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.