Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How merlin is portrayed in 20th century films

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Using Malorys Le Morte DArthur as a guide, discuss how the character of Merlin from the Arthurian Legend changes throughout three 0th century film retellings.

Many writers and artists throughout the ages have made attempts of retelling Malorys Arthurian legend. In saying this, many of the ideals of characters change. Merlin, in particular, has been appropriated to fit many different texts. His image and his behaviour between different texts reflect this. Such texts that portray these changes include the films Excalibur, The Sword in the stone, and Merlin.

Thomas Malorys Le Morte DArthur was the original text that introduced the character of Merlin. Twentieth century films tend to portray Merlin as a magician whose soul purpose in life was to cast spells. In Le Morte DArthur Malory portrays Merlin as a very wise adviser and guide to Arthur, and was said to hold some magical powers.


There can be seen to be a vast contrast between Malorys text and Disneys The Sword in the Stone. The sense of Merlin being a wise adviser and guide to Arthur is lost. Quite the contrary, this film portrays Merlin as an old fool, and people refer to him as an absent-mined magician, and a bumbling blockhead. He tends to stutter, forget vital spells and get his beard caught in things. Thus presenting Merlin to the audience as a stuttering imbecile, which was not the case in Malorys text.

The Sword in the Stone shows Merlin dressed in a long cloak, blue-grey in colour. On his head is a large stereotypical wizards hat and he always carries a wand. He wears spectacles and has a long white beard. Through this use of physical attributes Merlin is portrayed to be quite old throughout the film.

Merlin also has a faithful sidekick in this movie. It is a talking owl, named Archimedes. This owl is very wise and teaches Arthur most of the things he learns. He often prompts Merlin when he forgets spells. Archimedes, in this film, is seen as the brains of Merlin. Disney wanted to portray Merlin as a well loved old fool. Therefore, it can be seen that Archimedes exists to maintain order in the film.

Merlins bumbling and forgetful attitude in this film leads the audience to have the view of him as being fun and exciting, which is not the case in Malorys text.

Merlin sings many songs in this film, which is rather typical of Disney, however not true to the legend. There is no mention of Merlin singing songs in any of the texts studied.

Another theme that is not in Malorys text is the idea that Merlin has the power of flight, and the ability to disappear. In this adaptation Merlin can turn himself, and any other person, into whatever he wishes. How would you like a to be a squirrel?

Merlin uses magic for all purposes I plan to cheat...use magic.

Disney has adapted the Arthurian legend and made it its own. The tale plays on the magical theme of the legend and does so to create a sense of enchantment for children. However, in doing this, the original characteristics of Merlin, which were created in Malorys text, have been lost.

John Boormans (181) film, Excalibur, shows Merlin to be middle aged. He wears black attire and has a trimmed ginger beard. On his head he wears a metal skullcap, which gives him a frightening demeanour. Unlike The Sword in the Stone, Merlin does not hold a wand; instead he holds a sceptre which is defined as The ornamental rod carried...as a symbol of power/authority. (Chambers Dictionary, 10) Therefore, in this case, Merlin is seen as powerful and dominant, which can be seen as true to Malorys text.

In this text, unlike The Sword in the Stone and Merlin, the audience never sees Merlin with a long white beard, which is often the stereotypical nature of him. In fact, this movie sets itself far apart from the other two, in regards to Merlins physical appearance.

Another difference between the texts is the titles that Merlin is given. In The Sword in the Stone Merlin is given the title as a magician, however in Excalibur he is known as a sorcerer, and in Merlin he is referred to as a wizard. Although the definitions of these words only vary slightly, these variations are still to be noted.

In this text Merlin is feared by the other characters, which of great contrast to The Sword in the Stone. It is seen that he is feared when Arthur asks of him; Are you just a dream, Merlin? to which Merlins reply is A dream...to some...a nightmare to others!

It can be seen then, that the character of Merlin has changed between The Sword in the Stone and Excalibur. Disney attempted to make Merlin a friendly character that is well liked, and Boorman appropriated Merlins character and made him one to be feared.

In the film Merlin the audience see the whole life span of Merlin, from an infant to a very old man. In this film (whilst he is young) Merlin has medium length wavy brown hair and is of average height. He wears long robes that are of dark colours and at some points of the film he also holds a sceptre. In this film Merlin is seen as powerful, but is not looked upon as highly as Merlin in Excalibur. In this film, Merlin is simply seen as a man who is half-mortal and can has visions of what is to come.

Due to the fact that Merlin is retelling his life story, the film flashes to him as an old man. When the audience see Merlin as an old man, he still carries the stereotypical image with him, the long white beard and the wrinkled eyes. However, The Sword in the Stone is the only text who has Merlin wearing a wizards hat.

This is the only film out of the three that shows Merlin with a love interest. In fact, most of the story is about Merlin trying to reunite with his love, Nimue.

Thus Merlin has a romantic side which shines through in this movie, that is not seen in any of the other texts.

In this film Merlin has many powers. He can change shapes, talk to animals, control weather, heal people and cast many other spells.

However, in saying this, this portrayal of Merlin does not like to use magic, and only uses it when it is absolutely necessary; which is a vast contrast to The Sword in the Stone, where magic is used wherever possible.

It can be said then, that there are drastic changes to the character of Merlin between the texts. He is portrayed differently both physically and mentally, from a wise elder to a bumbling old fool. In this sense, it could be seen that throughout the ages Merlin could be appropriated to such an extreme that nobody would know the true Merlin.

Merlin (18 TV)


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The Sword in the Stone


J Moulder and M Schaefer 16. Visited /0



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The faithfulness of Excalibur http//www.tncc.vccs.edu/faculty/longt/ENG4/Moore_film_review.htm

September 1, 00. Visited //0

Excalibur. Dir. John Boorman. With Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Cherie Lunghi, Nicholas Clay, Helen Mirren. 181

Merlin. Dir. Steve Barron With Sam Neill. Artisan. 18

The Sword in the Stone. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. With Ricky Sorenson. 16

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