Legend of the Isles:
Merlin & Fairies

(Acorn, 1998)

To me, it would have made more sense to put the Merlin and King Arthur episodes of Legends of the Isles together, but instead we have Merlin paired with an episode on leprechauns and fairies. There is a similarity between these two episodes, however -- both become repetitive long before reaching their conclusion.

This is understandable in the case of the Merlin documentary because, rather than discuss the legend of Britain's most famous wizard, it seeks to discover whether Merlin actually existed. We do get a summary of the legend, but the bulk of the video looks at a Merlin who did exist, based on several sources (and not just Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century Life of Merlin). This Merlin dates back to the late 500s, a different time period from that of the legendary King Arthur. He was the high priest and adviser to the last pagan king of Scotland who, after the king's defeat (and the unofficial end of paganism in the land), retreated, grief-stricken, deep into the woods to live close to nature as a recluse. He produced laments and poems, some of which are extant today, and was known for his prophetic powers. This leads the video into speculation that this Merlin may have been the last of the Druids.

This is all quite interesting, but it doesn't provide for enough information to complete the episode. A little longer look at the legend would have gone down much easier than the repetition that follows of the little we do know about the historical Merlin.

The rich fairy tradition of the British Isles is fascinating, yet this episode on leprechauns and fairies soon becomes tiresome in its approach to the subject. It starts out with a few stories: first, there's the leprechaun that tricked the fellow who caught him and demanded his gold; then there's the tale of a man who was invited to play the violin for a group of dancing fairies he came upon in the forest; then there's the story of a mermaid who had her tail stolen, forcing her to live upon the earth until such time as she found her hidden tail.

Eventually, the video begins to point out some of the customs and superstitions that men have applied (and still do, in small numbers) to the wee folk as a group: such creatures as the banshee can be a harbinger of death and loss; fairies like to steal human babies and replace them with deformed changelings; stolen human children never grow old in the land of the fairies, etc. Then the video describes the holdover into modern times of a number of good luck charms or traditional forms of protection from the fairies: iron tongs over a baby's crib, spreading ash on the face of a baby to make him less desirable for fairy-stealing, the avoidance of fairy forts and fairy trees altogether, etc. Perhaps the most interesting thing in the video is a look at a tiny shoe, supposedly a fairy shoe, discovered in 1834.

Between every little story or snippet of information, we have to listen to the narrator point out the fact that these are mythic creatures -- or are they? They're harmless -- or are they? Over and over again, we get these "or are they?" questions, and it quickly becomes rather tiresome. Both episodes on this volume are worth watching, but they certainly don't represent the best of the Legends of the Isles series.

by Daniel Jolley
24 June 2006

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