How BBC’s Merlin Taught Me About Purpose and Love

February 17, 2021

minute READ 

A few years ago, I discovered the BBC show "Merlin."

To be honest, at first I was disappointed with this family-friendly adaptation of the Arthurian legend... and not just because of the distinct absence of blood in fight scenes. 

No, I was more unhappy with the two main characters. The show had chosen to depict Merlin (played by Colin Morgan) and Arthur (Bradley James) as boys and later young men. Thus, the storyline began long before both step into their power. 

Seeing the "Once and Future King" as a spoiled, bratty prince (not quite the hero I expected) and the "Greatest Sorcerer to Ever Walk the Earth" as a manservant to said spoiled, bratty prince took some getting used to.

However, I gradually warmed up to it. 

The family-friendly fight scenes meant that the series was about 100x less disturbing than Game of Thrones (which I abandoned after one of its many torture scenes). And the early starting point makes the two legends much more accessible: Instead of seeing them as larger-than-life, we get introduced to their flaws and imperfections, doubts and dilemmas.

Due to the show’s focus on destiny and the deep relationship between Arthur and Merlin, it also contains lessons that are relevant for us today.

3 lessons from the show "Merlin"

Here are my main takeaways from the series (without spoilers beyond a general exposition):

1. Your gifts can feel dangerous

In the show, young Merlin lives in a world where magic is punishable by death. Merlin’s first impression upon entering Camelot is the public beheading of a man accused of sorcery. 

While this article will focus on life purpose, I would be remiss not to mention that many viewers have seen the prosecution of magic in this show as a metaphor for the prosecution of homosexuality. For instance, on LGBT Reddit, a user created a moving post titled How Merlin(BBC) saved my life. (At the same time, the show has — rightly so — been accused of queerbaiting.)

For someone destined to become the most powerful sorcerer to ever live, this hostile environment creates a high-stakes predicament: His inborn magic is both the greatest gift he could give to others, and the biggest threat to himself.

On the surface, Merlin’s dangerous predicament might not have much to do with the situations you and I might face as we consider what we want to do in our lives. After all, most people typically don’t face mortal danger when pursuing their purpose (unlike firefighters entering a burning building, for instance).

However, living your life purpose and expressing one's gifts can feel dangerous even in the absence of a clear physical threat. As somebody who helps people discover their life purpose, I know that many brave souls are scared to share their gifts. They often feel deeply conflicted about staying in their current situation where they hide who they are, or take the risk to step forward. 

This reluctance is understandable once we consider our collective past.

Our gifts are what make us unique. And while being different from others is more acceptable today than it used to be, throughout much of human history belonging to a tribe was crucial for one’s survival. In that situation, it might have been dangerous to not fit in as it probably threatened the sense of belonging to a group.

I believe that we haven’t completely let go of the fear of being different, of not fitting in with our group, and that is part of the reason why our gifts can feel dangerous to us.

In order to fully live our life purpose, we need to acknowledge this dynamic and find a way to move beyond it. This includes realizing that our fear can indicate that we are on the right track.

2. Hiding who you are is painful

Unlike in the Arthurian legend, the show begins with Merlin deciding to hide his gift of magic. Instead of being an official adviser or sorcerer to the royal court, he simply takes on the role of Arthur’s servant. In a kingdom which prosecutes his kind, Merlin has to wield his magic in secret, without any recognition or thanks from those he helps with it.

Whereas we viewers get to see the full story and Merlin’s increasing power, in the show most of the people around him simply think of him as a clumsy and somewhat incompetent servant. This tension between who he is and who others see him as is so painful to watch that I quickly found myself rooting for Merlin to reveal his magic.

Just as hiding his gift of magic is painful for Merlin (albeit less so than being burned at the stake), people often experience an inner tension when they feel that they are not living up to their potential. Because they often do not know what to do with this sense of unease, they may begin to stuff it down.

However, in my experience, it is important to feel that tension and acknowledge how painful it is to try to hide who you really are. 

3. Life is about service and service is about love

In the show, Merlin decides that it is his destiny to protect Arthur, and proceeds to do so continuously, even at the peril of his own life. At one point in the show, he tells Arthur, “I was born to serve you.”

While Merlin’s unequal social status combined with his unflinching devotion to his king is unpalatable in our age of post-modernity and democratic governance, his statement also hints at the enduring importance of service. If we remove the outdated social inequality, it seems that life purpose has to do with being of service—whether to a person or to an idea. I definitely feel more connected to my purpose whenever I get to help someone. 

The great Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.” What we can take away from his words is that to truly live our purpose, we need to find a way to serve somebody or something through it.

Ultimately, purpose is not “me-focused.” It’s not about prestige or accolades, but about what we can do for others.

When it comes to finding our path in the world, it helps to keep this in mind. An excellent way to begin this process is to start paying attention to the ways in which we're helping people with what we do. 

The importance of service is also reflected in Arthur’s actions, when he, at various times in the show, makes it clear that he is willing to give up his own life for others.

Arthur, thus, ultimately shows up as a servant-leader, as somebody whose commitment to leading a kingdom is borne out of a desire to help others more than out of a desire to have power. Which reminds me of a beautiful and evocative quote I read by Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”

Conclusion

One of the strongest lessons from the show I got from the show is about the importance of purpose and love.

At its purest, purpose is about service—and service is ultimately motivated by love.

 

In the show, Arthur demonstrates the fundamental power of love when, in an utterly desperate situation, he encourages his knights with the battle cry, “For the love of Camelot.” In a similar vein, it’s Merlin’s friendship and love which consistently motivates him to go to crazy lengths to keep Arthur safe from harm.

What we can take away from this is that it’s actually love which can strengthen, fuel, and sustain one’s life purpose.

Or, to be more succinct about it: purpose might be just another form of love. 

This was first published on Elephant Journal.

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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