Perceval and Gawain — Medieval Grail Romances in BBC’s “Merlin: The Eye of the Phoenix”

©2014 Mary Crockford

With the airing of its first episode in 2008, The British Broadcasting Company’s “Merlin” not only ignited a renewed interest in Arthurian legend among viewers, but by extension resulted in a fresh public enchantment with elements of both Medieval literature and Celtic lore. The influence of both of these is evident in virtually every episode, but is especially artfully demonstrated in Episode 8 of Season 3, titled “The Eye of the Phoenix.” The episode incorporates elements of two Medieval quest stories, Perceval or the Story of the Grail, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The episode chronicles Arthur Pendragon’s quest to prove his fitness to become King of Camelot, as well as the roles of his two companions on the quest – the sorcerer Merlin, and a would-be knight of Camelot, Gwaine. Through the unfolding of the quest, elements of setting, characterization, Celtic symbolism, and Christian iconography are clearly traceable to these two original Medieval works that undergird the foundation for the Arthurian literary tradition.
In the episode’s opening scene, Arthur is cloaked in linen, much as a saint seeking to transcend the physical body, and he enters and kneels in the castle throne room. He falls into deep meditation as he seeks to discern what the nature of his upcoming quest will be. Symbols of royalty and the somber air of the throne room convey the importance of Arthur’s contemplation, and serve as reminders that he is not simply the Prince of Camelot and its future king, but that he is also a knight bound for further spiritual and physical testing. Hours seem to have passed when Arthur emerges and seeks out his king and father, Uther Pendragon, to reveal to the breathless company flanking the king what quest the future monarch has chosen:

“I can see but one path, Sire. I am to enter the realm of the Fisher King,
and find the golden trident spoken of in the Legend of the Fallen Kings.”

His father’s response, delivered with apparent anxiety and sobriety, lends credence to the seriousness of Arthur’s choice of quest, and to the importance of its completion to Arthur’s future position as King of Camelot:

“You do understand, that if you are to prove yourself worthy of the throne,
you must complete this task alone…and unaided.”

Much as a bridegroom taking a vow of fidelity to a bride, Arthur accepts the conditions and nature of his quest, uttering, “I do.” The scene is thus truly “set” for Arthur’s mission, and all the dangers inherent in his acquiescence. He dons the mantle of the “grail knight” of Arthurian Medieval literature, as seen in such poetic epics as Perceval and Sir Gawain. Such tales celebrated the chivalric ideal that is portrayed in Merlin, tales which Arthurian scholar Maria Stromberg describes as calling “up from the mythic past the shadows of archetypal figures” (Para 1). While the sobriety of Arthur’s quest appears at first to be the crux and purpose of “The Eye of the Phoenix,” the episode will soon center on and include a character who is the flip-side of the ideal portrayed in Arthur, but as beloved in his namesake literary tradition…that of Gwaine.
Fearful of the dangers Arthur will face crossing the Perilous Lands of the Fisher King’s realm, Merlin, wizard and guardian to Arthur, seeks the advice of Gaius, the series’ sage and royal physician. Gaius answers Merlin’s questions about the identity and nature of the Fisher King, a character first introduced in Chretien de Troyes’ tale Perceval or the Story of the Grail. Gaius’ description of the Fisher King echoes that of tales like Perceval, in which the wounded king is an archetypal character shrouded in mystery, and “within the framework of the Grail motif…perhaps the most abstract and enigmatic” (Univ. of Idaho Para 1):

“Legend has it that the Fisher King was wounded in battle. The wound festered,
and the infection spread not just through his body, but through his lands as well.
His mighty kingdom was reduced to a wasteland, and it has remained that way
to this very day.”

“Chretien reports that the wound was inflicted with a spear thrust through the
thighs……the waste land ultimately springs from an old Celtic belief in which
the fertility of the land depended on the potency and virility of the king; the
king was in essence espoused to his lands.” (Univ. of Idaho Para 14)

Merlin heeds Gaius’ description of The Perilous Lands, and tries in vain to deter Arthur from his quest. He becomes all the more concerned upon Arthur’s departure, when he sees the prince wearing a bracelet given to him by Morgana, who claims it to be a talisman of good fortune on his journey. Arthur accepts it without reservation, donning the bracelet like a false gauntlet, unaware of the true purposes of Morgana – the series’ personage of the Morgan La Fey of Sir Gawain and other Arthurian romances. The bracelet, an object of rare value and beauty, bears the wings of a phoenix—a symbol of resurrection in Medieval heraldry. But set in its center is the gem-like “Eye of the Phoenix,” which has been enchanted so as to draw the life force from its wearer. Heeding Gaius’ advice that he will “need help” to protect Arthur, Merlin rides on horseback from the walls of Camelot, presumably in search of just that.
Arthur, entering the Fisher King’s blighted realm alone, is immediately drawn into one of the classic arenas of battle for the questing knight seen in poems like Perceval and Sir Gawain: the battle with the natural world. The evidence of the land’s suffering as emblematic of its monarch’s decrepitude is evident in every frame of Arthur’s quest, as it was in Perceval’s journey through the Fisher King’s “Wasted Lands”. Stromberg describes the land through which Perceval, and now Arthur journey, as suffering under “the languor affecting the Fisher King,” caused by a wound that is “not confined to the Fisher King’s immediate person but further constitutes a blight on his realm” (Para 12).

“…a wound between his legs,/that maimed him./His vast lands, his great
wealth,/which his valor had earned him/all fell into ruin.” (Perceval or
the Story of the Grail, 436-441)

As the gem of Arthur’s bracelet begins to glow, he succumbs to fatigue and staggers into a forest clearing. He makes camp, alone and exposed, and sleeps briefly until bandits attack him and he is forced to fight through almost paralyzing exhaustion. He barely defeats his attackers, killing them just as the bracelet glows again and he succumbs to its draining power. The bracelet here takes on a new facet, so that clearly it is no longer an object of beauty formed from the earth beneath Arthur’s feet, but a talisman corrupted by Morgana’s – Sir Gawain’s Morgan La Fey’s – powerful magic:

“She is acquired of deep learning, hard-won skill, many of the masteries of
Merlin; – for she has at times dealt in rare magic.” (Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, Fytte IV:19)

Merlin enters a countryside tavern, and immediately locates his friend – the finest fighter in the Five Lands, Gwaine – being launched by angry tavern patrons across the surface of a table. Like his literary progenitor Sir Gawain, Merlin’s Gwaine is as “characterized by his irascibility and impulsiveness” as Arthur is responsible and serious (Univ. of Idaho, Para 12), and like the Gawain of Anglo-Saxon grail epics, is crafted by writers who “deliberately developed ambiguity in…characters to show a human condition that is closer to life than any idealized creation could be…” (Stromberg Para 2). He and Merlin escape the tavern and certain further violence by leaping from the roof, and they head toward the Fisher King’s realm in search of Arthur. At this point in the episode, Arthur, Merlin and Gwaine have all fully entered into the “heroic journey away from the community into uncharted territory,” and the “range of unusual experiences” that draw readers and viewers alike into the heart of the chivalric quest (Johnston Para 1-3).
Gwaine will not encounter the giant Green Knight of his predecessor, but as he and Merlin happen upon a bridge near the borders of the Perilous Lands, they are greeted by a lame dwarf who appears magically from the mists rising from the river it spans. The same dwarf, hours earlier, had greeted Arthur and named him “courage,” advising him that he would need two more companions: strength and magic, to complete his quest. The bridge, an Anglo-Saxon heraldic symbol of governance and authority (Snells 5), is clearly under the guardianship of the “little giant,” who is fashioned after the club-footed “Grettir the Strong” of Icelandic Celtic lore. Grettir lets Arthur pass, but not without noting the bracelet on the young knight’s wrist and mocking the “honorable” intentions of its giver. Like the green girdle given to Sir Gawain by Lady Bertilak, Arthur continues on in naivete of the true nature of Morgana’s gift, and its power to sabotage his quest.
Grettir recognizes Merlin and Gwaine as respective bearers of the Celtic-treasured “magic” and another revered Anglo-Saxon virtue,“strength.” Indeed strong but equally impulsive, Gwaine perceives Grettir as a threat and draws his sword. The dwarf turns the weapon into a bouquet of flowers, playing the trickster role much as the Green Knight/Bertilak did in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His conjuring is a humorous twist on the “beheading” challenge of Sir Gawain, and the ironically diminutive figure establishes just who is – and who isn’t – in charge of the dual natural and magic realm:

“I only wish to see the Fisher King’s lands restored and prosperity reign again.
Until your mission is complete, this can not happen.”

“I mean no harm to either of you, and I’ll thank you to mean no harm in return.”

In another twist on the classic grail saga, Merlin is confused by the bridgekeeper’s assertion that he has more than a happenstance role to play in Arthur’s quest, saying “It’s not my mission, it’s Arthur’s.” Grettir’s rejoinder of “If that’s what you choose to believe,” is a reminder of the juxtaposition of Celtic lore and chivalric ethos at the root of the grail romance. As Gwaine enters the bridge, Grettir quietly tells Merlin that “the Fisher King has waited many years for this day. Do not deny him what he wishes.”
Like the Wasted Lands of Perceval, and the blighted hillside in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the landscape of the Perilous Lands continue to threaten not just Arthur’s quest, but his life. He staggers into a slough, and is pulled under by weakness and the weight of his armor. He uses his sword to grapple with a vine overhanging the swamp, and pulls himself onto solid ground and again succumbs to the stupefying fatigue brought on by the enchanted bracelet. He later awakens, and scales a pile of boulders and views the iconic Dark Tower that is the destination on his quest, only to find that nature once again threatens in the form of wyverns circling the Fisher King’s castle. He must again simultaneously fight off the beasts and exhaustion with his sword as he makes a desperate last run for the castle, unaware that Merlin and Gwaine – strength and magic – have arrived right behind him.
Merlin pursues Arthur into the tower, to find the prince no longer able to withstand the bracelet’s spell, and about to be attacked by wyverns. Merlin, in the role of Celtic wizard and Dragon Lord, commands the beasts away from the unconscious Arthur and removes the cursed bracelet from his wrist. Arthur awakens immediately and berates Merlin for supposedly ruining his quest, unaware that without him, nature and hostile magic would have destroyed not only his quest, but through the bracelet and the wyverns, truly consumed him. Gwaine skewers a wyvern who has returned to attack Merlin and Arthur, and grins while poking it with his sword, cementing his star status as a Medieval hero in his own right.
The trio enter the Dark Tower, happening upon what appears to be a throne room just as a wall of crumbled stone seals Merlin off from Gwaine and Arthur, leaving him alone in the seemingly empty tower. But he is not alone, and like Perceval did in the Story of the Grail, Merlin finds the crippled Fisher King sitting on a patinaed gold throne, unable to move. While he is still robed in his royal garments, the king’s skin is ashen and glass-like, clinging tightly to his bones. He sits motionless, his breath labored, draped in the cobwebs suggestive of the ages he has been kept alive despite his mysterious malady. He holds the golden trident Arthur seeks in his frail grip, but it is Merlin who is revealed to be the person whose destiny is connected to his own as the ancient monarch weakly whispers the young wizard’s Druid name:

Fisher King: “So, Emrys. You’re here at last.”
Merlin: “So you are still alive.”
Fisher King: “For now.”

True to the Medieval grail story tradition, Christian and Celtic lore share space in the story’s narrative, as the Fisher King explains to Merlin that rather than being a party to Arthur’s quest, that in fact it is Arthur and Gwaine who are part of his. Merlin asks what it is the Fisher King desires, to which the king answers, “I want an end to my suffering.” The Fisher King reveals to Merlin that he has waited “for the time of the Once and Future King,” the Christ manifest in the character of Arthur, saying, “that time is dawning, and my time can come to an end….this is why you were brought here. This is not Arthur’s quest, it is yours.” The king drops the trident, explaining that the object of Arthur’s search is not the true treasure required for the redemption of Albion. He takes a glass vial, housed inside seven wooden columns, from the folds of his robe and holds it out to Merlin. Like the Christian Holy Spirit and seven lampstands that illuminate the Jewish temple, the vial of water from the Lake of Avalon holds the key to the salvation of Camelot in its darkest hour…a time for which only Merlin, and his pure heart and magic, are equipped:

“Water from the Lake of Avalon. I’ve kept it safe these years, waiting for
the right person to claim it, and that is you. You are the one chosen.”

“Albion’s time of need is near, and in that dark hour you must be strong,
for you alone can save her. Your powers are great, but you will need
help. And that is what I am giving you.”

Merlin steps forward to receive the vial, and the king tells him, “When all seems lost, this will show you the way.” He demands a gift in return for the one he has given Merlin, to which Merlin sorrowfully replies, “I have nothing to give.” The king stands in spite of his infirmity, and gestures for Merlin to kneel. Merlin then realizes that the only thing in his possession, the bracelet Morgana had intended to kill Arthur, has been transformed by Providence into a gift of compassion…that the Fisher King “might die his preordained death” (Univ. of Idaho Para 36). He places the bracelet on the king’s outstretched arm, and true to the heraldic meaning of the phoenix icon, resurrection, the king’s physical life ends, and his spirit is released (Snells 5).
By its very nature, Medieval literature was “often guided by Christian teaching,” and crafted to be “read for moral profit” (Decameron Para 1). “The Eye of the Phoenix” ends with the trio of protagonists arriving at Camelot’s border, and each one’s archetypal, and more importantly, moral nature is revealed in their parting statements. Merlin, the wizened young guardian of the Christ-King Arthur, affectionately upbraids Gawain for his roaming lifestyle, “You can’t keep living like that.” Gwaine, the grail knight who somehow always manages to uphold “the virtues of Arthur’s court…in the unexpected situations to which he has been exposed” (Stromberg Para 11) insists “Yeah, but it’s fun trying.” Arthur, in possession of the Fisher King’s trident, a Medieval emblem of maritime dominion (Snells 5), assures Gwaine he will remember and reward his friendship and aid. Watching from her bedchamber in the castle, Morgana, like Morgan La Fey in numerous Sir Gawain tales, is enraged by the safe return of the knight whose quest she sought to foil.
It would be too easy to call the influence of Medieval grail romances on the Merlin series “obvious.” A deeper examination of episodes like “The Eye of the Phoenix” reveals a level of scholarship and faithfulness to folklore and literary tradition that is a rarity in the post-modern era. It is the continued relevance of tales like Perceval’s through the Wasted Lands of the Fisher King, and Sir Gawain’s knightly and everyman virtues in the face of danger and temptation, and the willingness of writers and other artists to continue testing “the mutable nature” of the Medieval grail romance (Univ. of Idaho, Para 15) that make BBC’s Merlin such a treasure to the literary-minded viewer.

Works Cited

De Troyes, Chretien, and Kirk McElhearn, Translator. Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. N.p.:, 2001. PDF.

Johnston, Ian. “On Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Malaspina University-College: Liberal Studies Lecture. British Columbia,
Nanaimo. Dec. 2001. Web.

Jones, Julian, and Jake Michie. “The Eye of the Phoenix.” Merlin. Dir. Alice Troughton. BBC. 4 Mar. 2011. Television.

“Medieval Attitudes Toward Literature.” Decameron Web. Italian Studies Dept., Brown University, 12 Mar. 2010. Web.

Morris, William, and Eirikr Magnusson, trans. Grettis Saga. N.p.: n.p., 1900. Icelandic Saga Database. Web.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Luminarium Anthology of English Literature. Trans. W. A. Neilson. Aniina Jokinen, n.d. Web.

Snell, Melissa. “Symbolisms of Heraldry,” Education: Medieval History., 1-5. Web.

Stromberg, Maria. “The Test of the Ideal in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Lost Country. Fall 2013: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2014.

“The Fisher King.” Arthurian Legend. University of Idaho, n.d. Web.


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