Merlin and Uther Pendragon: A Defense of My Least Favorite King
I recently began re-watching the BBC TV series Merlin with my husband, who had never seen it before. He surprised me early in the first season by saying he liked Uther, the antagonist of magic and, therefore, of Merlin. The idea that anyone could have sympathetic feelings for such an unreasonable ruler was a bit of a shock for me, but as we continued, I found that there was a great deal to respect about Uther.
Season one has some very negative pictures of Uther as a father, from grabbing Morgana by the throat in a fit of anger, to crushing a flower that will save Merlin’s life to teach Arthur a lesson (Ep8, Ep4). However, it is also apparent that he cares deeply for both of them. He is distraught when Morgana and Arthur fall ill and is attentive at each of their bedsides, even dissolving into tears when he believes Arthur to be dying (Ep6, Ep13).
In “Episode 9: Excalibur,” Uther takes Arthur’s place in a challenge. He tells him afterwards, “I believed you would ide, and that was a risk I could not take. You are too precious to me. You mean more to me than anything I know, more than this entire kingdom and certainly more than my own life.” Uther clearly loves his children, even if his parenting methods are not always agreeable.
Although Uther does make some pleasant decisions, such as assigning Merlin as Arthur’s servant (a wise thing do with the boy who saved the prince’s life, and a worthwhile reward for an unemployed farm boy), and granting Gaius the title of “Freeman of Camelot” (which I assume means citizenship), he usually makes much more difficult decisions in his role as king, but he does so wisely and fairly.
Uther is a hard man, and he is willing to make hard decisions. When Camelot is hit by a plague, Uther makes the difficult decision to quarter off the lower town where most of the victims live to keep the disease from spreading. He says to Arthur, “What else can I do? I have to protect the rest of the city” (Ep3).
He shows this same big-picture thinking when Merlin’s home village is attacked by a bandit and his mother begs Uther for aid. “I have the deepest sympathy for you and would have this barbarian wiped off the face of the earth,” he says, but the village lies in another man’s kingdom. “For an army of Camelot to enter it would be an act of war….I cannot risk hundreds of lives for the sake of one village” (Ep10). Uther has a clear idea of his responsibilities as king, and he is able to make the decisions that will most benefit his people.
Finally, on the subject of magic, even if no one seems to agree with his position, Uther is very consistent. At the beginning of “Episode 1: The Dragon’s Call,” it is made clear that magic is against the law in Camelot and punishable by death. The man executed, therefore, knowingly broke the law, even if he didn’t hurt anyone.
In the next episode, Uther is shown to be just when it comes to making these sentences. When Arthur accuses Sir Valiant of using a magic shield, Uther asks Valiant for his defense and Arthur for his evidence. When Arthur can produce nothing conclusive, he does not arrest Valiant, but dismisses the case. Even though Uther was wrong—Valiant was using magic—he still upheld justice.
Finally, Uther is not swayed by bias towards individuals. When a druid boy is trapped in Camelot, Uther sends Arthur to search for him with the intention of executing him when he is caught (Ep8). He, as a druid, performs magic, which is illegal. His age does not excuse him. Furthermore, when Morgana is caught helping the boy, her status as Uther’s ward keeps her from execution, but not from Uther’s anger. She has put him in an uncomfortable position, and he tells her if she does so again, he will not excuse her a second time. Uther expects his citizens to follow the laws, including children and his own kin.
Even though Uther’s rulings on the practice of magic are severe, he is very consistent. When he does make a mistake, such as in “Episode 12: To Kill the King” when he kills Gwen’s father for aiding a sorcerer, he admits his wrong doing and apologizes without prompt. Although he cannot undo the damage, he has the strength to humble himself.
“Do You Think Uther’s a Good King?”
Uther insists to Morgana that his extreme stance against magic is necessary. His experiences twenty years ago have convinced him of it. His rulings may seem severe, but as audience members, we also do not really know what it was like before he banned magic. The only informed opinions we have on the subject are the dragon’s and Gaius’. The dragon is hardly unbiased and takes every opportunity to instruct Merlin that Uther should die. He is also not human, so he is hardly a reliable source about the kingdom’s situation while magic ran rampant.
Gaius, on the other hand, believes that Uther is good for the kingdom. When Merlin asks, pointing out that everyone hates Uther, Gaius says, “’Tis not Uther’s job to be liked. It is Uther’s job to protect the kingdom. Most of his methods are right; sometimes he goes too far….Despite Uther’s failings, he has brought peace and prosperity to this kingdom.” Thus we must assume that Uther, while a hard ruler, is not necessarily a cruel one, and that his stance on magic and its practice has benefited the kingdom overall.