(To be fair though, I used 14,000+ words for ONE Sherlock episode, and this Merlin meta is covering S1-S4, so I think I've done quite well with not being too wordy.)
In this meta, I’m going to talk about how we see Merlin and Arthur’s friendship grow in the first four seasons of Merlin. Merlin and Arthur grow from fighting with each other to friends to King and Advisor. I’m also going to talk about how some of the tertiary characters illuminate and effect Merlin and Arthur’s friendship – in particular, Lancelot, Gwaine, and Gwen.
Just for the record, this is not about how Merlin and Arthur are secretly in love and sexing each other up. Although I do see Merlin as metaphor for homosexuality, I’m also someone who likes to stick to canon – and in the canon of this show the only one Arthur is kissing is Gwen.
Now, I say that, because I talk a lot about love, falling in love, being in love, etc. in this meta. If you choose to read this as romantic love, that's your choice, but I am using "love" and "in love" in an asexual sense, for those of you who, like me, prefer gen/canon meta. (The asexual definition of love also applies when I talk about threesomes and triads).
Additionally, I talk a lot about the servant/master relationship in this meta – I DO NOT mean the kinky thing, I’m solely talking about the professional relationship, as it were.
And finally: This is ONLY about the BBC show Merlin. This meta has very little to do with the actual legend of King Arthur. The show is so liberal with the legends that it’s basically an AU fanfiction of the legends, so I’m treating it as the completely separate entity that it is.
So, let’s dive right in here...
Series 1 – The Business Relationship
It’s important to note that Merlin and Arthur do not start off as friends, let alone anything else. In their first meeting, Merlin sees Arthur as a bully. Merlin meets Arthur when Arthur is, ironically, picking on a servant.
Merlin: Hey, that’s enough
Merlin: You’ve had your fun, my friend.
Arthur: Do I know you?
Merlin: I’m Merlin.
Arthur: So I don’t know you.
Arthur: Yet, you called me “friend”.
Merlin: That was my mistake.
Arthur: Yeah, I think so.
Merlin: Yeah...I’d never have a friend who could be such an ass.
At this point, Merlin is amused more than anything. Merlin is extremely quick witted and in a battle of words, he’ll always have the upper hand. He’s not necessarily angry at Arthur, but he’s not lying either. Merlin would not be friends with a bully, and that’s how he sees Arthur.
Arthur, meanwhile, lets us know exactly how he sees Merlin...
Arthur: Nor I one who could be so stupid. Tell me, Merlin, do you know how to walk on your knees?
Merlin accidentally further compounds this believe when he forgets that he’s in Camelot for a second and that using magic could mean his death...
Arthur: Would you like me to help you?
Merlin: I wouldn’t if I were you.
Arthur: Why? What are you going to do to me?
Merlin: You have no idea.
Arthur: Be my guest! Come on!
And here Merlin realizes his mistake. He COULD easily beat Arthur in any fight. He’s far more powerful than anyone in Camelot, even with only the use of his limited instinctual non-verbal magic. Using his magic overtly, which he would have to do in order to defeat Arthur truly, would give him away though. So Merlin is effectively castrated by his own desire to live.
It’s at THIS point - when Arthur reveals his identity and uses it to throw Merlin in jail - that Merlin gets angry at Arthur. It’s not like Merlin knew he was talking to the Prince, after all.
Arthur, it has to be said, is probably more amused by Merlin than angry at him; however, he has to throw Merlin in jail for the sake of the gathered crowd (IMO)...something that Merlin doesn’t come to understand until the next episode.
So, that’s their first meeting: Arthur is a bully and Merlin is an idiot. Now, let’s move on to a more important conversation...which repeats the pattern:
Arthur: How’s your knee walking coming along? .... Aw, don’t run away!
Merlin: From you?
Arthur: Thank God, I thought you were deaf as well as dumb.
Merlin: Look, I’ve told you you’re an ass, I just didn’t realize you were a royal one....oh, what are you going to do? Get your daddy’s men to protect you?
Arthur: Haha, I could take you apart with one blow.
Merlin: I could take you apart with less than that.
Arthur: You sure? *Merlin takes off his jacket, Arthur laughs, and then tosses Merlin a mace.* Here you go, big man. Come on then. I warn you, I’ve been trained to kill since birth.
Merlin: Wow, and how long have you been training to be a prat?
Arthur: *laughs in disbelief* You can’t address me like that.
Merlin: *laughs self-deprecatingly* Sorry, how long have you been training to be a prat...my lord? *amused smile*
In this second meeting, they enter into the SAME conversation, but this time with full knowledge of who each other is.
Interestingly enough, it’s Arthur who initiates the conversation, and I think it’s solely because he’s interested to see whether Merlin will still insult him now that Merlin knows that Arthur is the Prince. Arthur may think Merlin is an idiot, but he’s amused and intrigued by him...mainly, I’m guessing, because Arthur’s life is pretty boring unless he’s hunting or killing things/people.
Or, as Arthur says it: There’s something about you, Merlin. I can’t put my finger on it.
Merlin, however, doesn’t think there’s anything about Arthur. To Arthur, Merlin is an intriguing brave idiot; but to Merlin, Arthur is just nothing but a prat and a bully – and not worth Merlin’s time at all.
When the dragon informs Merlin of his destiny, Merlin openly says that the dragon has it wrong, because Merlin is more likely to help someone kill Arthur rather than stop them. (An exaggeration, I’m sure, as Merlin never kills anyone without them committing an act, or threatening to commit an act, that he deems evil.)
This brings us to the third and final meeting of Merlin and Arthur in the first episode, which is the point where Merlin saves Arthur’s life.
Uther: You saved my boy’s life. That debt must be repaid.
Uther: Don’t be so modest. You shall be rewarded.
Merlin: Honestly, you don’t have to, Your Highness.
Uther: Absolutely! This merits something quite special. You shall be offered a position in the royal household. You shall be Prince Arthur’s manservant!
Here we have the starting point from which the friendship must evolve. It’s one thing to be intrigued by an idiot, but it’s quite another thing to have an idiot for a manservant when you’re the prince of Camelot. Merlin, meanwhile, has been shackled with a destiny that he doesn’t like or understand and it all revolves around a man that he doesn’t like or understand either.
And that’s the crux of the matter: Merlin and Arthur don’t understand each other. S1 is about bringing them to the point where they do understand each other.
For Merlin, the path to understanding Arthur begins immediately in episode 1x02, when Arthur must fight Knight Valiant in a tournament, even though both Merlin and Arthur know him to be cheating with murderous intent. When Merlin’s first attempt at getting Valiant disqualified for using magic not only fails, but leads to Arthur’s public humiliation, Merlin begins to learn the rules of court that Arthur is constricted by. The most important lesson is how appearance is extremely important to Arthur maintaining power and respect in Camelot.
It also produces the next obstacle that Merlin must overcome:
Arthur: I no longer require your services.
Merlin: You’re sacking me?
Arthur: I need a servant I can trust.
Merlin: You CAN trust me.
Arthur: And look where it got me! Get out of my sight!
Just because Merlin is given a job, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need to earn his right to keep it. This season is as much about Merlin and Arthur understanding one another, as it is about them solidifying the servant-master relationship between them, where they both know the boundaries – for better or worse. (It is, after all, instances like this that lead to Merlin hiding more and more things from Arthur in an attempt not to incur his anger or have him do something that might damage his reputation.)
The most important lesson for Merlin in 1x02 comes when Merlin tries to get Arthur to withdraw from the fight.
Merlin: Don’t fight Valiant in the final tomorrow. He’ll use the shield against you.
Arthur: I know.
Merlin: Then withdraw! You have to withdraw.
Arthur: Don’t you understand? I can’t withdraw. The people expect their prince to fight. How can I lead men into battle if they think I’m a coward?
Merlin: Valiant will kill you! If you fight, you die!
Arthur: Then I die.
Merlin: How can you go out there and fight like that?
Arthur: Because I have to. It’s my duty.
For the first time, Merlin is seeing the fact that Arthur is just as constrained as Merlin is – just as much in danger of losing his life every single day. Arthur has more power than Merlin, but not necessarily more freedom. Arthur becomes a sympathetic character to Merlin, not just a prat. After all, bullies and prats are formed, not born – and this is the first time that Merlin is seeing that there may be another side to Arthur.
The next few episodes are all about Arthur proving that he’s more than a prat and a bully – he’s just as loyal as Merlin and has a strong sense of morality/nobility. We see this when he talks his father out of arresting Merlin for sorcery in 1x03 and when he makes a dangerous trip in order to get the antidote to save a poisoned Merlin in 1x04.
Episode 1x07 has Merlin prove to Arthur that he can be trusted, continually lying to the King and suffering the stocks on Arthur’s request. Arthur, though bewitched, does use the offer of friendship as a bribe – “you’ll be a friend for life if you do,” only to revoke it later...
Arthur: Who are you to tell me what to do?
Merlin: I’m your friend.
Arthur: No, Merlin, you’re my servant.
This reluctance to accept Merlin as more than a servant is a result of the constraints of court life.
By episode 1x09, Merlin has come to understand who Arthur is. In a mirror of the conversation from 1x02, Merlin once again tries to get Arthur, the differences in the conversation show how much Merlin’s opinion and understand of Arthur have grown:
Merlin: You have to pull out.
Arthur: Why is that?
Merlin: Because he’ll kill you!
Arthur: Why does everybody think that?
Merlin: Because they’re right. Just pull out. You’re the Crown Prince, no one wants to see you die over some stupid challenge.
Arthur: I’m not a coward.
Merlin: I know that. I’ve stood there and watched you overcome every fear you’ve ever faced.
Arthur: That’s what’s required of me.
Merlin: But you’re more than that. You’re not merely a warrior, you’re a prince – a future king. You’ve proved your courage, but you must prove your wisdom.
So, now that Merlin knows who Arthur is....how about Arthur knowing Merlin? Merlin is an idiot and a simple peasant boy, a servant who is amusing, but doesn’t know his place...but who is he has a person? In his resistance to acknowledging Merlin as anything more than a servant, Arthur really hasn’t taken the time to find out.
Episode 1x10 is about Arthur learning about Merlin, and there’s no better way to do that then seeing what environment Merlin came from. Arthur travels to Merlin’s hometown (in Cenred’s kingdom, at the time) to help with a bandit problem. While he’s there, he lives as Merlin lived – eating rationed food and sleeping on the floor – miserable peasant life? Maybe not...
Arthur: Have you always slept on the floor?
Merlin: Yeah, the bed I’ve got in Camelot’s luxury by comparison.
Arthur: Must have been hard.
Merlin: Mm. It’s like rock.
Arthur: I didn’t mean the ground. I meant...for you, it must have been difficult.
Merlin: Mm, not really. I didn’t know any different. Life’s simpler here. You eat what you grow and everyone pitches in together. As long as you’ve got food on the table and a roof over your head, you’re happy.
Merlin: *laugh* You’d hate it.
Of course, there’s an added obstacle in Arthur’s quest to get to know Merlin, and it’s the fact that until Arthur’s opinion on magic changes, he can never really know Merlin. Although sad, and isolating for Merlin, this bit of Merlin that is being constantly withheld from Arthur is part of what makes Merlin so interesting to Arthur...it means that Merlin always has that one thing about him that Arthur just can’t put his finger on.
Arthur: ...Why’d you leave?
Merlin: Things just...changed.
Arthur: How? Come on, stop pretending to be interesting. Tell me.
Merlin: I just didn’t fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere where I did.
Arthur: Had any luck?
Merlin: I’m not sure yet.
Episode 1x11 is mostly character growth for Arthur alone, but he does learn another fact about Merlin, when they are presented with the challenge of the poisoned goblet.
Merlin: I’ve got it. We pour all the liquid into one goblet, then we can be sure it’s poisoned. Then all the liquid could be drunk and it would be from a single goblet.
Arthur: You never cease to surprise me. You’re a lot smarter than you look.
This episode also gives us another obstacle in the relationship that has to be overcome in order for Arthur and Merlin to achieve their destiny...
Merlin: No! I will drink it!
Merlin: Listen to me...
Arthur: You know me, Merlin, I never listen to you.
Arthur is right, Merlin DOES know Arthur now, and as Merlin will tell him in the very next episode, Arthur “must learn to listen as well as [he] fights.”
In 1x12, Merlin and Arthur really only have one real conversation. And it’s a mirror of their very first conversations, yet, we can see how much has changed:
Merlin: I need to talk to you.
Arthur: You still haven’t got it yet, have you? *I* decide when we need to talk.
Merlin: Not today.
Arthur: I sometimes wonder if you know who I am.
Merlin: Oh, I know who you are.
Merlin: You’re a prat...and a royal one.
Arthur: *amused laugh* Are you ever going to change, Merlin...
Merlin: No, you’d get bored. Promise me this, if you get another servant, don’t get a bootlicker.
Arthur: If this is you trying to leave your job-
Merlin: No, I’m happy to be your servant ‘til the day I die.
Arthur: Sometimes I think I know you, Merlin, other times...
Merlin: Well, I know you – you’re a great warrior and one day you’ll be a great king.
So, we come to the end of S1, where Merlin has come to understand Arthur, and Arthur has gained a little more understanding of Merlin – though Arthur is at a disadvantage, as Merlin must always keep a large part of himself hidden from Arthur. Most importantly, Arthur and Merlin are now both solid in their relationship as master and servant. It’s that relationship that will serve as the foundation for the friendship that’s formed over S2 and S3...
Aside #1: Lancelot
Lancelot’s role is to provide Merlin with hope. Lancelot arrives in 1x05 and is ALREADY the man that Arthur is GOING to be. The noblest of all of the knights, Lancelot is loyal, moral, and accepts Merlin’s magic as a source of good rather than evil. He gives Merlin the friendship that Merlin cannot have with Arthur yet. Ironically, the same reasons that make Lancelot a source of hope for Merlin make him the eventual source of confusion and angst for Gwen later on. Gwen loved Lancelot first, because Lancelot was already the man that Gwen eventually loves in Arthur. It’s no surprise to me that Lancelot dies just as Arthur is becoming King. Lancelot’s role in the series (in terms of the Merlin-Arthur relationship at least) was not needed anymore.
Series 2 – The Business Friendship
So, we have our foundation of an understanding (as much as possible on Arthur’s part) “business” relationship – that of servant and master. What’s the next step towards the desired end point? Answer: becoming friends WITHIN that relationship.
Episode 2x01 and our first Merlin&Arthur conversation reminds us of our foundation:
Arthur: I want you to go down there and tell them to stop.
Merlin: But they’re working under the Kings orders!
Arthur: And you’re working under mine.
But what the episode really reminds us is that without the friendship that needs to form, Merlin’s position is still a little precarious – with Cedric able to usurp Merlin’s position through some careful manipulation of events.
Throughout the course of S2, Arthur comes to depend on Merlin more and more. While in 2x02, it’s Gwen who teaches Arthur a thing or two about being a better person, it’s Merlin who overworks himself helping Arthur with his scheme to participate anonymously in the tournament. In 2x08, Arthur relies on Merlin to sneak him out of the castle when Arthur is confined to his quarters. In 2x10, when Arthur is placed under a love spell, he enlists Merlin’s help in trying to woo the Lady Vivian.
The gestures of friendship we start seeing are small, but noticeable. Such as in 2x03 when Arthur believes Merlin has a crush on Morgana, and he tries to be understanding while he warns him that it will never work.
Arthur: This has to stop. The King would have your head if he found out. There’s no point denying it.
Merlin: Denying what?
Arthur: Your affections for the Lady Morgana.
Arthur: Take it from someone who knows about women.
Merlin: Well if such a person existed, I would.
Arthur: Stick to girls who are more...oh can I put it? On your level.
Arthur: She can’t be your friend, let alone anything else.
Arthur, of course, is talking about Gwen here, but this is a pattern that repeats with Arthur throughout S2. Arthur will treat Merlin like a friend, but then deny that the friendship is possible due to his and Merlin’s differing social status. In this way, Arthur slowly becomes Merlin’s friend (and vice versa) in all but name.
Not to be outdone, the very next episode (2x04) mirrors this scene with roles reversed, when Merlin is a friendly ear for Arthur’s heartbreak over his inability to be with Gwen (who, of course, is restricted to him for the same reason that Merlin is.)
Arthur treating Merlin like a friend or looking out for him as a friend, continues throughout the series. He calls Merlin “a true friend” in 2x05, when he believes Merlin is calling his future step-mother a troll in order to cheer him up. He treats Merlin like a friend when he warns him to leave Camelot, rather than arrest him in 2x06.
(And of course, we have the awesome hug-that-wasn’t at the end of 2x06 – which really sums up the status of Merlin and Arthur’s friendship in S2)
The gestures of friendship continue: Arthur allows Merlin to see Gaius in prison when Gaius is falsely arrested in 2x07. Merlin and Arthur also bond in 2x08 over the fact that they both were raised by a single parent, while never knowing their other parent. In 2x09, when Arthur sees that Merlin is depressed, he (a little self-centered-ly) assumes it’s because of his own actions and apologizes...and then this adorable scene takes place:
*Arthur grabs Merlin and nuggies his head*
Arthur: Still think I need to get in shape?
Merlin: No! No! Nononono
*Arthur lets go*
Arthur: That’s better.
Now, I don’t think a typical Prince really cares one way or the other if their servant is depressed or whether they smile or not while they work.
However, the status problem remains, as we see in 2x12 when Merlin and Arthur travel to find Balinor. Arthur, trying to determine why Merlin is so quiet, states the following:
Arthur: Alright, I know I’m a prince, so we can’t be friends, but if I wasn’t a prince...
Arthur: Well then, I think we’d probably get on.
What’s interesting here is that Arthur doesn’t blame the fact that they can’t official be friends on Merlin’s status as a servant, but rather his own status as a prince. In Arthur’s mind, he can only be friends with his equals (perhaps his knights), and so, despite the fact that he and Merlin have effectively become friends over the course of S2, he refuses to acknowledge it because they are not equals.
This, of course, leads us to S3, where the main goal is overcoming that final obstacle. Merlin and Arthur have to become equals – at least in Arthur’s opinion.
Before we move onto S3 though, let’s check in to see if Arthur and Merlin understand more about each other (2x13):
Arthur: You’re a riddle, Merlin
Merlin: A riddle?
Arthur: Yes, but I’ve grown to quiet like you.
Arthur: Now that I realize you’re not as big a fool as you look.
Merlin: Yeah, I feel the same. Now that I know you’re not as arrogant as you sound.
Aside #2 – The Dress Scene 2x09:
I just have to say how much I love the almost throwaway scene in the hallway, when Arthur catches Merlin carrying a dress. Mainly, I love it for the fact that (from what I see, without “out” gay characters) the universe Arthur and Merlin live in has a very healthy attitude towards LGBTQ (or at least Arthur does). Arthur doesn’t make fun of the idea that the dress might be for Merlin, instead he just says “As long as you do a decent days work Merlin, that’s all I care about [...] what a man does in his spare time is completely up to him. [...] The colour suits you, Merlin!” Also, since Arthur never does find out the real reason that Merlin is absconding with a dress, we can safely view the next X number of seasons with the knowledge that Arthur believes Merlin is a secret crossdresser.
Series 3 - Equality
S3 is all about equality. It’s about moving from a friendship that is restricted by the master-servant relationship, into a friendship that it between equals. It’s no coincidence that this occurs at the same time as Arthur and Gwen’s relationship progresses as well. Arthur can hardly begin to see his servant girlfriend as an equal without also viewing his servant best friend as an equal – it just wouldn’t make any logical sense.
That being said, it’s a little harder to see the transition through dialogue. The transition in S3 tends to happen through plot and what is not said. It’s also said through the supporting characters.
Merlin does, however, start speaking a little more openly with Arthur about their destiny – and as much as Arthur doesn’t know what to make of it, I think it does help him to start seeing Merlin as more than just a servant. For example in 3x02:
Merlin: It is your fate to be greatest king Camelot has ever known. Your victory today will be remembered by every age until the end of time. Just trust in yourself.
Arthur: There are times, Merlin, when you display a sort of – I don’t know what it is – I want to say...It’s not wisdom. But yes, that’s what it is. Don’t look so pleased the rest of the time you’re a complete idiot.
Or in 3x06:
Arthur: You wouldn’t understand, Merlin. You don’t know what it’s like to have a destiny you can’t escape.
Merlin: Destinies are troublesome things. You feel trapped, like your whole life is being planned out for you, and you’ve got no control over anything. And sometimes you don’t even know if what destiny decided is really the best thing at all.
Arthur: How come you’re so knowledgable?
Merlin: I read a book.
Where we most see the theme of equality though is in the character of Gwaine. It’s no coincidence that he’s introduced (3x04) in a series that’s about Arthur and Merlin’s friendship growing into a friendship between equals. Similarly to Lancelot, who represents Arthur as he’s to be, rather than how he is. Gwaine arrives as someone who already treats and accepts Merlin as his equal, even though Gwaine is (secretly) of noble blood.
Gwaine gained equality by lowering his own status and keeping his noble birth a secret, but it’s Gwaine’s introduction that acts as a catalyst to the idea that Arthur might actually have the power to make anyone his equal:
Arthur: It’s a shame. He would have been a great knight.
Merlin: Maybe one day he still will.
Arthur: Rules won’t allow it. Knights are noblemen, always have been, always will be. It’s a tradition that- *sees Gwaine flirting with Gwen* They seem very friendly!
Merlin: Why should you care?
Arthur: I don’t....She could do better than that!
Merlin: She should be setting her sights...higher? *pause* Oh, but I forget! She can’t! A girl of Gwen’s standing – she can never consort with noblemen. That’s the rules!
Arthur: You guessed it.
It’s here where the problems of having to turn away perfectly good knights and being unable to have an open and equal friendship with his manservant/other-half are connected in Arthur’s mind with his inability to marry the woman that he loves...which, quite frankly, is the greater problem in Arthur’s mind, because the problems involving romantic love always seem like the greater problems in everyone’s mind.
Merlin reinforced Arthur’s powers to change Camelot in 3x06, when Arthur is being forced into a potentially unhappy arranged marriage:
Arthur: ...should I marry her?
Merlin: That’s not really my place to say, Sire.
Arthur: I’m asking you, it’s your job to answer.
Merlin: If you really want to know what I think – I think you’re mad, I think you’re all mad. People should marry for love, not convenience, and if Uther thinks an unhappy king makes for a stronger kingdom then he’s wrong; because you may be destined to rule Camelot, but you have a choice as to how you do it.
It should be noted in the above case that Merlin actually does try to act the part of the servant, before Arthur refuses to let him and demand that he speak his opinion – something that servants are usually forbidding from doing.
Merlin of course has been treating Arthur like an equal since he met him, which is why Arthur likes him so much, though he’ll never admit it. Things don’t change on that front in S3. As we see in 3x05:
Arthur: You look like a startled stoat.
Merlin: Well at least I don’t look like a bone-idle...toad. Let’s go.
Arhur: Are you saying I look like a toad?
Merlin: Yup, and maybe one day you’ll magically turn into a handsome prince. Only, magic’s outlawed so that’ll probably never happen. Come on, let’s go.
Arthur: Merlin! I’m the one that gives the orders, remember?
Merlin: Yeah. You ready? Let’s go.
Really though, S3 is about the friendship being equal before it’s even acknowledged as such. Arthur continues to confide in Merlin rather than others – as we see in his grief in 3x05 when Morgana is dying, or when in 3x06 Arthur is being forced to marry against his will, or when Gwen goes missing in 3x07. In 3x09, Arthur is the sympathetic ear when Merlin has a falling out with Gaius. In 3x10, Arthur sulks about having to fight his father in the tournament to Merlin, and Merlin not only listens patiently, but also gives his opinion that Arthur is correct that he has to let his father win.
Gwaine, of course, comes back in 3x08. Upon his departure, Merlin once again reinforces Arthur’s powers to change the laws in Camelot:
Gwaine: This is the border. By Uther’s decree, I can go no further.
Arthur: I’m sorry, Gwaine. Nothing I can do to change that.
Merlin: Maybe one day.
Gwaine: Yeah, when Camelot gets itself a half-decent king.
Arthur: Careful, he is my father.
By the two part conclusion of the S3, Arthur has obviously taken all these hints to heart and revised his opinion that he’s powerless to change the inequality.
Firstly, on a friendship note, when told to get the Cup of Life by Uther (3x12), the only one that Arthur trusts enough to bring with him is Merlin.
Secondly, we see Merlin take change as Arthur’s equal when Arthur is injured. Merlin orders Gwaine and Elyan as though he were Arthur (and they listen as though he is too) and then he orders Arthur to Gaius’s chambers.
Thirdly, we see how far Arthur’s thinking has come when he meets Percival for the first time in 3x13):
Lancelot: This is Percival. It was his strength that brought them down.
Percival: Your Highness.
Arthur: *smiles and shakes his head, shaking Percival’s hand* Arthur.
Percival: Arthur it is.
Here, I think it’s probably quite apparent to Arthur that Percival isn’t of noble blood. Yet, he refuses to have Percival address him by a proper title given his station. I have to say, the move of Arthur insisting on being called only by his first name seems to win Percival over completely.
Arthur formalizes this new way of thinking when he discovers the round table of the ancient kings and has his small crew of friends sit around it.
Arthur: ...a round table afforded no one man more importance than any other. They believed in equality in all things. So it seems fitting that we revive this tradition now. Without each of you, we would not be here...
And here we get to the tricky part, because between Arthur and Merlin, it becomes more about actions rather than words. The master-servant relationship has gone from a truth to a farce that they put on for the benefit of others and the amusement of themselves...and this is witnessed in two scenes in 3x13: At the round table and on the stairs of Camelot, coincidentally, the last two scenes of the S3 in which Arthur and Merlin have a conversation. First, let’s look at the round table while Arthur is asking who will volunteer to go against the immortal army with him. After everyone has volunteered except Merlin, we get this exchange:
Merlin: No, I don’t really fancy it.
Arthur: You don’t have a choice, Merlin.
Merlin: Okay *smiles*
*Arthur looks at Merlin*
*Merlin smiles, then grows serious only long enough to nod*
And then on the stairs after defeating Morgana’s army, we again have the change in the relationship acknowledged non-verbally:
Arthur: Have you seen the state of these boots?
Arthur: Well, go and get something to clean them.
Merlin: Why? They’re your boots.
Arthur: Have you lost your mind?
Merlin: I thought you believed in equality.
Arthur: I’m sorry?
Merlin: At the round table, you said that-
Arthur: Shut-up, Merlin.
*Arthur gentle leans into Merlin and pushes him in a joking manner. They both smile.*
The master-servant relationship has gone from being a truth, to being an act that they are performing for the benefit of others and their own amusement (and the fact that they are probably used to the routine of it.) The change in their own relationship doesn’t have to be acknowledges with words, because it’s acknowledged by the fact that Arthur has knighted four peasants and that he is not afraid to kiss Gwen in broad daylight in the middle of the courtyard.
So, by the end of S3, we have a friendship of equals, even if the equality is not recognized by law just yet. Arthur is still not king after all. And, as we see in S4, even when he does become king, he still feels that he has to worry about the more traditionalist views of the other nobles until he solidifies his reign and figures out just what kind of a king he wants to be.
It’s only after Arthur becomes king that Merlin starts to move into a role that’s more in keeping with the legends – and that’s the role of advisor. But, even Merlin can’t go from “odd and occasionally wise, but most likely still an idiot” friend to most-trusted advisor overnight...
Aside #3: Gwaine’s love for Merlin
I love how quietly Gwaine loves Merlin. Gwaine is such a loud exuberant character – the womanizing drunk brawler, type. Yet, whenever Gwaine has a one on one scene with Merlin, it’s always a very quiet event. I also love how in these quiet scenes, Gwaine lets Merlin know how much he loves him, not so much in words, but in the way he speaks to him and looks him in the eye, and basically makes Merlin slightly uncomfortable because Merlin isn’t used to being so openly loved. I like how Gwaine is full of bravado, yet his love is this quiet fierce thing.
To Part 2