Merlin (TV miniseries)

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A television miniseries released in 1998 that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizard Merlin, starring Sam Neill in the title role. The story covers not only the rise and fall of Camelot, but the phase in the legendary history in Britain that precedes it.

The series brings Celtic Mythology to the forefront and introduces new characters not seen in the original mythology, with Queen Mab acting as the leader of The Fair Folk and the series' Big Bad. Merlin also stays throughout the entire reign of King Arthur and after it, with some details altered to fit the story more from his point of view.

The series was followed by a novelization in the form of a trilogy in 1999, and by a sequel, Merlin's Apprentice, in 2006, which had less to do with traditional Arthurian Mythology and was not as popular as the first movie.

Not related to the 2008 series of the same name.


Tropes used in Merlin (TV miniseries) include:
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Excalibur. So sharp that just parrying a regular sword will cut the lesser weapon in two, which makes you wonder what Mordred's axe was made of/how heavily enchanted it was.
    • According to the novelization, the axe was a form of the black sword Caliban, an Artifact of Doom that Mab helped Mordred retrieve, which shapeshifted to become a weapon more suitable to Mordred's desires and is an Absurdly Sharp Axe
  • Acting for Two: Miranda Richardson plays both Mab and her sister, the Lady of the Lake.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: Several scenes were deleted on home video. Among them, a description of the workings of magic. This makes it difficult to understand Frik’s later comment about Merlin never progressing past being a Hand Wizard. (In case you were wondering, the first level is magic via incantation, the second level is magic via hand gesture, and the third level is magic via thought alone.)
    • Back in for the DVD, thankfully.
  • All Myths Are True
  • All There in the Manual: The novelizations.
  • Arrogant Kung Fu Guy: Mordred.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Morgan le Fay is entirely motivated by getting herself closer to the throne.
  • Anachronism Stew: The setting is closer to the period of the late Roman Empire than most adaptations of the legend, with Iron Age costumes, armor, and weapons. However, the terms “knight” and “Sir” are still used.
    • Normandy is also mentioned as the place where Uther gather his armies against Vortigern. The area gained this name only after year 911, when the Viking Chieftan Rollo was granted the lands to protect them from the rest of the marauding Norsemen.
      • That could just be Translation Convention though. Almost all of the place names should really be different, and they wouldn't be speaking modern English with American accents either.
      • Or an Antipodean accent, as in the case of Sam Neil.
    • Some of Frik's disguises seem to reflect the future; for example, his dashing swashbucler-character wears 18th century clothes and wields a smallsword (yes, a smallsword, not "a small sword") that isn't going to be invented in centuries. But then, Mab does mention that the fairykind sometimes see into the future.
  • An Axe to Grind: Mordred.
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Vortigern may be aging, but he is still a deadly force on the battlefield as the king.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Vortigern makes a horrible subversion early on, by picking up the crown of the late King Constant and deliberately putting it on his own head, smiling in a prideful, self-satisfied way while his soldiers cheer. Uther later delivers a more true moment.
  • Badass Boast
    • Vortigern apparently (and amusingly appropriately) didn't seem to think his through:

Vortigern: You're too slow, like my enemies. They think before they act. I act before I think! That is my advantage!

    • The Rock of Ages does better:

The Rock of Ages: I cannot die! I am the Rock of Ages! I will live forever...On the edge of dreams...

    • Mordred, in typically chilling fashion.

Mordred: I'm sorry father, but I'm going to destroy you. And this time your pet wizard won't save you.

  • Badass Normal: Arthur, Uther, Vortigern, Lancelot, Nimue, Frik after he loses his powers. Special mention also goes to Ambrosia, who declares that if Mab harms Merlin in any way, “Magic or no magic, I'll have her guts for my bootlaces.” Arthur in particular goes up against Mordred, a bonafide Super Soldier, and still manages to handily defeat him, only getting killed in the process because he hesitates to land the final strike.
  • Bastard Bastard: Mordred, so very much.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Very, very strongly averted when Nimue is disfigured with an enormous scar across her face that cannot be healed after narrowly escaping a dragon. Ouch.
  • Because Destiny Says So: The Lady of the Lake accepts her impending doom, because, “It's fate.”
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: A villainous example. Morgan le Fay converts to the Old Ways simply because they have been good to her.
  • Bed Trick: Arthur and Mordred are both conceived in this way.
  • Beta Couple: Frik and Morgan le Fay.
  • Billing Displacement: John Gielgud receiving prominent billing for his shorter than a minute role as King Constant and voice role as Merlin's faithful horse Sir Rupert.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Black Magic
  • Blood Oath: Merlin swears not to use his powers except to defeat Queen Mab. To ratchet up the significance, he cuts his hand and lets the blood drip to the ground, in front of Ambrosia's grave, while swearing, “On Ambrosia's grave, and on the grave of my mother.” It takes several years, but eventually Mab figures out a way to make him break his oath...
  • Body to Jewel: Mab's crystal tear.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Intentionally pulled by Morgan le Fay, who seduces her half-brother Arthur in the guise of a Celtic queen, with the encouragement of Mab and Frik.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Frik.
  • The Chessmaster: Mab is a brilliant one; always two steps ahead right till the very end.
  • Chekhov's Skill: "I think I have one last trick."
  • The Chosen One: Arthur and Galahad.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: If people stop believing in magic, fairies, and magical beings, they cease to exist.
  • Cool Horse: Sir Rupert.
  • Cool Old Guy: The Rock of Ages.
  • Cool Sword
  • Composite Character: Morgan le Fay, who is a composite of herself and Morgause, apparently, and fulfills the roles of both characters. Lancelot's wife Elaine also counts, as she has traits of two women from Arthurian Mythology who were both named Elaine. On the one hand, she's Lancelot's wife (Elaine of Astolat) and on the other, she's given the fate of the other Elaine (the Lady of Shalott) what with her vision of Lancelot in a magic mirror and her body floating past Camelot on a funeral barge.
  • Court Mage: Merlin.
  • Cruel Mercy: A case where it is the villain doing it to a much less evil character. Mab takes Frik's magic, leaving him to wander the world as a powerless gnome, with his true love dead, having nothing but his misery and pain, unable to do anything about it. When asked why she didn't kill him, she responds, “Because, that's what he wanted me to do.”
    • This backfires on her though. He takes up arms against Mordred and outlives her and the rest of the Old Peoples.
  • Curb Stomp Battle: Vortigern vs. Merlin.
  • Damsel in Distress: Nimue, several times. Inverted in one occasion where she gets Merlin out of Vortigern's prison with only persuasiveness and the use of her political leverage, while being kept as a hostage herself.
  • Dark Action Girl: Mab.
  • Dawson Casting: Sam Neill, who was 51 when the film was released, played Merlin for about two-thirds of the first half of the film and all of the second half. However, it wasn't until the second half that Merlin would have been around that age in-story.(Because of the time skip necessary for Arthur to grow up.) During the entire first half, he was less than half that age. The reason for this is probably because having Merlin portrayed by an actor of the appropriate age at all times would have left Sam Neill playing Merlin for only one half of the entire film.
    • It helps that Sam Neill looked much younger than he was at the time. He could have passed for about 40 or so.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ambrosia. Merlin, Frik, and Mordred also get in on it at times.
  • Decapitated Army: Vortigern's army surrenders and fighting stops after their king is killed. Of course, he was killed by a freakin' wizard using a magical sword to seal him under the surface of a frozen lake.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best
  • Death by Childbirth: Merlin's mother, Elissa.
  • Demoted to Extra: Galahad, Gawain.
  • Dialogue Reversal: Played for a laugh when an eight year old Morgan le Faye says a trick of Merlin's isn't real magic, "anyone can do it." Merlin challenges her to perform it, which she does. Merlin admits "you're right, anyone could do it."
  • Dirty Coward: Lailoken, Vortigern's soothsayer. Somewhat justified in that he has seen many of Vortigern's previous soothsayers executed.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: One of Frik's many quirks.

I'll tell you from personal experience that elves are so short, that when it rains...they're the last to know. [he and Morgan burst out laughing] Because of their size, you see...

  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Merlin's ability to tell the future comes in either visions or in dreams.
  • Driven to Villainy: The decline of the Old Ways has forced Mab to abandon her compassion in the desperate struggle to preserve herself and her people.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Enemy Mine: When Vortigern allies with Mab, Merlin figures that the enemy of the friend of his enemy is his friend, and thus allies himself with Uther, admitting up-front to Uther that this is his reason for joining him.
  • Enfant Terrible: Mordred, as a young boy, attempts to throw a knife at Merlin. According to Morgan, it's his way of demanding attention.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Duke of Cornwall is referred to simply as “Cornwall.” In the actual mythology, his name was given as Gorlois or Hoel.
  • Evil Matriarch: Mab.
  • Evil Twin: Miranda Richardson is Acting for Two as both Queen Mab and her sister, the Lady of the Lake,
  • Excalibur in the Stone: Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone are portrayed as the same weapon, though both the myth of it being given by a Lady of the Lake and Arthur pulling it from the stone are true. Merlin was given the sword by the Lady of the Lake first, and later plunged it into the Rock of Ages to keep it from Uther, where Arthur eventually drew it from.
  • Face Heel Turn: Lord Lot.
  • The Fair Folk: The Fey, of whom Mab is the queen of.
  • Fatal Flaw: For Vortigern, it's his Pride. For Uther, it's Lust.
  • Flat Earth Atheist: Vortigern takes this approach both to the Christian God and magic, despite the abundant evidence of the supernatural, and an actual pagan god, staring him in the face.
  • For the Evulz: The only time Mab does something for this reason is when she shows Elaine that Lancelot is committing adultery against her with Guinevere. Frik comments on it.
  • Fountain of Youth: One of Merlin's explicit powers.
  • Four-Element Ensemble: The novelization explicitly says that there are four elemental beings: Mab (Air), The Lady of the Lake (Water), the Rock of Ages (Earth), and the Great Dragon (Fire).
  • Functional Magic: Explained quite a bit more in the novelizations than in the movie.
  • Genius Bruiser: Merlin.
  • Gilded Cage: Vortigern keeps Nimue in one, to make sure her father stays loyal to him.
  • Glamour Failure: Uther's magical disguise doesn't affect Morgan, and she realizes who he is almost immediately.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: Queen Mab's main motivation. If the old faith continues to decline, she and the rest of her people will die.
  • Green Thumb: The first magic that Merlin uses, to pull Nimue out of a mud hole. He later uses the same power again to defeat a dragon!
  • Guile Hero: Merlin. Nimue also gets into it, managing to convince Vortigern to release Merlin, while being kept as a hostage herself.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: King Vortigern.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Merlin.
  • Has Two Mommies: Merlin. Three, counting Ambrosia.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Though not mentioned in the series, the novelization repeatedly brings up the triple nature of the Celtic goddesses, going so far as to mention that Mab is the only remaining aspect of a triad that was made up of Maiden, Mother, and Warrior.
    • And when Merlin attempts to make contact with the Maiden aspect, Mab is no longer able to hear, so he instead reaches Nimue. This is before he meets Nimue in person.
    • Also present in the women in Merlin's life, Nimue being the Maiden, Elissa the Mother, and Ambrosia the Crone.
  • Heel Face Turn: Nimue's father turns against Vortigern and joins Uther when Vortigern attempts to have Nimue sacrificed.
    • Lord Lot eventually sees the error of his ways and acknowledges Arthur as king.
  • Heroic Bastard: Arthur.
  • Heroic BSOD: Merlin, after he loses Nimue and Arthur. He gets better shortly after.
  • Hot-Blooded: Mordred.
  • Humans Are Flawed: A recurring theme. Merlin comments about how his largest problem with judging men was that he always expected too much from them, always saw the good in them without seeing the bad. Later, the Lady of the Lake makes a short speech to Merlin after he learned that he picked the wrong person to be the guardian of Camelot. “It's human to make mistakes, Merlin, and part of you is human . . . the best part.”
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: When Merlin asks the Rock of Ages to hold Excalibur “until a good man comes to take it from you,” the Mountain King says, “Then I will be holding it forever . . . if not longer.”
  • If You Kill Him You Will Be Just Like Him: As Vortigern kills King Constant and takes his crown in the prologue, Merlin makes some commentary to this general meaning. “One tyrant smoothly passed the crown to another, even worse.”
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Mab.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Subverted, as no one is without their faults and entirely pure. When the Lady of the Lake tells Merlin that he needs to find “a man pure in heart,” to protect the throne from Mordred, he quips, “I've tried to find him before. He doesn't exist.”
    • It turns out this was Galahad, who had no part in the movie whatsoever. The novelesation says he led the rebuilding after the war and found the Grail.
  • Instant Oracle, Just Add Water: The Lady of the Lake.
  • Ironic Echo: King Constance is introduced with the line "Kill the prisoners!", emphasizing his madness. Uther utters the same line after becoming corrupt and losing Merlin's trust and aid.
  • Just Ignore It: How Mab is defeated.
  • Kick the Dog: All of the villains have their moments.
  • Killed Off for Real: Elissa, Ambrosia, Vortigern, Uther, Elaine, the duke of Cornwall, Morgan le Fay, Lord Lot, Arthur, Mordred, Mab.
  • Knight Templar: Mab. According to the novelizations, King Constant was one during his reign.
  • Last Kiss: Between Frik and Morgan le Fay.
  • Last of His Kind: Merlin, as he Lampshades himself, is the last of the wizards.
  • Love Hurts: Merlin says it best: “Oh, they hurt, memories. Memories of love, they hurt.”
  • Love Triangle: The traditional one between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere also involves Elaine, who is in a relationship with Lancelot when he is first introduced and eventually dies of heartbreak as a result of his relationship with Guinevere.
  • Luke, You Are My Father: Mordred, when he shows up in Camelot.
  • Lust: Uther's lust for Igraine is a rather extreme case. Merlin puts it best. “Hundreds are dead because you have an itch.”
  • Magical Gesture: Used by intermediate wizards, called hand wizards.
  • Magical Incantation: Used by weak wizards.
  • Magic Knight: Merlin isn't just a spell caster, but can also kick ass with a sword, as proven when he wields Excalibur.
  • Magic Land: The Land of Magic.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: Mab. The novelizations aptly mentioned that she was the inspiration for the banshee.
  • Making a Splash: Merlin puts this power to great use. Even just a little strengthening of a waterfall can work wonders.
  • Mama Bear: Ambrosia.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mab, Frik, Morgan.
  • Master of Illusion
  • The Mentor: Merlin becomes this for Arthur.
  • Merlin and Nimue: Here, of all places, this trope is subverted and inverted. Aside from demonstrating a few illusions that he insists are “tricks,” Merlin doesn't teach Nimue any magic, and neither of them betrays the other. Then, towards the end, Nimue is the one who ends up trapped by magic in a cave.
    • Although she does use his love for her to entrap him. At the duress of Mab, yeah, but it's the thought that counts.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Arthur's reaction when Merlin informs him that the woman he slept with was Morgan le Fay.
  • Named Weapons: Excalibur, obviously.
  • Necessarily Evil: Mab claims, “With evil all around me, I can do nothing but evil, to survive.” Nimue shortly after tells her, “That's too easy.”
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Mab intended to create a powerful wizard who would lead the people back to the Old Ways. What she does is create a powerful wizard who hates her and will do everything he can to destroy the Old Ways.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Mab's spells slowly lose their power after she vanishes, and eventually fail.
  • Not So Different: Mab tells Merlin that she is fighting and causing evil because she must save her people, and the ends justify the means. Merlin later gives the same excuse after helping Uther seduce Igraine, causing Sir Rupert to grumble, “Now, where have I heard that before?”
  • Off with His Head: King Constant's execution in the prologue, not seen thanks to Gory Discretion Shot.
  • Oh Crap: Vortigern's last expression.
  • Only the Worthy May Pass: The Rock of Ages will only let a truly good man draw Excalibur.
  • Our Dragons Are Different
  • Our Elves Are Better: Averted, to a degree. They're small, short, quick, and the target of some of Frik's jokes.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: In addition to The Fair Folk, the smaller winged variety also exists.
  • Our Gnomes Are Weirder: Frik. He claims that gnomes come in all shapes and sizes, and he's “the tall kind.”
  • Our Gryphons Are Different
  • Out-Gambitted: Merlin completely pulls the rug out from under Vortigern when he hears exactly what he is planning, and then brings the knowledge of his plans to Uther, allowing the latter to prepare for the attack and win the coming battle handily.
  • Parental Substitute: Ambrosia, to Merlin, as he notes in his narration.
  • Perspective Flip: From Merlin's point of view.
  • The Power of Love: As pointed out by Ambrosia, this is one of the attributes that Mab no longer possesses- having presumably lost it in her struggle to survive. Merlin also explicitly states that magic cannot create love.
  • The Philosopher: Merlin, even as he narrates.
  • Playing with Fire: Mab.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Frik.
  • Plucky Girl: Nimue. Getting Merlin out of Vortigern's dungeon is probably the best example.
  • Pet the Dog: It's buried deep, but Mab seems to have legitimate feelings for both Merlin and Mordred.
    • Likewise for Mordred toward "Auntie Mab".
  • Pre-Ass-Kicking One-Liner
  • Pride: Vortigern's Fatal Flaw, noted by both Mab and Merlin. “Only one tear was shed for Vortigern, and his pride had cast it away. He paid for it with his life.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right
  • Prophecy Twist: Merlin takes what the Lady of the Lake says about finding the right man on a certain island a bit too literally.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Merlin gets an epic rant against Mab after the deaths of his mother and Ambrosia and the scarring of Nimue, and then again right after Arthur is born. Though he's addressing Mab, the feel of both scenes, on the beach with the tide coming in the first time and on a rocky bluff in the middle of a rainstorm the second time, seems to specifically invoke this. Of course, given that Mab is a Fey Goddess and Merlin very much hopes to destroy her religion and utterly erase her from existence, it's pretty literal as well.
  • Rape, Pillage and Burn: Vortigern's forces, as he takes over England.
  • Religion of Evil: By the time the story starts, the Old Ways have been reduced to this, thanks to Mab's desperation and loss of touch with the world; it's pretty outright stated by Ambrosia that even Mab used to be kinder when she was more prosperous.
  • Rescue Romance: Merlin and Nimue.
  • Royal Blood: Arthur is quite surprised to learn he has it.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Uther, Arthur.
  • Samus Is a Girl: In Merlin's Apprentice.
  • Sapient Steed: Sir Rubert.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: Nimue.
  • Scars Are Forever: Nimue's disfiguring scar cannot be healed, even by Merlin's magic, though Mab is able to make it vanish temporarily. Subverted right at the end, when Merlin finally manages to heal it and simultaneously restore both their youth.
  • Screw Destiny: Both Mab and Merlin take this approach.
  • She's All Grown Up: Frik's reaction upon meeting Morgan for the second time.
  • Shoot the Dog: Merlin assisting Uther in seducing Igraine with his magic.
  • Smooch of Victory: Merlin gets this from Nimue twice. The first time, it's his “reward” for giving her and her party directions. The second time, it's part of the aforementioned Rescue Romance. Nimue's companions find it amusing, and Nimue herself Lampshades it the second time.
  • Servile Snarker: Frik.
  • Smug Snake: Mab and Mordred.
  • Spell Construction: The less construction needed, the stronger the wizard. The best wizards do it by pure thought.
  • The Spock: Frik.
  • Stab the Sky: Arthur, after pulling Excalibur from the stone.
  • Super Strength: Implied with Mordred.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Vortigern. “Why is it that I surround myself with a bunch of incompetent fools?”
  • Taking You with Me: King Constant has all of the prisoners killed right before Vortigern takes his castle. “Let the whole world die, if I die.”
  • Talk to the Fist
  • The Magic Goes Away: At the end of the series, after performing his final act of magic to restore his and Nimue's youth, Merlin states, “That's the end of magic.”
  • The Time of Myths
  • This Is Reality: Merlin, at the beginning of the narration. “No, no, that's not the way to start. You'd think this is a fairy tale, and it isn't.”
  • Time Abyss: The Rock of Ages claims his memory goes back to before the dawn of time.
  • Trickster Mentor: Frik, to Merlin.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Subverted. Mab claims that Arthur is damned because of his father's sins, that his reign will only bring bloodshed. However, Arthur proves to be a much better man and ruler than Uther was. Incidentally, Uther was also a much better and more merciful ruler than his father, King Constant, was. Well, at first, anyway.
  • The Unchosen One: Deconstructed. Merlin recruits Lancelot, believing him to be the perfect knight who will be best fit to guard the throne while Arthur is away. However, it turns out, Merlin picked the wrong knight, and it was actually Lancelot's son Galahad who would have been the perfect knight, with the result that Lancelot only makes things worse with his adulterous relationship with Guinevere. Oops.
  • Unreliable Narrator: According to Frik, and by Merlin's own admission, a few things were omitted from the story. Merlin claims he didn't think anyone would believe it if they heard it the way it really happened.
    • Some observers have used this theory to allow the sequel Merlin's Apprentice to fit into continuity. Whether this is Fan Wank or not is open to interpretation.
      • Unless Merlin conveniently left out the part where he got his head chopped off and died, I don't think even that can make Merlin's Apprentice fit continuity.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Frik, when Morgan le Fay is killed.
    • Likewise, Merlin when he hears that Arthur slept with Morgan le Fay.
  • Villainous Demotivator: Mab.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: According to Mab, though, it's only an illusion.
    • Frik's favourite trick, by the way.
  • What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love?: Mab has ended up like this, as pointed out by Ambrosia.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: When Merlin hears about what happened with Morgan le Fay, he lets Arthur have it. He does it again, to Guinevere and Lancelot, after their affair.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: “Now see what you made me do!”
  • Wizard Beard: Merlin, in the present when he is old. Averted through most of the series.
  • Wizard Duel: The climactic final battle between Merlin and Mab.
  • You Fail Physics Forever: Early on, a thrown Saxon axe is seen, remaining level and upright as it travels through the air.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Mab pretty much says this twice, first for Merlin's mother Elissa, then again for Morgan le Fay. She lets the former die, and kills the latter directly. Apparently, all she needed them for was to give birth to the child she wanted.
  • You Killed My Father: Thanks to her ruthless policies, Mab manages to give Merlin three separate excuses to go against her, all relating to her harming the people he loves.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Lancelot and Guinevere, of course.