Bae Watch Wednesday: Arthur Pendragon

promotional image from the BBC showing Arthur Pendragon wielding a sword
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Welcome to Bae Watch Wednesday, where I tell you all about the fictional characters you ought to be crushing on. This week’s bae is Arthur Pendragon!

Who Is Arthur Pendragon?

Arthur Pendragon is one of the main characters of the BBC series Merlin. He is also, of course, a major mythological character whose legacy has lasted millennia – because Arthur Pendragon is just another name for King Arthur, the Once and Future King. However, the Arthur Pendragon we get in Merlin is a far cry from the fabled king and the numerous other adaptations we see of the myth (even, yes, Monty Python).

Prince Arthur stands next to Merlin
C/O BBC

Instead, this Arthur is just a young prince. He is arrogant and brash, with none of the gravitas we expect of King Arthur. We meet Arthur from the perspective of the show’s main character, Merlin. Merlin is a young warlock who has come to Camelot to learn how to control his magic (which is illegal in the kingdom). He learns that he is destined to guide and protect Arthur as he comes into his own as the once and future king, destined to unite Albion and guide the island to a golden age of peace and prosperity. Merlin is… less than enthusiastic about the prospect, because the first time the two meet doesn’t go very well.

Arthur is training with his knights – using a servant as target practice. Merlin takes umbrage to this and defends the servant. He shows a complete lack of deference to Arthur, who is absolutely dumbfounded that someone would dare talk back to him. They even had a brief duel, with Merlin secretly using his magic to knock Arthur down a peg. Arthur still wins the duel and puts Merlin in the stocks for his actions. But he’s intrigued by the servant. Later, Merlin saves Arthur’s life at a banquet, and Uther, the king and Arthur’s father, “rewards” him by making him Arthur’s servant, to both of their horrors.

Prince of Camelot

Being forced to spend all their time in close proximity is trying, to say the least. Arthur is less than impressed by Merlin’s bumbling ways. For his part, Merlin is appalled that this prince is destined to lead the kingdom to a better age. But they find an equilibrium, and Merlin begins to use his magic to protect Arthur. Arthur begins to rely on Merlin. When Merlin points out an assassination attempt, Uther makes Merlin drink the poison to prove his claim. Merlin predictably goes into a coma, and Uther writes him off as replaceable. But Arthur risks his life to get the antidote and save him, against Uther’s orders.

Arthur Pendragon stands at the round table with Merlin and Guinevere
C/O BBC

Over time, Merlin sees a different side of Arthur. Arthur is definitely a bit of a stereotypical dumb jock. He is responsible for selecting and training Camelot’s Knights, and values combat to a high degree. He is also a bit of an asshole. Uther raised Arthur to be arrogant and aware of his status as the prince and heir of the kingdom. But there is more to Arthur than what Uther raised him to be. Uther is paranoid, bigoted, and extremely snobbish. He sees no value in anyone who isn’t noble and is violently opposed to sorcery.

Arthur is different. He actually cares about other people. Arthur frequently puts his life on the line for Camelot. He goes on many dangerous quests to protect the kingdom. Arthur even goes up against a dragon to protect the kingdom. Through Merlin, we see that Arthur is actually a dedicated prince who cares about Camelot and his people. He struggles under the weight of Uther’s expectations and wants to do what he can to make Camelot a better place. He may miss the mark sometimes, but at least he tries.

Once and Future King

Whether through Merlin’s influence or his own growth, Arthur begins to push back against Uther’s expectations. He sees the negative consequences of Uther’s actions and wants to avoid them. Part of this is because Arthur falls in love with Guinevere, a serving girl in the palace. Uther is aghast at the thought of his son with a commoner, but Arthur sees the value in all people, not just the nobility. Arthur even seems to be softening on the magical ban, thinking that not all magic is evil, as Uther claims.

King Arthur's body is placed on a barge to Avalon
C/O BBC

Then Uther dies, seemingly at the hands of a magician that had previously helped Arthur. Arthur is suddenly orphaned, and given the responsibility of all of Camelot, still a very young man. He’s under a lot of pressure, and he struggles with his new position. Arthur is also dealing with an external threat: his half-sister, Morgana, is challenging him for the throne. A powerful magician who was raised as Uther’s ward, Morgana has understandable resentment against the Pendragons and believes she has the right to the throne, as Uther’s oldest.

Arthur is able to find some happiness in marrying Gwen and crowning her queen of Camelot. He surrounds himself with good people, even knighting commoners. But he still struggles with Uther’s legacy, even summoning Uther’s ghost for advice (this goes badly). Things reach a breaking point with Morgana, and Arthur’s life starts to crumble around him. Morgana uses magic to turn Gwen away, one of his knights joins Morgana’s side, and she even manages to remove Merlin’s magic. In a final, pitched battle, things come to an end. Morgana is defeated, but so is Arthur, mortally wounded by his former knight. Merlin takes his body to Avalon, to await his future return when Albion’s need is greatest.

Why Is Arthur Pendragon Bae?

There have been numerous adaptations of the King Arthur story. Whether it’s the 2004 Clive Owen affair (memorable only for Keira Knightley’s turn as a Celtic Guinevere) or Monty Python’s satirical turn, we’ve had a variety of Arthurs on film.

Prince Arthur rides a horse, wearing armor
C/O BBC

But Merlin gives us, for the first time, a different kind of Arthur. Bradley James gives us a believable and enjoyable young Arthur Pendragon, just finding his way in the world. James’ youthful portrayal is far more relatable – and far more crush-worthy. This is not the wise fabled king of myth, distant and removed. This is a young man trying to figure out who he is amid the weight of immense pressure and expectations. James’ Arthur feels real in a way that makes all the difference.

More Than A Dumb Jock

Our initial impression of Arthur is that he is a dumb jock. He’s an athlete, a knight who is prized for his combat abilities. Our first look is very reminiscent of the bully star athlete from a typical teen movie. We see Arthur, surrounded by his jock friends, picking on a young servant. Arthur is supposed to be practicing his combat, but the servant put the target at the wrong end of the field. He goes to fix it, but, egged on by his friends telling him to teach the servant a lesson, Arthur begins to throw knives at the target – while the servant is still carrying it.

King Arthur stands at the round table with advisors Gaius and Queen Guinevere
C/O BBC

It’s not a good look, and Merlin tries to shut it down. But Arthur is offended by this, nobody talks back to him and goads Merlin into attacking him. Arthur then has a classic “don’t you know who I am” moment, telling Merlin that he’s the king’s son and throwing him in jail. It’s pretty clear why Merlin’s first impression – and ours – isn’t very stellar. But first impressions can be hasty. Sure, Arthur is a jock with asshole friends. He makes some dumb mistakes. But there’s more to him than that.

Contrary to first appearances, Arthur does care about other people. While Uther views servants as utterly beneath him, Arthur realizes that they are actual people. He takes Merlin seriously, even when Uther dismisses him. He stands up for the common people when he can. Even Arthur’s combat prowess, his jock status, is not so simple. Uther pressures Arthur to be the best knight possible, deriding him when he fails to be anything less than perfect. Arthur has to be what Uther expects, what Uther raised him to be: arrogant, violent, an asshole. But that’s not who he really is.

Fabled Hero

The King Arthur legend is one that has persisted for so long because of what it represents: the best of humanity. As the legend tells us, Arthur was a good, honest, and fair king. He led England in a better time, with Camelot a shining beacon of what could be. His knights were noble and just. Arthurian legend is full of heroic feats and dashing heroes. Arthur’s inevitable end is such a tragedy because it ended a time of peace and prosperity, and the world returned to the dark ages.

Arthur Pendragon is crowned king of Camelot
C/O BBC

While our Arthur Pendragon is not yet the settled king of legend, he is still a noble hero. The aspects of character that we expect – goodness, honesty, fairness – are all there. They just need to be developed a little. We see them, slowly but surely, develop over the course of the show. This is especially clear after Uther dies and Arthur becomes king, no longer bound by Uther’s prejudices. He makes a servant girl queen of Camelot because he loves her and she is worthy of such honor. He knights commoners, because they prove themselves equal to the task, regardless of nobility or station.

Arthur sees people as people, no matter who they are. And all the people of Camelot are worthy of his trust and his protection. He is willing to put his life on the line, no matter what, because it is his responsibility to take care of his people. Arthur is even willing to fight a dragon, knowing he has no hope of defeating it, to save Camelot. On a quest to find the fabled Fisher King, Arthur is referred to as Courage. He certainly has no shortage of it. Heroic feats are just another part of the job, for him.

What’s Not To Love?

Merlin may be the star of the show – it is named after him, after all – but the show would be nothing without Arthur Pendragon. Merlin himself would be nothing without Arthur. Early on, Merlin states that without his magic, he would be no one. He has no purpose to guide him. Arthur gives him that purpose. Thanks to Arthur, Merlin has a reason to be around, to use his magic, to learn and grow. He may not always like what he does to help Arthur, but he does it anyway. Their destiny binds them together, but it’s the relationship that develops – a bedrock for both of them – that gives them purpose.

Prince Arthur prepares to drink poison to save Merlin
C/O BBC

But Arthur is not just there to give Merlin purpose. He’s a good character in his own right, with an interesting and complex story. Arthur shows real growth, moving from the almost stereotypical simple jock into a noble and good king. As the show progresses, he gets the chance to become a fully realized character, rather than just the bully he is introduced as. Arthur doesn’t completely lose who he is, of course. He’s still a bit of a dumb jock, focused more on fighting than most things. He still torments Merlin, though this is just an aspect of their strange relationship.

There’s a reason Arthur Pendragon is the Once and Future King. While we, like Merlin, may be surprised at first – Merlin even asks if there’s another Arthur out there, because this one sucks – over time we realize who Arthur really is. He is a good man who does his best for his people. He developed strong, healthy relationships, astounding given what was modeled to him by Uther. And he gives his all to Camelot – but he will return when we need him most.

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