As the daughter of a mom who was active in the 70s Women’s Movement and a proud member of N.O.W., you can say I’ve been trained from birth to think about feminism and women’s and men’s roles in society.
While a grad student in the 1990s, I took that interest and focused it on the medieval period, looking at gender roles in medieval Europe, specifically Ottonian Germany. Had I actually finished that darn dissertation, I would have been well-versed on the representations of women and power in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Oh well. I got married and had kids instead, even becoming a stay-at-home mom - something I never expected I would do. Now instead of reading up on Carolingian queens and Ottonian nuns, I think more often about gender roles in our current society. Especially where I fit (or don’t fit) into them. I’m still a feminist. Feminism means, for me, that women and men should have equal opportunities to pursue what they want in life, without judgment or discrimination, whether that be to lead a Fortune 500 company or to raise kids at home. Or both (if one could manage it; I certainly couldn’t!).
What does this have to do with the BBC series Merlin, you say? Well, the more I fell in love with the show (and believe me, I’ve fallen hard!), the more I started thinking about the portrayal of men and women in it.
We Merlinians all know of the glorious bromance between Arthur and Merlin, and the close-knit bond between the Knights. We celebrate it. We root for it. Friendship is a beautiful thing, and male friendship is certainly something I wish we saw displayed more openly in our modern society. We also watch the intricate father-son dance between Uther and Arthur, Arthur often wanting to defy his dad (and sometimes doing so) to pursue what is right, but also caving at times out of respect for his father (and his King). We love Gwaine and Percival, cheer on Eleon, laugh at Leon’s apparent immortality, and are transfixed when those little moments between Arthur and Merlin come on screen. I love it. I love it.
But what about the women?
The quadrangle at the center of the show revolves around Arthur and Merlin, Morgana and Gwen. Morgana and Gwen are each strong characters, although destined to become opposites, to become enemies, a far cry from the friendly but still servant-master relationship of season one. As Merlin and Arthur’s friendship strengthens, Gwen’s and Morgana’s falls apart.
I love Gwen. I love that she wasn’t what I was expecting physically for the role of Guinevere, and that her background, as that of a servant, a blacksmith’s daughter, certainly challenged the traditional portrayal of Gwen and added depth to her relationship with Arthur. She is NOT of high birth. She does not have magic. But she will rise, and in the end she is the strongest female character - she will rule Albion and, we all hope, she will be a fair and just queen.
While I know the well-known Arthur/Gwen/Lancelot triangle was a tricky one for this self-proclaimed family-oriented show, I appreciated how the writers chose to portray Gwen as enchanted when she cheated on Arthur, allowing her persona as the epitome of the loyal friend and wife to survive. (Although come on, why did no one ever question whether Gwen was under a spell? Why did no one ever find that silly charmed bracelet? That plot point continues to bother me - although I suppose one could argue we saw enough before that hinted at Gwen’s interest in Lancelot that maybe it wouldn’t be hard for her - and others - to think she could really betray Arthur. Except we as the audience know she couldn’t - it’s not her character!) She’s the conscience of the show, almost always the voice of reason.
Did I hate Morgana? No. Was I supposed to? Maybe. For one thing, I figured it would be taking too much creative license for the writers to turn her character into a good one. I also felt we’d been given enough insight into her past to understand her deep feelings of betrayal when her half-sister Morgause (about whom she’d never been told) was killed, and when she discovered she was not Uther’s ward, but rather his true daughter. Yes, she became twisted by the desire for power and revenge, but I still felt sorry for her more than anything. She created her own demise.
Do we see this as a positive thing, in that here are powerful women - high priestesses - wielding great influence and, well, power? Or a negative thing, in that many of these women use magic for evil purposes? Or are those purposes only evil to the Uthers of the world? We as the audience long throughout the entire series for Merlin to be able to reveal his magic, and for Arthur to restore the practice of magic to the kingdom. That’s the driving desire of the show. That’s the hope. So we nod in assent when Merlin proclaims that magic itself is not inherently evil, it’s how people choose to use it. So true. Substitute the word power or influence for magic, and we have a statement applicable to the modern world.
Beyond the two main characters of Gwen and Morgana, what women do we see in Merlin, and how does the show portray them? Many of them (Nimue, Morgause, Sophia) are sorcerers - or, to use the feminine version of that word, sorceresses. Morgause also acts much the part of a knight - she wears armor, commands an army - essentially doing many of the things we’d expect only men of the period to be doing.
I am no Arthurian scholar, but I know we read some of these tales in my undergrad and grad days, and am sure we discussed the religious symbolism in them and what that would have meant at the time - whether one thinks of Arthur as the 5th-6th century possibly historical figure, or of the full medieval renderings of the tales as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory in the Middle Ages. The stamping out of the Old Religion can be seen as connected to the Christianization of Britain, during which druidism and other native religion beliefs were, indeed, persecuted. It’s no surprise to most people that the entire Arthurian legend can be seen as Christian allegory, replete with Christian imagery. This same element remains in the TV series.
And yet interestingly enough in this BBC show, the Old Religion - namely, that of magic, of the druids, is seen as the ideal. Uther is not a sympathetic figure; he is ruthless and, well, frankly just bad. We see Arthur as the hope that magic will be allowed to return. And we root for Merlin. We know he is good. We know, as his father Balinor says, that Merlin is a son of the earth, the sea, the sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and [Merlin was] born of that magic. [Merlin is] magic itself. All the same, it’s possible to interpret him as a Moses or a John the Baptist. Christianity and magic do not have to be incompatible.
Still, where are the women? I am not the only one who has raised this cry. Arthur gets Gwen, but I feel as if that relationship definitely takes a backseat to the bond Arthur has with Merlin (and all the shippers go “yay!”). None of the poor knights seem to have relationships with anyone. I guess that’s partly the nature of knighthood - who’s got time for romance when you’re questing and fighting and rooting out evil all the time? Gwaine finally gets a girl in season 5 and guess what? She’s evil, too. I know there’s only so much the series could do, and perhaps romantic relationships for more of the characters were just too burdensome to tackle. I’m actually O.K. with that, since I know in spite of my own passion for romance novels and happily ever afters that not everyone thinks a love connection has to be the main goal in life. I LIKE that a television show chose to focus less on that and more on the richness of friendship. I really do. We need to see more of that on TV.
There are a few characters beyond Gwen who give a more positive image of women. Hunith, Merlin’s mother, is warm and welcoming, and fiercely protective of her son. She lives simply and is humble, and intelligent. Sadly, she is the only mother of a main character we see in true relationship with that character. Where is Gwen’s mother? Morgana’s died. Arthur’s died. We see few mothers, and that breaks my heart.
We get a powerful and discerning queen in Queen Annis. Elena, a prospective bride for Arthur, seems fine, if a bit blah - and traditional. But other women don’t come off so well - Gaius’ old love Alice has an evil monster in her trunk, Vivian, another prospective bride for Arthur, is a blonde doofus. And who can forget Uther’s hilariously disgusting troll wife?
Then there’s Freya. Ah, Freya. Merlin finally gets the girl. But only for one episode, albeit a very powerful episode. Is there a Merlinian alive who wasn’t moved by the kiss those two exchanged - and especially by the tear that rolled down Merlin’s face? Didn’t we all hope that somehow, some day, Freya and Merlin could find a way to be together? Yet this girl is a cursed beast, whom everyone else except Merlin sees as an evil, terrifying monster. Was it a great device to set up the Lady of the Lake? Sure. But does the Freya plotline give us a favorable depiction of women? You tell me.
So when we ask where are the women, there are actually quite a few to be found; they’re just not as prominent as some of the male characters. I’m sure I’ve missed some - let me know if I’ve omitted a favorite.
One could make arguments on both sides as to whether or not the portrayal of women in the Merlin series is good or bad. Of the women who wield great power, most of them do so in what we the audience deem an evil way. They are motivated by the desire for power and/or revenge, motivators typically seen as negatives. The Old Religion - a religion in which women featured prominently - is decried as evil. A lot of this goes hand-in-hand with the original legends and the messages those legends seeked to impart, immersed in Christian ideals and imagery.
For me the scales tip in favor of the good. From the start Morgana and Gwen show independent spirits and make their own decisions. Yes, they are sometimes circumscribed by the circumstances and realities around them. As I’ve rewatched it recently, I’m glad to realize that Morgana was never the retiring wallflower I somehow remembered from that first season.
Gwen, too, has a great deal of freedom and spirit for the limitations of her character. I certainly wish they had done much more with her after she assumed the queenship; I’d hoped they’d show more lovey-doveyness between Arthur and her, for one (sorry, Romance Queen here). I was annoyed that she seemed to kind of melt into the background at the beginning of season 5. But I love the scenes in which we saw her ruling alongside Arthur. She offers counsel to him - in front of others, and often at odds with what he or the other men had proposed - and he would listen and usually agree. That’s a partnership. I loved that he treated her as an equal in decision making.
She IS an equal. She is powerful. Nothing conveys this more beautifully than the haunting image of Gwen in the final moments of season 5, sitting alone on the throne, regal and serene-looking as we the audience are falling apart over Arthur’s death. We know from previous scenes that she has deduced Merlin is a great wizard, the great sorcerer - and we induce from her reactions that she’s O.K. with that. The idea that magic may again be freely practiced flares up with new hope, and it is that image of hope that sustains our belief that in spite of Arthur’s death, Merlin did not fail in his destiny. Arthur WAS the greatest king Albion had ever known. And now the destiny of the kingdom rests not on Merlin’s shoulders, but on the shoulders of a powerful, just, and loyal woman.
Long Live The Queen!