Uther v Uther
Brought to you by OBS staff member Karolina
APOLOGIES for the delay on this – let’s get right into it – it’s Uther versus Uther time!
Uther of the Legends.
Picture: Uther Pendragon by Howard Pyle, from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, 1903.
As it is probably becoming apparent, the most we know of the Legendary figure of Uther Pendragon is through the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. King Uther is supposedly a Sub-Roman Britain Monarch (Sub -Roman Britain history is the history of what is now England from the end of Roman imperial rule in the very early fifth century to the arrival of Saint Augustine in AD 597). According to Monmouth, he is the son of Constantine II. Uther’s older brother, Constans, takes the throne after the death of their father; however, he is murdered by his adviser, Vortigern , who usurps the throne (yes, this is the Vortigern mentioned in Merlin v Merlin – the one whose guards found the famous sorcerer). Uther and his other brother, Aurelius, need to flee Brittany as so not to meet the same fate as poor Constans.
After Vortigern’s alliance with the Saxons under Hengist (a merchant who was hired by Vortigern, and ultimately betrays him) goes pear-shaped, Aurelius and Uther, now adults, return to their lands. Aurelius burns Vortigern in his castle and becomes king. With Aurelius on the throne, Uther leads his brother in arms to Ireland to help Merlin bring the stones of Stonehenge from there to Britain. Later, while Aurelius is ill, Uther leads his army against Vortigern’s son Paschent and his Saxon allies. On the way to the battle, he sees a comet in the shape of a dragon, which Merlin interprets as presaging Aurelius’s death and Uther’s glorious future. Uther subsequently wins this battle, and takes the name “Pendragon”, meaning “head Dragon”. Aurelius is murdered, and Uther begins his reign.
Uther is generally seen as a just and fair and powerful king – he secures his land’s frontiers and quells the Saxons, as well as striking up a friendship with Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. This is where Uther’s valiant image fades – well, okay, at least by modern day standards. Uther becomes obsessed with Igerna (later known as Igraine). This angers Gorlois, and sends the two allies into battle against one another. Gorlois sends his wife to Tintagel, a supposed impenetrable fortress to hide out in and be kept safe. Alas, poor Gorlois’ good intentions are in vain, for he forgets (or does not take into account), the power that Uther has at his side. Uther convinces Merlin to magic him into a likeness of Gorlois, and Uther visits Igerna. They make love, unbeknownst to them conceive a child later to become Arthur; only for Igerna to find out the next day her husband had been killed in battle. Uther does the ‘honorable’ thing, and marries Igerna – they have another child whom they call “Anna” (who, in later versions becomes Morgause – and is not related to Arthur through Uther, but rather his half sister) . Anna then goes on to have two sons ; Gawain and Mordred. The Saxons finally kill Uther by poisoning a spring he drinks from.
Once again, like every other character in the Arthurian Legend, there are alternate stories of Uther, and even who Arthur’s father actually was. For modern interpretations, Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle makes Uther’s brother Aurelius, whose widow (Ygerna) he marries, Arthur’s true father. In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Uther is the nephew of Aurelianus instead of his brother; while Aurelianus is the son of a Roman Emperor, Uther has no Roman blood.
The most known version of Uther (and my favourite) is probably TH White’s version from The Once and Future King. He follows the traditional idea of Uther (and gives quite a dark account of Igraine’s rape, in “The Queen of Air and Darkness”) but also removes Arthur from his care for the formative years of his life – leaving his upbringing to Merlyn and Ector.
So, Legendary Uther is responsible for both his son’s rise and downfall it seems; being a fair and powerful king in his own right and paving the way for Arthur’s greatness, and by fathering Mordred, who later kills Arthur. I think one of the most interesting things for me regarding Uther is that his family are based on historical figures – leading to an idea of possibility that such a man, and perhaps Arthur, actually existed.
BBC Merlin’s Uther (played by Anthony Head)
picture from Merlin BBC website ( s1 Uther)
From the very first moment we see this Uther, there are dramatic differences from the legend’s version. This Uther hates magic , and will sentence anyone who uses it, or is around it (as evidenced by the death of Gwen’s father in “To Kill a King”) to death. He is completely and utterly irrational with his hatred; blaming it almost solely for all the woes and troubles that befall him. In some instances and episodes, it is made abundantly clear to why this is the case (especially when almost every magic user, bar Merlin, does try to kill/ manipulate either him or his son). However, it also becomes apparent, as time goes by , that Uther’s magic hatred is of his own doing. Instead of raping Ygraine (BBC Merlin’s spelling of Igraine) under the guise of Gorlois, he had struck a deal with a sorceress ( Nimueh) to help his wife fall pregnant. Due to the laws of magic (“A life for a life”, pretty much), once Ygraine gave birth to Arthur, she died. Uther, blind with rage and grief bans magic and starts what is called in the show “the great purge” – which consisted of the genocide of magic users (all of this is found out in the season 1 episode “Excalibur”, and sort of expanded on in season 2’s “Sins of the Father”). As the show goes on , the viewers see how unbelievably ruthless Uther was against magic users – in season 3’s opening episode “the Tears of Uther Pendragon” , Uther hallucinates about children that he drowned for being associated with magic. And yet, he had used magic himself, not only through Nimueh, but it is implied through Gaius, as well.
The second major difference is the type of king Uther is. He is rash, and brazen, and yet can come across as cowardly. Now, this opinion is subjective, in a lot of ways (and please, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Anthony Head and everything he chooses to be, and what he makes Uther). I make this claim by comparing Uther to Arthur. It is Arthur who leads the troops when there is trouble in Camelot. It is Arthur who roams the streets of Camelot and lets himself be seen by his people – Uther has much more of an “Ivory tower “ approach to ruling. Arthur fights for his peoples’ right in relation to taxes and other things , while Uther looks out more for himself (episodes we have seen this in Season 2 “The Curse of Cornelius Sigan”, “Beauty and the Beast” (okay , he was under a spell here, but still) , “Sins of the Father”, “The witch finder” (he pretty much throws Gaius under a medieval version of a bus, here), “Lancelot and Guinevere”, season 1 “Lancelot”, “To Kill a King”, season 3 “Gwaine” … and I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few…).
However, who Uther IS loyal to, is his family. He lies to Arthur in “Sins of the Father” to protect himself, but also to protect Arthur from finding out why his mother died – and the ramifications of Arthur murdering Uther. He gets Gaius to drug Arthur in s1 “Excalibur” so Arthur cannot fight the black knight. He screams for Arthur when Arthur marches out to fight the gargoyles and protect Camelot in S2 “The Curse of Cornelius Sigan” and tries to stop him fighting the dragon in S2 “The last Dragon Lord”. As mentioned in my write up of Morgana – from the every first episode there is a tangible affection that Uther has for Morgana. He allows her to get away with a lot, even more than Arthur (I think I would end up listing almost every episode if I were to give examples of this). I think the most powerful episodes we can see this in are s3 “The tears of Uther Pendragon”, “The Crystal cave” and “the coming of Arthur parts 1 and 2” . The part that I remember the most from “The Crystal Cave” is when Merlin finds Uther crying over Morgana’s coma – and he speaks about what a parent feels for a child. It was beautifully played by both Anthony Head and Colin Morgan, and really highlighted where Uther’s loyalty lies. Also, Uther in this episode attempts to go against his own law, practically begging Gaius to use magic to wake Morgana. Also, Uther looks completely ruined when he finds out about Morgana’s betrayal – and this is what begins his descent, and Arthur’s rise.
I think one of my favourite games to play during Merlin episodes is “compare Merlin and Uther”. Both have major, character changing secrets – both hide them from the ones they love (for different reasons though). Uther and Merlin have every reason to hate each other – and yet Uther turns to Merlin when something is not right with his son; and Merlin has some sort of connection to Uther as well. He refuses to kill him, knowing it’s not Arthur’s time as yet – and, as I said, some of my favourite moments are the moments where Uther and Merlin seem to understand each other – I’ve already pointed out the moment in “The Crystal Cave” – another one of my favourite Uther and Merlin moments is in “The tears of Uther Pendragon”. Uther is ill, due to the mandrake root Morgana has placed under his bed. Merlin is in his chambers, and he watches as Uther gives a whimper and shivers. Uther is at his most vulnerable, and what does Merlin do? He sighs, and carefully tucks the covers around the king tighter. Merlin has every reason to hate Uther and all he represents , but he doesn’t.
And of course, another major difference in this Uther is the PROFOUND influence he has on his son’s life.
So – who do you like better? Legendary Uther, or Anthony Head’s Uther? Do you agree with me on my assessment of Uther? (Don’t be shy , I love a debate!!)
Next up: Morgause v Morgause!
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