The Many Faces of Merlin in Movies
Scified2023-08-15 10:51:27
Written by Chris3,331 Reads0 Comments2023-08-15 10:51:27

Everyone knows the character of Merlin, the legendary wizard who served in the court of King Arthur. His appearances in literature and film, however, are notoriously ambivalent: is he a trickster who misuses his powers, a bumbling, hapless magician, or a warrior wizard fighting for justice? He’s said- among other things - to be the child of a virgin and a demon, responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the selector of the first Knights of the Round Table.


A look at some of the many movies in which Merlin has appeared over the years offers an illuminating glimpse into the many cinematic faces of the wizard - and how hard he is to pin down.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court - 1921

Quite possibly, Merlin’s very first foray onto the screen, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, is a silent film adaptation of a book by Mark Twain. It tells the story of the titular Yankee, Martin Cavendish (played by Harry Myers), who dreams that he travels back into the past, finding himself in the court of King Arthur. Here, he must outwit Morgan le Fey (Rosemary Theby) and the powerful wizard Merlin (William V. Mong), using his modern know-how to get the better of the king’s enemies. Interestingly, in this early movie appearance, Merlin is clearly positioned as a villain rather than the cuddly, benign figure he was often portrayed as in later movie depictions.


The movie was popular with audiences, becoming the seventh biggest hit of 1922 in the US and Canada.


The Sword in the Stone - 1963

This animated 1963 offering from Disney was the studio’s eighteenth animated feature and was based on the novel of the same name by T.H. White. It took over two decades to develop the film after Disney gained the film rights to the novel in 1939, and it was the final movie released by the studio during Walt Disney’s lifetime.


Merlin appears in The Sword in the Stone as a mentor figure and protector who lives with his pet owl, Archimedes, and whose role is to demonstrate the power of knowledge over physical strength. Merlin meets the orphan Arthur and resolves to become his tutor, using plenty of magic along the way.


Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders - (1996)

A fusion of fantasy and horror, this 1996 movie tells the story of what happens when Merlin opens a store in modern-day America. The film is in two sections, each telling a separate tale. When a married couple - desperate for a baby - visits the store, Merlin offers to lend the husband his spellbook to convince him that he really is the legendary wizard. Back home, of course, the husband toys with the spellbook, with unintended and catastrophic results.


In the second story, a monkey-with-a-cymbal toy is stolen from Merlin’s shop and is sold to a novelty store, eventually ending up in the hands of a young boy. The problem is, every time the monkey’s cymbals are struck, something nearby dies…


Merlin and the War of the Dragons - 2008

Merlin (played by Simon Lloyd Roberts) has a star turn in this movie, shot entirely on location in Wales, UK. In pre-England Britain, long before the birth of King Arthur, the apprentice wizard Merlin is tasked with joining an army to march against the swathes of fire-breathing dragons that have landed in the country and are causing carnage.


In this portrayal, Merlin is a warrior wizard, skilled in magic and able to best his fiery enemies through his quick wits and courage.


Hellboy (2019)

And finally, one of the most recent movies to feature an appearance by the character Merlin is 2019’s Hellboy, starring David Harbour. Here, Merlin (played by Brian Gleeson) has a small but important role in which he reveals that Hellboy is actually a direct descendant of the legendary King Arthur - but when offered Excalibur, Hellboy refuses the sword, having seen a vision of himself causing the apocalypse by wielding the weapon.


Final Thoughts: Tracing Merlin’s Roots

From powerful mage to warrior wizard and from starring-role protector to bit-part messenger, the character of Merlin is a malleable one that continues to shift and change over the years. Merlin first appears in pagan mythology, closely associated with the Welsh Myrddin, a prophet who fled to the woods to live as a wild man. Once Merlin was taken into the fold of the Christian tradition, these roots became problematic - which is almost certainly why his character remains such an ambivalent one today.

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