical legend, but because of the classic temperaments/personality types they embody. I recently saw a pin on Pinterest comparing the four main characters - Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, and Morgana - with the four main Houses in Harry Potter. It’s an apt comparison. Those kinds of characters work, especially when paired with each other. Opposites really do attract, and the dichotomy of the personalities and how their differences and similarities play off each other makes for very compelling storytelling - in Merlin, and across other fictional works throughout history. We seem to like those opposites. They speak to us - we can see a little of ourselves in one character or another. 

Arthur is the quintessential alpha male. As he should be; he’s the Prince who will become a King. He embodies the ultimate in masculinity - he’s courageous, valorous, a champion. Bradley James completely looks the part, with his muscular frame and square jawline, his crisp, sexy British accent. He just looks... kingly. 

Merlin is the intellectual, the scholar, the helper. Colin Morgan is certainly attractive, but no one is going to mistake Merlin for a big, beefy knight. He’s not supposed to look like that. He’s supposed to look wise and magical, and he does - like a sprite. He’s loyal, dependable, humble, and true. 

Guin is the solid, dependable friend, Morgana the beauty with an evil desire for power inside. We’ve seen it all before. And we still love it. 

But really, if all it were were pretty people and familiar characterizations, I wouldn’t be this obsessed with this show. I’ve seen and enjoyed plenty of other shows like that. I watch Glee and Vampire Diaries weekly and enjoy them immensely. But it’s not the same. Why?

Because of the depth of the relationship between Arthur and Merlin. 

It’s amazing, it’s intoxicating, it’s incredibly moving. And it’s so exciting to see such a real, emotional connection between men, a true male friendship. Much of their friendship, of course, is unspoken - they ridicule each other, malign each other, curse each other (especially Arthur’s treatment of Merlin), but we as the audience see - through their body language, their facial expressions, the depth of emotion in their eyes - how these two really feel about each other. It’s a bond that largely remains unspoken throughout the series, until the very end. 

This is where the actors in this show absolutely amaze me. Colin Morgan and Bradley James are so adept at expressing a multitude of feelings just through their eyes and body language alone. I know that that is what acting is all about, but believe me, I don’t know many actors who pull it off as well as these two do. You can see the pain behind Arthur’s teasing, see the sorrow behind Merlin’s grin. And, oh, how Colin/Merlin can cry. In this era of “real men don’t cry,” is it not refreshing to see men showing real tears? It is for me. 

The intensity of this relationship, especially in the last few episodes, has had people across the
internet speculating and ‘shipping’ the characters - and the actors. Such a relationship must go beyond friendship, they seem to argue - it must be romantic and sexual. No men interact that way with each other unless they’re involved in a physical way. I’ve heard there is a lot of fan fiction describing explicit sexual encounters between Arthur and Merlin. I’ve seen suggestive pictures on Pinterest. There are lots of references to ‘Merthur’ and ‘Brolin’. 

Really? Really? Why must we always go there? Why do we, as a culture, assume that if two men show genuine caring and emotional involvement with each other, they must be gay? 

Not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m a staunch supporter of gay rights and gay marriage, have lots of friends and family members who are gay, and have absolutely no problem with the variety of sexual orientations that are out there. 

But it frustrates me that that seems to be the only conclusion many people can draw about these characters - and about the off-screen, real-life friendship between Colin Morgan and Bradley James. The question that overshadows a lot of things is, is their relationship (Merlin/Arthur, or Colin/Bradley) sexual or not? 

For me, sexualizing the relationship between Merlin and Arthur cheapens it, and cheapens what the two actors were able to accomplish in their portrayal of it. They have a bromance, for sure, but I don’t think it was intended to be a romance. Merlin had Freya, albeit very briefly. Arthur showed interest in a variety of women, not just Guin - although the family-friendly nature of the show kept all of that quite tame. But even if they hadn’t thrown in those plot points, I still think that friendship, a soul-connected friendship, is what binds Merlin and Arthur. They ARE two sides of the same coin. Why can’t we imagine intense, emotionally-intimate friendships between men that don’t involve physical intimacy?

Of course another good question is, does it matter? Does it matter if the relationship between Merlin
and Arthur, or between Colin and Bradley, DOES go beyond friendship? This seems to be a driving question of our time - we seem obsessed as a society with figuring out who’s gay and who’s not. I even had to admit that I spent some time yesterday on Google, trying to see what I could find out about Mr. Morgan and Mr. James. Why? It doesn’t affect me personally. It was rather offensive for me to even be prying into that, when I really thought about it. I will never meet Colin Morgan or Bradley James, much less have a relationship with either one of them (sigh), so what difference does it make to me?

I guess because I LOVE the idea of two men getting the opportunity to experience the miracle of such a close bond - on screen and off. Friendship is powerful. Powerful. Knowing someone is there for you, that they’ve got your back. Being willing to have theirs. Wanting what’s best for them. Truly loving them. There’s nothing like it. 

I am a romance novel junkie and an aspiring romance novelist. I crave romance. I love the idea of strong, passionate relationships and happily ever afters. I have since I was a little girl, and it continues to this day, my desire to live in a world where love conquers all and the intense, passionate, romantic, physical, and sexual attachment to one person is the ultimate goal. 

But friendship is undervalued. And to see a friendship like this - between MEN - is thrilling. Because I want my son to have friendships like that. I want my son, and all other men, to feel ABLE to have friendships like that. Many men do, I know. I suspect others, especially young men, keep their guy friends at a distance because they don’t want their attentions to be mistaken for something else. It’s sad that it would even matter - the only people to whom one’s sexuality should really make a difference, I think, are the person him/herself and whomever they’re dating. But it still does. And it’s damaged male friendship along the way.

I love this show. Love it. It’s excruciatingly painful at the same time, however, now that I know for sure how it concludes. We all know the stories. We all know Arthur dies in the end, but to experience it on screen is heart-breaking (and I’ve only seen snippets, not yet having watched season 5). We’re so used to our happy endings in America that to have one that is otherwise just feels...well...wrong. But it’s oh-so-powerful, it’s what keeps our guts wrenching long after the episode and the series has ended, the idea that this powerful friendship has been divided and has come to an end. What a loss.

And so a series that started out for me as a pleasant diversion, an indulgence in my guilty love affair with pop culture and shows meant for swooning teenage girls, has become much, much more. 

Yes, people, I know it’s a television show. It’s not real. But it has reminded me again of some of the most powerful experiences in my own life: the devastation of betrayal and loss, and the healing balm of friendship and connection. It’s a show about ideals, portrayed in some idealistic and of course unachievable ways, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak truths about loyalty, loss, love, and friendship. And speak them magnificently.

Long live the King!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Baking Competition

It's so fun to watch children's minds at work, isn't it?

My daughter, who's almost 7, is always coming up with zany ideas, such as building a surfboard out of the living room couch cushions (as she's doing right now) or constructing her own puppet theater out of a cardboard box or coming up with a way of getting more desserts out of mom and dad.

The latter was her objective recently, as a week or so ago she announced we were going to have a baking competition. Never mind that she doesn't really bake. She excels at helping to pour ingredients and insists on standing in front of the mixer so that actually making any given recipe feels somewhat like playing a game of Twister. But mom is the baker.

This time, however, mommy was the judge. And daddy and Ellie were going to be the contestants. Ellie chose a recipe that had been hanging on the kitchen cabinet for weeks - a chocolate peanut butter Oreo whipped cream dessert. Apparently she was tired of just ogling it and wanted us to actually make it, darn it. Ironically, her dessert required no actual baking, just the assembling and mixing of ingredients. Daddy decided to make cookie dough skillets - warm cookie dough smothered in ice cream. Clearly he was trying to influence the judge (me), since he knows I far prefer cookie dough to any actually finished cookie product.

Yesterday the competition commenced at 10:00 a.m. Ellie read her recipe by herself and helped pour ingredients, although I did, um, command the mixer. But she crushed the Oreos and followed all of the steps carefully, gleefully pushing Reese's Peanut Butter cups into the final product.  Meanwhile I was so excited about husband making cookies on his own that I snapped his pic. I'm not sure he appreciated that.

In any case, once the baked items were done we all dutifully fulfilled our obligations of testing the creations. It was a hardship, to be sure. The two judges (my son and I) decided to make it a democratic vote and allow every family member to pick their favorite. Ellie's won 3 to 1, with Brett voting AGAINST his own dessert!

We're pretty sure we'll be having more baking competitions in the future, given that we all got to have TWO desserts in one day.

What I want to know is, how did the judge end up doing all the dishes?