For the past five years, late September to Christmas, my family have been sitting down of a Saturday evening and watching the BBC TV series called Merlin - a twist on the King Arthur story in which Merlin is the same age as Arthur - a young servant initially in his late teens, and whose powers must be concealed because of the laws against magic.
Each episode begins with a portentous preamble (from The Dragon, voiced by John Hurt) saying the following:
In a land of myth, and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy [later 'young man']. His name... Merlin.
But when the narrator says 'Merlin' we all shout him down in unison with 'Lermin'.
The original idea behind this daftness was a fantasy scenario that the great ACT-OR (John Hurt) had rehearsed and rehearsed his cheesy lines until he was thoroughly fed-up had lost all sense of their meaning, so on the final recorded take, after the big build-up, he got the main character's name wrong - but nobody noticed, and it got broadcast anyway.
I'm not, here, making a recommendation that the BBC Merlin was a great piece of television - but that it was enjoyable and wholesome family fare, with plenty of vivid characters, good and evil, played by a cast that mixed young discoveries with many stalwarts of British TV and movies.
Anyway, lastnight - Christmas Eve - we all sat down and watched the last episode with the death of Arthur, the Once and Future King prophecy, and a neat hint that the story or Arthur, and his role in Britain was not yet over and finished with, but that Merlin remained with us, unnoticed.
I, like most Britons, have long been fascinated with the story of Arthur, in its many versions. As a teen I was much influenced, for good and ill, by TH White's Once and Future King. Now I find myself going back often to look at C.S Lewis's That Hideous Strength - a book into which he packed just about everything he wanted to say, and which consequently almost bursts with the pressure: it is, indeed (for all its flaws), a prophetic and inspired book.
"The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself
everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the
crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds:
men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries,
worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their
mother and from the Father in Heaven.
You might go East so far that East
became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but
even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow
of one dark wing is over all Tellus"...
The Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it
wishes. But for their one mistake, there would be no hope left. If of
their own evil will they had not broken the frontier and let in the
celestial Powers, this would be their moment of victory. Their own
strength has betrayed them. They have pulled down Deep Heaven on their
heads. Therefore, they will die...
...Gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We
discovered the haunting...how something we may call Britain is always
haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven't you noticed that we are
two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a
Cromwell; a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers. Is it any wonder
they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really
the struggle between Logres and Britain...
...Did they really mean any great harm with all their fussy little intrigues? Wasn’t it more silly than anything else?”
“Och aye,” said MacPhee. “They were only playing themselves. Kittens
letting on to be tigers. But there was a real tiger about and their play
ended by letting her in..."
"...Of course, they never
thought anyone would act on their theories! No one was more astonished
than they when what they’d been talking of for years suddenly took on
reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and
unrecognisable, but their own...”
"Those who have forgotten
Logres sink into Britain. Those who call for Nonsense will find that it
That is why Arthur keeps returning to haunt us, and why almost all versions of the legend - including the modern, distraction-orientated and politically correct - illuminate with beams of light peeping through the chinks.
The BBC Merlin was limited by many deficiencies characteristic of its age - not least the elimination of religion from King Arthurs court (so that the King was crowned not by a priest but by the court librarian!) - yet because there was a decency behind it, a sense of striving to do one's best, there were times when the spirit of Arthur and Merlin, the spirit of Logres, was apparent.
Much more cannot be expected in our times.
As Tolkien wrote in Smith of Wootton Major when Smith meets the Queen of Faery and found that:
"...His mind turned back retracing his life until he came to the day of the Children's Feast and the coming of the star, and suddenly he saw again the little dancing figure with its wand [stood on top of the sugary sweet icing of the Great Cake], and in shame he lowered his eyes from the Queen's beauty.
"But she laughed... "Do not be grieved for me...
"Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all."
Let's take Christmas in that way. No matter how subverted and commercialized, its transcendent meaning cannot be utterly hidden, for those with eyes to see, hearts to feel - and it is this from childhood which haunts our adult memories.