BBC Merlin, as the writers have stated many times, is one variation of the multi-faceted Arthurian legend, which in itself is an ambiguous term due to the existence of hundreds of retellings, both classic and modern. Throughout history, the story of King Arthur has changed vastly with writers of different time periods creating their own interpretation of it. As such, there is a huge variety of romantic pairings, hereditary lineage, villains, quests, and rulers, none of which are set in stone. However, there are some elements which are the most common and recurrent throughout the variations to the point where they have become the most accepted version of events. Merlin has a number of differences to this, among them the characters, the way of the land and Camelot itself.
The typical Arthurian legend revolves around the legendary High King Arthur's effort to unite Britain to fend off the Saxons, often while trying to establish Christianity. Much of the older Arthurian works are Christian-themed, focusing around the retrieval of the Holy Grail and the elimination of paganism, while "Merlin" does not make specific reference to religion apart from the loose term, the 'Old Religion' and its related aspects. The BBC show is a modern, family-friendly fantasy series based on the Arthurian myth which, unlike the majority of Arthurian works, places Merlin as its titular character, focusing on his attempts to build the legendary kingdom of Albion alongside Arthur Pendragon.
The characters share some similarities to the original characters of the Arthurian cycle, while the circumstances in which the legend takes place are entirely different.
- In the legends, Merlin is usually much older than Arthur Pendragon, is at times considered to be a blood relative to him, and is often depicted as orchestrating Arthur's birth. In BBC's Merlin, he is virtually the same age as Arthur and was intended by the creators of the show to be roughly three to four years Arthur's junior.
- In the show, Merlin is naturally Uther's enemy, he was born with magic while Uther persecutes all magical beings. In the legend, Merlin is often on cordial terms with Uther and aids him in becoming High King.
- In the legend, Merlin typically becomes Arthur's mentor and advisor while in the series, in terms of status he is beneath Arthur as his manservant, though the two are also close friends.
- Merlin is a bard in various versions of the Arthurian cycle, though in Merlin, he has displayed no such talent for poetry or music. Although it is noteworthy he shows some skill in storytelling (inventing a fake tale about a the origins of the sword in the stone near the end of series four), as well as juggling (via magic).
- Taliesin and Merlin are often the same person in the legend, whereas Merlin and the mysterious wizard Taliesin of the series are different entities. Though this duality is explored within the show through Merlin's alter ego, Dragoon the Great, and Merlin's other name, Emrys.
- Merlin's typical romantic interest is the Lady of the Lake, called Nymue/Nimue or Niviane/Viviane. However, the name Nimueh is linked to the primary antagonist of the first series while the presumed Lady of the Lake is named Freya instead, who serves as Merlin's love interest.
- Excalibur was given to Arthur by Merlin in very different circumstances to those of the legend, although in some versions the famous sword does become placed in a stone to be retrieved by Arthur upon his return.
- Merlin was deceived by Nimueh, but not by Freya in the show. The legendary wizard was said to be killed by the Lady of the Lake, though some sources hold it was Morgana or else her apprentice Vivien.
- Merlin is sometimes shown as Morgan le Fay's tutor and/or father in various retellings of the myth, but in Merlin, he is merely Morgana's one-time friend and later enemy. In most versions, Morgana does eventually become Merlin's foe.
- In the legend, little is shown about Merlin's early years, which is what Merlin attempts to do.
- Hunith was not originally the name of the sorcerer's mother, as in the show.
- While in the show, Merlin's powers are partially explained by his father being a Dragonlord, in general the legends say his powers resulted from him being the son of a father that was either a demon, an incubus, or the actual Devil.
- Dragoon the Great resembles the legend's Merlin in almost every sense, though perhaps with a better sense of humor than the legendary Merlin was credited with.
- Arthur Pendragon in the legend is the epitome of good kingship. He is the ultimate heroic figure, brave, powerful, good-hearted and a military expert. In many ways, Arthur in the series is also this, though the fact that Merlin traces his early years prior to becoming king shows him in a partially immature state before he has become the legendary king.
- In most versions of the myth Arthur is snatched away from Ygraine at the moment of his birth by Merlin and given to a less high-born family in order to grow up away from political intrigue. In BBC's Merlin, he has lived all his life in the palace and is the acknowledged heir to the throne.
- In the legend, Arthur often has a liaison with Morgana or Morgause which results in them conceiving Mordred. In Merlin, Arthur initially had a very strong relationship with Morgana which bordered on romantic, though this was dropped in favour of a relationship with Gwen. Morgause is portrayed as an active enemy of Arthur as opposed to an aunt or lover. However, in modern literature, Morgause is typically a villain.
- In the legend, Arthur is conceived naturally by Ygraine though magic was indirectly used in some instances to allow Uther to come to Ygraine while Gorlois was at war. In Merlin, Arthur is the product of a magically-assisted conception that cost Ygraine her life.
- Arthur's attitude against magic and the customs of pagan Britain is usually positive in most versions of the myth, since Merlin was his mentor and advisor. In Merlin, Uther has indoctrinated Arthur against magic and Arthur has grown up being taught to hate it, though he is far less brutal than his father in his treatment of magic users.
- In many versions Arthur's marriage to Gwenhwyfar is depicted as a political move on Arthur's part since she is the daughter of an influential nobleman and carries a large dowry. Others show it as a genuine love match as in the series where Arthur falls in love with and marries Gwen despite her being a servant.
- In some variations to the legend, Arthur sentences Guinevere to death after he discovers her affair with Lancelot. In others, he turns a blind eye or allows her to enter a convent, while in Merlin he exiles her instead.
- Arthur is usually Christian in the legend, though as High King has a duty to the remaining pagan fringes in Britain. The religion of Camelot has yet to be explored in Merlin, although it is hinted that pagan ways have given way to something else under Uther, as the 'Old Religion' is being pushed out.
- In the series, Arthur is not handed Excalibur directly by the Lady of the Lake; Merlin gives it to him instead.
- Merlin and Arthur share a close friendship as they are close in age in Merlin with Arthur being three to four years older than Merlin, while in the typical legend Merlin is depicted as much older than Arthur and therefore acts as a guiding figure.
- Morgana Pendragon is based on Morgan le Fay (Morgan the Fairie), the enchantress of the Arthurian cycle who was initially characterised as an enchantress and great healer, but in later editions became Arthur's primary antagonist. Her roles as a benevolent healer and malevolent villainess are both shown in the series as Morgana begins as a Lady of Camelot, and then defects to the anti-Pendragon side when she discovers her magic.
- Morgan le Fay in the legend usually has at least three sisters, including Morgause and Elaine, but also has up to nine sisters in other retellings. In the show Morgana's only known sister is Morgause.
- Morgan le Fay is usually shown as the child of Ygraine and Gorlois, making her Arthur's half-sister via a shared mother. Morgana Pendragon is the daughter of Uther and Vivienne, which makes her Arthur's half sister by their father, though initially she was not portrayed as blood related to Arthur and was simply known as Uther's ward.
- Morgan le Fay is often said to be Mordred's mother with Arthur being his father, though in some instances Mordred's mother is Morgause. In the series, Morgana only meets Mordred when Merlin seeks a place to hide him but develops an immediate maternal bond with him.
- In some works, Morgan le Fay has a romance with Lancelot. In the series, Morgana has no early interaction with Lancelot and only encountered him when she resurrected him to destroy Gwen and Arthur's relationship.
- Morgan le Fay is usually at some point the Lady of Avalon and also the Lady of the Lake in some versions. In Merlin Avalon serves a different purpose and Morgana has never been, nor is she the Lady of the Lake. However, in some versions, the Lady of Avalon is similar to what the show calls a High Priestess of the Old Religion, which Morgana becomes. It is also possible that in the oldest legends, she was only a High Priestess and simply became known as a "witch" in the later middle-age traditions of the story, in which the popularity of Pagan faiths had greatly waned.
- Morgan le Fay sometimes marries King Uriens in various versions of the legend, though in many she remains unmarried as she does in Merlin.
- Morgana Pendragon has received a similar upbringing to Arthur and is highly skilled with a sword. It has also been mentioned that she has bested Arthur in a sword fight. Morgan le Fay rarely personally appears in physical conflict, having a champion to fight in her stead, often her lover Accolon.
- In many retellings of the legend, Morgan le Fay either seduces Arthur or is his love interest. Other versions say that Morgan le Fay did not know of her kinship to Arthur and was tricked into fornicating with him (sometimes, as shown in The Mists of Avalon, this act occurs during the pagan ritual of Beltane, in which the young king played The Hunter and Morgan le Fay, a Priestess-in-training, played The Winter Stag and The Hunter symbolically conquered the the Stag). While some older works present her as an unsympathetic character bent on Arthur's destruction, more modern works particularly focus on a deeper relationship between Arthur and Morgan, blood related or otherwise. Merlin appears to combine these elements as Morgana and Arthur were initially very close and went on to develop a deeply conflicted relationship.
- Morgan le Fay is often redeemed in the conclusion of various retellings and is the one who accompanies Arthur to Avalon in his final moments. In Merlin, this does not occur, as Morgana remains a villain.
- After having the dream of Guinevere (Gwen) becoming Queen, Morgana comes to detest her. In the legend, Morgan and Guinevere hate each other with a passion and never got along. However, in the show, Morgana and Guinevere shared a sisterly bond before Morgana discovered her magical talents, at which point Morgana began to distance herself from Gwen and, eventually, grow to despise her.
- King Arthur's queen, originally named Gwenhwyfar or Guinevere, is nicknamed just "Gwen" in the beginning of the series. However, she is also called by her full name "Guinevere" by Arthur.
- Gwenhwyfar is usually portrayed as a daughter of a noble family given to Arthur in marriage as a political agreement. However, in Merlin, Gwen is a maidservant and the daughter of a blacksmith, Tom, and her marriage with Arthur was shown as an unlikely love match.
- Gwenhwyfar usually has an affair with Arthur's knight and best friend, Lancelot. Some portray Arthur as vengeful after he discovers this and Gwenhwyfar flees from Camelot after her adultery is exposed in order to escape death, while in other retellings Arthur, also in love with another, turns a blind eye. In the show, Guinevere's adultery is touched upon as Gwen experienced an instant attraction to Lancelot. She is portrayed as ultimately loyal to Arthur since her betrayal is explained as the result of an enchantment, though neither Arthur nor Gwen are aware of this.
- While Morgana and Gwen are shown to be close friends in the beginning of the series, in most retellings Gwenhwyfar never got along with Morgan le Fay and in some versions Gwenhwyfar banishes her from the palace and resents Arthur's closeness to her.
- Gwen's low birth is the principal difference to the Gwenhwyfar of legend since her match with Arthur is an extremely unlikely one given the class difference, while Gwenhwyfar's noble birth is usually the reason for her marriage to Arthur.
- In some versions Gwenhwyfar marries Mordred and becomes his consort while Arthur is away, while in the show the age difference between the child Mordred and Gwen is wide.
- Gwen's characterisation throughout the legend varies greatly. The range goes from her being a traitorous adulteress who brings Arthur's downfall to a gentle, intelligent and loyal queen. Some versions push her to the other end of the spectrum and portray her as vapid, insecure and foolish. She is almost always described as particularly beautiful and in some versions as almost obsessively religious. In Merlin, Gwen has never shown any sign of a dark or treacherous nature and her affair with Lancelot was subverted by the use of an enchantment as a plot device.
- In the first season of the show, Gwen displayed romantic feelings towards Merlin whereas she was not on good terms with Arthur's character. However this is diverted when she falls in love with Arthur while Merlin remains one of their best friends. Meanwhile, in the legend, little interaction happens between her and the legendary sorcerer, though the two are sometimes shown as on the opposing sides of Christian versus pagan.
- Sir Elyan is unconnected to Gwenhwyfar in the legend, but in Merlin he is Gwen's brother.
- In almost every work there is a story about Gwenhwyfar's abduction. Gwen has been abducted in various episodes (Lancelot and Guinevere; The Castle of Fyrien; The Hunter's Heart) but never because of her high status and connection to Arthur in the same way as the legend.
- Gwen is also shown to be a fairly capable swordhandler while Gwenhwyfar, as a woman and a princess, would have been unlikely to have any such skill.
- Gwen has been a suspect of magic and threatened to be killed by Uther at least two times in the show. Gwenhwyfar is never linked to magical ability and, if her opinion is made clear, she generally opposes paganism.
- Uther Pendragon is also Arthur's father in the legend but has often been depicted as being aided by magic to achieve his will on numerous occasions, such when he desired Ygraine and asked Merlin to transform him into Gorlois in order to sleep with her. Uther Pendragon of Merlin is a fervant enemy of magic since it cost him his Ygraine's life.
- The Uther Pendragon of the legend was a close friend of Merlin while the Uther of the show has no relationship with Merlin other than him being the servant of his son.
- Typically Uther in the legend is not on good terms with Gorlois as he committed adultery with his wife. Merlin's Uther greatly respects Gorlois, although he was to blame for his death and committed adultery with his wife.
- Uther is a father to both Morgana and Arthur, whereas in the legend he is very rarely blood-related to Morgan le Fay.
- Uther never consented to Arthur's relationship with Gwen as it was such a politically unsuitable match and actively decreed against it, trying to change his son's mind. Uther of the legend, however, is often dead by the time Arthur marries and is never against the match since it is always with a high-born Gwenhwyfar.
- Uther had an affair with Vivienne, thus making him the father of Morgana. In the legend, Vivian was the Lady of the Lake and had nothing to do with Uther. Although, it is noteworthy that in the female-centric novel retelling of Arthurian Legend, The Mists of Avalon, Vivienne realizes, at the moment of his death that she was once (likely in a past life) in love with him.
- Uther in Merlin cared for Arthur all his life, whereas the myth states that he sent him away to live with Kay and his family, unaware of his status, until he became king.
- BBC's Mordred is a druid boy who is only around ten years younger than Arthur, Morgana, and most of the other main characters.
- Little is made of Mordred's parentage in Merlin and neither Arthur nor Morgana/Morgause are related to him. In the legend, Mordred is often portrayed as the result of a relationship between either Arthur and Morgan le Fay or Arthur and Morgause.
- Mordred is often depicted as Morgan le Fay's pawn in her attempt to seize the throne of Camelot. The fledgling relationship between Morgana and Mordred tends more towards deep affection and care, though this too is present in several retellings of the legend. Series 5 went more into the relationship between Morgana and Mordred. It may be that the show follows the legend by having Morgana manipulate Mordred.
- In most versions of the legend, Mordred despises Arthur from the beginning, either due to his being denied his birthright or due to the malign upbringing of someone else, such as Morgan le Fay or Morgause. Merlin's Mordred has not yet officially turned against Arthur, who saved his life, though he has formed a grudge against Merlin.
- In the legend, there is often a partnership between Mordred and Morgana which brings Arthur's downfall. This was been hinted at by Kilgharrah and it did come to be.
- Mordred is originally a knight of Arthur (called "Sir" Mordred) and in some later adaptations just a boy who is given by his mother to the druids. In the show, Mordred became a Knight in the episode Arthur's Bane.
- Although the legend's Mordred often grows up close to the druids, he has no magical abilities. However, he is skilled with the sword to an extent of being able to mortally wound Arthur. In the show, he is a boy born with magic and thus has not so far used the sword in combat.
- In the legend Mordred is Agravaine's brother, as well as Gawaine's. In the show, Gwaine, Agravaine, and Mordred do not share any bond by blood or otherwise.
- Morgause, known in earlier works as Anna or Gwyar, is typically Morgan le Fay's full sister and/or Arthur's aunt or his half-sister (along with Morgan and Elaine). In Merlin, she is Morgana's half-sister, but not Arthur's aunt or half-sister - no known blood relation exists between the two.
- Morgause is usually the wife of King Lot of Lothian in Arthurian legend, a typically treacherous northern king who rises against Arthur. She also has several sons, notably Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. Sometimes, Mordred is listed as one of her sons as well. Morgause in the series was presumably unmarried, though her relationship with King Cenred was reminiscent of Lot and Morgause in the legend. Gwaine and Agravaine have both appeared in the series, but unrelated to Morgause, who has no children.
- Morgause in the series also has nothing to do with Mordred, where in some legends she is presented as his mother by Arthur.
- Morgause in the series is far more independent and self-driven than the character of the myth. In Merlin, she is a highly powerful, Machiavellian sorceress who masterminds a number of plots against Uther and Arthur, using others as pawns in her plans. The Morgause of legend is typically a supporting figure to her husband and a mother to key figures in the story arc.
- In most retellings of the legend, Morgause known as Anna-Morgause, is one of Arthur's three half-sisters whereas in the series they are not related.
- Lancelot is Arthur's most capable knight in both versions.
- Although Lancelot had a romantic relationship with Gwen in the earlier part of the series, he chose to not come between her and Arthur. When he returns as a Shade, an enchantment rekindles Gwen's attraction to him. In most retellings, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, a key point in the plot development, is ongoing and is not the result of magic.
- In the series Lancelot is not from a noble family, but still became a knight through his own merit. The legend's Lancelot is typically from a noble family as are the rest of the knights.
- BBC's Lancelot is not related to the Lady of the Lake at all. However, he does rest in the same place as Freya. In some versions of the legend, he is the son of the Lady of the Lake.
- Morgan le Fay and Lancelot have an affair in some versions of the legend. In the series, the only interaction between the two took place during Lancelot Du Lac.
- Lancelot shares a close friendship with Merlin, yet the two do not usually interact a great deal in the legend.
- In the legend, Agravaine is often portrayed as the son of Morgause and at times Arthur's nephew, whereas in the show he is his uncle. However, in most versions he retains his treacherous characteristics.
Other Notable Variations
- In the legend, Avalon is typically an otherwordly home to the High Priests and Priestesses of the pagan religion and/or others born with the gift of magic. Their leader is typically the Lady of the Lake, who can cross Avalon to reach the mortal world. Avalon is also another word for the underworld. In the show, Avalon is the place where the Sidhe, fairy-like creatures live. No mortal man has ever been there and neither Nimueh nor Morgana have anything to do with it. In the show, the Isle of the Blessed appears to be similar to many portrayals of Avalon, which was said, in some legends, to be an island in another world which overlapped this world and could be entered through a portal in a particular convent's ruins.
- In the legends the Lady of the Lake is often said to be Nimue, due to her relationship with Merlin, or Morgan le Fay, who ultimately saves Arthur in Avalon by healing him after his fatal battle with Mordred. In the show only Freya has been implied to be the Lady of the Lake, an original character who serves as Merlin's love interest. In the show, Nimueh was a strong witch who swore revenge against Camelot for the events of the Great Purge, not the Lady of the Lake. Her relationship with Merlin was brief and not friendly and, beyond an initial infatuation on Merlin's part, not at all romantic.
- The Holy Grail is instead called the 'Cup of Life' throughout the series and is a strong instrument of magic which gives the user the power over life and death. So far the retrieval of it has been a minor subject in one episode (The Coming of Arthur), while in the legend it typically forms a crucial series of events for Arthur and his knights.
- The story of Tristan and Isolde varies in that, in the series, Tristan was not from a noble family and, though he was Isolde's life partner, the two were in fact partners in a smuggling trade. However, as in the legend, their relationship ends in tragedy, since Isolde dies while saving Arthur from the warlord Helios (The Sword in the Stone).
- Excalibur is often described as a sword engulfed in flames whenever used in combat. Flaming swords also guarded the gates of Avalon. BBC plays with that idea numerous times. The sword was made powerful when Kilgharrah, The Great Dragon, bathed it in his breath. Freya, the lady of the lake in the "Merlin" version, rose from the lake of Avalon and gave Merlin the sword Excalibur (The Coming of Arthur). Later on, Morgana (the Lady of the Lake according to the legend) uses a spell on Arthur's sword and it is engulfed in flames (His Father's Son). Although the sword Excalibur is not the same sword that Morgana enchanted, there is a clear reference to that event of the legend.