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Merlin’s motivation in the GPC?


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Previously titled:

Not the Great Pendragon Campaign: Would Merlin have voted for Brexit?

Don’t answer the question!  That’s a joke.  No fights!

What’s prompting it is the issue of what Merlin’s motivation is supposed to be in the GPC.  The clearest ongoing strand is that he does say “Britain” rather a lot, suggesting that he’s basically all about the British nationalism.  This is probably especially (not exclusively) a reflection of Mary Stewart, who is named in 1e as the source of Mr. Stafford’s favorite interpretation of Merlin.  In other words, we’re in historical-Arthur-land, with Merlin’s motivation being to drive out the invading Saxons.

So the GPC does not take its cue from Malory here.  But then, that would be hard to do.  One of Malory’s most interesting moves is how his Merlin doesn’t really have motivation.  We hear an awful lot about what Merlin does, very little about why Merlin does it.  

This is a striking intervention, because in the Vulgate, Merlin is very strongly framed as a Christian figure and he has clear overall Christian motives.  You get a little hint of this Merlin in Malory, when Merlin brings up Christ in the Sword in the Stone passage, but other than that, I think it’s absent — Malory secularizes the Vulgate Merlin.

Malory gives us a bit more of what was probably overall the most prominent medieval Merlin, which is the prophet.  This aspect tends not to come up in the GPC as much, no doubt in part because to modern sensibilities, an Arthur who has been helpfully been told details of the plot in advance and doesn’t act on that knowledge is a bit of an idiot.

So, the usual rule that I try to follow in these Not the Great Pendragon Campaign threads is that I ignore modern retellings — this is about asking what value one might find through consciously choosing to adapt for a campaign the things that the GPC doesn’t use from strictly medieval and maybe early modern literature.  

But I’ll break that for a moment here, because there’s an appealing modern Merlin that I’d like to mention, which is T. H. White’s — the Merlin  (well, Merlyn) who wants to bring about a just and good king.*  This one is rather easy to incorporate into the GPC as written.  Honestly, it’s the motivation of the Merlin in the game that I’m running at the moment, although he’s such an arrogant $#%^ — taking my cue from the Vulgate there 🙂 — that it’s not at all obvious that he’s essentially about trying to bring about a just kingdom in which everyone is treated decently and isn’t particularly invested in defeating the Saxons except as a means to that end.

If we hold true to our principles, though, what are some Merlins we could have in place of the GPC’s?

  • Merlin the Prophet.  This one is really important.  Prophecy is what’s most important about Merlin in Geoffrey, and in fact, despite the enormous popularity and influence of Geoffrey’s history in the Middle Ages, his prophecies of Merlin seem to have been even more popular (quite separately from any connection between Merlin and Arthur).  Aside from the post-Geoffrey fascination with Merlin’s prophecies, the Welsh Myrddin that Geoffrey appears to have adapted was also a prophetic figure.  But prophecy is hard to use in a roleplaying game.  One can confine Merlin’s prophecies to the overall broad narrative of Arthur’s rise and fall, but even then, if you tell PKs stuff, they’ll act on it.  Or you can leave them vague enough that you can bring them about in different ways (which is what I do with prophetic dreams in my game).  But it’s still not an easy option.
  • Vulgate Merlin!  The devils respond to Christ descending into hell by deciding to make their own person, in horribly misogynist ways, but don’t worry, thanks to Christian guilt, it’s all OK when Merlin is baptized, and so saved, whereupon God grants him knowledge of the future to match the knowledge of the past that the devils have given him.  This one is probably a hard sell to most modern audiences, unless your players are really interested in trying to get into that medieval mindset.  Let’s say that it would be less jarring on the players if they came to Pendragon from Paladin. 🙂
  • The Welsh Myrddin.  There are a lot of complications here, and to be honest, it’s not material that I know well.  But a Merlin who was a bard who went mad when his lord died in battle — it’s certainly a different take.  This one I think one could use, with sufficient surgery on the overall GPC plot, a wild, unkempt, crazed man of the woods who emerges at random or at any rate inexplicable times to intervene in the plot.

*There are hints at this Merlin in KAP, such as when the BoU suggests that maybe Merlin is responsible for poisoning everyone at St. Albans because Uther just won’t cut it as king.  But generally, although we have an Arthur who is solidly a Good King, it’s not really suggested that this is because of Merlin’s influence or anything like that.

Edited by Scotty
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Ok. My take on Merlin:

  • He really is the son of a devil and of a virgin, a mixture of both good and evil.
  • He is not the archdruid. He is not a pagan either.
  • He is an agent of God, working for the Greater Good, but a very ambiguous one. He is the son of the sevil after all ^^
  • His Greater Good is the Grail Quest, a mystical event of the greatest importance, about the Redemption of all Mankind.
  • He is a dirty bastard, ready to everything for the greater good.
  • After 523 (?), he is imprisoned in a "tower of wind", the "Esplumoir" by the Lady of the Lake. But a bit like a jedi, it's his way to becoming more powerful for the greater good.

    BTW, he is not the hidden architect of the Brexit ^^
Edited by Tizun Thane
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My own preferred portrayal of Merlin is sort of a mix of the prophetic tradition Merlin and the T.H. White Merlin, with a bunch of meta nonsense thrown in; it's background info the players would likely never need to become privy to, but essentially my thoughts are that the Enchantment of Britain was actually inevitable, and that influencing the snapshot of Britain that it took back into the enduring mythic landscape of the Other Side with it when it ended was Merlin's ultimate goal. I tend to prefer Merlin's father being fae rather than demonic, and while incomprehensible to the humans around him, that goal is probably actually perfectly understandable to the likes of King Today. Perhaps the Ladies of the Lake (some of them, anyway) are directly working with him towards this end.

So, his goal is ultimately altruistic in its motivation - he wants the snapshot of Britain that becomes the myth carried into the Other Side and forward into the future to be that of the Good King reigning over a virtuous Age of Chivalry over whatever alternatives might have been on the table - but still weird and unearthly and a lot of people would probably debate whether it's actually worth a lot of the things he did or enabled to bring it about. He does dubious stuff like helping Uther commit rape by deceit, and I'd even go with the idea that he was responsible for the Infamous Feast, either personally or by enabling someone else (such as, say, a vengeful young Morgan?), because Uther's misrule would jeopardize the plan if he doesn't "go out on top," so to speak.

I'd probably want to add a few touches of humanizing elements, though. Like, in the GPC Merlin argues against Arthur marrying Guenevere behind the scenes, almost certainly because he knows how it's going to end. I'd keep that, but add that Merlin initially wanted that marriage to happen, maybe even took steps to ensure it, but once it was happening he got cold feet, because maybe without even realizing it he'd gotten attached to Arthur as an actual person, rather than just a character in the story Merlin was putting together. In the end, Merlin's disappearance is for several reasons: The stage is set and there's nothing left for him to do, it's time for him to bow out of the story as a "character" anyway since it harms the narrative if Arthur always has him around to wave his hands and magic up solutions... and also because he can't really bear to witness the ending he's planned out so long in advance anymore. Or maybe he even gets taken out of the picture by his erstwhile accomplices so he doesn't get cold feet and try to change things out of sentiment.

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No, Merlin would not have voted for Brexit. As a genius he would realize that importing humongous prehistoric stone monuments from Ireland to Britain would be extremely difficult and costly post-Brexit with customs and handling fees etc.

Edited by 7dot62mm
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  • Scotty changed the title to Merlin’s motivation in the GPC?
On 6/11/2021 at 8:28 PM, 7dot62mm said:

No, Merlin would not have voted for Brexit. As a genius he would realize that importing humongous prehistoric stone monuments from Ireland to Britain would be extremely difficult and costly post-Brexit with customs and handling fees etc.

I think Merlin would fix that by magically tracking imported and exported goods with an automated system he conjured out of thin air.

Edited by simonh

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