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DVD cover art
|Written by||Edward Khmara
|Directed by||Steve Barron|
Helena Bonham Carter
|Theme music composer||Trevor Jones|
|Country of origin||United States|
Robert Halmi Sr.
|Running time||182 minutes|
|Original release||April 26, 1998 – April 27, 1998|
|Followed by||Merlin's Apprentice|
Merlin is a 1998 television miniseries which originally aired on NBC that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizard Merlin. Sam Neill stars in the title role in a story that covers not only the rise and fall of Camelot but also the phase in the legendary history of Britain that precedes it.
The film deviates from more traditional versions of the legend, notably by including new characters such as Queen Mab and by keeping Merlin through the whole reign of King Arthur over Britain (whereas in older versions Merlin left earlier on in the king's reign). The film was followed by a sequel in 2006, Merlin's Apprentice, which was more loosely connected with traditional Arthurian legend.
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Merlin, now an elderly man, tells his story, explaining how Britain was faced with rulers and invasion that are increasingly destructive to its own people. Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson), goddess of the fey, seeks to reclaim her power by drawing people back to the "Old Ways". To do so, she creates a wizard named Merlin, whom she intends to champion her crusade. After Merlin's mother dies giving birth to him, his guardian Ambrosia (Billie Whitelaw), tells Mab she is too cruel and cold to raise Merlin (Daniel Brocklebank), and Mab reluctantly agrees that Ambrosia will bring him up until the time when Merlin's powers emerge, when Mab will send for him.
Years later, a teenage Merlin recounts to Ambrosia how he has rescued a nobleman's daughter, Nimue (Isabella Rossellini), in the forests near their home by magically growing a small branch. A shocked Ambrosia tells him of his past and he is sent to Mab to begin his training with Frik (Martin Short), Mab's gnome servant; however, while able to learn magic, Merlin has little interest in helping Mab's crusade to restore the Old Ways, angering her. Merlin finds out from the Lady of the Lake (Miranda Richardson in a dual role), that her sister Mab let his birth mother die, and that Ambrosia is ill. Mab reaches Ambrosia's home before Merlin, but when Ambrosia refuses to convince Merlin to return to Mab, the fey queen lashes out in fury, fatally injuring Ambrosia inadvertantly. Ambrosia tells Merlin before she dies that he must follow his heart. Merlin tries to attack Mab, but can't defeat her; she dismisses the deaths of his mother and Ambrosia as "casualties of war" and vows that Merlin will help her in her quest for power. Merlin makes a blood-oath never to use magic in his effort to defeat Mab.
Many years pass. Merlin (now Sam Neill) is brought before the tyrant King Vortigern (Rutger Hauer) who is having problems constructing his castle, which keeps collapsing. Merlin calls the king stupid for believing what he has been told by a soothsayer (influenced by Mab) that the blood of a man with no mortal father will set the mortar. Merlin tells the king his vision: a red dragon representing Uther Pendragon, whose father, King Constant (John Gielgud) was murdered by Vortigern to seize his throne, defeats the white dragon that represents Vortigern. Mab misleads the king that he can vanquish Uther by sacrificing Nimue; Mab hopes by doing so will cause Merlin to break his vow not to use magic. Merlin uses magic to save Nimue from the fire of the dragon and Nimue is sent to Avalon to recover from her burns. Merlin leaves Nimue to ask the Lady of the Lake for help against Vortigern; she gives him the magical sword Excalibur.
Merlin warns Uther of Vortigern's intention to attack him under the cover of winter; Uther heeds Merlin's warning and advice to confront the king on a frozen river. In the ensuing battle, Merlin duels Vortigern with Excalibur, using the sword's magic to open up the ice beneath Vortigern's feet, who plunges into the river and drowns. Merlin believes that Uther will be a decent king and gives to him Excalibur. Uther soon becomes obsessed with Igraine (Rachel De Thame), the wife of Gorlois, Lord of Cornwall. Merlin, worried about Uther misusing Excalibur, tricks Uther out of the sword and plunges it into the Rock of Ages (voice of James Earl Jones), who promises to keep it until a good man can withdraw it. Uther's mind is plagued by madness and lust, and Britain slides back into civil war. Merlin strikes a deal with Uther to bed Igraine, in exchange for guardianship of the son born from the union, and for the Duke and his men to be spared. Merlin transforms Uther's appearance into that of Gorlois. While Uther's forces lead Cornwall and his men away, Uther enters the castle and has sex with Igraine, with Igraine's disfigured daughter, Morgan le Fay (Helena Bonham Carter), is the only one who sees through Uther's disguise. Uther betrays Merlin, going back on his word and having Cornwall and his men slaughtered. Merlin forever regrets allowing this to happen. While Igraine is in labor, at Mab's behest, Frik meets and amuses Morgan through his magic, offering to teach her the same in exchange for placing a black stone beneath the baby's sheets in his crib, cursing his life. Igraine then gives birth to King Arthur, but at the cost of her own life. Mab then confronts Merlin, proclaiming Arthur to be damned, but Merlin vows to raise him in the ways of good, and hopes Arthur will help bring her down.
Arthur, who is unaware of his heritage, is tutored throughout his childhood by Merlin. He teaches him ethics and morals, hoping to make Arthur the image of goodness and a perfect King. Meanwhile, Uther commits suicide, which leaves the kingdom in turmoil over who will be the new King. Merlin informs Arthur of his rightful place as the only son of Uther and true heir to the throne. Mab attempts to kill Arthur by unleashing a pack of griffins; Merlin foils the attack by directing a swarm of bees to drive the monsters off, but is thus reminded that Mab is still a threat. The failed assassination likewise informs Mab that she is rapidly losing her power. With the throne vacant, all the noblemen in the kingdom try to take Excalibur from the Rock of Ages, but none can. Mab pleads with the rock to not let Arthur have the sword, saying he will bring bloodshed like his father, and will destroy the Old Ways. Arthur replies that he doesn't know what he will be, only what he is. This wise response makes the Rock of Ages see the goodness in Arthur, and grants him Excalibur.
Merlin presents Arthur to the gathered nobility vying for the throne; while most accept his claim upon seeing him bearing Excalibur, but a handful, led by Lord Lot (John Turner) initially refuse to accept Arthur as King. However, Arthur, using Merlin's teachings is able to convince Lot and his allies of his rightful claim to the throne. Satisfied that Arthur is the king destined to bring Britain stability, Merlin leaves, thinking the kingdom is finally at peace, but Mab comes up with a counter-plan of her own. She instructs Frik to seek out Arthur's half-sister Morgan (Helena Bonham Carter), and poison her mind by making her beautiful, and has her seduce Arthur, who is unaware of their relationship. Morgan and Arthur's act of incest eventually reaches Merlin, who races back to Camelot to confront Arthur. Merlin tells Arthur that Morgan will give birth to Arthur's abomination of a son, Mordred (Jason Done), whom Mab raises to become Arthur's downfall and bring back the Old Ways. Despite being from a cursed union, Mordred is exceptionally strong and grows at an abnormally fast rate. Arthur starts construction of his castle of Camelot and marries Guinevere (Lena Headey), while Merlin eventually forgives him for his indiscretion with Morgan. Unfortunately, when he tries to convince Morgan to stop plotting against Arthur, she disregards his warning, unaware that she and Mordred are merely pawns in Mab's ambition.
Arthur decides to take his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, so he holds a tournament to crown a champion whom will be given the duty of defending and completing Camelot in his absence. Knowing that Arthur's enemies would take advantage of his absence, the Lady of the Lake vows to guide Merlin by boat to a "good man" worthy of being Camelot's guardian. Merlin eventually finds a boy, Galahad, by the riverbank in front of the estate of his parents, Lancelot - a skilled rider and swordsman - and Elaine of Astolat. Merlin brings Lancelot back to Camelot, where he then wins the tournament. Unfortunately, in Arthur's absence, Guinevere and Lancelot become infatuated with each other and embark on a love affair, despite Merlin warning of the consequences. Mab magically makes sure Lancelot's wife can see his betrayal, and she is found dead at the shores of Camelot not long after. Merlin accuses Lancelot of killing her through heartbreak and he flees Camelot in his guilt and shame. Arthur and his knights return to the city shortly afterwards, their quest a failure. Mordred then makes his presence as Arthur's son and heir known and reveals Guinevere's betrayal to all. Outmaneuvered by Mordred, Arthur is forced to condemn her to be burned at the stake for treason. Midway through the execution, Arthur changes his mind and begs Merlin to save her, so Merlin makes it rain, which saves Guinevere long enough for Lancelot to fight his way into Camelot and ride off with her to safety.
Mordred confronts Arthur, who denounces and banishes him. Mordred begins to raise an army among those dissatisfied with Arthur and Merlin. Meanwhile, Frik and Morgan have fallen in love after Mab's magic makes them both beautiful. When Morgan refuses to allow Mab to further use Mordred for her own ends, Mab kills her with Frik watching. Frik holds the dying Morgan and they revert to their true ugly forms, but they both call each other beautiful anyway, and she dies in his arms. When Frik vows revenge on Mab, she takes his powers away, and he later joins Arthur's army. Queen Mab then lures Nimue into a wilderness and removes the scars from her past injury, explaining she wishes to keep Merlin out of the way, so he cannot intervene in the battle to come. Wanting to be with him, Nimue agrees and sends for Merlin. He comes to her, but senses a trap when he realizes that the idyllic paradise they are in is a creation of Mab's. However, Nimue compels him to give up his war with her and simply be at peace. Meanwhile, the armies of Mordred and Arthur prepare themselves for the Battle of Camlann. Many on both sides are slain, and in a climactic duel, Arthur defeats Mordred. Mordred deals Arthur a fatal blow before Arthur kills him.
Knowing his protégé is dying, Merlin leaves Nimue to go to Arthur; however once he leaves, the magic of Mab's creation seals itself behind him, parting Merlin from Nimue forever. At the battlefield, both Mab and Merlin witness the deaths of their protégés. Mab's magic is unable to save Mordred while Arthur lives long enough to tell Merlin to return Excalibur to the place it was found so that no one else could wield its power. Arthur dies as Merlin gives back the sword to the Lady of the Lake. She is slowly dying as Old Ways are being rejected and forgotten. Merlin accuses her of lying to him about the guardian of Camelot, but she explains that, "it was the boy, Galahad," who was the true guardian and could have averted all this, though she assures Merlin that Arthur's death is not his fault. Merlin encounters Frik among the survivors of Arthur's army, who warns him that although Mab is greatly weakened, she is still dangerous.
Merlin confronts Mab at Camelot but the ensuing magical duel ends in stalemate. Mab sneers that she is invulnerable to conventional means of destruction, but Merlin responds that everyone ignoring her will led to her defeat. Mab slowly fades into nothing as Merlin, Frik and the entire court of Camelot turn their backs on her and walk away, ignoring her desperate screaming at them to acknowledge her. An aged Merlin is shown telling, in the same voice as the over voice narration at the beginning of the film, his story for coin. Frik makes himself known to Merlin with the caution that Merlin's version is not what Frik remembers. Merlin replies that his version he believes people will prefer. After Merlin finds his aged magic horse, Frik reveals it will lead him to Nimue. When Merlin asks how, Frik says that some time after Mab had disappeared, the spells she had cast has lost their effectiveness; Nimue was set free. After Merlin and Frik part ways, Merlin finds Nimue at Ambrosia's old forest home. Both lovers, now old, are transformed to younger days by Merlin's last act of magic, free at last to live out their lives together.
- Sam Neill as Merlin
- Daniel Brocklebank as teenage Merlin
- Miranda Richardson as Queen Mab and The Lady of The Lake
- Isabella Rossellini as Nimue
- Agnieszka Kozon as teenage Nimue
- Martin Short as Frik
- Paul Curran as Arthur
- Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan le Fay
- Alice Hamilton as young Morgan le Fay
- Rutger Hauer as King Vortigern
- James Earl Jones as the Rock of Ages
- John Gielgud as King Constant
- Billie Whitelaw as Ambrosia
- Lena Headey as Guinevere
- Jason Done as Mordred
- Rachel De Thame as Igraine
- Jeremy Sheffield as Lancelot
- Sebastian Roché as Gawain
- John McEnery as Lord Ardente
- Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Sir Boris
- Nicholas Clay as Lord Leo
- Robert Addie as Sir Gilbert
- Nickolas Grace as Sir Egbert
- John Turner as Lord Lot
- Peter Woodthorpe as Soothsayer
Illustrator Alan Lee served as the film's conceptual designer. Despite heavy fantasy elements, the production is historically accurate to a degree, in keeping with the probable origins of the Arthurian legend in Sub-Roman Britain. The costumes and props used in the film include Dark Age or Early Medieval Celtic and Roman-style weapons (e.g. Iron Age swords) and armor (e.g. mail, scale and leather), while other Arthurian films like Excalibur, Knights of the Round Table and First Knight use High Medieval or Late Medieval-style weapons (e.g. longswords) and armour (e.g. full suits of plate). However, some anachronisms are present, like the use of the terms "knight" and "Sir" and the presence of the Roman lorica segmentata armour years after it was discontinued. During the conflict between Vortigern and Uther, Uther is said to be invading from Normandy, despite the film taking place long before the age of the Vikings, and thus of the Norman colonization which gave Normandy its name.
Nicholas Clay, who plays Guinevere's father Lord Leo, and Robert Addie, who plays Sir Gilbert, both appeared in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur, as (respectively) Lancelot and Mordred. Paul Curran, who played the adult King Arthur, played Kay alongside Jason Connery as Merlin in Merlin: The Quest Begins, an unrelated television film released the same year.
Three books were written as novelisations of the film by James Mallory. They included new ideas and characters including former priest Hearne and Lord Idath who rule Anoeth the land of Death and Winter. The books are as follows:
- Merlin: The Old Magic
Much of what occurs in this book is not in the film, Merlin's mother Elissa is introduced as a Princess and novice Nun to Avalon who moves out with Ambrosia to Barnstable Forest when she becomes pregnant with Merlin. We further see Ambrosia's life and her failing faith in Queen Mab who gets Vortigern to take the throne of Britain from its Christian King Constance. Naturally some of the early events unfold such as the Lady of the Lake and Mab not agreeing on creating Merlin, etc. but we get to explore Merlin's magic education in the Lands of Magic under the hollow hill. An important element is Merlin being half magic and half human, where Fairy magic relies on illusion Merlin can make illusion real melding fairy spellcraft with human feeling merging the powers together in reality. Frik hides this and Merlin only uses it once in this book by shapeshifting into a bird. We meet Lord Idath the god of death and the wild hunt, Mab's former consort who does not fear as Mab does knowing there is life for him as long as mortals fear the shadow of midnight. The story ends just before Vortigern's men are on their way to get Merlin.
- Merlin: The King's Wizard
This is more familiar with the film where Merlin meets Vortigern and is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. He and Nimue meet again and fall in love. Merlin becomes the King's Wizard and help Uther to become King only to be betrayed and manipulating events like Mab would by allowing him to sleep with the Duke of Cornwall's wife. Leading to the birth of Arthur and his tutoring as well as the building of Camelot and arrival of Lancelot. The book ends around this point with problems between the love triangle that is Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot as well as the birth of Mordred.
- Merlin: The End of Magic
The battle between Mab and Merlin continues and the disastrous love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere causes chaos. Mordred grows up and Morgan and Frik develop their relationship into true love. Naturally as the title suggests it leads to the end of magic but we learn of the thirteen treasures of Britain, one being Idath's horn which becomes more useful over time. Also Merlin uses his heart magic once more turning fairy illusion into reality and even becomes a wizard of pure thought.
Hallmark Entertainment filmed a subsequent miniseries in Vancouver, entitled Merlin's Apprentice, with Neill and Richardson returning, though Richardson played a somewhat different role. The miniseries was broadcast in 2006 on Hallmark Channel.
- "James Mallory: Merlin novelisations". Amazon.co.uk.