Academic journal article Arthuriana

Pendragons at the Chopping Block: Elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the BBC's Merlin

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Pendragons at the Chopping Block: Elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the BBC's Merlin

Article excerpt

Merlin (2008), the BBC's Saturday-night serial adaptation of the Arthurian legend, adds to a tradition that has produced centuries of re-imaginings and re-interpretations even as it departs from that tradition's most established precedents. Unlike several recent film adaptations, most notably King Arthur (2004), Merlin makes no claim to historical accuracy, instead adopting a pure fantasy aesthetic, nor does it take one specific romance or novel as its source. In the commentary for the pilot episode of Merlin, 'The Dragon's Call,' producer Julian Murphy acknowledges criticism for historical inaccuracy, explaining that they are 'creating a show that isn't a period show; it takes place in a fantasy world,' with co-producer Johnny Capps adding, 'We were very keen not to be historically accurate.'1 Merlin in fact reverses what most readers and viewers think of as the 'standard' set-up of the Arthurian legend, in which Merlin is old and wise by the time Arthur comes out of obscurity to be made king and marry a noble lady named Guenevere. This series presents a young Merlin acting as manservant to the equally young Prince Arthur, a King Uther relentlessly persecuting sorcerers well into his son's young adulthood, and a Guenevere who, for the first three seasons of the show, spends her days arranging flowers for the king's ward, the Lady Morgana. Other original additions include a giant, computer-generated dragon (voiced by John Hurt) giving cryptic advice in a cave under the castle, and the Lady of the Lake in the form of a werepanther.

This is not to say, however, that Merlin ignores the Arthurian tradition entirely-far from it. The show's Excalibur is engraved, as Tennyson's is, with the phrases 'take me up' and 'cast me away';2 Camelot's court historian and genealogist is named Geoffrey of Monmouth, in honor of the author of the Historia Regum Britanniae; and an early episode even shows Merlin cleaning his room by magic, as another Merlin does in Disney's cartoon version of The Sword in the Stone (1963). These allusions are sly and varied enough to indicate that the writers of Merlin are familiar with the legend, and where they depart from what has come before, they do so for a purpose. As in any adaptation, Merlin conveys its central messages through what it chooses to include and to leave out. One text for which Merlin seems to bear a particular affinity is the fourteenth-century alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In examining how elements of this poem have been used in the television program, we can see in place of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's trial of Arthur's Camelot through its best knight, a trial of Uther's Camelot through the character of Arthur.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with a New Year's feast interrupted by the arrival of a bold and enormous knight whose skin, hair, clothing, and horse are all bright green. The Green Knight challenges any knight who dares accept his terms to deliver him one blow with an axe on the condition that in a year the knight must find him to receive a return blow. It is Gawain who ultimately beheads-but fails to kill-the Knight, and so at the appointed time, he rides forth to seek the Green Chapel, lodging over the Christmas holiday at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert, who engages him in a treacherous exchange-of-winnings game.

By the time he returns to Camelot, Gawain has been tested in more complicated ways than he had anticipated. In the conclusion to his Reading, J.A. Burrow provides a neat analysis of the different levels of tests with which Gawain must cope over the course of his adventure:

The less problematical kind [of test] is that in which some virtue comes into conflict with some deep but fundamentally ignoble passion. Such a conflict- represented in the Gawain-poet's outer, beheading test-is rather too simple in itself...The more problematical kind of test situation-represented in the inner, exchange-of-winnings part of Sir Gawain-involves conflict between a virtue and some other virtue or virtuous passion. …

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