(Note: I wrote this after watching 2x11, and it may help to read my review of that episode. I've seen 2x12 since writing this, and I think it's still relevant, though the stakes are now much higher.)
I haven’t tackled class in Merlin very much so far; for me this was a deliberate decision. I don’t think an American is the best choice to analyze the class messages of a largely British show, and I have some personal family baggage related to the English class system. But since no one else (that I’ve seen) has said it so far….
Recently I’ve seen a lot of anger about the development of the Merlin/Morgana relationship on this show, which I well understand. Some have blamed Merlin for not telling her about his own magic, and thereby providing her with an ally that would presumably make her less vulnerable to manipulation by others. I’m a bit uncomfortable about some of the ways I’ve seen this stated, and I’d like to talk about why.
First, let me say I would have loved to see a Morgana-Merlin alliance on this show; I agree with many that it would have provided a nice mixture of collaboration and conflict, furthered both characters in interesting ways, and avoided some of the very problematic plotlines that have resulted from not taking this tack. But the show has also provided us with a reason for why it hasn’t happened: the class divide between Merlin and Morgana.
There are problems with Merlin’s approach to class—it’s wildly inconsistent, it uses race to do class work, it relentlessly pushes an ideal of have-nots working for the interests of the haves—but the show has explicitly and repeatedly signaled that class is important. It’s important that Merlin, Gwen, Gaius, Lancelot, Will, Tom, Freya, and other characters are commoners; it’s important that Arthur, Morgana, Uther, Leon, Morgause, Vivian, and others are noble.
We see this in the setup for the show, and just about every aspect of the Merlin-Arthur relationship. It’s also made repeatedly clear through costume choices. The contrast between those with class privilege and those without it has not historically been a major theme of the Arthurian legends, so this particular interest sets this version apart.
Moreover, the show has repeatedly linked oppression of magic-users to class oppression, by making Uther the leader of the crusade against magic and Arthur and his knights the chief enforcers; the raid on the druids in 2x03 makes this point both dramatically and visually. Their victims, like Merlin, are usually (though not always) lower-class—Forridel’s house looks a lot like Gwen’s—and S2 has made it explicit that monetary rewards have been key to recruiting commoners to the anti-magic cause.
In fact, S2 has noticeably increased the emphasis on class divides (and made them more consistent). Class has provided a major thematic or plot component in most episodes; it’s even been worked in visually in small moments, like in 2x06, when Merlin makes Arthur’s bed while Gaius explains their plan. This is Merlin & Arthur’s moment of greatest connection in that episode, but the camera highlights the fact that one of them is doing manual labor for the other, and in fact used it to create visual space between them.
Why emphasize the class divide? The writers are using it to create new and explore existing tensions in its relationships, for both drama and humor—particularly with Merlin and Arthur. Class is also the entire block to the Gwen/Arthur relationship, a divisive factor between Gwen and Morgana, and increasingly a conflict in the Uther/Gaius bond.
In fact, all the major canon relationships in the show that are not parent-child (or surrogate parent-child) are now cross-class. The near-absence of Morgana/Arthur interaction until recently seems part of this; and Merlin & Gwen’s shared scenes emphasize the alignment of their interests rather than their differences. (The 2x10 scene in which Merlin convinces Gwen to act is less Merlin v. Gwen than Gwen v. herself.)
Moreover, class has always been a key component of Merlin and Morgana’s interactions with each other, one that repeatedly divides them. Merlin’s initial slack-jawed response to her underlined the gap between them; she represented the glamorous upper-class world of the court he was encountering for the first time. His mother reacted with awe to Morgana’s status; and while 1x12 really deserves an entire discussion for its class dynamics it sees Merlin choosing between Morgana’s high-handed actions, supposedly but spuriously on behalf of Gwen, and Gwen’s own ethics. (Guess which he sides with?)
Finally, their costumes underline their respective places in society in every scene they share. Morgana has more clothing than anyone else in the series—mostly luxurious gowns made with fine material, but also fur stoles and her own set of arms and armor. Merlin has two homespun shirts, a couple of jackets, and a kerchief; it’s implied he has to borrow armor.
The show particularly highlights these differences in moments when Merlin sees the similarity between Morgana and himself. In the 1x06 scene in which Merlin realizes Morgana is magical, and therefore like him, she is standing and he is sitting, forced to look up to her. 1x12 she allies with a man who sacrificed Tom’s life and threatened Gwen’s to pursue her personal aims, and prompts Merlin to side with his fellow commoners on the question of how best to deal with Uther.
And in 2x03, in which Merlin does everything he can to help Morgana without revealing his secret, she twice betrays other magic-users who lack her social privilege, rather than using it to persuade Uther of the innocence of those he has rounded up and the druids. In fact, 2x03 ends with Arthur reminding Merlin that he should not speak to Morgana at all.
So the show repeatedly uses class to divide Merlin and Morgana, and to prevent their forming a stronger relationship. In this world, it’s possible that Morgana’s social status would afford her a degree of protection if her magic was revealed (though her tendency to actively plot against Uther complicates that); it’s certain that Merlin’s status would only make things worse for him. The machinery of state is set up to protect people like Morgana; and she has a history of allying with other magical users only to turn on them to preserve Uther’s favor and her status.
Because of this, I think it’s a bit problematic to blame Merlin for not telling Morgana about his own magic. It seems wrong to demand that one character with less social power and privilege put himself at risk to better the circumstances of one with more privilege.
Now, of course it’s more complicated than this, because Merlin also has male privilege, which counts to an enormous degree on this show. We’ve repeatedly seen Morgana disempowered within the show’s narrative structure; moreover, the choice to make Merlin a very powerful wizard and Morgana afraid of her own much weaker powers means we visually see Merlin’s power quite often.
In fact, Merlin has several times acted to protect Morgana in a paternalistic way, rather than taking actions that would empower her to protect herself. But that is also how Morgana has treated lower-class characters—particularly Gwen in 1x12.
And it’s also true that it’s easy to not see or ignore Morgana’s class privilege, despite all the attention the show places on it, if you’re used to not seeing or ignoring your own. (I speak from personal experience here.)
This conflict, for me, goes to the heart of intersectionality—or the attempt of different groups disempowered by existing structures to work together against oppression. I think we must think about such conflicts, and consider their pitfalls when they arise, even in fictional settings. The reality is that such alliances—between feminists and anti-racists, those fighting class oppression and those working for LGBT rights, disability activists and opponents of bigotry toward minority religions, and any number of other combinations—are difficult, and can easily disintegrate. This show gives us a chance to consider how and why.
I’m not saying it’s never fair to criticize Merlin’s actions toward Morgana in the show—far from it. My argument, rather, is that in talking about Merlin not building a bond with Morgana, we should openly acknowledge and discuss why. I for one think it would be hard for a character with his social status to build a cross-class relationship with Morgana without an intermediary who already has access to her, such as Gaius or Gwen. There’s a lot to be said about why those alliances don’t happen; likewise, there could be rich discussion about why Arthur, who is well-positioned to help here, doesn’t.
Similarly, when we consider the many ways Merlin upholds the patriarchal structures of his world we should also consider the ways Morgana upholds the class structures. If either character or both could be a true ally to the other, the show would be very different.
And I’d like to talk about those differences, because one of the things I love about fandom is the way it imagines new answers to the questions source poses. This shouldn’t be the end of discussion, but the beginning.
- Merlin Meta: On Morgana, Merlin, and Class