Merlin and Nimue

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Now that we're lovers, I'll teach her everything I know. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


"Nimue will come along and I'll go panting after her like a dog-fox in heat. I'll teach her too little magic to do her any good, and too much for my safety, all while trying to get into her petticoats. And then she'll entice me into a cave, and bind me with my own magic, and leave me to rot."
Merlin discusses the trope in The Books of Magic

At the most basic level, this trope is about a partnership between two magic-users where one is older, (and thus usually the master/teacher or the more powerful member of the team) and the other member is younger and the apprentice type figure. There's one more important difference between the two of them: they're opposite genders.

Now, if the relationship is being looked at closely, obviously there are a lot of potential tropes that could come into play for various factors, including the possibilities for communication difficulties with two people of different age groups, different genders, not to mention all the possible love and sexuality tropes that can potentially come into play. (Including some quite squicky ones.)

Oh, and there's one more thing we forgot to mention: there's a good chance that one member of this team will betray the other, usually for greater power, in order to learn the legendary Dangerous Forbidden Technique, or to Take Over the World. In the process of doing so they often either become the story's Big Bad or The Dragon, or the other character's personal Arch Enemy. Which rather puts a damper on their relationship...

The Trope Namer and probable Trope Maker is the Arthurian Mythos, where Merlin had a habit of teaching magic to younger women. In the oldest stories his pupil/lover's name was Nynave, (but this is often changed to Nimue and sometimes changed again to other names, with Vivien/Vivianne being the most common) and she eventually betrayed him and bound Merlin in a tree, a rock or a cave, depending on the version of the story you're reading or watching. (As a small note, if you're not an expert on Arthurian legend and are wondering why you don't hear about this character all that often, these days she is often combined or interchangeable with Morgan Le Fay/Morgause, the mother of Mordred.)

Now, all you need to qualify for this trope is the pair of magic-users with the age and gender difference, and the other elements of their relationship or betraying each other need not be there at all. However, whether consciously or not, most writers tend to end up using at least some and often all of the elements present in the Trope Maker. This leads to the being a lot of different variations on this theme, and a lot of possible ways to play and present them.

Note that this trope often involves betrayal, Face Heel Turns and death, so there may be spoilers unmarked.

Examples of Merlin and Nimue include:


Arthurian Stories[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The film Excalibur plays this pretty much dead straight between Merlin and Morgana with all the traditional touches.
  • The page quote comes from The Books of Magic, when Tim very briefly meets Merlin while traveling through time with The Phantom Stranger. At the time Merlin is just 14 years old, but he already knows what is going to happen and why.
  • The Warlord Chronicles features Merlin teaching both Morgan and Nimue, and both having relationships with him. Morgan's relationship with Merlin ended before the books start, and she symbolically betrays him by converting to Christianity and preaching against him. Nimue stays loyal to Merlin through the first two books, (although there are some occasional hints and foreshadowing of great trouble between them) despite him putting her through some pretty horrific trials and abandoning her for awhile. Merlin goes into being a Well-Intentioned Extremist in the third book, but eventually backs away from crossing any Moral Event Horizons. On the other hand Nimue proves to be a Knight Templar and goes Jumping Off the Slippery Slope, eventually coming to hate Merlin for his "weakness" of not following through with their plan, and then killing him as a Human Sacrifice.
  • Subverted in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave series, where Merlin and Niniane truly love each other and she innocently mistakes him for being dead when she buries him in the cave.
  • In The Mists of Avalon, Nimue is a sympathetic character, a young priestess sent by Avolon to win Merlin's heart and lure him back for their revenge. The magic she uses to help make Merlin fall in love with her works in such a way that she too falls for him, but she is bound by duty to seduce and lure him to his death. She kills herself afterward.
  • This relationship happens between Merlin and Nimue in The Once and Future King.
    • Merlin does state that he knows it'll happen and does look forward to having a nice period of time resting up. His only regrets are that he forgets to tell Arthur who his mother is, and he wants to warn the Round Table of who actually poisoned some apples and killed an Irish knight named Sir Patrick. The latter regret is fixed when he asks Nimue to show up and clear up the mess. While she does it willingly, she unfortunately shows up a day late, and only narrowly saves Guinevere from being tried for attempted poisoning of Sir Gawain.
  • In Le Morte D'Arthur, the most well-known version, Nimue is portrayed as justified in sealing Merlin away, as Merlin used his status as her teacher to come onto her against her will.
  • Caliber, a comic that sets the Arthurian Legend in the Old West, has a shaman and Merlin figure advising the good guys and trying to get the magic gun to The Chosen One, and his ex-pupil and ex-lover Morgan, who advises the villains and appears to have her own agenda.
  • In Arthur, King of Time and Space, Merlin's "betrayal" by Nimue, despite being heavily foreshadowed, is actually a complete accident on her part. The betrayal aspect gets played straight with Morgan, though. As to whether Merlin has a relationship with his apprentices, well...
  • About as thoroughly averted as possible in BBC's Merlin, as A) Nimueh is older and more experienced than Merlin, B) Nimueh starts out evil, C) there's no attraction between the two and D) Merlin apparently kills Nimueh at the end of Series 1.
    • He spent the beginning of "The Poisoned Chalice" gawking at her and described her as "pretty for a princess" and she tricked him into drinking from said poisoned chalice. Subverted later on, when he strikes her with a bolt of lightning.
  • In the Hellboy comicbooks, it's eventually revealed that the Queen of Blood, the genocidal new leader of The Fair Folk, is Nimue herself. As it turns out, it was the whisperings of the Ogdru Jahad that caused her to originally betray Merlin and turn to evil.
  • Averted in the 1998 Merlin miniseries, where Merlin tells Nimue that all his magic are only "tricks", and although she does end up trapping him through his love for her, it's at the real antagonist's behest.
  • One Garth Nix story set out to turn this into a Tear Jerker. For one thing, Merlin is younger than he makes himself seem to everyone else. Two, he actively ignored Nimue until he couldn't take her hanging around his house begging for training anymore. Three, while both he and Nimue are clearly interested in each other, she's frustrated by his refusal to act on his desires. Four, to get their power, a mage has to give up their heart's desire. Nimue scoffs at the paradox, since her fondest desire is the power itself. Five, a mage gets their power by harnessing a star. The power in one mage actively repels the power in another. Once Nimue harnesses hers, she physically cannot go near Merlin ever again. Six, Merlin saw it coming, after he got his power. His heart's desire was Nimue, whom he hadn't even met yet. Nimue's was him. He tried to keep her away so he wouldn't hurt her. Not only can they not ever be together, but he sinks into a stone even Nimue's power can't get him out of, though she immediately leaves to try, leaving England unprotected.
  • In The Lost Years of Merlin series by T.A Barron, Vivian, known as Nimue to her friends, is introduced in the 2nd book when she tries to steal Merlin's staff. She comes back later as a major villain in The Mirror of Merlin, and again in The Merlin Effect, part of another series by the same author.


Anime and Manga[edit | hide]


Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Doctor Strange is periodically depicted in Marvel Comics as being romantically involved with his apprentice Clea, who is at least physically younger than him and less mature. (She may, depending on the source, be Really Seven Hundred Years Old.) This bites him in the ass in the backstory of Earth X, when she decides he's just using her for sex and kills him.

"What Stephen knew was nothing compared to what there was to know."

  • According to a Vertigo Comics miniseries, the DC Comics character Madame Xanadu turns out to be Nimue, who did indeed trap Merlin but only because she was led to believe it was the only way to save Camelot. In turn she lost most of her magic and became an immortal fortune teller; she blames The Phantom Stranger for this. Note that being a Vertigo series, this may not be canonical within the main DC Universe.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Raistlin and Crysania from Dragonlance mostly fit, although some aspects of the relationship are different since Crysania is not his student and in fact wields a different type of magic altogether. Otherwise they're almost perfect for the trope, as their relationship includes both a lot of UST, and Raistlin abandoning her when he decides she has outlived her usefulness.
    • A more standard example would be Dalamar and Jenna.
  • Elminster and his former apprentice "The Shadowsil" in Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms novel Spellfire. In the backstory she left him to take up a life of evil.
  • The Redemption of Althalus featured this relationship between the female god usually called Em and her pupil, former thief turned immortal mage Althalus. The two become lovers and there is no betrayal.
    • Later there's a quasi-example when a witch is added to the team and regards Althalus as her teacher and something of a father figure but still flirts with him quite often, much to Althalus' chagrin.
    • Also from David Eddings, Belgarath and Polgara might be a UST-less father-daughter example. And Sparrowhawk and his goddess? That just gets wierd, man.
  • Daine and Numair from the Tortall Universe books by Tamora Pierce have the magic, age difference, and sexual tension, but not the betrayal.
  • In The Sword of Truth series of books, Richard Rahl has this relationship with Sister Verna, as well as the other Sisters of Light. In the later books, the trope is even more prevalent in his relationship with Nicci, who has become something of his right hand, mentor, and unlike Verna, definitely has feelings for him.
  • In The Wheel of Time, Moiraine has this relationship early in the series with Rand. In the later books, Cadsuane takes up the older mentor role in Moiraine's place. This gets awkward when Rand integrates the memories from his last incarnation, Lews Therin (whose voice in his head, though not memories, had been a sympton of his insanity), as he points out to Cadsuane he was four hundred years old when he died in the Age of Legends, and hardly a 'boy' any longer.
    • The original story itself gets used, in a very WEIRD way. Instead of Nimue imprisoning Merlin in a cave, we have Merlin (Thom Merillin) rescuing Morgana (Moiraine) from a cave, and Nimue (using the older name Nynaeve) doesn't even take part.
  • In Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear, "Merlin" is not an individual, but a title for a quasi-messianic avatar of magic that is born every few centuries to advise an equally quasi-messianic "Dragon Prince", and the Nimue gambit is the method by which The Fair Folk attempt to gain control of this individual and ensure that the momentous events set in motion by the Merlin's coming are resolved to their benefit.
  • Merlin is a character in the Nightside series. The legend is presented as truth here, with Nimue betraying Merlin and stealing his heart, causing him to be trapped beneath the world's oldest bar. Then protagonist John Taylor goes back in time to when Merlin and Nimue were still together. Taylor needs strong magic to get even further back in time, so he winds up being the one who actually steals the heart. He accidently kills Nimue in the process, too, which explains why no one in the present can manage to find out where she hid the heart. It's in a Roman garbage dump.
  • Safehold doesn't make any real use of this trope but does contain a Shout-Out to the TropeNamers—the main character is a woman named Nimue who, upon being "reincarnated" as a Ridiculously Human Robot, takes on the identity of a man named Merlin.
  • Harry Dresden and his apprentice Molly Carpenter in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Harry is older, probably in his thirties or forties although Wizards Live Longer so he is just coming into his own power and not generally thought of as venerable, and takes on an apprentice when she is still a teen. He makes it very clear from the start that there is not going to be any romantic connection between the two for a number of reasons (two big ones: he's too good to abuse the power relationship like that, and he has been a friend of her father since she was a child so it would be Squicky), but there are many hints that she has feelings for him nonetheless. We know there are lots of magic lessons going on behind the scenes and in Noodle Incidents, but on stage we see more life lessons being learned than actual magic.
    • This also comes up in regards to Wardens Lucio and Morgan, whose relationship was very similiar, one-sided UST and all. Also of note is Ebenezer McCoy and Margaret Dresden, Harry's mother. Is it still this trope when they're father and daughter?
      • Yes, but without the UST.
    • Lucio, in particular, implies this is the case for almost all apprentices, and uses aloud, "do any of them ever grow out of it?"
  • Fidelias and Amara in the Codex Alera series, also by Jim Butcher. It's not a perfect example because all humans in this setting have magical powers so their Student and Master Team is nothing unusual. Other than that, though, it fits perfectly, with their relationship being integral parts of their characters throughout the series even though Fidelias' betrayal happens in the first couple chapters of the book.
  • Gorynel Desse and Cailet, although he doesn't act on his feelings.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Most of the Doctor's companions have been both female and much, much younger than he is. Even his only two Time Lord companions, Romana and his granddaughter Susan, were both a good deal younger than him. However, Unresolved Sexual Tension aside, he never became overtly romantic with any of them until the start of the new series, when there were no more Time Lords, so humans began to seem like a more legitimate option. The only betrayals (Adam Mitchell, Kamelion) or serious near-betrayals (Turlough) the Doctor has had have been from male companions (well, Kamelion's a genderless robot...)


Multiple Media[edit | hide]


Tabletop RPG[edit | hide]

  • Champions supplement Champions Presents #2, adventure "Murder in Stronghold". In the backstory, the supervillain Master Magus had a female apprentice (and lover) named Amaryllis who was a member of his villain team.
  • The Dungeons and Dragons supplement "Book of Vile Darkness" included a prestige class named Thrall of Graz'zt that was described as being sort of a Loremaster who acquires secrets by seduction rather than by study. That's right, there's a whole class oriented around being Nimue. And yes, it has class abilities that can be described as basically "backstabbing, only with magic".


Video games[edit | hide]

  • Antonidas and Jaina from Warcraft. He was the archmage of Dalaran and she was a student of his. There was no sexual chemistry here, (though the internet may disagree) and no betrayal among themselves.
  • Somewhat surprisingly averted in the second Quest for Glory game, where the player character, (a young hero who can be a magic user if you choose that class) and the experienced enchantress Aziza do not form this relationship. Although Aziza will gladly give you lots of advice and bring up a subquest or two, she will not sponsor your entrance into the Wizard's Academy (she takes that sort of thing very seriously and hasn't known you long enough or well enough yet) and she doesn't tutor you in magic or help your growth in it otherwise.
    • Quest For Glory 4, on the other hand, has an evil version in the relationship between Ad Avis and Katrina. She defeated him many years ago when he challenged her in magic, made him her apprentice, and bit him so that he would rise again as a vampire under her control upon his death (i.e. when you defeated him at the end of the second game). This upset Politically-Incorrect Villain Ad Avis, so he soon began scheming her downfall, first by trying to use The Hero to kill her, and later by exploiting her feelings for The Hero so that she wound up Taking the Bullet for him. Oh, and if you're a wizard Katrina will teach you a spell or two in 4 and again if you save her from Hades in 5.
      • Erana also teaches you a spell if you save her in 5 instead. In the rest of the games, she simply leaves scrolls behind for clever wizards to find.
  • This was Bethany Covenant's modus operandi, learning everything she can from other magic users before betraying or abandoning them. She finally met her end when her final teacher offed her first.
  • This is the stated relationship between Big Bads Mondain and Minax in the first two Ultima games, although without betrayal; Minax is so distraught over her mentor and lover's death that she screws up all time and space.
  • Warlic and Nythera from the Artix Entertainment games. Romance is not involved here, but Nythera, the Nimue in this relationship, is constantly scheming to get rid of Warlic and get her hands on his power (something she actually did in Dragon Fable, but which would come back to bite her and force her to resurrect him).


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The Archmage and Demona from Gargoyles, during the flashbacks to when she was his pupil. Thankfully the sexual chemistry was not present, because that would have been pretty squicky. Also, although she didn't actually betray him when it came to acquiring the Phoenix Gate, the Archmage believed that she did and acts accordingly, with Demona only being saved from possible death by Hudson's interference.
  1. Approximately Japanese version of Merlin, a Court Wizard of great renown and certain degree of notoriety.