“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.

Introduction

The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.

MORDRED Never.

MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Conclusion

Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.

 

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Notes

[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).

 

Bio:
Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.