Your Destiny: The Adventures of Merlin (TV Series Review)

The Adventures of Merlin

[Publicity cast photo of Merlin to be replaced]

 

225px-Merlin_(illustration_from_middle_ages)
Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Manuscript illustration, c.1300.) Image: Wikimedia/Public Domain

I actually don’t watch a lot of television—not because I am a TV snob, I just don’t have a great deal of time–and as a result never bothered to invest in cable. Amusing consequences involved my then-six-year-old son asking me, “What is a commercial?” I was slightly happy he had to ask me this, but later I thought about the vilification of television and settled on the conclusion I’d always done: That television isn’t so bad, and in fact can be a worthy tool, but it matters how you use it. Even if for entertainment, I have found it can be used in concert with sneaky little educational insertions, and my now-ten-year-old turtle is the one who actually led us to this particular case. His success in persuading me to sign up for a TV/movie streaming subscription found me one evening, bone tired and flipping through the choices until I saw the word “Merlin,” at which point I hastily clicked. For I am fan of Merlin since childhood and still recall dragging my mother to all the libraries in the region to collect books I’d looked up that had anything and everything to do with Merlin and King Arthur. Life having gotten a bit in the way of these pursuits, I nevertheless remembered my mother’s voice, “And yet here we are again…”

“He cannot glimpse his part in the great story that is about to unfold. Like everyone else, he must live and learn.”

So we are told as we watch the young Merlin—known to us from Arthurian legend—climb a pathway on the journey’s last leg from his home in Ealdor to Camelot, where he takes up residence with his guardian and the court physician, Gaius. Merlin’s introduction to Camelot comes in two main parts: one by witnessing an execution and next by tangling with a boisterous and perhaps bored Prince Arthur, who has him thrown into the stocks. By the first episode’s end, Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon’s opinion of the young boy—unbeknownst to them, a powerful sorcerer—settles to deep admiration and he is awarded with a position in the palace.

Watching this and subsequent episodes required me to settle into the idea of Merlin’s story being told rather differently to the way I’d always been taught. For starters, Merlin is unacquainted with Uther until this day, twenty years into the king’s reign, when he meets an Arthur already grown into his role as heir—there is to be no sword in the stone moment, at least not in the accidental discovery sort of way we know best. Moreover, Arthur’s opinion of the newcomer is rivaled only by Merlin’s view of the prince: “There must be another Arthur because this one’s an idiot.” As we later learn, Camelot itself also existed long before the prince and his father: recorded events trace back at least 300 years.

I enjoyed the show enough to be fairly delighted by it—-and amazed at the accidental events that led me to it—-though I did wonder how Uther, so zealously fixated on his war against magic, could at times be so gullible. He eagerly laps up stories told by strangers yet refuses to believe his own son, or Gaius, his trusted physician of twenty years. Nevertheless, Uther does argue some powerful points, such as when he consults Geoffrey of Monmouth re: a knight’s nobility papers, or the need to show strength in the brutal world in which they live.

The camera work caught my eye in a number of ways: the rapid movement combined with zoom to indicate a shift in perspective or at particular moments of acuity; transitions from scene to scene at opposing levels and, perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the camera loves the actors, utilizing their talents to capture even the most subtle elements in the repertoire of each. This was most evident in the second season, when they seemed to grow more and superbly into their roles: Colin Morgan as Merlin displays an incredibly wide range of emotive capability with the ability to shift rapidly. His eyes and facial expressions—even when there somehow weren’t such; he managed to somehow create a visible flow of energy within his countenance that transmits Merlin’s fear, wariness, despair, panic. The shows of emotion are also much more powerful than the moment that contains them: the flash of anger in his eyes or tight-lipped determination in the face of danger. In one particular scene on a staircase Bradley James as Arthur says more with a sorrowful and despairing visible plea than any words ever could have. Guinevere, who often rambles and pulls her punches, becomes more assertive, though her dialogue remains appropriate to her character’s station.

[Cast image to be replaced]

 

The second season also tackles issues modern audiences perhaps relate to more closely, such as “The Witchfinder,” in which an agent who works for no one, and who claims that his own “methods are infallible and findings inscrutable,” lays the burden of proof upon the defendants, interrogates them alone, and makes deals he later betrays. “The Lady of the Lake” brings us a Merlin we haven’t quite seen; his earnestness and empathy for an outsider opens a new pathway that leads him to “The Last Dragonlord,” in which he finds some answers of his past and a better idea of the greatness of his future.

References to this future periodically occur within the show’s dialogue, and as the episodes march forward, Arthur continues to mock Merlin–they have a somewhat unusual relationship, given they are master and servant–but ever so slowly seems to begin to more seriously consider his words. Merlin himself, however, still questions himself and others, unsure what his next move should be or why anything he does might matter. Given what we know of Merlin today, it is somewhat surrealistic to hear Gaius, his uncle, reference future generations–that’s us–and what we will say and believe of him, or for him to be speaking from a world in which Merlin, the greatest wizard who ever lived, does not yet exist.

Herein lies a link to the–a–beauty of it all: Whether audience members are familiar with the legends of Merlin and King Arthur or not, the non-traditional manner in which the stories are laid out in each episode ensures a freshness and vitality to draw in new and younger viewers. Those who, like me, grew up at the knee of a storyteller, get to experience it all over again, with a perspective that deconstructs and forces us to perceive events in new ways. Viewers new to Merlin in general have a great many reasons to be attracted: action, plot, history, characters we come to care about. The timeless quality of humans wanting–perhaps even needing–to be told stories, is satisfied in such a way it makes us want to tell others in a continuation of what our ancestors have been doing since the beginning of time.

Today even small children know about Merlin and, given their wont to carry the real world into play (and vice versa), it is hardly surprising that Merlin’s stories remain as alive as they do. Moreover, there is simply such an enthralling amount of history infused into their creations it is, frankly, somewhat staggering. For those who think that television has nothing of value, I offer you this, as Gaius himself counsels Merlin on magic: “It’s how you use it.”

Inspired by The Adventures of Merlin‘s writers, characters he drew close to and most importantly, Merlin himself, Turtle offers his own creation:

“Merlin”
From the forest where the sword
was thrust in the stone
To the Kingdom of Camelot
where Arthur sits on the throne
North, South, East and West
Travels Gwaine, the best of the best
From where druids practice sorcery
To where Merlin’s trapped in a giant oak tree
From where Percival travels to Lancelot,
the man who dreams to be a knight of Camelot
Where Arthur drowned in Avalon’s wave
To where Tailesin saw the Crystal Cave
And in England’s deepest hour of need
Out of the tree
Will emerge Merlin in victory

*********

Merlin (Colin Morgan)
Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James)
Uther Pendragon (Anthony Stewart Head)
Gaius (Richard Wilson)
Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath)
Gwen (Angel Coulby)
Kilgharrah, The Great Dragon (John Hurt)

Three of my favorite episodes from Season II; I highly recommend:

“The Witchfinder” Jeremy Webb/Jake Michie
“The Lady of the Lake” Metin Huseyin/Julian Jones
“The Last Dragonlord” Jeremy Webb/Julian Jones
(Directed by/Written by)

Note: This post was updated to add or switch images.

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Book Review and Author Interview: The Red Priest’s Annina by Sarah Bruce Kelly

Not long ago I had opportunity to read the young adult novel Vivaldi’s Muse, Sarah Bruce Kelly’s expanded version of The Red Priest’s Annina. Not only was I utterly enchanted by the author’s rich, descriptive phrases and seamless narrative, I was also delighted to learn of the first book. Expanding upon a previous novel is a wonderful way to introduce youth to fascinating and important figures in history and society, and with their reading comes growth and greater understanding–not to mention simply a fabulous story. I am honored and pleased to have been able to review not only Vivaldi’s Muse but now also The Red Priest’s Annina. I caught up with Sarah Bruce Kelly, who so graciously gave the time for an interview, which appears below the fold. To top it all off I’ve added a treat, cosied in between the two. Divertiti!

Red Priest's Annina
The Red Priest’s Annina tells the story of Anna Girò, who at age 14 in 1722 arrives in Venice hoping to study with Antonio Vivaldi, opera impresario and ordained priest. Referred to as Il Prete Rosso, for the color of his hair, Vivaldi had fingers that “flew like lightning over his violin strings, and his music sparkled with fire, as did his golden red hair and deep blue eyes.” Anna in fact had met him before in Mantua, her hometown, where her dreams of singing in the opera had developed, and now she longs to study with Don Antonio.

This young adult novel follows Anna not only through her studies but also her triumphs and despairs, wrestle as she must against forces holding her back, including her own uncertainty. From the very opening page, the girl falls mute to duty: “I bit back the song I ached to sing.” Though filled with the flight and excitement of song, Annina confides to us that arguing with her father is pointless, and retreats.

Shortly thereafter she learns of the circumstances that will take her to Venice, and despite her initial exhilarating introduction to the city and all its feasts for the senses, Annina begins to encounter the shadows that seem to accompany even the most ecstatic dreams. Kelly’s descriptive phrases flow like silk scarves sailing through Carnevale, as she leads us from the “salty sea air and the shrill of gulls flood[ing the] senses” through the obscure veneziano dialect and even slumping spirits following admonishing words designed to dampen Annina’s passion.

As language defines a people, it also characterizes the world Kelly has created, one filled with sights and sounds, scents and sensations that reach out with words utilized so skillfully one cannot help but be drawn in to the scenes themselves. When Annina first arrives at the house at which her patron had arranged her stay:

An old lady stood in the foyer, dressed entirely in black. Her withering stare made my throat clench. I felt gagged.
“I am Signora Malvolia, proprietress of this boardinghouse,” she said. “I understand you are here in Venice to study music, under the patronage of the Duke of Massa Carrara.”
The air, thick with the stench and taste of mildew, was dizzying.
“Si,” I said, as I sank into a curtsy with legs as wobbly as a newborn colt’s.
She pursed her lips and looked me over. “They call you Annina?”
I nodded warily.
“You may call me Signora,” she said, her lips tightening.

True to her name, Signora supports Chiara Orlandi, whose every move is designed to isolate Annina: rifling through her belongings, withholding mail, initiating rumors, engaging deceit, and at long last, offering a hand in friendship. How far is Chiara prepared to go before her plans backfire? Can a friendship between the two rivals succeed?

Given Annina’s age and inexperience, it is unsurprising that Chiara manages to fool and lead her into compromising situations. Annina’s determination not to be seen as needy or impractical leads her to internalize, which aids Chiara’s schemes. At one point it seems the threatened singer will manage to push Annina away from her dreams after all. After Annina botches a score transcription that makes her late for a music lesson, Chiara delivers the younger girl’s punishment:

“I’ve asked Signora to reassign your status in this household to that of a servant. Tomorrow morning you’ll begin to learn the art of dressmaking and assist our resident seamstress in sewing operatic costumes. That will be your fulltime job.”

Here Annina recalls her mother, who had abandoned the family, perhaps in an unhappy search for her own musical past, sacrificed for her female role in society, recognition only having come much later when she remarries in order to secure herself a protected place in society. Annina, a child of this second marriage, feels abandoned by everyone in her life and turns to la moretta, the mask purchased at the start of Carnivale from a woman who had told Annina she would suffer much, but that the mask would shield her. It seems to promise her protection, but by its very nature, her silence is the price for such safety. In our journey with Annina we witness her ongoing struggle with this duality: the need to have and develop her voice paired with the exposure that renders her vulnerable to those who would crush it. In turn we observe her impact on those in the same circle, and influenced by what her voice might offer.

Kelly has a delectable way with words, which enables her to convey a variety of lessons—music, history, political, social—while simultaneously presenting young adult readers with the story of a girl who endures personal struggles in many of the same ways they do. This particular span of years tends to be acutely rife with the politics of interpersonal relationships, harboring jealousy and rivalry as it does, along with the distinctly poor choices adolescents and teens often make in order to benefit with a positive spin. The opportunity to grow with Annina, to recognize Chiara’s schemes for what they are, is so rewarding because readers can relate to her, no matter their own talent or perceived lack of it.

While Signora is a fictionalized character, Chiara Orlandi is historical, of whom little is known. The Duke of Massa Carrara was one of Vivaldi’s early patrons, and although Kelly’s treatment of his character is ficticious, it is based on knowledge of the era’s common practices. These and other aspects of the story bring to life the realization that Kelly has done her research well. Based on documentation the author translated herself, she has woven a story that stands up to examination and critical exploration. The Red Priest’s Annina presents historical fiction at its finest.

Continue reading “Book Review and Author Interview: The Red Priest’s Annina by Sarah Bruce Kelly”

Book Review: Call Nurse Millie

Call Nurse Millie by Jean Fullerton

In my experiences of talking with people about the Second World War, with those who had heard battle and personal stories first hand or garnered them only from television and books, I find it interesting that young and old alike tend to refer to it as “the war,” as opposed to its full official moniker. Oddly this makes sense, for while no wars before or since are any less important or devastating to those affected, World War II has, for better or worse, created a new world in which battle experiences and their aftermath continue to be relayed even now, with personal fronts as far-reaching as those that existed during this deadliest of all wars.

Call Nurse Millie cover image

These fronts continued to exist even after VE Day, while Britain carried on food and clothes rationing and people existed in many ways the same as they had during the war: as part of a society in which the distinction between military and civilian life was blurred. A weary population, however, threw their energies into celebrating the end of five grueling years of deprivation and horror. As East Londoners with glee and relief bid farewell to the Blitz, Millie Sullivan holds a newborn baby in her arms, opening Call Nurse Millie with an apt eye on the future. Millie, as a midwife, guides birth in the wake of death, also signaling the strength of character we are yet to see in this hard working district nurse.

Not long thereafter Millie’s strength is tested when her father lay dying just as Winston Churchill announces Germany’s surrender and the midnight cease-fire. Her mother, Doris, observes wryly, “Only you could have a stroke on the day it’s all over.” Doris falls into a deep depression, however, and later takes ill as Millie simultaneously attempts to keep up with her demanding vocation and fallout of nasty workplace politics. In our age of easy transportation, it is heartbreaking to envision, as Fullerton draws out her characters in action, Millie biking to all her patients’ homes and later persuading her mother onto a bus, which hurtles her not only towards a devastating misdiagnosis but also the terrible consequences of medical neglect, arrogance and unsuitable treatment.

The pace of the book often mirrors the events within; while the opening pages are somewhat slow, this gives pause to reflect on Millie’s required on-call hours in between her regular long days. Obliged by rules to live at Munroe House, Millie conducts her affairs in a necessarily mapped-out fashion—when to go to a phone box, her mother’s house, patient visits, errands and appointments and more, all while navigating runs between the barbs and blows of a micro-managing superintendent and an ally harboring petty grievances—reminiscent of Baranskaia’s Olya, whose life of sheer exhaustion includes repeatedly forgetting to perform the simple task of sewing on a belt loop. Nurse Sullivan is often bone weary or stifling yawns, and at one point forgets to dole out pain medication.

The longer we are permitted to have this glimpse into Millie’s post-war life, the more we learn about social, economic and material conditions of the time. The day of the doodlebug has passed, but predatory welfare policies (or informal, unofficial practice) force people into cold and starvation for fear of losing their children; others are lost following long years of literal darkness meant to shield and protect, accidents being only one category of casualty. Racism and elitism seem to become more vicious, perhaps partly a birthing pain as some recognize the passing of an older world to make way for a new. Those welcoming this new world tend to be people like Millie’s patients, who often have to choose between dinner and medical treatment, the latter of which plays a large role in the activism of some in Millie’s social circle.

Interestingly enough, experiencing Call Nurse Millie is akin to a history lesson, sans the tedium. Though not brutal in the same way as novels depicting the heat of actual warfare, it explores the theatres people had to experience via daily emotional combat in a city under siege and whose citizens at times target each other, and is therefore no less devastating. Those over sensitive to racism in historical context would do well to don their battle armour, for it is here in a big way, but its elimination from the pages of Call Nurse Millie would be failure to acknowledge the trials, and more importantly, triumphs against Hitler’s bombs, that these ordinary people lived and died by.

Fullerton writes a fair amount of medical information into the novel; being familiar with most of it left me unsure whether or not this is problematic for those who are not. She also leaves it to well into the book to clarify that “Sister” references someone who is a nurse, and that its use pays homage to the profession’s heritage. However writer friendly this may be, it can easily be forgiven by her fluid narrative style, which performs duties oftentimes without us ever realizing it does. “Reginald Hayhurst was probably in his early forties” introduces both reader and Millie to a medical provider she pays a professional visit to, placing both squarely in the same boat. There is no omnipotent narrator; we are experiencing this moment on the same level as Sister Sullivan. This and other techniques, such as visual cues that indicate or reflect on the passage of time while presenting as Millie’s ruminations—“The pale blue hospital counterpane draped over the bed was similar to the one that had covered her father almost a year before”—bring us closer to Millie’s own experience. We are there and invested with her and other characters, even when some of them are not so sympathetic.

Call Nurse Millie, as historical fiction, has the advantage that many people today relate quite closely to the era, because relatives they’d lived and interacted with experienced many of the same moments Millie did. Indeed, some readers themselves likely have. We as humans tend to yearn for links to our past and this era, albeit 70 years ago, is still so close it is tantalizing, much like Millie’s own story.

Call Nurse Millie by Jean Fullerton

May 2013

ISBN-10: 1409137406

ISBN-13: 978-1409137405

A copy of Call Nurse Millie was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Image courtesy Jean Fullerton.