Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 74: Merlin

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Jack Graham, of Shabogan Grafitti, asked me a month or so ago if I'd seen Merlin. I said I hadn't, but it was on the list to cover before Season Two of Sarah Jane Adventures. He then proceeded to tell me how appalling it was, and I decided that I'd rather read him writing about Merlin than actually watch it. 

The Dragon, the Villain and the Closet

Whoah… where am I?  I was just rummaging around in the back of the wardrobe and suddenly here I am, surrounded by fractal paisley.  

Ah, I remember.  I was supposed to come to this land of hallucinogenic monochrome and talk about… get this… Merlin.  

Yes, Merlin, the extremely popular series – made by BBC Wales and Freemantle - which ran from 2008 to 2012.  I recently watched it all the way through, for reasons that defy rational explication.

Okay, first the background.  I’ll do this stuff in bullet points, so to speak, because it doesn’t really interest me.

BBC Wales.  Julie Gardner (among others).  Family show based on Arthurian legends.  Various attempts prior to this (one involving Chris Chibnall).  Tone based on Russell T. Davies’ mega-successful reinvention of Doctor Who, and on Smallville (i.e. the adventures of a famous hero when still a teenager).  Openly and obviously a post-Who-revival show… not least because the two leads (Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Arthur) look like they’re agents of the Remote, remembered into existence by people thinking about David Tennant.  Morgan was created by someone who concentrated on Tennant’s lean and dark geekiness while James was constructed by someone more impressed by his cheekbones and pout.  

Basic set-up.  It’s the Middle Ages (sort of).  In Camelot (which, in this version, is a kingdom rather than just a castle), magic is banned - and by magic we also mean Druidism and anything falling under the rather vague category of ‘the old religion’.  Uther Pendragon, the king, has persecuted the sorcerers out of Camelot, and burns any he finds still within his borders.  This doesn’t stop him trusting various random strangers who turn up wearing long magician-robes and long magician-beards, carrying magicky-looking staffs covered in runes and zodiacal symbols… because he’s a doofus.  (He’s also played by Anthony Stewart Head, an actor whose immense popularity I find utterly baffling.  Honestly, he’s not even talented enough to do coffee commercials.)  Merlin is a young sorcerer.  Naturally, he goes to live in Camelot, right by the king’s castle.  Because that’s what I’d do if I was magic: head straight for the nearest genocidal tyrant who likes burning magic people alive.   It later transpires that his mother sent him to Camelot for his safety.  Let’s say that again: they lived outside Camelot, and when she discovered her son was magic, she sent him into Camelot… for his safety.  (This gives you some idea of the writing.)  Merlin promptly gets a job as the (only) personal servant to young, arrogant Prince Arthur.  They become best friends in about a day.  Merlin, however, must hide his true nature from his new best friend.  Merlin also befriends a badly animated CGI dragon, who periodically gives him cryptic instructions in John Hurt’s voice.  The dragon tells Merlin that it his destiny to shepherd Arthur to kingship (a tad puzzling, given that Arthur is already the sole heir), thus bringing Albion into existence.  Beyond that, I’m just going talk about it like you’ve all seen it.  So beware spoilers… if you’re the kind of person who thinks knowing about plot developments in advance ‘spoils’ things, as if drama is somehow about surprises.

One other thing to wave my hand at first: magic.  There’s any entire essay to be written about Merlin’s attitude to mythology, faeries, druidism, Samhainn, etc.  Jane needs to write that one, not me.  Not my bailiwick.  I’ll simply note that Merlin is blithely post-Potter about its magpie use of magical concepts, characters, legends and stories.  It takes what it likes from where it likes, generally recycling pre-existing mythological entities rather than creating its own out of whole cloth, regardless of context, adding its own twist - usually flatulence jokes or some kind of jaw-dropping racefail.  

Okay, on with the real stuff.  

As you’ll have gathered from my brief summary above, Merlin pays scant attention to Arthurian ‘canon’.  It basically just uses the names and then does what it likes with them.  Guinevere is Morgana’s personal maid before she gets promoted to Queen.  Stuff like that.  But that’s okay.  Just about every iteration of the Arthurian legend has done this to some extent.  Every version is a palimpsest.  It was always that way.  Geoffrey of Monmouth himself paid no attention to his own past works about Merlin every time he wrote a new one.  (Geoffrey of Monmouth is a character in Merlin, by the way, cheekily implying that his books were based on memories of things he witnessed… odd, given that the events of the show bear little or no relation to Geoffery’s tales of Merlin.)

It’s probably needless to remark that the series rarely makes any effort to refer to actual feudal social and economic relations.  At the best of times, TV tends to depict pre-capitalist epochs as capitalism in period costume (that relative newcomer capitalism is always claiming to be eternal and universal), and Merlin is very much at the extreme end of this, with the early Middle Ages as little more than a notional backdrop, evoked by putting the cast in vaguely old-fashioned clothes and taking away their mobiles.  Indeed, it’s hardly possible to say with certainty that this version of the legend is even supposed to be set in the Middle Ages, given the number of anachronisms.  The characters seem to know about the germ theory of disease, for example.  But then, our entire popular idea of ‘the Middle Ages’ is itself a massive post-facto construction, largely fabricated from anachronisms.  The castle where they filmed the Camelot scenes is itself an example of this.  The Château de Pierrefonds is another palimpsest, a rewritten temporal mish-mash, as are so many ‘old’ buildings.  (I live near a Cathedral that is basically a Victorian copy of itself.)  Begun in the 12th century, Pierrefonds was partly demolished in the 17th century, and was left as a ruin until the 19th century, when Napoleon III (he of Eighteenth Brumaire fame) ordered it restored.  They ran out of money, and the place was left partly rebuilt in the style of the 14th century.  So a good portion of the look of the building consists of hamfisted 19th century attempts to ‘do’ the late Middle Ages for their own modern sensibilities.   Which is precisely what the entire Merlin TV series resembles: a happily hamfisted attempt to ‘do’ the Middle Ages (i.e. to romantically and licentiously evoke the style) for modern consumption.  I’m striking a disapproving tone but, in fairness, this is just how the past is constructed by the present.  It is remembered into existence.  And memory is something we construct.  It carries the sense of construction within it.  ‘Remember’ means to put pieces back together, as though stitching arms and legs back onto a torso.  You remember what was dismembered.  The past is rebuilt.  And when you rebuild old things, you make them in the image of your own time.  (This is exacerbated by modernity, which is the age of capitalism – the ultimate assimilator.)  The task is to understand what the rewriting, the remembering and the reiteration tells us about the society doing it.  

In line with this, Merlin pays no attention to the actual mechanics of how social hierarchy worked in the early Middle Ages.  Arthur and his servant become friends, banter with each other, exchange sitcom put-downs, etc.  Arthur has a romance with Guinevere, who is a servant in this version of the legend.  There is much agonizing about this, with traditionalist Uther objecting to the match and progressive young Arthur promising Guinevere that one day, when he’s king, things will be different (i.e. medieval kings will no longer care about social class distinctions, or need marital alliances with other potentates).  Uther is the only character who ever, even occasionally, acts like he might be from the Middle Ages.  Mainly, his adherence to a nebulous old-fashionedness translates into him being wrong about everything all the time.  He vaguely resembles something faintly like a genuine medieval king; dramatically, this is represented as stubborn idiocy.  People in the past were stupid, in other words, because they failed to think like we think we do.

Another issue is the fact that Guinevere is played by Angel Coulby, a woman of colour.  (This is in line with the admirable convention of colour blind casting which sees black actors playing Shakespearean kings at the Globe theatre.)  Most black Britons arrived from the 16th century and after (i.e. from the Early Modern Period onwards), and especially after the rise of the slave trade.  But it isn’t infeasible that there might have been black Britons during the Middle Ages.  We know there were people of colour and ‘mixed-race’ people in Roman Britain.  In any case, the fact that Guinevere and her family are black, and nobody ever mentions it, is an issue only in so far as it demonstrates the project of depicting the past as the present with the electricity taken away… and thus, in this version, depicting the present as post-racial, or nearly so.  Indeed, sometimes you watch the ructions about Arthur’s romance with Guinevere and wonder if it isn’t all in code.  Is what’s really being depicted here an inter-racial romance facing objections from racists?  If so, the trajectory depicted by the series represents a panglossian liberal view of how racism can be (probably already has been) overcome.  Progress will work its magic.  The crusty, bigoted old traditionalists will fall away, leaving the way clear for a younger generation who just don’t care about such old prejudices.  Even if social status isn’t code for race, the picture remains the same.  The younger generation will do away with distinctions.  Arthur is best buds with Merlin, for example.  He makes Guinevere’s brother into a knight.  He actually populates the Round Table almost completely from the ranks of worthy commoners.  Uther is the old world, stubbornly clinging on; Arthur is the new, liberal, classless, post-racial, meritocratic utopia (i.e. now) waiting to be born.  Hooray for Arthur (i.e. us).

In Merlin, this imminent liberal utopia is called Albion.  This is what Merlin exists to bring about.  This is the future that the Dragon schemes to midwife into being.  This is simultaneously destined to happen all by itself and is dependant upon the actions of a few key enlightened men – most especially Merlin and Arthur.  This is the ‘great man’ theory of history, but it’s also the Whiggish march of ineluctable upward progress, temporally relocated to the (notional) Middle Ages.  And we know what came after the Middle Ages, don’t we?  After medievalism came modernity; after feudalism came capitalism.  This set of inbuilt assumptions, so implicit as to be utterly silent and unconscious, is hardly unique to Merlin.  On the contrary, such assumptions are endemic.  As mentioned, capitalism likes to pretend it has always existed, but it also likes to present itself as the summit of human social and moral development, the apex towards which history was always headed.  Nobody ever said ideology had to be consistent.  

But all of this is to ignore the dragon in the room.  Because there’s one thing that Merlin is about that eclipses anything about class or race.  Merlin is about gay people and homophobia.  It is openly about this.  It can barely even be called a subtext.  It’s just the text.  

Merlin himself never has a single heterosexual relationship throughout the whole five year run.  Okay, he has a rather sweet little dalliance with a persecuted girl (she turns into a winged panther every now and again… hey, nobody’s perfect) but it never gets anywhere near transcending friendship before she dies.  (Parenthetically, she later comes back from the dead to help Merlin out of a very sticky situation, simply because he was kind to her… which is lovely.  I just love it when the hero wins because he has help that he earned via an act of selfless kindness.  That sort of thing doesn’t happen often enough.  It never happens to Harry Potter, for instance, who is never selfless.  Ever.)  There’s no Vivien for Merlin in this version.  He is sometimes thought by Arthur to have crushes on various female characters but the assumption is always wrong.  The non-magic Arthur, by contrast, is matched with a series of eligible princesses before settling down with Guinevere.  Merlin himself never responds to Guinevere’s early interest in him.  I’m not going to pretend that no magic person in the show ever has a heterosexual relationship, but it always seems like an afterthought.  Merlin himself is clearly fixated upon Arthur to the exclusion of everyone else.  They are so obviously designed to be slashable that slashing them hardly seems worth bothering with (though I daresay it’s been done).  Merlin’s guardian and fellow sorcerer, Gaius, lives as a batchelor.  Magic Morgana has no heterosexual relationship either, and when she turns evil it is largely under the instigation and influence of Morgause, a beautiful sorceress to whom Morgana becomes devoted and whom she calls ‘Sister’ (they are notionally related).  Morgause, it should be noted, is first seen in male battle dress, and never has a heterosexual relationship, murdering her ally Cenred when he tries to claims sex with her as a reward.

But the most important marker in all this is secrecy.  Morgana is closeted, fearful that Uther will discover her secret: that she’s a seer.  Merlin is closeted.  There is repeated talk of how he has to ‘hide his true nature’ from his best friend.  He must hide it, of course, because he lives in a society that fears, persecutes and legislates against ‘his kind’.  Moreover, his best friend is the son of the ruler of that society, and he props up the regime that would burn Merlin alive!  This is an active threat: several times during the series, ‘goodie’ characters are threatened with execution on charges of sorcery.  Arthur is conflicted over the rights and wrongs of his father’s persecution of magic, flip-flopping back and forth so that Merlin can get his hopes up before the status quo is restored ready for next week’s episode.  But there’s no doubt that Arthur would react badly to the knowledge that Merlin has magic.  He is furious when he finally finds out (though, of course, they make it up).

This leads me to something else, which alters the whole picture.  Merlin’s project to bring about Arthur’s kingship, and thus Albion, is inherently a project to bring about a new society in which ‘magic’ is tolerated and ‘his kind’ no longer have to stay in the closet.  Yet Arthur is by no means unequivocally a supporter of what we might call ‘magic rights’.  On the contrary, whatever his periodic qualms, he’s an extremely effective enforcer for Uther’s regime.  At one point he holds a sword to a child’s throat in order to force information out of a peaceful band of druids.  Uther’s regime is, let’s not forget, openly genocidal.  He has ethnically cleansed sorcerers, druids and the religiously recalcitrant out of his kingdom, and literally exterminated the stragglers.  Arthur helps him.  Actively.  Repeatedly.  Continuously.  And Merlin is Arthur’s best friend.  He helps Arthur.  He helps Uther.  He protects their regime.  Actively.  Repeatedly.  Continuously.  Merlin helps them frustrate attempts by sorcerers, witches, faeries and druids to topple their state.  Merlin is a comprador.  A collaborator.  He’s a gay man who has allied himself with murderous persecutors of gay people.  He’s a Jew voluntarily working for Eichmann.  And he’s the hero.  Uther’s policies, and Arthur’s complicity, are not left unchallenged by the series, but ultimately Arthur is absolved and supported.  He’s a goodie, despite what he does, because he’s Arthur.  His goodness is declared by fiat.

This is not only silencing of gay people who actively fight homophobia on the grounds that society as it stands is inherently homophobic.  The ultimate message is that the oppressed should not try to liberate themselves, or fight their oppressors, or topple genocidal tyrants; rather they should wait for liberals from within (and at the top of) the system to eventually hand down reforms out of the goodness of their hearts.  Shut up, stay at home, keep quiet, don’t fight, just wait for things to change all by themselves.  At length, the system will right itself.  Any attempt - and according to Merlin it really is any attempt at all – to oppose the system instantly collapses into villainy.  All the magic opponents of Uther and Arthur are evil.  Every last one of them.  Only the magic allies of Uther and Arthur (Merlin and Gaius) are allowed to be good people.

Look where the utter detachment from real history leads.  It leads to pusillanimous guff like this.  It leads to the idea that justice comes from above, a gift from the same people who rule an unjust society.  It forgets that universal male suffrage in Britain could’ve waited forever if it’d depended upon Gladstone’s conscience, and that it was only when Chartists started taking over Hyde Park that the establishment caved in.  It forgets that it was the civil rights movement that brought civil rights, not benevolent Presidents acting from unpressured principle.  It forgets that it was the Suffragists who made female suffrage an unignorable issue.  It forgets that it was the Abolitionist movement, and the slaves who stole themselves from their masters and joined the Union armies, that brought Lincoln to the point where he started issuing proclamations.  It forgets that it was Watt Tyler and John Ball, and the thousands who backed them, who helped start the decline of feudalism in England, and that it was the Levellers and Diggers and the New Model Army who pushed it further.  It forgets that it was a Europe-wide surge of revolution that ended the First World War.  It forgets Tahrir Square.  It forgets Stonewall.  It forgets that every last scintilla of real progress and justice has had to be wrenched from the clenched teeth and grasping claws of the ruling classes since the dawn of civilisation, fought for and won by the oppressed themselves, by ordinary people fighting and shouting and refusing to obey – and yes, sometimes, killing kings.

Instead, in Merlin, as in so many other products of the capitalist culture industries, the oppressed in revolt become evil and more powerful than the oppressors.  The oppressors become the victims of the oppressed.  The oppressed become the aggressors.  They become machiavellian schemers.  They become simultaneously cynical demagogues, fanatical zealots and amoral nihilists.  The various villains that Arthur and Merlin face are all representatives of the groups that Uther has ruthlessly persecuted.  They are engaged in antagonism because Uther has persecuted them, but they are depicted as the evil victimisers of the poor tyrant who just wants to live in peace.  Their behaviour – disproportionately ruthless and destructive - justifies the structural violence of Uther’s regime.  It’s perhaps unfair to hold Merlin up as a whipping boy.  This is a very common and old strategy.  On screen, it’s as old as Stagecoach and Birth of a Nation.  And it goes back much further than moving pictures.  

It’s worth remembering the origin of the word ‘villain’.  It comes from villein.  The villeins were pretty much the lowest of the low in feudal Europe.  The scum of the earth.  The serfs.  Peasants, tied to the land.  Effectively, the property of the landowner.  And they were in the majority.  Our word for ‘evil person’ or ‘antagonist’ comes from the word that described the great masses of oppressed, bullied, exploited working people in feudal Europe, the people who created all the wealth that the kings ate and wore and traded and stored and administered and fought wars with and sat their fat arses on.  

As ever, in Merlin, the oppressed and persecuted are both depicted as baser and nastier than anyone else and held to a higher moral standard.  They must shut up and put up, and wait forebearingly in hope for reform, or they become malignant.  To resist is to become wicked, by definition.  Look what happens to Morgana.  She discovers that she has magical abilities; she comes to empathise with people victimised by Uther’s regime; she becomes disgusted by Uther’s cruelty; she is approached by people fighting back; she eventually goes over to their side.  But, of course, the druids and sorcerers she meets are cynical and machiavellian and cruel… because revolutionaries always are.  Morgause uses and manipulates Morgana.  She allies herself with a vicious warlord.  She slaughters the innocent.  Morgana’s ethical awakening, her rejection of the system from which she has previously benefitted, and her identification with the oppressed, is specifically shown to stem from empathy and moral outrage at injustice… and yet, somehow, without any rhyme or reason, when she finally departs Camelot and openly goes over to the other side, she becomes a sadistic psychopath with no regard for the suffering of the innocent, acting from motives of thwarted ambition, petty jealousy and irrational vindictiveness.  Her political awakening comes from compassion and simultaneously nullifies that compassion.  It couldn’t be clearer: political outrage, no matter how well intentioned, instantly becomes dangerous the moment it steps beyond the boundaries of the state, of the mainstream, of the legal, of reformism, of consensus political normality.  

In the conversation that led to this guest post, Phil told me that he thinks of the X-Men comics as a continual attempt to evade the issue that a population targeted for genocide because of super powers would be within their rights to use those powers to attack their oppressors.  He has an issue with the idea that Professor Xavier (the good mutant) is Martin Luther King and Magneto (the bad mutant) is Malcolm X.  I agree with him.  Firstly, MLK wasn’t the cuddly reformist that everyone makes him out to be nowadays as they all clamour to share in his reflected glory (same thing now happening with Mandela).  And Malcolm X wasn’t evil because he was radically antagonistic to white society.  To the extent that Magneto is meant to represent a rejection of Malcolm X, to hell with him.  But, Magneto also gives Malcolm X an avatar within the story.  He, and ‘villains’ like him, allow the radical point of view in through a crack in the ideology.

I’ve always cheered for the baddies.  I've always empathised and sympathised with them more than the heroes, the lovers, the plucky kids, the brave dogs, etc.  It’s quite startling how often the ‘baddies’ are considerably more sympathetic, how often they are declared bad by authorial fiat, how often they have a good point.

I was watching Clash of the Titans recently.  I don't give a flying toss about Perseus or Andromeda.  So far, so uncontroversial.  Perseus is just a way for the audience to meet monsters, and Andromeda is wetter than Ian Duncan Smith's pants when he secretly fantasises about setting up extermination centres for the poor.  But, I also sympathise with Calibos, Thetis and Medusa.  Calibos is made "abhorrent to human sight" (which, of course, entails dark skin and tightly curled hair) by Zeus for... what?  All we're told is that he all but wiped out Zeus' flying horses.  So... he was a hunter.  Okay, that's not to my taste, but it would hardly be unusual.  The problem is that he irritates Zeus.  Isn't his punishment a tad excessive?  Yes, he curses Joppa and starts ordering the burning of men who can't solve his riddles... but there's no indication that he was like that before he was punished with ugliness and loneliness.  And I’m pretty sure Joppa had capital punishment anyway; Calibos’ curse is probably just the first time they’ve ever burned any rich people.  Thetis, his mother (who instantly scores points with me by being Maggie Smith), is also supposed to be dodgy... yet, what does she do?  She resents the excessive punishment meted out to her son in contrast with the pampering Zeus gives his own son Perseus.  Medusa too.  Why is she evil?  Apparently, simply because she’s ugly.  Well, I’m ugly.  Why should I side with bronzed, muscle-bound, entitled, jock meat-head Perseus over Medusa?  Yeah, she kills loads of guys… who are invading her home, trying to kill her and steal her cranium.  This is evil?  (I guess so, by the standards of a world that – to choose an example at random from many possibilities - thinks the Cubans are evil for being Communists but the Americans are noble for invading, attacking and impoverishing Cuba relentlessly over decades.)  I realise, by the way, that the capriciousness of Zeus is recognised by the film, but even so the film sides with him and his boy.  Just as Merlin, while formally frowning on Uther, also implicitly champions his kingship.  I sympathise more with the unjustly tortured Calibos, who inflicts revenge on the ruling classes of Joppa, who attacks them with their own values.  I sympathise with Thetis who tries to frustrate Zeus’ plans.  I sympathise with Medusa, who defends herself against the headhunters.  They may be evil within the schema of the text, but they have a better objective moral position, as far as I can see.  The text may condemn them, but they allow radical antagonism to the established order in through a crack.

There’s funny way in which villains are often not nearly as bad as the narrative tells us they are.  They are often simply declared to be bad.  They are marked by baddie music and baddie lighting and baddie costumes, and by the opinions of the heroes, yet never do anything particularly evil… or, at least, no more evil than the heroes and their establishment.  The structural violence of the established order vanishes from view because it is naturalised by power, but it’s there to be seen if you look for it.  Is Joppa any better than Calibos?  Is Camelot really any better than Morgause and Cenred?  The goodies are often simply declared to be good, and we’re expected to take it for granted.

This goes right back.  What is Grendel but an outsider, driven mad by loneliness and exclusion?  If you’re not keen on the rule of King Hrothgar, Grendel’s rampages might not look so bad.  You might understand his motivation, get his grievance, and not be too upset by his attacks upon Heorot.  It is really so easy to see why the inside should be allowed to tyrannise the people on the outside?  It is really so hard to see why the excluded, chased-away and disavowed shouldn’t breach the barriers that have been erected to keep them out in the cold?  Is it really so automatic and axiomatic that the reactive crime should be deemed worse than the original crime?  Isn’t it, rather, that villainy is constructed from any attack upon established power?

There’s something else about villains that makes me sympathise with them.  They exist to be defeated.  Their challenge is only there so that it can be knocked down and then held up for ridicule.  Well, again, I know that feeling.  Aren’t villains just the eternal paupers of fiction, fiction’s homeless, fiction’s reserve army of labour, there to provide a buffer and foil, there to keep the other characters in line, there to be used to make stories work, and to be ritually defeated to make stories end with the restoration of order?  Villains are living embodiments of the social outcast.  Doomed to ugliness, loneliness, exclusion and defeat.  

Yet, when villains attack, they’re often a just punishment.  Like the capriciousness of the gods or the cruelty of Uther, this is something that fiction acknowledges for spice and then disavows.  Look at Richard III.  His play is often seen alone, heavily cut.  Seen in full however, and especially when seen as the culmination of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ tetralogy, Richard looks less like an aberrant monster and more like the wrath of god visited upon a rabble of scumsucking hypocrites who have richly deserved him.  If you haven’t seen the earlier plays in the series, and if loads of his reflective and guilt-ridden lines are cut, Clarence looks like an innocent victim of a pointlessly perfidious brother.  If you know the full story however, you know that Clarence is turncoat, a traitor, a perjurer, a power-hungry machiavel himself.  Same with Richard’s other brother, Edward.  Same with Margaret.  She goes on and on about how evil Richard is… and she had his father murdered after offering him a handkerchief smeared with the blood of his murdered youngest son! 

Like the villains in Merlin, Richard must be ritually defeated in order that a new, happy millennium can be ushered in.  For the British culture industries in the early-21st century, the happy millennium is that of liberal capitalism.  For Shakespeare, it was the rule of the Tudors.  As I said, the past is always reconstructed according to the priorities – the ruling ideology – of the present.
The terrible challenge that the villain represents is the challenge of the system knowing itself.  Richard plays the same game as the rest of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, but he plays it with an awareness of what a cynical, pitiless, specious game it is.  Clarence and Edward play self-flattering games of repentance and redemption.  Richard knows how false and vain that stuff is.  Consequently, he can’t see the social system that has brought him to power as anything other than what it truly is: an unjust sham.  This is where Morgana comes to… and, like Richard, it turns her into a psychopath, because to oppose the established order, to be outside like Grendel, is inherently to become a monster.  This is the story that power tells us.

This is the same challenge that villains keep being made to raise before they are smacked down and silenced for our collective thrill of relief.  The Nolan Batman films do this three times over, most openly in the third movie, in which the villain is a revolutionary who presents Gotham City with a challenge to its specious morality and openly acknowledges the class war that has made Bruce Wayne both beneficiary and vigilante.  Bane is a machiavel, a fanatic, a nihilist, a demagogue… all the usual stuff, because the challenge exists to be discredited.  But, as noted, like Grendel and Richard and Magneto and Morgause, he also lets the radical argument in through the cracks in the façade.
Voldemort does the same thing.  He exploits the injustices upon which the Wizarding World is based – the oppression of elves, goblins, giants, etc. – but which it never talks about or faces up to.  He acknowledges the existence of social class, aristocracy, biological racism and unaccountable, undemocratic politics within Wizarding society – something that beneficent wizards like Dumbledore are prepared to countenance in silence, with the occasional homily about how wizards have behaved badly.  Like Richard, his villainy stems from his awareness and his lack of hypocrisy.  Like the others, he exists to be silenced.  Like the others, he lets the radical howl be heard, even if in a distant and garbled form.

These characters exist to raise challenges that cannot be safely ignored forever, then to be ritually crushed and silenced so that the status quo can be resumed with an untroubled feeling of virtue triumphant.  The challenge is assimilated and digested, made into nutrition and the excreted, keeping the organism going.  The wizards keep their house elves; Gotham City gets the chance to build some new orphanages and stave off its reckoning indefinitely.  Sauron brings back the king.  Shinzon tries to lead his people to freedom and just ends up helping the Federation make peace with the Empire that enslaved him.  We should be allowed to sympathise with the leader of a slave rebellion against an empire, but Star Trek Nemesis makes Spartacus into a mass-murderer and a rapist.  But even so, it lets Spartacus in – just for a moment.  (This is very much what happens in ‘The Time Warrior’ by the way – the Saxon rebel is depicted as the Norman imperialist ruling class would have seen him, the way the Western media sees the Iraqi resistance.  This is unfortunate, since one of the things I love about Doctor Who is that its villains very often represent the powerful rather than the powerless, and thus can be properly hated.)

The life of the villain is a lonely one, a life of angrily confronting hypocrisy and injustice, and being despised for it, only to be squashed so that the hypocrisy and injustice can continue.  I can sympathise with that.  I can sympathise with the people who say to Merlin ‘hang on, Uther’s a bloody tyrant and supporting him doesn’t help anyone that he persecutes – you should fight him, like we’re doing!’.  Especially since those people always, inevitably, get beaten – but keep trying anyway.  They’re not just the poor of the Land of Fiction; they’re the demonstrators and activists and strikers and rebels, soldiering on the face of certain defeat, unaware that they’ve already lost.  Being such people, they are monstered and calumniated.  And they are never allowed to have any viable solutions to offer, just incoherent rage that can be shouted down.  But at least they’re there.
Wait, the goodies tell us.  Wait for Albion.  It’ll arrive.  Just be patient.  Well, Albion is a very old promise… and, whatever the panglossian liberal morality plays we call family entertainment may say, we’re still bloody waiting.  At least the villains, unlike Merlin, are trying to kick up a stink about the delay.

Comments

Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

Surely this column is about analysis, not sub-Gallifrey-Base "reasons why I didn't like this crappy series"? This post was appalling, falling into the same old trap of ignoring plot points that dilute the criticism, whilst also disregarding any connection of the programme to the times in which it was broadcast or the audience it was aimed at (something I thought a Psychogeography was all about).

So instead of getting an insightful viewpoint on Merlin's place in the new pantheon of BBC Family SF/Fantasy spawned by the new 2005 series of Doctor Who (a "study of how physical spaces impact social, cultural, and personal lives.."), we get a diatribe against homophobia and Merlin's "utter detachment from real history". Which is a strange complaint, since the Arthurian legend (you know, being a legend) is already completely detached from history.

Anyway, that's my response. It'll be interesting to see if I'm out on my own here.

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Nick Smale 3 years, 8 months ago

The characters seem to know about the germ theory of disease, for example.

And the circulation of blood. And Gaius has an orrery that shows more than five planets, with the sun at the centre. And...

Oh, and Christianity doesn't seem to exist either...

At the time I tried to rationalise all this by theorising that the show was set in a some post-apocalyptic far-future era: magic, I imagined, was the half-forgotten remnants of an advanced science. A theory that was thoroughly buggered up by the final scene of the final episode, of course...

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Alex Antonijevic 3 years, 8 months ago

Very interesting essay. I only watched the first 2 episodes of Merlin before noticing the problems you point out, and I never bothered watching more.

You've got a very interesting point about villains, and I think that it's way too easy for a writer to fall into that comfortable groove of having a villain there to be defeated and ridiculed, especially if they seem sympathetic in some way. And as for the heroes sometimes behaving like the villains, but they're still "good"... I remember the Sword of Truth series (which is pretty much rubbish, btw) where murder, torture and all manner of nasty tactics are perfectly excusable if you're on the good side. The villain is an asshole, sure, but his mission would be good and noble if he was on the side of the heroes.

Definitely something more writers need to be aware of.

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arcbeatle 3 years, 8 months ago

"In a land of myth, and a time of legend..."
That is the historical time period its set in, just to clear that up, and throw out the argument the author made refuted by every opening voice over of the show. Hercules: The Legendary Journey, and Xena: Warrior Princess did the same thing. As really, does most of Arthurian myth (which always seems to have that pesky word "myth" in there messing up the argument again) which often has castles instead of halls, full plate armor, and other anachronisms.

"Battlefield" must be the author's least favorite Doctor Who episode, what with giving the characters ray-guns, which spoils all of the historical accuracy...

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Phil 3 years, 8 months ago

I think a lot of people are misunderstanding the "historical accuracy" argument. The issue isn't that it's not factually correct, it's that it presents a view of the past (which is where myth and legend are usually situated, regardless of whether they actually "happened") that erases real struggles in favour of lionising the powerful.

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Phil 3 years, 8 months ago

"disregarding any connection of the programme to the times in which it was broadcast or the audience it was aimed at"

That's entirely what the post is about, though. It's not kind to the times in which it was broadcast, but it is about them

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liminalD 3 years, 8 months ago

I really enjoyed this post, so well done Jack - entertaining and thought-provoking. I really like your argument about the way villains exist to be discredited, I'm going to have to give that some thought. I liked the way you drew on a number of different stories to illustrate your points - i'm going to have to go back and look at Richard III again, I can see that now :)

Also, I love your blog, Shaboggan Graffiti :)

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Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

Yes but it's written in such a malicious, bitter and resentful style, it just has "forum review" all over it. Perhaps I expect different from your posts. I reiterate. Homophobia? For Christ sake, where did he get that from? If it's a metaphor, then why not say Racism, or Ageism?

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

"Instead, in Merlin, as in so many other products of the capitalist culture industries, the oppressed in revolt become evil and more powerful than the oppressors. The oppressors become the victims of the oppressed. The oppressed become the aggressors."

In absolute fairness, it should perhaps be noted that this has often been an unfortunate truth in the real world; even Joseph Stalin counted among the oppressed at one point. A byproduct of capitalist and class propaganda it might be, but it's sadly not without a grain of truth at least, and is something that the oppressed, far be it from me to tell them how to fight their revolution, might want to keep in mind at least -- whoever fights monsters, and all that.

This said, a very interesting perspective indeed (although I've never seen Merlin).

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Daru 3 years, 8 months ago

Yeah interesting - thanks Jack.

I did almost agree with spacewarp above for a bit, as your opening paragraphs were not winning me over, despite my not being the most massive fan of Merlin. It was very interesting where your analysis ended up though with taking a stance on the side of those on the margins in the show. I did watch (kind of grudgingly) the whole show and I never once bought the actor playing Arthur, he and essentially the whole of Camelot felt so wrong to me, particularly as they kept on stating their rightness.

To me many of the Druid communities were seeming to try to just live out their existence and seemed like quite decent little camps - as opposed to the forced grandeur and happiness of Camelot. I know where I would rather have lived. I found the show in the end quite emotionally empty and the whole inclusion of the Druids rather jarring, especially when mashing them up with Harry Potter style magic. Of course I know that this show is not in any way connected with history - but knowing that there indeed was a massacre of Druids by the oppressor Romans on the Isle of Anglesey, it on one hand makes sense having them return in Merlin's Land of Fiction as guerrillas/terrorists/freedom fighters, and on the other a shame to not acknowledge their positions somehow as advisors/teachers/poets.

Good article, thanks Jack!

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Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

Although Arthurian legend frequently contains the framework of traditional chivalry, knights jousting and wearing ceremonial plate armour didn't appear until the 14th Century, by which time the Kings of England had been well established for about 300 years. Merlin (and the Arthurian legend generally) seems to exist in a kind of alternate historical cul-de-sac where history somehow went different. A pocket time period if you will. So although we in the 21st Century have a vague memory of the events, we find it impossible to place it into our past as there is no room for it. Which, if you consider Magic plays a large part of the world of Merlin, is probably as good an explanation of when it happened as anything.

As escapist fare it served up the goods reasonably well, but all the evidence points to it's success resting squarely on the double-act of Morgan and James, who acting aside, had undeniable chemistry.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

I liked Merlin, but I can't really disagree with anything here. I would say that maybe Jack is playing down just how much Uther is portrayed as an evil tyrant. Merlin's role in "shepherding Arthur to kingship" is not about ensuring he becomes king (as you say, that's gong to happen anyway), it's about making sure he isn't Uther Part 2.

The way in which Uther's deranged conviction that magic users are plotting against him becomes real because what choice do they have struck me as less about homophobia (although the mark of a good analogy is it works on multiple levels and Jack's magic = homosexuality strikes me as a good one) and more about the War on Terror, with Merlin as a British Muslim who doesn't support terrorism, but is trying to make the government's reaction to it less horribly racist. Although I agree that sometimes it's more like collusion (especially around the start of the final series) that always struck me as bum notes of writers not thinking things through rather than the intent.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

This isn't a diatribe against homophobia, though it has elements of it. (Surely you're not arguing forhomophobia?) Rather, he's pointing out exactly what you're calling for -- an insightful viewpoint on Merlin's place in the BBC pantheon. That place, according to Graham, is within the walls of Camelot, and what that means is to engage in narratives that reject the possibility of overthrowing an unjust social order -- not on the grounds that such revolt isn't practically feasible, but because it's morally specious. Which is frankly a revolting position to take, and I'm thrilled Graham calls out the likes of Merlin for going there.

And it's not like he doesn't give props to the show's attempts at being slashable and multiracial, it's just that it's overarching structure isn't very progressive at all.

But where the complaint that this is a "forum review" fails is that it's fully reasoned out, to the point that Graham draws apt comparisons to a wide variety of other fictions, from Shakespeare to other contemporary takes on mythology. This is structural analysis, not a rant against the aesthetics of a show, against it's, ahem, style.

Where is the appropriate place for malicious, bitter resentment? Outside the walls of Camelot, clamoring for the end to injustice, I say.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

It's important to point out that addressing the show's lack of historicity is really to drive home the point that it isn't "about" medieval times, but about the present. (Which also true for Xena, and Battlefield.) This, in turn, sets up the analysis of the show's social hierarchy. It's a fair point to make.

Doctor Who's Battlefield, by the way, is rather sly about its use of villain. Morgaine doesn't exist simply to be defeated. Rather, she exists for the Doctor to explicitly make the point that our contemporary power structure, with its nuclear weapons, is wholly lacking in honour -- that for all of Morgaine's villainy, we are more villainous. Imagine -- we have set up a system so villainous that even the villain agrees it should never be used!

Battlefield then drives home the point that Morgaine is a sympathetic character with her request to look upon Arthur one last time. She can't -- he's dust -- and this played not as the Doctor triumphant, but as something that's truly sad. (She's then "locked up" by UNIT, which goes right back to Graham's point about how the current social order ultimately maintains its hegemony.)

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

I'm reminded of Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog, another nifty deconstruction of the roles that heroes and villains are forced to play by narrative fiat, despite the actual qualities of the people involved.

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Chris Andersen 3 years, 8 months ago

The point about collusion is a good one. If Merlin were taken as an allegory for a Muslim trying to reform the governments over-reaction to Muslim terrorism, then it isn't hard to see how a lot of other Muslims who aren't themselves terrorists might still see the Merlin character as a collaborator for the simple fact that he works for the people who are oppressing Muslims.

The same argument was made against Martin Luther King by more radical elements of the Black Power movement: King's willingness to work with whites to reform the system was seen by some as a betrayal of his race. This is how the oppressed become the villain: when they adopt the racial frames of their oppressor to justify their own fight instead of simply pointing out that the oppression alone is enough to justify the fight.

There are some powerful stories to be told in a framework like this.

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

I just love it when the hero wins because he has help that he earned via an act of selfless kindness. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often enough. It never happens to Harry Potter, for instance, who is never selfless. Ever.

This made me laugh. A recurring (and somewhat weird) trope in Harry Potter fanfic is that Harry goes to Gringott's for some reason and calls Griphook by name. This so astonishes all the goblins, who have never encountered any wizard capable of even that degree of kindness or respect for them, that the goblin leaders violate their own policies to explain to Harry how Dumbledore is screwing him, how he is actually a billionaire, how he is really Merlin's heir (and usually heir to a half-dozen or so ancient families), and how he has incredible superpowers beyond those of other wizards that somebody has "blocked." And all because Harry just happened to remember the name of the only goblin he's ever canonically met and is polite enough to use it in conversation.

Speaking of HP, you raise some good points about Voldemort, but honestly, I just think the character is so incoherently written that I can't tell what motivates him. Rowling herself pretty much just assumes he's a charismatic psychopath and ignores the question of how such a raving loony becomes the leader of such a powerful movement.

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

I watched exactly one episode of Merlin and that was enough for me to conclude the series was, at least in part, an allegory about homophobia. The fact that the main character is required by the plot to stay in the magical closet or face violent discrimination is pretty much a giveaway.

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 8 months ago

Having never seen Merlin (and being now less likely to give it a shot), I can only engage with the comments about liberal morality plays and the "great man" theory of history. The post here about Babylon 5 identified it (properly) as buying in to the "great man" theory of history, but your mention here of that theory made me realize just how much B5 is built around revolution and what a contrast it sets to the picture you paint of Merlin.

Setting aside Sinclair, both of the "great person" leader characters, Sheridan and Delenn, end up openly challenging the leadership of their own people. Sheridan's so defined by saying "no" and drawing a line against tyranny that Season 5 (which sees him in charge of the new establishment) sees him largely at sea. (B5 S5 has grown on me as a challenge of all the ideals the series seemed to be building up uncritically; no wonder fans of the show often dislike it.) Delenn effectively overturns her own government in the name of a prophecy she later discovers to have been self-fulfilling. G'kar's role is obviously revolutionary, although I suppose you could argue his violent revolutionary side gets chastened over the course of the show.

And Londo's willingness to buy into the kind of mythic past which endorses the shallow values being discussed here in Merlin leads him down a tragic path where he finds out the cost of getting what he thought he wanted.

Is there a viable revolutionary streak running through current sci-fi/fantasy (aside from Doctor Who)? BSG struck me as a mess of relativism and authoritarianism whose ultimate recourse seemed to be to give up and advocate anarchy.

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Ed Azad 3 years, 8 months ago

This is why I've never considered Merlin a cult show (slash notwithstanding), but rather a commercialization of cult. Xena couldn't go farther because the affiliates wouldn't allow it. Merlin, in contrast, idly inserts ho yay because that's what the kids are into nowadays.

But I agree, it's nothing compared to the lofty victim-blaming going on. There's nothing less palatable than a mealy-mouthed script. Crime fiction does this, which is bad enough, but justifiable since going beyond those limits would remove all plausibility. The city is saved via cracking some social justice/commie/weirdo/queer/anarchist skulls, then letting the hedge fund manager go with a stern finger.

But when Arthur is relegated to behaving like some capo for a tough-but-fair authoritarian ruler, you have to scratch your head at the values here. Is the world just not ready for Albion? should we all just accept that everyone is as bigoted and close-minded as Uther, just in different degrees? that Caesarism is preferable to anarchy?

It takes a mediocre mind to impose a just world hypothesis on Camelot, that's all I'm saying.

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Ed Azad 3 years, 8 months ago

I think the seeds of BSG's problems lay in the grandness of scope. What's this show about? It's not a "war on terror" allegory; that angle was aborted in in Season Two since, I suspect, you can't despite such a conflict honestly without making the protagonists look kinda shit.

Next came the new age mysticism and origin myths, which I somehow plodded through without dropping into a coma.

At last, the show settled into a Das Boot environment of sweating, seething humanity on its last legs. Hardly utopian, but reflective of the ambivalent times we live in.

In short, I'd argue that BSG wasn't interested in relativism but rather nihilism. (The authoritarian Roslin more or less becomes the Pontius Pilate to Baltar's Jesus, hardly a heroic figure.) The running theme through Ron Moore's 'verse is that civilization begets destruction begets civilization. The crew of the Bucket have several tempting opportunities to just give in and accept their fates as space bacteria, but they press on and eventually flourish... only to destroy themselves again, as hinted by the "angels" in the epilogue. I think Ron Moore was making hay of the sci-fi definition of "progress", though it might've gotten lost in that soup of mythology. It's pretty clear that Moore's long-term planning was spare, with the only certainty being the discovery of Earth at the end.

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 8 months ago

There's a quote I read years ago in a manual about writing fiction or GMing RPGs better or something like that that went "Good villains can be seen as right. The best villains are right." I wish I could source it, because, as you've demonstrated so well, it's completely accurate.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

I like that in the same way I never know what Doctor Sandifer's take on a particular entry will be, as soon as I see Jack Graham at the head of an article I'll know exactly the tone and take.

Which isn't to say I agree, but it is as always, well written and enjoyable.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

While it certainly draws an analogy between the homophobia and the oppression of magic it is a mistake to simply conclude that the whole series is ABOUT homophobia - i.e. to read the characters actions and decisions in terms of whether they are a progressive response to homophobia. Why is it a mistake? Because the show is manifestly about people with magical powers and gay people are not people with magical powers. In most episodes a character of the week is attempting to do something (usually something nefarious but not always) with magic and Merlin (in part) uses magic to stop them. The central driver of each episodes plot simply has no analog with the complex interplay of sexuality and oppression in our society.
Which takes up back to the X-men.
The X-Men can be read with analogies to various progressive causes about oppressed minorities but it can also be read in relation to issues such as gun-control, government reaction to terrorism and the war on drugs. These are also political issues but how governments should behave becomes more murky. There are clear wrongs (at least clear to some...) but there is a distinction:
1. With homophobia we have society and governments acting against a threat that doesn't exist. The LGBT community is not a threat, the laws that oppress them do not protect anybody from anything.
2. With terrorism there are real threats but government and societal reaction is often disproportionate or counter productive. In the UK the best example is the long mess of Northern Ireland.
3. With gun control...ah this is the fun one. Attitudes between the UK and the US couldn't be more different and it is often unproductive to even mention it on the internet :). However in terms of the X-Men and even Merlin we have an interesting question. If Cyclops is your neighbor and is permanently walking around with a weapon powerful enough to level your house then having him publicly register his power is reasonable.

Merlin wasn't some pure morality play about homphobia. To read it that way can only lead to absurd conclusion (e.g. why is the actor who played Quentin Crisp a giant dragon locked in a cave mentoring Merlin?). There are analogies but not some giant isomorphism anymore than there is with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

I think Merlin is in this bind because of the subject matter. That is, there was formerly a myth around neopagan circles that there has always been magic but it was oppressed and underground. So it has a secret history. And because nobody likes to have a secret history in which they are merely oppressed, and because the whole point of magic is that it influences things, it ends up with a secret history, a benign conspiracy theory, in which the supposedly oppressed magic has in fact been the secret agent of progress, and responsible for everything nice that has happened in history. Magicians, not poets, are the secret legislators of the world. Merlin is there to manipulate Arthur into becoming a benign ruler. So identifying with Merlin or magicians generally simultaneously gives you the moral high ground of siding with the oppressed as well as the pleasure of being the secret head of the hegemony.
Translated into any allegory of any non-mythical oppressed group, that comes out as rather unfortunate.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

There is an interesting issue here: Arthurian stories as a genre have always been both anachronistic, flouting of geography and not slef consistent. Geoffrey of Monomouth's tales plonk Norman sensibilities on top of dark age myths. The Arthurian fragments in the Mabinogian slot him into myths about cattle raids. Thomas Malory slots him into late medieval chivalry.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

Is there some magical aura around Merlin that stops it from being given a critical analysis along these lines though? Nyq your comment seems to come down to "I don't like your criticism because if I take a little more literally it's silly". That's like saying that it's a mistake to say the X-Men can't be about oppressed minorities because there are no psychics in oppressed minorities.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Jack, the impression I get is that villains become sympathetic to you not because of what actions they do or do not take, but because they are not part of the dominant power structure. That is, you seem to appreciate outsiders first and foremost, and assume that any actions they take may be justified on the grounds that systemic oppression is implicit in their outsider status. Is that a fair reading of your point of view, or is there something I'm not reading carefully enough to grasp?

I can understand that point of view to some extent. I think it's easy, for instance, to find Magneto sympathetic up to a point, particularly when his Brotherhood is portrayed (e.g. in the films) as taking under its wings every mutant who isn't a red-blooded apple-pie white North American (or Halle Berry). But it's hard for me to get past the fact that his M.O. is mass murder and his credo is explicitly racist (species-ist?) -- that limits the sympathy I can have for him, while I gather it doesn't really faze you. You suggest that the heroes' crimes are too often ignored or forgiven, and I'm with you there, but I have a hard time with the idea that I should be quicker to forgive those of the villains.

Is Uther's magikophobia (?) explained in any way? Is it just assumed that magic is evil, or is there a suggestion that the kingdom has always been subject to unprovoked assaults by wizards and witches? I don't think it would change my point of view about the show or the characters (which you've all but persuaded me not to bother with) but I'm curious.

Also, I must say that until you got to the part about the collaboration -- and, really, even after that -- Merlin's relationship with Arthur sounded very like that of a young man in love with his straight best friend. Even as the best friend does awful things, the young man is semi-blind to them, clings to hope that he'll change, that he's a good person inside. That doesn't paint Merlin in a nicer light, necessarily, but it's a real thing that happens, and handled with sensitivity could be an interesting emotional arc. This doesn't sound like a sensitive show, and not one where Merlin is likely to grow out of his crush on Arthur and hook up with some worthier wizard, but maybe in 20 years that'll be the theme of the reboot. Or maybe not.

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J Mairs 3 years, 8 months ago

For all it's flaws, Merlin has at least one redeeming feature:

It isn't "Atlantis".

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

Presumably, though, Merlin is popular for reasons other than that it advocates gay people staying in the closet and colluding with their oppressors. I think there may be dodgy reasons for its popularity in some ways, but the negative analysis can't be all there is to it. It looks as though it's calling out for a redemptive reading.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

One other thing I wanted to ask:

I think most of us would agree (or at least feel safer in assuming) we don't live in a world where all the notorious -isms (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.) have been eliminated.

So when we're building a fantasy or science fiction world that's patently not our own, what's the best road to take in portraying the role of race, sex, orientation, class, etc. in that world?

1. Mirror today's world, and present all these things as being ongoing problems in more or less the same way they are today? This seems like the easiest way to dodge criticism of taking a "panglossian liberal view," and is probably the safest assumption if your world is supposed to seem realistic or extrapolated from today.

However, it also seems to reinforce the idea that these problems will never be solved, and it means that people who aren't straight white men (extend the list of "dominant" groups as far as you like), if they're seeing themselves on television or in fiction are continuing to see worlds in which they are "issues" and not ordinary people. It's not an approach that offers much hope, and perhaps more importantly it doesn't model what that post-ist world might look like. There seems to me some value in that. So the other approach would be:

2. Assume that these problems -- or some significant chunk of them -- are no longer issues in the same way, if at all, and present that world to impressionable youngsters. You might argue this is false hope, but I think if you believe in material social progress at all (maybe you don't, Jack, but you talk like you might), you can probably see some value in envisioning the future. If we don't see that modeled in our most speculative fictions, if we can't even bring ourselves to imagine what that would look like, how do we make it happen?

That's the dilemma I think about when you discuss Merlin's world where racism doesn't exist but classism and thinly veiled homophobia do. It seems to me that if there's value in colorblind casting at the Globe, there's similar value in putting actors of color into a saga of myth and legend -- even if it does seem to contradict the flimsy history on which this take on the Arthurian tradition has been assembled.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Nyq your comment seems to come down to "I don't like your criticism because if I take a little more literally it's silly".

Well it is close to that :) My comment is that BECAUSE he is taking it too literally it HAS become silly. There is an analogy with homophobia in Merlin but you can't read the whole show that way because it leads to absurdities. Therefore there is a point were the analogy breaks down. What is that point? Well it isn't going to be some sharply defined line but an obvious contender is the point that many of the characters have magical powers. The magical powers have no analog with modern society's struggle with homophobia. Yet Merlin's actions and collaboration with Uther's regime arises from the 'rel' issue of magical powers in the fictional world. Consequently Jack Graham's reading makes the mildly interesting ethical dilemmas of Merlin dull.
Now the reading of a text is a messy interplay of the subjective and intersubjective but given a choice I prefer to choose a reading where the text is interesting rather than dull.

For example - back to Buffy. Modern literary vampires are sexual beings (going back to at least Stoker's Dracula). So we can read modern vampire stories in terms of repressed sexuality. Are there elements of that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Gosh there are oodles and oodles. Yet at a more basic level it was a TV series about brutally destroying vampires. Hence it was a TV series about brutally destroying our sexual desires and when you think about it that way it not only becomes horrible but dull - a sort of giant myth about hard it is to become some sort of asexual being free of desire. Buffy works because it is about different things and those different things can't always be read together.

X-Men can be about oppressed minorities but it can't be ABOUT oppressed minorities i.e. it can't be a fable about the oppression of minorities. If it were then it would have only enough material to fill a sort of sci-fi Tarrentinoesque revenge fantasy*. X-Men is less dull than that because people hate and fear mutants for good reasons. Those good reasons don't justify building sentinel robots but the reasons still exist. Consequently X-Men also touches on issues akin to gun control (e.g. mutant registration plots which reflect NRA like reasoning that registration is a precursor to oppression)

[*or possibly Roald Dahl's Matilda. I convinced my kids she must be a sith apprentice :) ]
[**I should note on that point that Matilda is a brilliant movie]

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't know about a redemptive reading. It wasn't a great TV show and it seemed to want to only judge itself by the standard of Saturday tea-time adventure. On that level it was mediocre plotwise but elevated by an excellent cast. So on balance it was not bad and at times got better.

I liked its use of Arthurian myth as the series developed. It used them to create narrative tension for those who knew the 'story' - feeling free to change things enough so that even by the closing episodes of the final series it felt not wholly impossible that they could pull off an ending with Arthur living. Older Mordred didn't get enough development as a character but he was more interesting than T H White's proto-Nazi

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Is Uther's magikophobia (?) explained in any way? Is it just assumed that magic is evil, or is there a suggestion that the kingdom has always been subject to unprovoked assaults by wizards and witches?"

His specific policy of oppression is explained as being due to the death of his wife during childbirth (when Arthur was born). Uther had made use of a witch in some way (I forget the details) - although the implication is that magic was at that point already disreputable and that this had been a somewhat shameful act by Uther even prior to it becoming a deeply hypocritical one given his later draconian/genocidal laws.

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Ciaran M 3 years, 8 months ago

In defence of the X-Men, currently, at least two of the comics are taking a much more aggressive stance on what mutants should be allowed to do in order to escape persecution- in one case, they fought and killed for the right of self-determination, and in the other they plan for a revolution on American soil. Both of these groups are nominally presented as heroes.

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

Personally, I've always thought that the dirty little secret of X-Men was that it was never really about racism or homphobia or anything like that. It is actually about disaffected, picked-on nerds and geeks. Think about it this way. All mutants (nerds) have special gifts that any sensible person would consider socially valuable but that the non-mutant characters (non-nerd peers) irrationally treat with fear and loathing. The X-Men actually live in a school for gifted children. And the comic is slathered in wish fulfillment, as most of them are absurdly good looking and exceptionally intelligent, and a disproportionate number of them are billionaires. None of them fit the "jock" or "spoiled rich kid" archetype (except maybe Emma who, at this point, is basically a fetish character). The whole series from day one was built to attract teens who felt alienated because their particular gifts weren't appreciated by the rest of society. The Sentinels are just the robotic equivalent of the jocks who slam the nerds into walls while the teachers look the other way.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

I have seen this billionaires thing a couple times...and I can think of two maybe three rich X-Men. Warren Worthington, Emma Frost, and Professor X. Xavier's wealth is more a plot contrivance to run the school, it never really shows up. Warren's was relevant only early on and during the Morrison era and Emma's only to facilitate the occasional story,

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

Overall, I didn't care for X-Men First Class, but it did have one moment that literally caused me to yell out "YES!" when I saw it -- the scene where Magneto confronts the Nazi main villain who gives what amounts to a "master race" speech, and Magneto says "I agree with everything you say, but that doesn't change the fact that you murdered my mother" before killing the Nazi in cold blood. I loved that because it's the first time since Magneto went from "villain" to "antihero" in the early 1980's that someone has pointed out what a raging hypocrite he is. I'd pay good money for a comic in which someone (ideally Kitty Pryde, the most prominent Jewish mutant character) calls Magneto out on the fact that he and Hitler really only disagree on who is an Ubermensch and who is an Untermensch and that if Magneto had been blond and blue-eyed, he'd have probably made an excellent Nazi.

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

I refuse to watch that show. From the promos, I cannot conceive of a universe in which Atlantis is any good. It looks like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but stripped of every ounce of wit and charm and humor. I was actually offended that they kept showing those damn promos throughout the airing of the DW 50th special.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

I think Nyq Only has summed it up for me. "...it was mediocre plotwise but elevated by an excellent cast."

Which was why me & the kids enjoyed it. I guess we saw it on the same level as Top Cat or Scooby Doo - plot found wanting, but still immensely watchable because of the cast.

I suspect my issue with reviews of childrens programmes (and make no mistake, Merlin was far more firmly in that camp than Doctor Who) is when people go a bit over the top in their analysis and draw in allegories that I just don't think should apply to Kids TV. That's my threshold and therefore my problem.

Oh and no Jane of course I'm not for homophobia. But I am against people banging on and on about it in places where it arguably doesn't exist. It reminds me too much of RTD's Gay Agenda.

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John Seavey 3 years, 8 months ago

I was broadly with you right up until Grendel. I don't think there's any reading of the text where he's anything other than an amoral sadist and predator.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

To be clear: Kid's Television should be beyond critical analysis because it's for kids? Surely the audience makes it MORE important.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Well, there's John Gardner's, but I haven't read that in close to 20 years so I don't remember if it would qualify (or convince).

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 8 months ago

Then you are missing out on one of the best novels of the 1970s, John Gardner's Grendel, which portrays the entire life of the monster, his thoughts and feelings and situation up to and including the first portion of Beowulf from his point of view.

As an examination not only of Beowulf itself, but of a life lived unable to communicate with anyone, and utterly alone in the world, it is not to be missed. On par with Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in terms of reexaminating classic works through their minor characters.

It's a short novel, most could finish it in an afternoon at a leisurely pace. It has stuck with me ever since I read it in high school. Grendel is certainly a monster, but he's not simply a terrifying beast in the night that exists only to be killed and establish what a bad-ass Beowulf is so he can fight even stronger monsters. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shirk from—the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment—that’s what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.” (from Chapter 5)

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

Not quite the same thing, but in the similar vein there is the scene in the first X-Men movie where Magneto is making a self-glorifying speech about how his actions (including killing Rogue) will bring about a new and better world for mutantkind, and Wolverine basically points out that he's full of shit because if he were really convinced that his actions were so righteous he'd be sacrificing himself instead of a teenage girl.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Kids TV certainly should be subjected to critical analysis. I'm not aware of anybody who has made the argument in this comment section that kids TV or Merlin in particular should not be subjected to critical analysis. Presumably anybody who believed that would not be making any comments or reading this blog for that matter.
I believe Spacewarp was arguing that kids TV should be cut some slack critically. I think he a point and that actually that is why kids TV (in the UK at least) often produces some gems that transcend their time slot.
I don't think Merlin managed that. It wasn't Press Gang.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

That magic users are "in the closet" makes a pretty direct metaphor to being closeted regarding sexuality; that Merlin and Arthur are apparently so slashable helps confirm that particular reading. And yes, it's a metaphor, and it's going to fray at the edges -- but this always true when it comes to metaphor. This doesn't mean it's inappropriate as a metaphor, only to be aware that extending it past its boundaries may yield absurdity.

Likewise, just because the metaphor "works" in a show like Merlin doesn't mean it's the only metaphor. As Graham points out, Camelot also serves as a metaphor for social relations, and of course this can be extended to all kinds of oppression; same goes for X-men.

That Merlin comes under fire for its metaphorical entailments does not mean, however, that one should feel guilty for enjoying the show. Rather, it's yet another opportunity to see how storytelling (and especially mythology) often unconsciously reflects the prevailing norms of present society. Of course it's wrong how rebels against power structures are displayed; it's also, unfortunately, true. Same goes for closeted homosexuality.

Which brings me to the likening of homosexuality with "magic." Of course being gay is magic! Everyone knows it confers a sensibility for producing cinema and art, the magic of movies and TV writ large. (*Rolls eyes.*) Anything in myth that's patently absurd -- be it magic or monsters -- anything that could never actually happen, that's the stuff that should only be taken metaphorically, at least at the level of analysis. Too often, the stuff that could never happen is always happening.

Nothing escapes the critical gaze.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

But that's not a reading of the poem Beowulf; just as a reading of Elementary or Sherlock isn't really appropriate to talking about Doyle's original stories.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Anything in myth that's patently absurd -- be it magic or monsters -- anything that could never actually happen, that's the stuff that should only be taken metaphorically, at least at the level of analysis."

I'm only picking on this bit because your thoughtful comment summed up what seems to be the point of agreement and disagreement :)
The reason why I'm be-labouring the point about the magic is that it changes mechanics of the oppressed and the oppressor in the fictional world in a way that does not work analogously with sexuality in reality (or if there is an analogy to be made it would be a very different one from the Merlin hides his magic in the way some people are forced to hide their sexuality).

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

To be clear: Kid's Television should be beyond critical analysis because it's for kids? Surely the audience makes it MORE important.

Wasn't it here a few months ago that someone pointed out that television is the only human endeavor where someone can with a straight face say "Don't worry that it isn't very good; it's only for my children."

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

"The reason why I'm be-labouring the point about the magic is that it changes mechanics of the oppressed and the oppressor in the fictional world in a way that does not work analogously with sexuality in reality (or if there is an analogy to be made it would be a very different one from the Merlin hides his magic in the way some people are forced to hide their sexuality)."

Doesn't Merlin's "magic" make him more attractive to Arthur? To the extent that their slashiness became such a strong part of the narrative?

Of course, having "magic powers" is a very different proposition to being gay. But what's relevant is how the Closet still functions more or less the same, whether you have magic powers or a queer sexuality. So the Closet is the relevant metaphor -- not that "magic = gay."

And this is what gets back to Jack's analysis of the power relations in the show. The Closet is an expression of a power relationship. One can be in it for being magical, for being queer, or even for being a revolutionary. Now, why would all three of these qualities be singled out for oppression? Possibly because they're all expressions of power.

Think about it. Magic users have the power to shape reality, according to their will (and whatever rules, whatever.) Revolutionaries, of course, have the power to shape political reality, getting people to shed the illusions of capitalism/monarchy/oppression-ism. Queers, of course, challenge social norms regarding sexuality and even gender. We're all shoved into the closet because we challenge the prevailing power structures.

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TG 3 years, 8 months ago

Appropriately, I read this post whilst listening to my community radio station's Monday night Punk show. So, the soundtrack was: The Mob, Penetration, UK Subs, The Adverts, Kill Pretty, Siouxsie, Wire, Joy Division, The Pop Group, and PiL.

So, needless to say, whatever I may have thought when embarking, by the end I totally agreed with everything Jack Graham has to say here. After all, isn't community radio one of the Villains?

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"But what's relevant is how the Closet still functions more or less the same, whether you have magic powers or a queer sexuality."

Well that certainly IS relevant to the extent to which there is analogy between the magic users of Merlin and people persecuted for their sexuality in modern society. Both groups find themselves having to hide some core aspect of themselves.

"The Closet is an expression of a power relationship. One can be in it for being magical, for being queer, or even for being a revolutionary. Now, why would all three of these qualities be singled out for oppression? Possibly because they're all expressions of power."

I agree completely. However that demonstrates that the commonality is that encounter with power. That means that all such dynamics have elements in common even if they are real rather than fictional. It also means that they are different. A drama about a former member of the Communist Party living in suburban 1950s America would also have many parallels with a closeted character. Of course if that drama also dealt with Stalin being a sh*t and the character struggling with his political views in the light of events in Hungary we would be making a mistake to connect those aspects of the story with sexuality.

"evolutionaries, of course, have the power to shape political reality, getting people to shed the illusions of capitalism/monarchy/oppression-ism."

:) To quote the immortal bard "You can be active with the activists or sleeping with the sleepers, while you are waiting for the great leap forwards"

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Steven Clubb 3 years, 8 months ago

Later BSG seemed to be opting for Mandela style reconciliation, having the characters acknowledge (to the extent they could) their own contribution to the cycle of violence... even to the point of acknowledging the existence of a third group which they had both oppressed and giving them not only freedom, but the means to extract revenge after they laid down their arms.

In the end, everyone was guilty, so they were forced to let everyone who was willing to lay down arms off. Which is pretty much what Mandela had to do in South Africa, as there was enough guilt to go around (even on his side) that the only way forward was for everyone to agree to let the past go.

Don't think any other sci-fi show has ever attempted to do something as complex as what BSG was doing in trying to create sympathy for a group of robots who attempted genocide on the human race, to acknowledge their crime growing out of their continued frustration with humanity's failure to recognize them as alive... while they were systematically oppressing the mechanicals in exactly the same way. No one was free from the taint of evil, all needed to seek forgiveness.

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

"Anything in myth that's patently absurd -- be it magic or monsters -- anything that could never actually happen, that's the stuff that should only be taken metaphorically, at least at the level of analysis."

I'm dubious about 'should only' as part of a critical principle. I don't think there's ever only one reading of a story that's what's really going on, or only one way that stuff should be taken. I rather think this is the problem with all metaphorical and symbolic critical approaches, whether hacks as Christopher Booker or Joseph Campbell, or genius as Northrop Frye: there's an imperialistic tendency to say that all stories should only be taken as variants on the single underlying story they're a metaphor for. Whereas if two stories are both metaphors for the same thing, that same metaphorical interpretation is the least important thing about them. The differences at the level of the vehicle are what makes it worth telling more than one story ever.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

@Nyq: Yes, there comes a point where the metaphor breaks down -- the power of magic is not the same as the power of sexuality, and these powers when used have different effects that will inform our subsequent moral understanding of them. Nonetheless, having invoked the trope of the Closet, Merlin needs to be aware that anything it says about "magic users" may have unintended entailments regarding what it's saying about homosexuality.

On the other hand, while its depiction of magic users breaching the gates of Camelot isn't directly analogous to homosexuality, it *is* an interesting interpretation of Camelot and its fear of queer.

@David Anderson: First, I only mean to distinguish "metaphorical" interpretation from "literal" interpretation. As Phil has pointed out on more than one occasion, the literal interpretation of something like "magic users" bears little if any fruit, because magic doesn't exist. In this case there's no analysis to be performed, though there's still much entertainment to be gleaned.

Furthermore, I'm not saying there's only *one* interpretation to be had from the metaphorical eye. The lovely thing about metaphors, the very best ones, is that have multiple applications. Indeed, we can read the magic users of Merlin standing in for homosexuality, and we can also read them as standing in for revolutionaries, to the extent it's possible to draw some connections between the two.

Hell, we can make all kinds of novel interpretations about magic -- the power of imagination, the ability to create art, faith in one's self, what have you. What JK Rowling does with magic is very different than what Merlin does. Regardless, taking magic literally in either story when performing critical analysis is going to be a mistake (unless, of course, you're solely interested in the mechanics of plot, but even here it's a case of missing the forest for the trees.)

Now, if we're looking at two stories that are both metaphors about the same thing, of course there's a lot more to study than just the metaphor. There's the art of them, their construction and execution, and of course the different particulars of the metaphor itself will yield different entailments. Just because the same metaphor is in play doesn't mean it's being used for the same purposes.

But at the end of the day, the impossible stuff only accrues meaning through translation to our material social progress. Impossible stuff comes (or came) from the subconscious, not the material world. It's the stuff of dream, speaking to hopes and desires and fears. Can't ignore it -- that's just psychological repression -- and can't take it literally, because at that level it doesn't make sense. How else to take other than at the level of metaphor?

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Spoilers Below 3 years, 8 months ago

Sure it is. It's John Gardner's reading of it. If we're not allowed to be influenced in our reading by extra textual elements, a whole lot of works become utterly inaccessible or utterly one sided.

I mean, sure, Beowulf presents Grendel as a silent, monstrous horror incapable of anything other than slaughter and violence, and who deserves to be killed by Beowulf because of his very existence (as he is of the race of Cain), and a reading on that text only supports that reading, biased as it is towards the humans and their civilization. Isn't arguing against this sort of one sided essentialism exactly what Graham's point was?

One could hardly hold up, for example, The Song of Roland as a treatise on good Christian/Muslim relations. It makes the poem no less influential or important to the history of literature, but it doesn't forgive the rather extreme prejudice present in the text either. A version of the Song from Bramimonde's point of view that commended on this would not alter the original one bit, but would help properly comment on the implicit racism and religious prejudice that is glossed over in the original poem because it assumes that you are on the Franks' side, just as Beowulf presumes you are on that of the Geats and Danes.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Nonetheless, having invoked the trope of the Closet, Merlin needs to be aware that anything it says about "magic users" may have unintended entailments regarding what it's saying about homosexuality."

Sure but only up to a point. For example are they saying it is understandable for people to hide their sexuality in countries which have the death penalty (or nearly as has harsh laws) for homosexuality?

You also don't want to create a situation were it is safer never to touch parallels with sexuality. For example the sexuality issue (but not the wider power dynamic issue) would be undermined if they had made the titular hero more overtly heterosexual. I don't think that would have been a positive outcome.

There is a similar issue with Jack's complaints about Guinevere's casting. His complaint would have been lessened if they had cast a more stereotypically north-western European character - oh and made her royalty :)

After that what else is there? Arthurian tale is necessarily going to have a hero who will bring about an idyllic realm once he is king. Chuck that bit out and you don't actually have an story about Merlin and Arthur. It is like going to a James Bond movie and being disappointed that he acts to uphold the established power structures of the British State.

And this guy probably couldn't carry a whole series :) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOOTKA0aGI0

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

It's surprising to me that of all the analogies Philip's explored on this blog so far, it's Jack's that people are resisting so energetically. I'm not sure I understand why, and I'm reluctant to speculate.

For example are they saying it is understandable for people to hide their sexuality in countries which have the death penalty (or nearly as has harsh laws) for homosexuality?

...isn't it?

Arthurian tale is necessarily going to have a hero who will bring about an idyllic realm once he is king. Chuck that bit out and you don't actually have an story about Merlin and Arthur.

Unless your story is that he could bring about that realm, but its emergence is by no means certain. I think that would be a pretty interesting take; perhaps that's exactly what's going on here, I'm not sure. And for a loose but recognizable Merlin/Arthur story that, as far as I know, has nothing to do with Camelot/Albion, check out Matt Wagner's Mage comics.

It is like going to a James Bond movie and being disappointed that he acts to uphold the established power structures of the British State.

Which technically he does in the last three films, but with a lot more ambivalence than one might typically expect.

Not trying to nitpick; just pointing out that these stories are surprisingly elastic.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"t's surprising to me that of all the analogies Philip's explored on this blog so far, it's Jack's that people are resisting so energetically."

I hadn't noticed that it is particularly energetic. It is a discussion in which everybody seems to agree that there is a metaphor in Merlin about societal and governmental oppression of some people's sexuality.

"I'm not sure I understand why, and I'm reluctant to speculate."
Please go ahead and speculate. I am sure if you present your speculation in a reasoned and respectful manner it will engender an interesting discussion.

I outlined some of my reasons above - I found Jack's essay interesting but I worry that it creates a disincentive for TV shows (particularly kids TV shows) to ever touch upon issues of gender, race or sexuality. I appreciate that is not an outcome Jack would want but I think that only further highlights that there is something not right with the argument he has made. As I discussed in my recent reply to Jane, Jack's criticism would apparently be less apt if the central hero was more overtly heterosexual and if a key character had been played by a more stereotypical actor (Guinevere).

"Not trying to nitpick; just pointing out that these stories are surprisingly elastic."

That is also the point I am making. There is a point with a metaphor that the reader themselves controls.

"Which technically he does in the last three films, but with a lot more ambivalence than one might typically expect."

Which in Jack's argument is a bad thing - because rather than being ambivalent he should take down the oppressive surveillance culture of the state...and maybe he should be played by Hugo Weaving and wear a Guy Fawkes mask :)

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Jack Graham 3 years, 8 months ago

I wasn't going to comment at all - I wanted people to feel free to chat about the article freely without me butting my nose in - but there's a misapprehension above that *really* worries me and I feel the need to clarify what must've been a badly-expressed position in my piece...

"There is a similar issue with Jack's complaints about Guinevere's casting. His complaint would have been lessened if they had cast a more stereotypically north-western European character - oh and made her royalty :)"

I was definitely not *complaining* about a person of colour being cast as Guinevere. That really wasn't my point. I have no issue with that at all. I was using the issue of colour blind casting as a 'way in' to talking about other things.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"I was definitely not *complaining* about a person of colour being cast as Guinevere."

I assumed that you personally did not object to Guinevere's casting :) I apologize if I didn't make the distinction between what your personal views might be (on one hand) and possible implications of your argument on the other. My point was not that you object to diverse casting (you clearly said the opposite) but that I believe your analysis of Merlin is somewhat flawed because aspects of it are weakened if Merlin had use less diverse casting.

I returned to it on my way back from talking about the other things that you raised.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't get the impression from Jack's analysis that it's dangerous to touch on issues of sexuality, though I see where you're coming from on that. I've read that sort of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" commentary elsewhere and it always strikes me as a cul-de-sac that gets no one anywhere.

The point I thought he was making was that magic-users in the show were a persecuted minority, and even though Merlin himself is the most prominent counterexample to the idea that all magic-users are evil, he colludes with this persecution in a problematic way. You don't need the analogy with homosexuality for this to be troubling (and it would actually be worse if Merlin were more prominently hetero), but it does help throw the issue into sharper relief.

I don't understand at all your argument about how less diverse casting would have weakened the analysis. He even states -- and I agree -- "Even if social status isn’t code for race, the picture remains the same."

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"I don't understand at all your argument about how less diverse casting would have weakened the analysis."

It could only NOT weaken his analysis if the paragraph in which he raised the issue was wholly irrelevant to his analysis. Either it is relevant or it isn't :) Assuming that it IS relevant that paragraph wouldn't work if the casting had been less diverse. I suppose he could have made a different argument about the lack of diverse casting - but that would have been a different argument.

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Jack Graham 3 years, 8 months ago

Very often the creators of texts *are* damned if they do and damned if they don't. The task isn't to find some ingenius loophole; the way out of this is to change society. Only then will the the culture industries stop expressing drastically unequal power relations between privileged and oppressed groups - when those drastically unequal power relations are history.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

The task isn't to find some ingenius loophole; the way out of this is to change society.

Sure -- and many text creators are earnestly trying to create in a way that contributes to that change. You might take the position that works of art and fiction are powerless to change society (I'd certainly agree that there's less power there than creators and critics would like to imagine), but most are looking not for loopholes but ways to help, however small and sometimes accidentally counterproductive.

I think this is where Nyq Only and I agree, that we don't want creators to be cowed by criticism into avoiding these issues entirely. Where we disagree is that I don't think your essay above has that effect, even unintentionally.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Very often the creators of texts *are* damned if they do and damned if they don't. The task isn't to find some ingenius loophole; the way out of this is to change society."

Good point.
So how do we change society? It is a wonderful question.
Reform or revolt - revolt in a reformist way or reform revoltingly?
Change what you can when you can in whatever way works? Choose whatever has the best odds of success?

Perhaps there is a redemptive reading of Merlin after all.
Merlin the pragmatic popperian revolutionary social engineer .

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Jack Graham 3 years, 8 months ago

I'd love it if I could believe that my writing cowed anybody working for the BBC into not creating fiction that blithely advocates oppression, passivity and collusion.

On the subject of what I take to be Nyq's objection... I think he's saying that I base my reading of the show as being about oppression too much on very obvious markers (i.e a non-white Gwen and a bachelor Merlin, etc). There's room for improvement in what I wrote to iron out this issue. My intention was to identify specific valences within the text that throw light on the status of 'magic' people as markers for oppressed groups in our culture... but the wider point, that the show condemns the oppressed for rebellion and only smiles upon them when they collude, isn't actually reliant (I don't think) upon such markers. I think they just aggravate a general problem in specific ways. They make a show that's about the evil of resistance to structural oppression into a show that can be read as being specifically silencing of radical gay voices, etc. As ever, the criticism is valuable because it shows me how and where I couldwouldashoulda been clearer about what I meant. :-)

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Jack Graham 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't think any reading that makes Merlin into a 'popperian' would qualify as redemptive. ;-)

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

(It's probably clear that by "avoiding these issues entirely" I meant "avoiding writing about homophobia, classism, etc. in fear of saying the wrong thing." But just in case.)

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

"unless, of course, you're solely interested in the mechanics of plot, but even here it's a case of missing the forest for the trees."

And why must trees be only interesting for the sake of the forest?
Narrative and poetry can be said to have two dimensions: a reflective dimension where one tries to produce a total interpretation of all elements of the narrative at once, and an immediate active dimension in which the narrative is experienced in time as a forward movement of plot. Call the reflective dimension pictorial, and the immediate dimension musical. Metaphorical analysis tends towards the pictorial. The musical analysis - that is experience of the plot as plot - facilitates irony and dialectic - the ability of later moments in a narrative to call the earlier moments into question.

"How else to take other than at the level of metaphor?"

There are a number of aesthetics of free play, for which magic being literally nonexistent would be an advantage. That merges into certain aesthetics of exploring logics - Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels do that for satiric reasons - but I doubt it need be only satiric. That in turn can merge into a thought experiment aesthetics which function according to a logic of synecdoche rather than metaphor - in which magic is a signifier for our inability to use magic.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"I don't think any reading that makes Merlin into a 'popperian' would qualify as redemptive. ;-)"

I somehow suspected you wouldn't :)
I'll save the essay about how Merlin is intended to be a metaphor for George Soros some other time. :?

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Steven Clubb 3 years, 8 months ago

[quote]That's the dilemma I think about when you discuss Merlin's world where racism doesn't exist but classism and thinly veiled homophobia do. It seems to me that if there's value in colorblind casting at the Globe, there's similar value in putting actors of color into a saga of myth and legend -- even if it does seem to contradict the flimsy history on which this take on the Arthurian tradition has been assembled.[/quote]

The big problem I see with historical realism is you essentially institutionalize racism, sexism, homophobia; which, unless your story is dealing with those problems or is designed to be historically accurate, you're just needlessly limiting your cast selection. It's not so much that we're denying these things exist in the past, but just don't want to have to deal with such heavy subject matter in more fantasy oriented takes on the material.

Doctor Who runs into this sort of thing all the time with historical sexism, as the Doctor is often taking a rather pretty and under-dressed young woman into periods where she'd wouldn't be respected... at all. We saw tentative stabs at slipping Martha into as they weren't quite sure how to proceed with it. Should they lamp-shade it as they did in Shakespeare Code, should they attempt to deal with it realistically as they did in Human Nature, or should they just not worry about as they did in the Dalek two-parter? And I think the answer should be (with rare exceptions) not to worry about it. The eras they're visiting are already so white-washed that pretending racism doesn't exist isn't exactly stretching credibility much when we can accept a leggy, mouthy Scottish woman not being treated like a whore in the Old West despite the mini-skirt.

So coming at Merlin with the decision to do it with color-blind casting isn't really much of a problem, considering the whole thing is awash with modern anachronisms, just like Hercules and Xena and a bunch of other fantasy historicals.

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GeneralNerd 3 years, 8 months ago

There's actually a very brilliant recent movie about characters in a narrative transgressing their roles (which exist mostly by authorial fiat) and in the end creating a new paradigm where the narrative is allowed to continue but the roles are shifted. It's called Wreck-It Ralph.

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theoncominghurricane 1 year, 9 months ago

Voldemort has a complete lack of hypocrisy? Hm. He concludes his mother wasn't magic on the basis that she died, and then erases all traces of his muggle father once he finds out the truth: he kills the family off, takes a new name, and even destroys his appearance that was so like his father's.

He calls for a world based on pure blood hegemony and the subjugation/extermination of muggleborns. Additionally, whether someone was a muggleborn did not actually matter necessarily, as their fate depended on whether they can prove they had a relative with magic. Notably, Voldemort is a half blood and would not have been able to prove this as the Gaunt line was dead. When you combine this with erasing all record of his connection to his father's family (okay, he tells his followers) it seems pretty damn hypocritical to me.

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