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Merlin is a television miniseries released in 1998 that retells the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of the wizard Merlin. Sam Neill stars in the title role in a story that covers not only the rise and fall of Camelot but also the phase in the legendary history of Britainmarker that precedes it.

The film deviates from more traditional versions of the legend, notably by including new characters such as Queen Mab and by keeping Merlin through the whole reign of King Arthur over Britain (whereas in older versions Merlin left earlier on in the king's reign). The film was followed by a sequel in 2006, Merlin's Apprentice, which was more loosely connected with traditional Arthurian legend.


The film opens with an aged Merlin narrating his story. Britain faces civil war and the Saxon invasion. Meanwhile, the spread of Christianity has left the power of the fey goddess Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) on the wane. Coupled with the destruction of both Christian and pagan holy sites due to the turmoil, Mab's world of magic faces imminent extinction. While her sister, the Lady of the Lake (Richardson in a dual role) accepts the inevitable, Mab chooses to resist. She decides to create a half-human/half-fairy being, a wizard, that she believes will bring people back to the "Old Ways". Merlin is created by Queen Mab and is born to a human mother, Elissa, though he possesses no mortal father. Elissa dies shortly after giving birth to Merlin, leaving the child to be raised by Ambrosia, an old woman who used to be a pagan but has since rejected Mab and the Old Ways. Ambrosia refuses to give the infant Merlin to Mab, arguing that love is needed to raise a child, and that Mab is incapable of providing it. Mab seems to agree and leaves, but warns Ambrosia that one day she will return and take him away once he manifests his powers.

Merlin grows up with no knowledge of his true heritage, until he uses magic for the first time to save a nobleman's daughter named Nimue (Isabella Rossellini). For saving her life, she grants him a kiss. They exchange names and Merlin vows never to forget her. On returning home he tells Ambrosia of him saving Nimue. Ambrosia realizes it is time for Merlin to go to Mab, and tells him of his past. Merlin is taken to Mab's underground palace, where she plans to train him in magic until he becomes the greatest wizard of all time. Merlin spends some time learning magical skills from Frik (Martin Short), Mab's shape-shifting gnome servant.

Out of boredom, Merlin unknowingly calls the Lady of the Lake, who "accidentally" blurts out that Queen Mab let his birth mother die, and that Ambrosia is dying. Merlin arrives in time to see the end of an argument between Mab and Ambrosia. She is unable to survive, and in her last breath, makes Merlin swear to only listen to his heart. On her grave he makes a blood-oath that he will never use magic except to defeat Mab.

Many years later, Merlin is summoned to see the tyrant King Vortigern (Rutger Hauer). Upon his arrival he learns that a pagan soothsayer has promised the King that Merlin’s blood will prevent the destruction of his ever-collapsing castle. This soothsayer had earlier asked Queen Mab for help in solving the tyrant King’s request, and she suggested finding a man “with no mortal father”, thus leading him to Merlin. However, Merlin informs the King that his castle is being built on water, and that he would be more useful alive since his dreams can predict the future. The King spares Merlin but throws him in a dungeon. Nimue recognizes the captive Merlin and persuades King Vortigern to release him. Merlin and Nimue grow close, but Mab, determined to make Merlin break his oath, plots against their union and has Nimue sacrificed to a great dragon, with Merlin watching. Merlin ends up using magic, breaking his oath, to tie down the dragon, but couldn't save Nimue from getting injured by the dragon. She is sent to Avalon to recover, and Merlin leaves to defeat Vortigern and his new ally, Mab.

Soon Merlin dreams of two dragons, a red defeating a white. The red dragon is that of Uther Pendragon, whose father, King Constant (John Gielgud) was murdered by Vortigern to seize his throne. Merlin helps Uther win his war against Vortigern. Merlin himself kills Vortigern with the aid of the magical sword Excalibur, given to him as a gift by the Lady of the Lake. He believes that Uther will be a just, decent king and gives Excalibur to him.

However, Uther soon becomes obsessed with Igraine (Rachel Colover), the wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Uther tries to take Igraine by force, but cannot take the Duke’s castle. Merlin, worried about Uther misusing Excalibur, takes the sword from Uther and places it within a living mountain (James Earl Jones), who promises to keep it until a true king arrives, a man with a good heart. Merlin then strikes a deal with Uther: he will help Uther bed Igraine, in exchange for guardianship of the child born from the union. Once this is agreed, Merlin uses magic to transform Uther’s appearance into that of the Duke's, and he enters the castle and sleeps with Igraine. Her real husband is then killed by Uther’s men in battle. Igraine’s young and disfigured daughter, Morgan le Fay (Helena Bonham Carter), is the only one who sees through Uther’s disguise.

Igraine eventually gives birth to Arthur, but dies in childbirth. Frik persuades Morgan to place a black stone beneath the baby Arthur’s sheets, thus cursing his life. Merlin instructs Arthur in ethics and everything he needs to become the perfect king Merlin wishes to create.

In time, Uther goes mad and commits suicide, which leaves the kingdom in turmoil over who will be the new King. Merlin informs Arthur of his rightful place as the only son of Uther and true heir to the throne. Mab attempts to assassinate Arthur by unleashing a pack of griffins; though Merlin foils the attack by directing a swarm of wasps to drive the monsters off, he is reminded Mab is still an ever-present threat. Mab, likewise, is goaded to take more direct action in the wake of her assassins' failure and the realization she is losing her power more and more quickly.

With the throne vacant, all the noblemen in the kingdom try to take Excalibur from the mountain, but none can. With Mab and Merlin watching, Arthur arrives and tries to take the sword. The mountain releases its grip, but Mab heats the sword. Arthur persists in removing it, and with burning, blood-soaked hands, raises it for all the surrounding people to see (Mab uses it to claim that just as Arthur's reign begins in blood, so shall it end the same way).

When Merlin presents Arthur to the noblemen, not all recognize him as their rightful king. Though armies are mobilized, Arthur avoids a battle against Lord Lot by daring the latter to use Excalibur to kill him; the magic of the sword convinces Lot to submit. Arthur is crowned King and institutes the Round Table. Arthur then decides to build Camelot and fulfill Merlin's dreams. Later, Mab comes up with a counter-plan of her own. She instructs Frik to seek out Arthur's half-sister Morgan Le Fay and poison her mind by making her beautiful, and has her seduce the young King, who is unaware of their relation. Morgan eventually gives birth to Arthur's son, Mordred, whom Mab raises to become Arthur's downfall and bring back the Old Ways. As Mordred is from a cursed union, he is exceptionally strong and grows at an abnormally fast rate.

Arthur starts construction of his castle Camelot and marries Guinevere (Lena Headey). He then wishes to take his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, so he holds a tournament to find a champion who will defend and complete Camelot in his absence. Knowing that Arthur's enemies would take advantage of his absence, the Lady of the Lake guides Merlin to a “good man”, and he finds Sir Lancelot with his wife Elaine and their son, Galahad. Merlin brings Lancelot back to Camelot, who then wins the tournament.

Unfortunately, in Arthur's absence, Guinevere and Lancelot become infatuated with each other and embark on a love affair, despite Merlin warning of the consequences. Mab magically makes sure Lancelot’s wife can see his betrayal, and she is found dead at the shores of Camelot not long after. Merlin accuses Lancelot of killing her through heartbreak and he flees Camelot in his guilt and shame. Arthur and his knights return to the city shortly afterwards, their quest a failure. Mordred then makes his presence as Arthur's son and heir known and reveals Guinevere's betrayal to all. Outmaneuvered by Mordred, Arthur is forced to condemn her to be burned at the stake for treason. Mid-way through the execution, Arthur changes his mind and begs Merlin to save her, so Merlin makes it rain which saves Guinevere long enough for Lancelot to fight his way into Camelot and ride off with her to safety. Furious, Mordred confronts Arthur, who denounces and banishes him. Mordred begins to raise an army among those dissatisfied with Arthur and Merlin.

Meanwhile, Frik and Morgan le Fay have fallen in love after Mab’s magic makes them both beautiful. When Morgan refuses to allow Mab to further use Mordred for her own ends, Mab kills her with Frik watching. Frik holds the dying Morgan and their true ugly forms return, but they both call each other beautiful anyway and she dies in his arms. Frik vows revenge on Mab, so she takes his powers away. He later joins Arthur's army.

Queen Mab then lures Nimue into a magical wilderness and removes the scars from her past injury, explaining she wishes to keep Merlin out of the way so he cannot intervene in the battle to come. Wanting to be with him, Nimue agrees and sends for Merlin: he comes to her, but senses a trap when he realises the idyllic paradise they are in is a creation of Mab's. However, Nimue compels him to give up his war with her and simply be at peace.

Meanwhile, the armies of Mordred and Arthur battle: many on both sides are slain, and in a climatic duel, Arthur defeats Mordred. Mordred deals Arthur a fatal blow before Arthur kills him. Merlin, having heard the screams of battle and knowing Arthur is dying, leaves Nimue to go to his aid: however, once he leaves their haven, it seals behind him (Mab had already warned Nimue once they were inside, they could never leave). Knowing he has lost her forever, Merlin races to Arthur's side.

At the battlefield, both Mab and Merlin witness the deaths of their protégés: Mab's dark magic is unable to save Mordred, while Arthur lives long enough for Merlin to arrive. Arthur tells Merlin to return Excalibur to whence it came, as no-one can be allowed to wield its power. Merlin comforts Arthur with the knowledge that he was a great king and the right man to wield Excalibur. He leaves Arthur to return the sword, grief-stricken as his king, student and friend dies behind him.

Merlin gives Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake. Angry and sorrowful, Merlin accuses her of lying to him about the guardian of Camelot, but he realizes the Lady had meant Galahad instead of Lancelot. She comforts a horrified Merlin with the words “It's human to make mistakes, Merlin and part of you is human...the best part”. She then bids Merlin goodbye, saying that her sister Mab was right about one thing: "When we're forgotten, we cease to exist".

Furious, Merlin returns to Camelot, where he finds Mab sitting at the Round Table. Frik explains that Mab is weakened, but still dangerous. With nothing more to lose, the pair engage in an intense magical duel that destroys the Round Table. Unable to vanquish Merlin, Mab mocks him and tells him that he and his human followers can't destroy her, but Merlin knows that there are few people that believe in the Old Ways. He turns his back on her telling her that everyone will forget her, and in forgetting, she will no longer exist. Everyone leaves, ignoring Mab's furious calls, and soon, she fades away into nothing, just the way she had feared from the beginning.

At the film's conclusion, the wizened Merlin is shown as a pauper telling his story for money. An aged Frik finds him, mentioning, "It's not exactly as I remember," to which Merlin replies, "They like it better this way." Merlin is reunited with his equally-aged love Nimue with the help of Frik, who explains that when Queen Mab's magic faded away, Nimue was released from her magical prison. However, Merlin uses one last trick to restore their youth so that they can finally spend their lives together. His closing words are "That’s the end of magic."


It was produced by Dyson Lovell and directed by Steve Barron. The story is by Edward Khmara with the teleplay written by David Stevens and Peter Barnes.

Illustrator Alan Lee served as the film's conceptual designer. Despite heavy fantasy elements, the production is historically accurate to a degree, in keeping with the probable origins of the Arthurian legend in Sub-Roman Britain. The costumes and props used in the film include Dark Age or Early Medieval Celtic and Roman-style weapons (e.g. Iron Age swords) and armor (eg. mail, scale and leather), while other Arthurian films like Excalibur, Knights of the Round Table and First Knight use High Medieval or Late Medieval-style weapons (e.g. longswords) and armour (e.g. full suits of plate). However, some anachronisms are present, like the use of the terms "knight" and "Sir" and the presence of the Roman lorica segmentata armour years after it was discontinued.

Nicholas Clay, who played Lancelot in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur, has a small role as Guinevere's father, Lord Leo. Paul Curran, who played the adult King Arthur, played Kay alongside Jason Connery as Merlin in Merlin: The Quest Begins, an unrelated television movie released the same year.


The miniseries received a number of plaudits including four Emmy Awards from fifteen nominations, and four Golden Globe nominations.


Three books were written as novelisations of the movie by James Mallory. They included new ideas and characters including former priest Hearne and Lord Idath who rule Anoeth the land of Death and Winter. The books are as follows:

Merlin: The Old Magic

Much of what occurs in this book is not in the film, Merlin's mother Elissa is introduced as a Princess and novice Nun to Avalon who moves out with Ambrosia to Barnstable Forest when she becomes pregnant with Merlin. We further see Ambrosia's life and her failing faith in Queen Mab who gets Vortigern to take the throne of Britain from its Christian King Constance. Naturally some of the early events unfold such as the Lady of the Lake and Mab not agreeing on creating Merlin, etc. but we get to explore Merlin's magic education in the Lands of Magic under the hollow hill. An important element is Merlin being half magic and half human, where Fairy magic relies on illusion Merlin can make illusion real melding fairy spellcraft with human feeling merging the powers together in reality. Frik hides this and Merlin only uses it once in this book by shapeshifting into a bird. We meet Lord Idath the god of death and the wild hunt, Mab's former consort who does not fear as Mab does knowing there is life for him as long as mortals fear the shadow of midnight. The story ends just before Vortigern's men are on their way to get Merlin.

Merlin: The King's Wizard

This is more familiar with the film where Merlin meets Vortigern and is given Excalibur by The Lady of the Lake. He and Nimue meet again and fall in love. Merlin becomes the King's Wizard and help Uther to become King only to be betrayed and manipulating events like Mab would by allowing him to sleep with the Duke of Cornwall's wife. Leading to the birth of Arthur and his turtoring as well as the building of Camelot and arrival of Lancelot. The book ends around this point with problems between the love triangle that is Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot as well as the birth of Mordred.

Merlin: The End of Magic

The battle between Mab and Merlin continues and the disastrous love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere causes chaos. Mordred grows up and Morgan and Frik develop their relationship into true love. Naturally as the title suggests it leads to the end of magic but we learn of the thirteen treasures of Britain, one being Idath's horn which becomes more useful over time. Also Merlin uses his heart magic once more turning fairy illusion into reality and even becomes a wizard of pure thought.


Hallmark Entertainment filmed a sequel in Vancouvermarker, entitled Merlin's Apprentice, with Neill and Richardson reprising their roles. The miniseries was broadcast in 2006 on Hallmark Channel.

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