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.
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:
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.