Professor Leah Hamilton will present a paper on Authorial adaptations at Wayne State University in March. Read about her work below!
Several years ago I was confused by some very strange questions from students about the Arthurian tradition. The students eventually confessed that those questions were inspired by a television show I had never heard of: the BBC’s Merlin. Anyone who teaches literature contends with the many popular book, film, and television adaptations that influence in-class discussions, and it is helpful to know what students are influenced by and watching. So, that very week I set out to watch the first episodes in order to better “unteach” the show’s (apparently) strange presentations of the characters and tales. Instead, the students won me over; years later, I find myself championing the show as a significant adaptation of the Arthurian tradition as I develop a presentation paper about Merlin for Wayne State University’s conference “Telling & Retelling Stories: (Re)imagining Popular Culture,” and write a chapter for editor Susan Austin’s upcoming book, Arthurian Legend in the 20th & 21st Centuries.
Merlin includes many obvious adaptations to the Medieval stories (including casting Merlin, Arthur, and Lancelot as young adults simultaneously), but to me the most striking change is an emphatic erasure of Christianity from the stories. The omission of Christianity complicates the retelling of quite a few tales, perhaps most notably those involving the Holy Grail, and this was particularly intriguing as I waited for the young Lancelot and Guinevere’s flirtation to develop into their famously treasonous relationship. How would the writers of the BBC show redeem these characters and preserve their exemplary status without Christianity?
As I analyze the changes to plot and characterization of the characters, I am examining at the same time the circumstances under which modern audiences are willing (or unwilling!) to forgive heroes for missteps, and how the writers of the BBC’s hit show navigate this issue again and again through the five seasons (series) of Merlin. This is particularly relevant as modern audiences are increasingly vocal and public in their responses to the failures of political leaders, celebrities, and other cultural exemplars. Analysis of popular texts about some of the most beloved heroes of all time and the way in which writers are successful in persuading audiences to forgive their flaws (and at times their grievous missteps) may give some insight not only into the Arthurian tradition, but also into current attitudes regarding remorse, atonement, and redemption.