Now finishing its fourth season, BBC One and Syfy Channel’s Merlin has been a widely accepted, family-oriented fantasy show about the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable. What sets Merlin apart from most other television and theatrical versions of the King Arthur legend is that it’s told from the perspective of a young Merlin, the wizard who becomes Arthur’s best friend and confidant.
Another thing that sets Merlin apart is its use of a biracial Guinevere “Gwen” (played by Angel Coulby), who begins as a servant to Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath), is caught up in a love triangle between Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and Prince Arthur (James Bradley), and will eventually become King Arthur’s wife and the Queen of Camelot.
“We’d seen an awful lot of actresses for (Gwen) and still hadn’t cast (Coulby),” said Johnny Capps, one of the show’s executive producers and creators, in an episode of Merlin: Secrets of Magic. “We just hadn’t quite found the actress that had the level of dignity that you would believe is a queen, whilst being humble with a comical ability. Then Angel came in one day and James, the director and I just looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, she’s fantastic’.”
The original legend of King Arthur reportedly dates to the fifth or sixth century after the birth of Christ. The legend was retold as oral history for many years before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a popular literary work regarding King Arthur in 1138. Monmouth’s account became so popular that it has been used many times as a basis for other retellings of the story.
Many would believe that blacks or biracials would not have been living in England’s mythical world of King Arthur. But if Shakespeare could write about a titular Moor (a person of Moroccan descent) in Othello, during the Renaissance, would it not stand to reason that there would be “blacks” in Camelot?
Guinevere isn’t the only black who appears in the Camelot of Merlin. Gwen’s brother Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun, from Nigeria) becomes one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable. Not bad considering Gwen and Elyan are the children of the blacksmith. Black British actors also portray the evil warlord Helios (Terence Maynard) and the assassin Myror (Adrian Lester). Merlin employs black actors to represent members of the Royal Court of Camelot.
Merlin isn’t the first television series to have black actors represent people of African descent in pre-medieval times. In the Starz network series Spartacus, which is loosely based on the real-life Spartacus, Doctore (Peter Mensah) is in charge of training the gladiators of the ludus of Battiatus. For the uninitiated, a ludus is an ancient training center for gladiators in Rome.
In Spartacus, one of the more beloved gladiators, Crixus (Manu Bennett) falls in love with Naevia, who was originally played by Lesley-Ann Brandt, of South African descent. When the series came back for its third season, Brandt had decided to leave, and a wide search for a new Naevia began. Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who is of Ghanaian descent and was raised in a suburb of Washington, D.C., was selected. That’s right. A black girl from D.C. is now the woman who keeps Crixus, the undefeated Gaul, going.
Merlin’s Gwen appears to have much more depth than any other Guinevere portrayed on television. Not just because she is a woman of color, but because Coulby is a great actress. Since the story of King Arthur is more legend than fact, it doesn’t really matter what color the characters are. It’s all fantasy.
But, it would behoove the producers of other television shows steeped in historical stories to take note. A little color always works wonders for a great work of art.