Originally airing on television has a brief fifty-minute documentary detailing the legend and life of Merlin, I found The Real Merlin impossible to ignore once I found its focus was to deconstruct some of the kookier elements of modern Merlin-worship. So, I sat down, watched it, and boy, did I discover a whole new side to medievalist zaniness. To put it lightly.
Like any documentary, The Real Merlin chronicles the history of its subject matter. In this case, Merlin, the great magician-wizard-page-wildman of King Arthur’s court. The bulk of the academic material comes from hired scholars who offer fascinating elements of Merlin’s mythos as he was constructed throughout the years. As the academics speak, their language is interspaced with footage from modern sites in Britain and Wales rife with Merlin fever; from barber shops to pubs and bars and hotels, it is easy to see how in the United Kingdom Merlin mania still holds strong.
The oscillation between historical fact and ahistorical un-truth is what drives this short documentary. As the viewer listens to the academics provide scholarly background on the mythic Merlin and what the real Merlin might have been like if he at all existed, they are treated to interviews and engagements with those modern people who take “fandom”, for lack of a better word, to a whole new level.
Meet: a man who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Merlin, a community of modern neo-pagans who live as Merlin was likely to live all those years ago, and many, many entrepreneurs who do whatever it takes to coat their business with a skin of Merlin to make a quick buck; the most interesting, however, is undoubtedly those rich eccentrics who attempt to recreate Chivalric orders in modern garb, spending untold sums on building mock meeting halls and quasi-historically accurate stained-glass windows featuring the great wizard’s likeness. Interesting certainly but only for oddities sake.
I enjoyed this fun documentary. It gave me insight into just how much select populations go into a frenzy over centuries-old tales. It showed me the modern locations and inhabitants of those locations of those supposedly mythic areas referred to in the oral poems and legends. Done with a sense of humor at those weirdos which the documentary crew encountered, The Real Merlin mixes myth and fact superbly while it educates. Sure, it is not a hard-hitting historical expose, but as a curt program designed to expose people to the Merlin Industry and the contemporary superstitions which have arisen in the wake of capitalism’s exploitation of Arthuriana, it is a fine watch for anyone intrigued by Merlin but not knowing where to start their research.
That said, I can’t recommend this documentary enough. Watch it once by yourself, read some of the works which refer to Merlin, re-watch this documentary, and then come to your own conclusions about what you see the people in this documentary doing; are these modern shamans and lifestylists kooks? Are they stern and to be taken seriously? Only you can tell and only by giving Merlin—and by extension this documentary—a fighting chance.