Eight years ago on Christmas Eve, millions of people sat around their televisions and tuned in to the final episode of BBC’s “Merlin.” Expectations and emotions were running high as the audience waited to see how the show would tie up the many loose ends and conclude Arthur Pendragon’s epic saga to save Camelot with the help of his manservant-slash-secret-sorcerer, Merlin. After five seasons of adventuring that focused less on plot and more on the relationships between incredibly lovable characters, people were preparing themselves for a finale they knew was going to be rough.
The show deviated significantly from the Arthurian legend canon — in the BBC version, Merlin and Arthur were contemporaries and worked closely for the good of Camelot. Guinevere — affectionately known as Gwen — was a servant before she became Arthur’s queen. Fans wondered if the ending would be different too, if in this iteration, they wouldn’t have to see their beloved King Arthur die and witness the dissolution of Camelot. Spoiler alert! It wasn’t any different; Arthur dies tragically in the last episode and fans were left absolutely brokenhearted.
And that wasn’t just because it was the last episode of a heartfelt show that was packed with foreshadowing, interesting plot and genuine humor. It’s because the show made you care deeply about all of its characters. There was adorable and determined Gwen who rose through the ranks and became a regal, kind queen. There was Sir Gwaine who, with his long hair and swashbuckling flirtations, never wavered in his loyalty to his king. There was Sir Percival, whose biceps were so large that his chainmail armor was cut off at his shoulders. There was Morgana, whose tragic storyline we got to witness from the beginning.
There was Arthur, struggling to balance what he thought he knew about the world and what he learns through the series. And then there was delightful Merlin, typically represented in media as old and bearded (the original Professor Dumbledore), but this time, we got to see him young and scrappy, forever alternating between two different colors of neckerchiefs and saving Arthur’s life with his magical gifts. The Arthurian legends were no longer just about Arthur uniting the lands of Albion, but about Arthur’s knights and their loyalty toward one another, and about Merlin and his love for all of them.
In short, the BBC show got its audience invested in its characters only to have the last episode wrench us back into reality as Arthur dies in Merlin’s arms despite everything that Merlin tried to save him. The ending is an emotional battering ram. It forced its audience to contend with the reality that this time, Merlin’s magic wasn’t enough when it always was before. And that Arthur’s death was not inevitable — it was a consequence of actions taken all the way back in Season 1, before any of the characters realized how much they meant to one another.
The last shot drives the tragedy home — an old, bearded Merlin (like the depiction we’re used to) wearing modern clothes emerges from behind a bus and stares out at the very island where Arthur died over one thousand years ago. Merlin is still there, his loyalty unchanged through the centuries, waiting for his king to rise again.
Fast forward almost eight years since the finale, and the fandom is still going suspiciously strong. Even though fans of “Merlin” haven’t had any new material in nearly a decade, they keep returning to this show, keep using it as inspiration to fuel creative projects. There have been dozens of adaptations of King Arthur Pendragon’s story besides that of the BBC — like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — but none of them have quite the same pull as this one. The passion that the BBC adaptation has engendered is unmatched. And as an article from Hypable puts it, there’s one simple reason why people still care so much about this show: It didn’t really end.
Watching a sad, centuries-old Merlin cast a longing but resigned look at the place where his king died and then having the screen fade to black is hardly the ending the characters and the audience deserved. It’s almost as if the directors deliberately left the show unfinished, letting the fans fill the vacuum.
And they have risen to the challenge almost excessively — even today, fan fictions continue to be published and read on all major online platforms, some focusing on relationships between side characters, others corrective and restorative, and still others set in the present after the last shot of the last episode, telling the story of a newly-risen Arthur who is positively agog at modern-day Britain. Fan art is still distributed and well-loved, illustrating beloved scenes and characters or alternate narratives. As recently as a few months ago, “Merlin” crack videos have gone up on YouTube, seamlessly blending modern memes and language with story and character from several years ago.
The rate at which fans have adopted this well-loved saga into something of their own is incredible. Archive of Our Own, the popular fan fiction website, boasts of a whopping 24,000 written works that are based off of or set in the BBC “Merlin” universe, at least 230 of which were updated or published within the last week itself. And some of these works have serious gravity — they have around half a million words and a sincere readership that follows new updates akin to how people once followed serialized stories published in magazines.
Fan fiction gives inspired creators an avenue to put their own spin on a world that the show encouraged us to love and then tragically whisked away from us and the characters. The intense, loving relationships shared by the characters in the show — particularly that of Arthur and Merlin, who absolutely dominate the “Merlin” fan fiction world and are still the 12th most written-about pairing with almost 18,000 works — lend themselves to extensive exploration, and fan fiction authors do not disappoint. Their adoration for the show is clear in their treatment of the characters. Typically, they give their readers the perfect amount of plot intricacy and character development, along with a healthy amount of wish fulfillment.
And they’re not alone in creating new, original pieces based off of the BBC “Merlin” world — fan video creators work expertly with modern humor to bring “Merlin” forward into 2020. They blend memes that didn’t exist when the show was airing with the original footage to create something entirely new. Many fans marvel at the strength of the fandom; the bulk of the comments underneath each new “Merlin” video congratulate its immortality and loyalty.
And that’s the strength of the show — that it provided exciting, funny, uncontroversial material that catered to and inspired multiple generations. Despite its rudimentary special effects, it aged spectacularly well as the decade went on. It allowed for a wealth of innovative pieces that drew on its magic — palimpsests of the modern and the slightly less modern that keep it alive. And it’s not just the fans, either — a few weeks ago, Bradley James (who played King Arthur) livestreamed a “Merlin” themed Kahoot quiz for nearly two hours, and fans went wild over it. RadioTimes recently re-watched the first episode alongside the show’s creators and discussed how popular it became. As Eoin Macken (who played Sir Gwaine) put it, a lot of people revisit “Merlin” because of its charm and sincerity — despite the traumatic ending, the show was fundamentally feel-good. And that’s why, eight years on, it has yet to leave popular imagination, because all of us have left a little piece of ourselves by Merlin’s side, waiting patiently for our king to return.