Camelot in full pomp, and everyone terribly pleased with themselves, not least Arthur. But hark, what mailclad sociopath is working their way up to the great hall, splitting guards asunder on the way? I like episodes that begin this way, with a feeling of “OMG, there was this one time, at Camelot…” From what I can remember of the medieval sources, this is exactly how things kick off, with Arthurian stories taking place in an eternal state of “And then…” Adventures happen because they do – and it’s a particularly apt beginning for this episode, which seems to draws heavily on the fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Instead of a monstrous green warrior wandering into the hall, we have an anonymous knight, but it has the same sense of an ordered society which nonetheless craves something weird and challenging to justify its own opinion of itself. When the nameless knight throws down the gauntlet to Arthur without a word, of course he picks it up.
Arthur answered, saying,
“Most gracious Sir
if you want single combat
you will not lack it here”
In the original story, the Green Knight hasn’t actually come for single combat, but Arthur’s first assumption is proved right in this version. Though as the mysterious knight’s identity is revealed, it turns out that the gracious Sir is a gracious Dame: the warrior is Morgause, played by Emilia Fox. So we’re embarked on another instalment in Merlin’s ongoing project to work out what women are good for/at. Wielding swords is definitely on the list, and there’s quite a lot of “lol, you might get beaten by a girl, banter!” whilst Arthur tries to get Merlin to persuade Morgause to withdraw the challenge. When she refuses to, and defeats him in single combat, the story reverts to Arthurian roots again. She demands he agree to accept a nameless challenge which she will give him in three days. Blind oaths, baffling taboos, it’s all thoroughly romance. Not wishing to commit the faux pas of dying in front of his subjects, Arthur agrees.
Meanwhile Morgause is acting freaky around Morgana, who has a distinct feeling they’ve met before. No such thing as déjà vu in this fictional world, so we’re not surprised to see Morgause arriving unannounced in Morgana’s bedroom and putting some sort of sleep enchantment on her to help with the bad dreams. Before leaving Camelot, she also gets portentous with Arthur, claiming that she knew his mother. Mothers are apparently in the same category as magic: you don’t talk about them round Uther, who promptly forbids his son from following up the challenge. But Arthur…
was young and impulsive – you might call him boyish
He liked life eventful and he couldn’t bear
to lie late in bed or sit down for long,
so much his young blood and active brain roused him.
Active brain is probably going a little far, but the anonymous poet of Gawain and the Green Knight has sketched the basic outline, certainly. Off goes Arthur.
When he arrives at Morgause’s domain, the Green Knight parallels really come roaring into their own. There’s a greenish tinge to everything, an axe and a block – and Morgause is demanding the same trial that our verdant warrior did seven centuries ago. Arthur has to place his head on the block and let her bring the axe down on his neck. Is it a rigid code of honour that makes him follow through with it? Or the need to do whatever it takes to impress Morgause, who knows something about his mother? As we’ve seen before, Merlin is adept at slotting modern motivations into the shapes of the old Arthurian stories, tweaking them enough to realign their meanings.
Morgause agrees to use her magic to let Arthur speak to his mother. Vivienne appears, and tells him that Uther, the scourge of sorcerers and mitherer of mages, employed a magician to help her get pregnant. Not only that, but he knew it would involve trading her life for the child’s. This being a lot to digest, Arthur returns to Camelot in order to discuss this in highly physical terms with his father. The sort of free and frank exchange of views which ends with one or other royal head on a pike outside the castle gates. To stop Arthur killing Uther, Merlin tells him that Morgause was lying. This is where it gets interesting – we can’t tell whether that’s the case or not, but unless Merlin has been wandering round doing plot points without the camera, it ain’t. The royal boys reconcile, but at the cost (to Merlin) of everyone bonding over how righteous the War On Magic is. Once again the woman getting in the way of male solidarity is removed, but this episode seems a great deal more ambivalent about how many times that can happen, and what will have to be sacrificed to keep it all this way.
 Yes, I know – the poem actually says “artho con onsware/ fayd I cortays knyzt/ if thu craue batayl bare/ here faylez thu not to fyzt”, but Bernard O’Donoghue’s translation is good enough for me.