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“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin

Authors:
“You gave me no choice”: A
queer reading of Mordred’s
journey to villainy and
struggle for identity in BBC’s
Merlin – Joseph Brennan
Oct 7, 2015 | Browse by Media, Browse Past Volumes, Digital
Media/Internet, fan culture, Older Media, Television,
Uncategorized, Volume 26
Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred
character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—
from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a
series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’
who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various
catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights
into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular
British series and what these elements have to tell us about this
reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by
analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which
support my reading and delve into typologies that help
examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the
archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight
and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.
This reading o!ers insight into the reimagining of an iconic
villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the
character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.
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Introduction
The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897)
Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor
Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal
in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le
Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas !gure. (For those
unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an
accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s
morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp
1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant
his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero
of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s
hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start
of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin
(2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for
the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in
this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful
wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until
Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s
hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the
program’s !ve-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of
the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that
has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create
artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular
texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash
manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these
images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it
with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his
interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur speci!cally. By
charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we
are privy to insights into the representations and (queer)
metaphors of this popular British series, and what these
elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain.
Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how
Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual
identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his
mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.
Merlin (2008–2012)
Spanning !ve years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the
namesake’s acceptance and ful!lment of his destiny to assist
Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the
way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon
Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony
Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred
(Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It di"ers from
most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making
Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley
James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a
world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy
from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the
series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur
in the !nal episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot.
For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the !nal episode invites
comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after
revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each
other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify
with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their
identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a
“wishful identi!cation” (see Ho"ner and Buchanan 2005) with
such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a
universe hostile to ‘their kind.’
The !nale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his
manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the
!rst episode of the !nal season. Arthur is slain by his former
knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both
Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself
—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This
essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the
position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan
2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins
in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers
that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the
debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use
fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged
fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my
own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies
that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as
the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight
and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.
Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash
Manips
[1]
Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited
collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles
(see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject
in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its signi!cance. In
particular, scholars have examined its representations and the
value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to
most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon
Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015,
97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan
2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot
character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this
BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and
Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the
popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The
article also includes an examination of a tradition of using
queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–
22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain
medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that
a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the
Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of
same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer
readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan
followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a
‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his de!nition of cult television as a
complex interaction among television texts, discourses about
them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat
2012, who examines Merlin fan!c trailers to explore how fans of
the series remix the canon relationship of its male
protagonists.)
Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series
such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their
exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which
lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-
Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the
convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male
pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash
fans produce texts in the form of !ction, video, and art to depict
their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of
Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and
Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the
practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans,
magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a
metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us,
the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels
marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I
have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see
Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash
that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely
‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the signi!cance
of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been
de!ned.)
Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as
high resolution screen shots or promotional images from
Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay
pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form
of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion)
digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally
match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a
process I describe as the ‘semiotic signi!cance of selection’ (see
Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select
slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are
reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists.
The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer
reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital
manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of
symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly
‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the
“project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping
disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual
practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)
Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain
In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore,
Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a
typology that identi!es seven character types in folktales, each
with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain,
Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By
focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge
in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be
the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares
Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close
reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is
consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this
character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from
the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a
false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil,
much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to
legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend,
Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the
story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of
Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as con!rmed by
Mordred’s !nal words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13
[abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is
similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which
retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him
sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and con!rming that
we are all the heroes of our own story.
Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because
he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in
queer readings—but further because he bridges the central
characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are
described in the series as “two sides of the same coin”
(Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin
(manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin
create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active,
sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength,
feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both
sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving
freely between them, which is in part why the titular character
—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)
—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to
Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself.
Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of
knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes
will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies
Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately
denies himself.
Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior
Archetype
William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ
the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and
Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to
outline the respective bene!ts of each to homosexual identity
development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of
reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity”
(Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual,
sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its
splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of
“thoughtfulness, re#ection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the
ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon
1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the o"ensive
and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s
tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).
These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of
Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to
being literal personi!cations of these archetypes, display a
combination of the corresponding traits in their representation:
Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as
Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes
are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily
King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to
both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to
exist in the grey area between the well-de!ned and policed
binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover
a"ords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and
does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the
earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin
conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for
they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician)
connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series,
excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and
ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth
—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior,
not a da"odil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur
“stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors”
(Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine,
which is how sorcery is de!ned (and portrayed by Morgana),
and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and
King, Uther.
In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his
pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer,
hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his e"orts to maintain
separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the
Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).
Druid boy’s appearances over the !nal season of Merlin and his
transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the #uidity and
openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is
supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay
also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of
Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred
bonds between Arthur and his men.
Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains
Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive
bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain
becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with !nding his
weakness, with penetrating or shattering or in#icting violence
upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed
version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate
his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling
the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing
here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the
central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in
the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s
description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As
villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all
that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as
to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his
annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his
head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his
eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit
in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the
romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in
I.5, when Guinevere con!des in Merlin that she hopes one day
Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to
Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is
di"erent. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—
particularly when compared with other adaptations in which
the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King
particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an
extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward
by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season
three):
the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially
the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father,
Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his
refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)
After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that
delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it
unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015,
81).
Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the
character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less
about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly
homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and
devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of
each other. Mordred de!es Morgana at the start of season !ve,
in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way,
making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite
knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who
also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the
character self-sacri!ces for the greater good until Arthur asks of
him a sacri!ce that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to
be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which
would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as
betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you
like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still
desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound,
welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.
Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with
Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to
maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him
completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is
more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate.
The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their !rst
meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in
the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat
he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future
knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and
Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the
men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play
Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in
the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes
the point that Arthur’s a"ection for Launcelot “outweighs his
a"ection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual
subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual
blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this
observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s
suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as
Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990,
171) The signi!cance of such a suggestion of eroticism—
whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact
that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate
conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and
Campbell are preoccupied with de!nitions of proper masculine
behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will
consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash
manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and
simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer,
hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an
intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ !gure throughout the !nal
season of the series, and a character that has something
important to say about the villain’s journey.
V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny
Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butter!eld, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V)
is !rst introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over
seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the !rst to call
Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in
introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved
initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther,
an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and
explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give
Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the
Figure 2. Mordred (V).
young Druid will bring
about Arthur’s demise
and therefore that
Merlin “must let the boy
die.” However it is only at
the end of this episode
(I.8) that viewers learn
this character is in fact
the Mordred of legend.
As Sherman points out,
in Merlin the plot device
of “introducing a !gure
or object from Arthurian
legend while withholding
his, her, or its name” (as
with Mordred, Geo"rey
of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is
repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94).
Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin
attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will
be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to
forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the
!nal season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos,
see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’
end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is signi!cance to be
found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season !ve, while an
adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more
easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s
‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash
fans with other adult males.
Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are
separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as
captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of
intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur:
“Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?”
Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped,
Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my
life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which
Arthur and Mordred !rst meet as adults is rich in visual
symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and
well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the !lthy brutes
of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes,
blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring
presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery.
All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and re#ective
armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs
and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in
appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes.
Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s
dreams throughout the !nal season, such imagery is phallic
and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of
the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as
Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared
in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal
scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case
from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal
!xation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he
penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to
move his bowels without an enema administered by a male
attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of
white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-
and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus
a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual
attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes,
“the Wolf Man observed at !rst hand what being used from
behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case
with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men,
argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more speci!cally the
psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The
erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s !rst adult meeting is
explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see
Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and
physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy,
light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred
dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands
exploring each other’s naked #esh, foreshadows the (erotic)
intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the
characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.
There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles
Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from
colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt
sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to
Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s "rst meeting as adults (V.1).
the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and
beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52),
a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery.
Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents
many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season
to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s
transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making
Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian
characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up
the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana
in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin,
“Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165)
In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these
characters is !tting, especially given that in many retellings of
the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and
Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened
sexuality signi!ed by the appearances of the adult Mordred and
season !ve’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual,
and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at
odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.
In the !rst episode of season !ve, despite travelling with their
captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even
smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is
presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains,
“He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with
Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive.
“Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who
claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose
decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully
Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred,
Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By
chewableprose.
reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,”
Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake
or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point
that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the
Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight
to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his
background adding to the suspense of the character and his
intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs
her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped.
She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken
aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes
for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when
the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.
While Morgana is
successful in capturing
Arthur, she is stopped
from killing him by
Mordred, who decides in a
moment of intensity to
change sides. It would
seem that Arthur’s
willingness to risk his life
—“Had to free my men.”—
inspires Mordred to
literally stab his own kind
in the back with a dagger.
In the following scene, a
confused Merlin asks the
Diamair—the key to all
knowledge—“If Mordred is
not Arthur’s bane than
who is?”, to which the
Diamair replies, “Himself.”
This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred.
Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is
Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double
cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to
Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin o"ers to
remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:
MERLIN You saved Arthur’s life, why?
MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is
more important than the power we wield. Morgana had
forgotten that.
Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It
connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While
Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s
ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle.
Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact
with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the
removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in
the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if
Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred
holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a
stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this
scene being his jealousy.
Mordred and Merlin are “not so di"erent,” as Mordred
identi!es earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on
Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the
previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses
Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power.
Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from
Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred
is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as
is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal
character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however
unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the
potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to
control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in
point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the
‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer
back to the Wolf Man myth) and signi!eds of dispassionate,
focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed,
distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s
expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-
accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless,
gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play.
Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the
series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-
engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the
sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’
doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my
intended subversion of Merlin, the power a"orded to Sir
Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a
lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.
Other artists have also explored the new power di"erential
between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new a"ordances
with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In
an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works
to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic
of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates
the image:
Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander
vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights
of the round table” aka sex buddy club.
Morgana can only o"er Mordred some cheap magic tricks
and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can o"er him unlimited gay
sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will
Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)
Expressed in the above are the bene!ts that come with
Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including
certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has
(homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here,
her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations
of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading
of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this
manip is just how much Arthur has to o"er.
Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by
endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering
Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs
merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes
clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now !lls;
or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of
Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to !ll. The artist implies
that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king
than that o"ered by his manservant. This implication is in much
the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place
between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify
health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French
knight Geo"roi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by
Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate
interactions between knights in Geo"rey Chaucer’s Troilus and
Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown).
Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred
speci!cally, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes
just such a ritual:
Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights
were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get
down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind
the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and
keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and
showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to
be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his
King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such
dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good
(chewableprose 2014)
In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely di"erent (a
theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and
noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but
not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is
given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is
everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and
Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The
Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy
around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the
signi!cance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the
implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to
trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate.
That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur
is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and
indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no
single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As
Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change,
perhaps you should give [Mordred] the bene!t of the doubt.”
(V.2) Merlin never does.
Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s
Search for Each Other
Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt
descriptor for a character di$cult to watch. From a slash
perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise.
The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a
phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain
certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015,
37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience
expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as
an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the
series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on
remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries
Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos,
the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin
actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s
illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to
Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps
explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s
protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to
please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for
Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the !nal
season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s
cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-
!gure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).
The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana
relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see
Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the
Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark
side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric
arti!ce. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the
binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s
age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides,
Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers,
the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is
in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other
adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a
father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most
evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to
prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when
we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.
Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to
Morgana (V).
In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur
makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and
speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his
other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword con!rms how
little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last
saw him. Where did he learn to !ght in a manner that would
impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor,
Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills
and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred
reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates
Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s
own father-!gure—e"orts to convince Merlin that Mordred will
not necessarily betray Arthur:
The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s
not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.
In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an
opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure
Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of
‘Arthur’s bane.’
V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill
Arthur”
Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine
patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an
early scene that labours his inability to a"ord Mordred the
opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there
could have been a very di"erent outcome for all concerned if
he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue
sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a
relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as
an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is
represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection
of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious
nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990,
62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from
wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is
buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:
MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not
permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done
the same. He was one of us, after all.
MERLIN It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live
in freedom again.
MORDRED You really believe that?
MERLIN I do.
MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.
It is their !rst scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred
following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had
before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer
Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to !nd
his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths”
comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah con!rms this later in the
episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there
are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It
follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s
villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom
he can con!de, someone with magic like himself who can help
him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately
denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his
identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man
who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself.
That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that
he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is
Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode,
Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that
takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the
‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When
con#ict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while
protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s
magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who
Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone
die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of
character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the
scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced
Mordred to change sides:
ARTHUR What happened to you, Morgana? As a child,
you were so kind, so compassionate.
MORGANA I grew up.
Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for
the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught
him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to
‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding,
becomes signi!cant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur
returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for
Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is
given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to
save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by camp!re, a
recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of
#ame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what
misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed
magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own
time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you
do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that
magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is,
seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for
Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks
they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let
Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of
both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”
Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy
heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover
that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing
Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by
in#uencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he
had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:
MERLIN How could I have been so stupid?
GAIUS You did what you thought was best.
MERLIN I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was
to kill Mordred.
GAIUS A perfectly natural assumption.
MERLIN But all I did was make sure he lived. That was
the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment
for rejecting magic.
GAIUS You mustn’t blame yourself.
MERLIN But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well.
He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s
nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.
I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the
above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many
paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life
should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is
not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming
catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred
to stray onto a di"erent path. Merlin is right in so far as this
cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed:
Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This
reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key
fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does,
which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side,
uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is
never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake.
As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but
not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1:
“No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right.
To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy
everything we strive for.”
This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the
beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen
them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had
ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another
fan criticism of the plotting of the !nal episode (see Caspers
2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in
the past. This time was di"erent, this time Arthur’s fate was
decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts
whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence
to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his
decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death
as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around
Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as
grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—
of what might have been.
Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace
(V.5).
V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”
Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the
cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s
destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son.
The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for
this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur
trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential
leaks in the ranks. The episode is the !nal in the ‘evil!Guinevere
trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and
in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere
to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in
hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting
strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to
the rescue when a cli" fall leaves Merlin unconscious and
Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that
evening around a camp!re: that site of homoerotic signi!cance.
There, sitting around erect #ames, Arthur makes reference to
the triangle Mordred e"ects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic:
“Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that
right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts
Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between
them:
MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?
MERLIN I believe you to be a !ne knight.
MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know
you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you
would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty
to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.
MERLIN I would wish for nothing more.
When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious,
Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another
refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates
Morgana and Mordred’s !rst meeting since his defection:
MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?
MORGANA My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How
could it be? We’re of a kind.
MORDRED Never.
MORGANA You wear the uniform well but we both know
what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you
for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a
sorcerer.
MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be
accepted.
MORGANA Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t
so dangerous.
Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold:
symbolising the !re Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7);
ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the
prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have
been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the
episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the
mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact
Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that
Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your
secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little
reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the
beginning of the end.
Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).
V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”
Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with
Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes
later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and
implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and
sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and
making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur
on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I
beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds
in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do
for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to
his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great
interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on
Mordred’s behalf:
MERLIN You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.
ARTHUR There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will
understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.
MERLIN I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.
Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against
Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No
matter what he preaches, he is no di"erent from his father.”
Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot.
However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for
what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I
will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for
me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin
confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred
warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do
the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you
can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is
reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you
haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as
Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where
Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of
Mordred’s intentions. It is one !nal failure on Merlin’s behalf to
choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires
him.
Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the
castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are
imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending.
Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara.
And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all
of the court Arthur o"ers Kara a chance: “If you repent your
crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such
that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and
killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour.
Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s
devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a
2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a
brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the
action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of
a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip
con!gures the two in the missionary position and is set in
Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and
familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line
with the ‘semiotic signi!cance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in
the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature,
while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred
folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for
deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his
toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest
allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is
entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of
his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions
and line of sight to each other.
Despite Arthur’s best e"orts to alleviate tensions with Mordred
via an o"er of clemency, Kara remains resolute: “You deserve
everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred
never learns of Arthur’s o"er to pardon Kara. In a state of acute
grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her
execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to
whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been
stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s
manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here
between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in
particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which
can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer
C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute
a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with
comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a
treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s
death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose
“betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but
from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015,
165)
Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free
from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).
Conclusion
Re#ecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public
execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary
Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:
[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the
survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary e"ect, by
hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear
of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one
from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it,
the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances.
It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die
in their own favour; never re#ecting on the chance of ruin,
till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of
Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same
energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain,
would have rendered him useful to society, had that society
been well organized. (208)
Wollstonecraft’s re#ection is resonant with the execution of
Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to
betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of
the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy
is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure.
Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this
essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the
treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-uni!ed
Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels
the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his
villainous path. This reading o"ers insight into the popular
reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and
queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series
illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion
in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate
the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while
also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program
full of homoerotic potential.
T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read
by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second
World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to
new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If
Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising
power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982,
50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of
destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple
Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple
Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire
consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him,
and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals
Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When
Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You
gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of
his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or
alone.
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Notes
[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in
V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s
bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid
(Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you
alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the
!nal season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,”
it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which
ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”
[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin
has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical
judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)
[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting
Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal
inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).
[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the
homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male
comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’
[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to
humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of
Queen Annis and her guests.
[6] Producing o"spring based on a digital composite of two
male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.
[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to
share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).
Bio:
Joseph Brennan is a sessional lecturer in the Department of
Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where
he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved
textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s
Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans
layer images of male characters from popular media with gay,
and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works
are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us
about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male
sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and
homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching
Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with
Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.
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Article
This article explores the concept of ‘queerbaiting’, a term employed by media fans to criticise homoerotic suggestiveness in contemporary television when this suggestiveness is not actualised in the program narrative. I confront the negative connotations of the term and point to the agency of audiences, using the practices of ‘slash fans’ within the Merlin fandom as my case study. I trace definitions of queerbaiting in recent scholarly work and suggest comparison with another term, ‘hoyay’, which has more positive connotations. My central argument is that as this concept begins its inevitable permeation into academic work, worth considering are the queer readings that ‘queerbaiting’ in fact make possible, even plausible, which is an understanding of the term that is in line with the ‘poaching’ and ‘playful’ spirit of media fandom.
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