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Dec. 3rd, 2008

How do you even write about this show? What's canon, what's (intentional? unintentional?) subtext, where does complete fanish overinterpretation start? Freud would have had a field day with this episode, I'm just saying.

*buries head in hands* Can I have Torchwood back? Oh, wait, not before next summer, apparently.


The curtain opens on Arthur being all princely and manly, on the hunt ('You just said you don't know what it is, it could be dangerous!' - 'Let's hope so!'), whereas Merlin suddenly and accidentally finds himself cast in the role of the maiden used in legend to entrap an unicorn, and in keeping with tradition Arthur interrupts the brief idyll by shooting the unicorn, despite a horrified 'Arthur, no!' from Merlin. And maybe the sexual metaphor wouldn't be as blindingly obvious if Arthur didn't saunter down to where Merlin is kneeling (the dying unicorn's head almost, if not quite, in his lap, mourning the loss of innocence and beauty) without even the slightest bit of regret, but triumphant and blatantly pleased with what he'd done, mocking the grieving Merlin for being 'such a girl' (emphasis very emphatically Arthur's).

And that sets the tone for the next fifteen minutes or so. We move back to Camelot, with Arthur presenting the unicorn horn to Uther (on a velvet cushion, no less), who is just as pleased with it as Arthur probably knew he would be, which is really pleased, showing it to Gaius ('It is very impressive, my lord', which prompted my 'self, get our mind out of the gutter' remark), and Arthur is beaming under his father's approval. Social order restored after last episode's upheaval, patriarchy playing with its toys. The alleged magical/medical qualities of the unicorn horn aren't even addressed, it's merely treated as a status symbol ('We will be the envy of every kingdom') to 'grace the walls of Camelot'. If one wanted to really overinterpret, one could say they disregarded and destroyed everything the unicorn was or symbolised, taking away the only thing that can easily be interpreted as a phallic symbol. Like I said. Freud. Field day.

Merlin and Gaius are less happy. 'I don't understand how Arthur can have taken any pleasure from killing the unicorn' - 'Arthur's a man hunter, it's in his blood, as you are something entirely different,' again emphasising the gender clichés, with Merlin implicitly the 'girl', and it's worth noting that the other person to criticise Arthur's favourite pastime so far was Morgana: 'And killing things mends a broken heart?' - 'No, but it's good fun.' But the interesting thing is that the episode will prove Gaius, who is speaking from his limited experience with Uther, whom he probably could indeed only accept, or leave, but not expect to change, or listen to someone else's advice, to be wrong, and that's the beautiful thing about this show — it doesn't have to always be this way. Change is possible. Arthur won't for the rest of his life enjoy killing unicorns because it's 'in his blood'.

Next scene, very domestic, Arthur's room, sorry, chambers, and Arthur rattling off instructions to Merlin standing at the window, lost in thought, and maybe I really need to drag my mind out of the gutter, because I was very sure that when Arthur said 'You can polish my—' he initially started saying 'sword' and then broke off and changed it to 'saddle', but on second thoughts (and viewings), it was probably just him noticing that Merlin wasn't listening and, *facepalm*, this is the second time this show has given me acoustic hallucinations.

On a more serious note though, after all the emphasis on social and gender equality in the last episode it's almost as if Arthur is making a conscious or unconscious effort to re-establish a certain amount of distance and dominance, trying to push them back into the roles of prince and manservant; ordering Merlin around, again mocking his concerns about the unicorn as well as his grief ('We were hunting. That's what you do.'), and generally being something of the brat prince he was in the early episodes. This runs like a thread through the next scenes, where Arthur tends to be rude and dismissive, and very much his father's son, quoting Uther's opinions on not trusting sorcerers.

At the same time it's oddly intimate, unmade bed and all, and Arthur sitting on it to put on his boots (so was he barefoot before? wearing socks? enquiring minds want to know... *g*), and if taken out of context, especially out of family show context, at least a bit suggestive, the way the whole scene circles around Arthur's - it bears repeating, rather dishevelled - bed, with the two of them pulling apart at the knock on the door. And there's more touching than I seem to remember, a mixture of intimacy and subdued violence, like Arthur grabbing Merlin and physically pushing him down to inspect the rat droppings, or the scene with the rat stew.

The first time the better, brighter, side of Arthur comes shining through, effortlessly and instinctively, because when he doesn't have to uphold an image or is trying to please his father, but is acting on his emotions, especially in a crisis or with other people's lives at stake, Arthur's instincts tend to be the right ones, is at the first test, and that's also when he finally starts to listen to Merlin's opinion again.

Then there's test two, which is essentially about how violently defending your manly pride with sharp pointy phallic objects is wrong, wrong, wrong, even if you're being provoked, followed by the confrontation between Arthur and Uther. And maybe the show isn't overly subtle in making its points, but it makes them beautifully. Arthur's moment of self-awareness at his father's 'Have you no pride?' is really well done (and well acted). The Arthur who says 'I cannot think of my pride when our people go hungry,' is a man and a future king, who's finally realised that manhood and kingship can be something different from what he's been taught, and that there are more important things than his father's approval. (At the same time... Uther's irrational and guilt-driven crusade against magic is one thing, but in everything else, he isn't a monster. His logic is hard, but most of the time makes strategic sense. But of course Arthur has to become Arthur.)

And from that moment onwards, the mood completely changes again between Merlin and Arthur, the one-sided battle for dominance is suddenly over. When Arthur tells Merlin not to follow him, it's to protect him, because he probably already knows that he himself might die there, and that Merlin would do something stupid to protect him.

The third test shows Arthur running through the labyrinth at first, sword in hand, but there's nothing there to fight or kill. When he sits down opposite Merlin he puts his sword on the table beside the two goblets, and I think the choice of props is intentional here (or else it's a really interesting coincidence), since just like the blade is a male symbol, the cup/chalice is a traditionally female symbol. Balance achieved, equality restored.

'What it proves is for you to decide.' What it does prove is what Merlin wouldn't believe last episode when his mother told him, that Arthur loves him just as much as Merlin loves him, and while you could probably argue about whether it's romantically or platonically, I think the fact is rather indisputable. The insults and banter - 'I'd no idea you were so keen to die for me' - 'Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself' - are really only a transparent facade, barely hiding the emotion underneath any more. And even that is abandoned for a moment with Arthur's out-of-nowhere 'I'm glad you're here, Merlin,' at a moment where he, unlike Merlin, who's still looking for ways out of this, is seeing nothing but the certainty of his own death. And I think that's Arthur's second moment of self-knowledge in that episode.

So there's the story of Arthur growing up and facing the responsibility for his rashness and learning to be a different kind of king and man than his father, but interwoven in all this is a love story, and essentially a transition from a more aggressive, egoistic, stereotypically male want-take-have sexuality to the admission of love, with the unicorn standing maybe not so much for sexual purity strictly speaking, since this is 2008, not 1300something or even 1950, but about a kind of emotional purity and honesty, although god knows whether this is canon/canonically intended or not. But it really is kind of there. I think. (Of course on a more literal level the episode could be read as, see, they totally haven't done it yet, see, see?!, and also, their love is totally pure, get your minds out of the gutter, folks, not gonna happen, proof by unicorn; but I like my version better...)

And while I'm already cheerfully overinterpreting, and admittedly I wrote this around 2 am-ish this morning and it's more of a... is there an English word for Gedankenspiel? It's more playing with ideas than an actual interpretation, but if you're using legends and archetypes and changing them like this show does, all kinds of unintended meaning are bound to slip in along with the text. Another interesting aspect is when Arthur and Merlin return to Camelot the curse is already lifted and the fertility of the land restored, and Uther, being Uther, of course assumes it's because Arthur killed the sorcerer. But if you look at the male-female symbolism of the sword and cup and the fact that that balance needed to be restored for fertility to return to Camelot, and take that interpretation a bit further, you're really only a couple of steps away from fertility rituals and sacred marriage rituals, and then the episode would start with a sexual metaphor and end with a very different sexual metaphor, and I'm so shutting up now. (Although the unicorn appearing only in the distance, and then walking away from them in the end would make sense.)






Final side note: The similarities between Merlin and Smallville are obvious, but what struck me at some point today after having read someone's post (I forget where) about how the final test was problematic, because Arthur's dilemma and tragedy as a (future) king is that he has a wider responsibility and therefore can't die for those he loves, is that the third test is an echo of (or something similar to) the test Delenn and Sheridan are put through in B5's Comes the Inquisitor: 'How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame... for one person. In the dark. Where no one will ever know or see.' To give up kingship, destiny and glory, and be prepared to die, in obscurity, for the person you love. And here and there the relationship elements ('What is (s)he to you?' / 'What it proves is for you to decide') is woven into the political aspects of the story, a future leader having to prove his/her worthiness.


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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
lilithilien
Feb. 20th, 2009 06:24 am (UTC)
I thoroughly enjoyed this! The phallic symbolism you noted was obvious (tho I'd never paid so much attention before to the envy of every kingdom, ha!) but your comments on balance upset and then restored are making me think of the effect that it's had on the fertility of the lands.

And good point about the domesticity of the scene in Arthur's chambers. You have a keen eye for that stuff!

Great meta! Thank you so much for linking it!
solitary_summer
Feb. 22nd, 2009 01:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you - glad you liked it! It's always reassuring to know that the kinds of things my brain choses to come up with make sense to someone else, too :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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