|Colin Morgan (l.) as Merlin and|
Bradley James (r.) as Arthur
When the opera Madame Butterfly is performed in Germany, Butterfly’s American cad of a lover, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton’s name is changed to Linkerton, because audiences might start giggling when they hear the name Pinkerton - with a P - and think of pinkeln - the German word meaning to go peepee.
I just found a historical precedent for avoiding association with what my dogs know as pipipupu - the word we use when it’s time to take them out in the garden for the final evacuation of their tanks before bedtime. I’ve been bingeing of late on the 2008 BBC drama series Merlin. As in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and his trusty sidekick, the not-yet-but-certain-to-become venerable wizard who carries that name.
Some googling has revealed to me the fact that Merlin’s original name was Myrddin. That’s how he is known in the Welsh language. Apparently the legend stems from Wales. It comes to us by the hand of British historiographer Geoffrey of Monmouth, aka Galfridus Monemutensis, aka Galfridus Arturus, aka Gruffudd ap Arthur aka Sieffre o Fynwy. Geoffrey was born in Monmouth, Wales around 1095 A.D., and died around 1155. When he Latinized the name, he changed the D in “Merdin” to an L because Merdin would remind audiences of the Latin word for shit.
To immerse oneself in these mythical tales of pre-historical Britain is to enter a time of magic and of fantasy. The BBC show features, in addition to Merlin and Arthur and his lady-love Guinevere and the not-so-noble knight Lancelot who steals her from him, the friendly dragon, Kilgharrah (friendly to Merlin, not to Camelot which he tries to destroy for keeping him chained up for twenty-two years). Arthur’s father in the first couple of seasons, King Uther, whom we get to watch making one bad decision after another, has forbidden magic because he has lost loved ones because of it and considers it pure evil. Because we know that Merlin understands how to use magic for good, we root for the time when Arthur will take over the throne. Arthur will make a second big change, besides overturning his father’s biases against magicians: he will elevate the servant girl Guinevere to queen, thus bringing about the 21st century goals of eliminating class distinctions and homophobia in one fell swoop.
That’s part of the fun of historical dramas, you see. You can read into them all the stuff you want to see happen in this day and age. For one thing, the actress playing young Guinevere, Angel Coulby, is of mixed (Afro-Guyanese) race. Her brother, Elyan, who becomes a knight by Season 4, is played by the actor Adetomiwa Edun, who was born in Nigeria. And he’s not the only black actor in this story of ancient Britain. Our rules of who gets jobs in TV dramas have changed since the 11th century.
There are folks who watch historical dramas just hoping to catch a slip-up, like the use of zippers in Shakespearean costumes. But in Merlin, probably since it’s so over-the-top anyway, with all those goblins and dragons and magic potions, they don’t even bother. Arthur goes out to battle “for peace and freedom” when he’s actually battling for the power and position first of his tyrannical father and later himself nearly a thousand years before democracy had found a home in Britain. Nobody cares. Modern goals.
Now that gay bit, that’s a bit more subtle, and if you’re not gay you might actually miss it. Not if you’re gay, though. There are constant references to the injustice of people with magical powers having to hide them. Scene after scene of “I just want to be me.” You almost expect a chorus of “Somewhere over the rainbow...birds fly...why oh why can’t I?”
And they don’t just stop there. There’s a whole packet of photos and articles about the “bromance” between Merlin and Arthur. Lots of opportunities to read gay sentiment just barely beneath the surface. Arthur jokes with Merlin with remarks like, “I hope you don’t think I intend to share my bed with you, Merlin!” and Merlin smirks when he says, “No, of course not!”
I know this is old hat by now, but as a person who lived the first half of his life with crushing homophobia, this brave new world of open acceptance of homosexuality and sympathetic playfulness around homoerotic relationships makes me feel like I’ve been living in a crowded dingy room in a polluted city and suddenly find myself walking a country road, taking in the sunshine and breathing in the fresh air.
I’m living in a polluted big city bingeing on another Netflix fantasy, in fact, and not enjoying the fresh country air. I’m living in a country governed by goblins and trolls who have removed the regulations against the big energy polluters. I’m hoping people will wake up, throw them all out and put us back on the path to Camelot.
All I can do is vote, and encourage others to do the same.
And remember that when I was young, I used to dream that I would live in a time when gay people could fall in love and live openly with that love. And that it would feel like magic.