Revisiting the Magic of BBC's 'Merlin'
We break down what made the magical BBC show work.
Over the course of its five-season run, BBC’s Merlin was often uneven, messy, and unintentionally goofy, but the series was charming and winning in spite of it all. It was unabashedly earnest enough, its world immersive enough, and its acting strong enough that the pop culture impact lives on. Not to mention, its Tumblr and fanfiction presence remains strong, with over nine thousand works alone shipping Merlin and Arthur, because giving these two a slash fiction reading is hardly even a stretch. As Merlin presence on Netflix has prompted many rediscoveries of late — and because Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Doctor Strange are both continuing the conversation about how magic is depicted onscreen — we thought we’d revisit Merlin.
Merlin’s go-to reflexive magic — the kind he doesn’t need a spellbook and concentration for — is telekenesis. We see it mostly in his interactions with Gaius, starting from their very first meeting in “The Dragon’s Call” when Merlin startles him into falling, then slows his descent and directs it to a bed. We see it again throughout the series, notably again in “The Curse of Cornelius Sigan,” when Merlin’s quick thinking (telekinetically manipulating a plate) saves Gaius from a stray arrow.
Telekenisis is Merlin’s basic go-to, and like his relationship with Gaius, it’s steady and solid.
The aging spell
We first see Merlin’s delightfully daffy aging spell in Season 3’s “Queen of Hearts,” when he uses it to save Gwen from an accusation of sorcery. Peering into his eyes, Arthur asks, “Have we met?” and he snaps, “Of course not!” Merlin unveils his old man again in Season 4’s “The Wicked Day” and Season 5’s “A Lesson in Vengeance.” Much like his telekenisis, he unveils this spell when he must save a friend in need — usually Arthur or Gwen. In Season 5’s “With All My Heart,” he even gives the old man the gender-bent treatment and becomes an old woman. And of course we can’t forget the old man during the show’s epilogue — a scene fans still debate to this day.
Merlin’s fire manipulation is emblematic of his relationship with Arthur. We first see Merlin manipulate fire in Season 1’s “Lancelot,” when Lancelot is facing off again the griffin and Merlin makes his jousting stick shoot blue fire. Merlin does it to save everyone, but of course, Arthur is conveniently knocked unconscious and misses the magic. In Season 5’s “The Diamond of the Day - Part 2,” when Merlin finally reveals his magic to Arthur, it’s fitting that he does it in the form of fire manipulation. He’s used it to save him in the past, and like their relationship itself, fire is volatile. It’s an emotional and earned moment, made bittersweet by Arthur’s death.
Merlin’s run might be over, but its unique version of Camelot, with all its nuanced relationships and magic, lives on.