Merlin Series 1, Episode 3, The Mark of Nimueh: The monstrous afanc emerges from behind the dim cavernous walls, disgusting, chilling our very bones. Prince Arthur, Merlin, and Lady Morgana panic when they see it, drooling with a mouth full of fangs, as it slinks heftily, ever creeping, closer. Arthur, in full battle posture, ready to protect and defend, strikes the afanc, grimly territorial. Merlin is ready, too. They understand why they are here. They cannot run. The afanc, described by Gaius as the darkest kind of magic, looks hungrily at its prey, but Merlin uses his own magic to destroy the monster before it makes a meal out of the lady or the prince.
What is an afanc?
Not too much is known about the afanc, except that it is a mythical creature deriving from a handful of legends, originally. Some say it looks like a crocodile, while others say it’s like a beaver.
Apparently, in Wales, the origin of Arthurian legend, crocodiles are an uncommon sight and if seen would surely cause room for worry. In two internet articles (Mirror and The Telegraph), there are claims of crocodiles being sighted, yet in both cases, the final conclusion was made that there was no threat. Could it have been that the original afanc was a crocodile? The answer cannot be found.
The design of the afanc on BBC Merlin is an example, in my opinion, of good sculpturing, and when you see behind-the-scene shots of the afanc costume being designed, you may feel a bit like you stepped into a Jim Henson studio, or you stepped back into the costume room of Doug Jones’ latest monster suits. The afanc thrilled us: it engaged the cast enough for us to feel their fright when they discovered it in the shadows, and it cinched our hate for Nimueh, the sorceress who brought it to being, as an antagonist.
If you’ve watched The Mark of Nimueh and seen the afanc, you may be thinking that the afanc doesn’t look much like a crocodile or a beaver, but I want to show you the similarities. First, take a look at my sketch of the afanc.
I think the likeness of a crocodile comes from the “something lurks in the waters” quality, the scare score. Crocodiles camouflage, lurk and “pounce” on prey from an unknown source, suddenly they strike unexpected, and that’s why I think, on a story level, building suspense, they were inspired by a crocodile. Meanwhile, the beaver has a little hand, connecting to an arm ending with an elbow and body, and the hand has got 5 claws, 3 longer ones and 2 short, end ones. Similarly, the afanc from Merlin has 4 claws, 3 longer and 1 short. Beavers and afancs are both brown, and their skull structure has a striking resemblance, stout and squared, despite the fact afanc has ferocious fangs and a lack of eyes, like a mole you’d find digging up your garden. Maybe that’s because the designers wanted to go with a cave monster feel, underdeveloped eyes, as opposed to the lake monster feel that afancs have from legend, which really proves the originality of the show.
That’s how a designer designs a monster to be inspired from, and yet unique of, the original mythical creature: They take an image of a beaver and crocodile – which admittedly, isn’t that scary when you combine the two by conventional means – and deform them to make something terrifying. That’s why I say that the artists who sculpted the afanc had to be brilliant.
In conclusion, I have a final thought about the Mark of Nimueh show, about how it cast a light on our heroes: the afanc was perhaps the first moment we see Prince Arthur and Merlin work together as a team, and as for Lady Morgana, it was the first time we see horror on her face to that degree. Diving into speculation about Lady Morgana, I wonder, did she have reason to feel traumatized by this event? Did it somehow cause her own soul to undergo a transformation of fear, unlocking sorcery in her own fate? It’s unsettling, but imagine Nimueh, the first of the three high priestesses, having a hand in the spiritual “coronation” of Morgana as high priestess. Nimueh foresaw the future and influenced it by conjuring the afanc so she could deprave the soon-to-be-witch’s psyche. Subtext we will never be privy to except through fan fiction.