The downside of waiting to watch shows rather than catch up is that you never know if people will take interest in your thoughts. I just finished watching Wizards, the most recent installment within Tales of Arcadia. It certainly had an emotional impact, if a bit rushed due to Netflix reducing the number of episodes produced.
Obviously, I would have preferred the twenty episodes that the show was originally going to have. Whoever mandated the decision at Netflix needs to have their pay docked and a stream of polite angry letters from us that wanted more Douxie. I liked this show and would have wanted to see the creators’ original intentions.
Brief Spoiler-Free Summary
For context, the Tales of Arcadia series centers around a town that attracts various speculative fiction genres. Guillermo Del Toro is the frontrunner for the series. We had an urban fantasy in Trollhunters, science fiction in 3Below, and time travel hijinks in Wizards. Each series contributes to a mysterious whole. We don’t know what the eventual movie will contain where they all cross over, but we know it will be fun.
Merlin the wizard only appears in two of these series. In Trollhunters, he is a mysterious mentor and implied to have died before the series started. Wizards have him at the front and center as wizard apprentice Douxie’s master. The man seems to live up to the myths at first, boasting of wisdom and power. His beard is a little shorter, and he lacks the slapstick of certain predecessors.
This is the SPOILER point. You have been warned
Never Learn From Your Heroes
In most media, Merlin is the paragon wizard that teaches King Arthur. He has some morally ambiguous actions, like enabling Uther Pendragon to be a rapist in some versions. Even so, Arthur trusts him. Pop culture and Disney movies have turned him into a wise and well-meaning fellow. Even at his meanest, you can laugh at Merlin. (Sword in the Stone is my ride-or-die, for the sheer comedy.) Or you would appreciate his good intentions.
Trollhunters at first seems to go the same route. The trolls speak highly of Merlin and the Amulet that has kept them safe for centuries. Jim has a crisis of confidence, for reasons; Merlin speaks to him through the Amulet and shows him he is always worthy, with or without power. From what we hear, the sorcerer never chooses his Trollhunters wrong, and he believes in his champions.
Then we actually met the guy. Newsflash: Merlin is a jerk. Wizards even have the show note this, with regulars Claire and Toby calling him out for how his manipulations hurt their best friend Jim. Douxie, the apprentice that demonstrated he would give up his life for Merlin, comes to realize that his master was flawed and could make mistakes. Trolls Blinky and Aaargh take offense when they realize that Merlin doesn’t have a good plan, planning to save his butt when it backfires.
Merlin is fundamentally selfish. When he emerged, his first priority was to get his power back from Morgana, who is frozen in the middle of Trollmarket. He didn’t care about the fact that the Gumm-Gumms would endanger thousands of innocent people and more than a few trolls.
At first, it seemed like a story flaw that Merlin would cause so much harm. When we get to Wizards, it becomes obvious that Merlin being a jerk was a huge plot point. He would have to face the consequences of his actions.
Masters and Apprentices
Merlin first met Douxie when rescuing the latter from anti-magic knights. Douxie was fixing a shell game with magic and got caught when his cat-dragon familiar failed to keep his cover. He has talent, as Merlin notes, but no focus on what he wants out of his life.
Nine hundred years later, Douxie chafes at Merlin’s brusque instructions and criticisms. He hasn't seen his master since the latter froze himself within a hidden chamber. Douxie has to bide his time watching the Trollhunter and Akiridions while chasing down magical creatures with his girlfriend. At least, we think she’s his girlfriend. She chides him for ditching her before learning about the full circumstances; that he got pulled into a time-traveling mess.
Things change when Douxie, Claire, Jim, and Steve end up nine hundred years in the past, in Arthurian times. Merlin starts off as still being a jerk, refusing to let Douxie help because their foray to the past has disrupted the timeline. He also doesn’t listen when Douxie said that the future Merlin created the portal that trapped the new team in the past. Merlin claims that he never makes mistakes, only seeing possibilities.
The turning point is when Douxie stood up to Merlin, on learning he imprisoned the Lady in the Lake. He gets mad on learning that his master repaid a great service with a cruel deed. Merlin tries to claim that it was necessary, from within Nimue’s stomach. Douxie fends off Nimue and then aims a spell at the walls keeping her in a dark lagoon. He offers her freedom, and in exchange, she repairs Excalibur. Kindness won over pragmatism.
Merlin’s respect for his apprentice with the accumulated wisdom and experience increases with every little success that Douxie has. While he would prefer blind obedience, if that had happened then a changeling would have successfully assassinated Arthur. Douxie also earns his staff when he helps Merlin make the first Amulet of Daylight. Merlin tells him that it is high past time, and he has earned it.
In the end, Merlin proved that he cared more about Douxie than about himself. It’s the only selfless act we’ve seen from him when he attempts to rescue Douxie from the Arcane Order after a ploy to rescue a brainwashed Jim goes wrong. A resurrected Arthur then stabs Merlin, and Douxie releases an angry backlash of magic that saves everyone. For the only time ever, Merlin admits that he was wrong and that he blindly followed Arthur without considering the reasons. Then in the series finale, Merlin forbids Douxie from dying and sends him back to the real world after he attempts to sacrifice his life to stop an apocalypse. Douxie listens, as Merlin tells him not to argue for the last time.
Merlin’s Relationship With Morgana
Morgana Le Fay is not an evil witch or seductress with an agenda that we saw in folklore. She and Arthur grew up together in this continuity, with her taking Kay’s place in the folklore. They keep switching hats on who the responsible one is. We see they have a genuine sibling love.
From what we saw in Trollhunters, Morgana seemed to have a grudge against Merlin for using her hand to create the Amulet of Daylight. The truth is a little more complicated. During their first serious fight, where each strikes to kill, Morgana calls out Arthur for how he saw her as a burden after her powers manifested. He assigned her to become Merlin’s apprentice so as to gain control over the shadow magic. While Merlin treated Morgana the same way he treated Douxie — with derisive care — it apparently didn’t help.
The exact snapping point was when Morgana helped a time-traveling Jim escape from her brother. Arthur declares her a traitor; her response was to pull a weapon on him. They ended up in a bitter fight that ended when he cut off her hand to stop her from murdering all of his posse. Morgana fell from a cliff in shock, and the impact killed her. Even when they seemed to reconcile at the Battle of Killahead — with Arthur refusing to strike her with his sword again — the same Arcane Order that resurrected Morgana killed him, to make Arthur their new Champion. Merlin’s hold over Morgana failed, and she turned her wrath on him for letting Arthur die.
From what we see, Merlin cares more than he lets on to his students. He mourns Morgana when Arthur seems to kill her and forbids Douxie from helping repair Excalibur. Even when they become bitter enemies, Morgana notes that he kept a portrait of her in a prominent spot in his bookshop. Merlin doesn’t seek to kill her, only sealing her away with Douxie’s help.
In the end, Morgana forgives Merlin for his mistakes, after Arthur kills him. She got her revenge by stealing his power and tossing him around like a ragdoll in Trollhunters. After that, she’s horrified about his death, that Arthur murdered a loyal wizard. That was disproportionate.
Merlin Shows That Adults Make Huge Mistakes
Merlin’s biggest fault is he can never admit that he is wrong. He thinks that his decisions are the best ones, even when they blow up in his face. At one point when Claire and Douxie warn his past self about Morgana being alive, he puts magic muzzles on them and shoos them outside his lab. Douxie undoes them with annoyance.
As a contradiction, Merlin ends up causing a good portion of the chaos in the story. He expects everyone to do what he says, and life will work out.
If a kid screws up in the Arcadian lore, the consequences tend to be smaller on principle. Steve started out as a bully that got Eli in the habit of filling out his locker space, but that was the worst he did really. Aja skipped an important ceremony on Akiridion-5, but this mainly reflected on her immaturity and fear of accepting her royal duties as the heir and queen-in-waiting.
In contrast, the adults really fudge things in the show. We saw a minor example of this in the Trollhunters episode “Bad Coffee”. Due to a mixup with the school’s coffee tin, Jim accidentally poisons the three main teachers on the show with Grave Sand, Gumm-Gumm remains that makes a human nearly feral and vicious. His former enemy turned ally Strickler comes to help when Jim lies that a cat inhaled the Grave Sand. The teachers ambush Strickler and infect him as well. That makes turning everyone back to normal more difficult. Steve becomes vulnerable, admitting Coach Lawrence is a better parent than his deadbeat dad, while Eli tells Miss Janeth that he loves her classes. Jim has to fight Strickler to a standstill to reason with him until the Changeling fights the Grave Sand.
These are just the ordinary adults, mind. Merlin ended up causing most of the difficulties in the show due to his arrogance, need for control, and blind loyalty to a man who didn’t live up to his ideals. He chooses the Trollhunter based on whom he finds worthy. That could be anyone; Unkar the Unfortunate only lasted one day, for example.
The first hint was when he dismantled Jim’s Vespa. Blinky and Jim spent hours working on the spare parts and filling the hole in the boy’s heart from his father leaving him. Merlin then casually uses it as scrap metal to make armor for Toby and Claire. Blinky calls him a heinous fiend when he finds out, and this is before he learns that Merlin coerced Jim into becoming a permanent troll.
Who ends up telling Merlin that he’s wrong? The kids of the show. In Wizards, he proclaims that they cannot save a brainwashed Jim from the Arcane Order because one Trollhunter doesn't matter in the face of the apocalypse. Claire and Toby call nonsense on this; they point out that Jim became the Trollhunter because Merlin chose him and they saved his butt from Morgana due to his scheme to let her awaken and get his power back. The kid gave up his humanity, education, and normal life to stop her once, and he would do it again if his friends were in danger. Douxie steps in, taking the Trollhunters’ side; he says there is a way to rescue Jim without compromising the world’s safety. While his plan fails, for many reasons, it shows that he was willing to try and find a more compassionate solution.
Merlin Was Surpassed, And Not Ready For This New World
In the end, Merlin couldn’t be the savior that the trolls or humans wanted. He was a mentor, and sometimes could provide guidance, but he was too controlling. The world was more complicated than he had imagined. It turns out the Trollhunters, aliens, Creepslayers, and wizard apprentices knew better how to handle the regular slew of apocalypses.
It’s not just that Morgana soundly defeated him, and Arthur lay down the killing blow. Merlin also refused to understand that people and trolls need connection, bonds, and compassion. He used Jim like a pawn the way that Gunmar uses his Gumm-Gumms. It took Douxie reminding him that everyone needs an emotional connection for Merlin to admit that he was wrong.
Merlin’s death signifies that the true heroes of Arcadia are ready to step to the plate. They had to figure out how to succeed without him. Jim doesn’t know who he will be without the Amulet but knows he’ll fight for others in the future. Claire has mastered shadow magic, while Douxie has taken Merlin’s place as a head wizard. Steve is a Creepslayer and knight, ready to wield his sea-monster tooth weapon. It’s when they work together to help each other rather than achieve one pragmatic goal that they win, for now. No matter what comes, compassion always wins over selfishness.