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Merle may start off as Eric's love interest, but that doesn't mean she's just standing on the sidelines looking beautiful. As the story progresses, Merle's character gets her own backstory and details to make her into an awesome female character in her own right. Remember: She, too, lives seven lifetimes. You go, Merle.
Merle journeys through the same bunch of lives Eric goes through, so let's take a look at her over the course of time:
Long journey, right? But while Merle (luckily) gets a whole new body in each of these lives, she still has the same little themes and ideas that run through each of them. Like Eric, her fundamental characteristics stay the same.
One of Merle's constants is her mannerisms. Over and over again she tilts her head to the side, or she touches someone's arm in just the right way. In fact, you'll notice that whenever someone is falling in love with Merle, they note these same little details about her.
Merle also has her own cute catchphrase—it's basically a version of speak of the devil—and while the exact wording changes from life to life, the sentiment is always the same. This fits perfectly for Merle since she's always following folks around and seems a bit surprised by the people that appear in her life, including Eric.
The hare is also associated with Merle. Queen Melle lives by hunting winter hare; in the 10th century, Melle's totem is the hare; in 1902, little Merle's favorite birthday present is a small carved hare; and in 1848, Erika describes Merle as a "fresh and fast creature from the fields" (5.2.3) even before her beloved turns herself into a hare. We are repeatedly told that Merle's movements are light and lovely and graceful, too—like a hare.
Merle gets to tell her own story a few times—like in 1902 or the 10th century—but most of the time we're seeing her through someone else's eyes. So, how do the other folks in the story view her?
She's obviously beautiful and alluring. There's something about her that draws people in, and Eric is almost always smitten with her right away. Even Edward thinks the middle aged Merle is lovely—"the lines around her eyes only seem to highlight their elegance" (2.6.12). But, even though she's nice to look at, she's not some model just hanging around looking beautiful on Blessed Island. Merle's allure comes from within, too.
See, she's also a thinker. Merle is good at playing the long game and hatching plans, and not at all opposed to sneaking around a bit to realize her goals. In 2073, for instance, she stops drinking the dragon orchid tea, but lets Tor think that she's still taking it; while in 1902, Merle's the one who comes up with the plan to get closer to Eric Carlsson's house by leaving him apples. And in the 1848 story, Merle hatches the plot to get back with Erika. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out too well for her in the end, though.
But you don't have to take our words for Merle's internal value. In the 10th century, Melle breaks it down herself, pointing out that she's quite a brainiac compared to her brother:
Eirik was always for doing, not for thinking.
Faced with a runaway dog, Eirik would spend ages happily chasing it around the meadows, whereas I… I would have found a bone and let the dog come to me. (6.4.12-13)
Importantly, in this passage it's clear that Merle isn't someone who's lost in her own thoughts; instead she's someone who carefully considers her actions, using her brain to make things happen the way she wants them to.
Merle follows Eric throughout the centuries, bound to him by love. That said, in each life their love shifts and changes—in one life Merle is a wife, in another she's a mother, in another she's a sister, and she also shows up as a friend. In one life she's just a grateful daughter whose picture graced her father's wallet while he fought in the war.
In each one of her lives and forms, though, Merle is tied to Eric in love and loyalty. In fact, in 1848, she is so devoted that her love drives her mad and she drinks a potion to turn herself into a hare. Through it all, Merle never wavers in her commitment to Eric, even risking her own life—and ultimately losing it—to try to save Eric from being executed. That's some real love right there.
In the end, just like with Eric, she's able to let go and die on the stone table once she finally understands the love that she and Eric have shared for years:
She does understand, she senses it, too. Her tears and her trembling cease, and calm enters her blood.
She knows that they both believe the same thing, that if a life can be ruined in a single moment, a moment of betrayal, or violence, or ill luck, then why can a life not also be saved, be worth living, be made, by just a few pure moments
She shuts her eyes, and dreams of swimming with him.
Immediately, the rest of the world drops away. (7.5.45-48)
By remembering these moments of perfect love—the ones they've shared over seven lifetimes—Merle no longer fears death and can calmly prepare herself for what is to come. The love she has known with Eric across the ages makes it all worthwhile.
Eric may sacrifice himself to save others in life after life, but Merle's big thing is following. From the first moment she is asked, Merle follows Eric throughout the ages:
Knowing her time was at an end, she lay down on the table.
People gathered around, but she still saw no one but the face in front of her, the face of Eirikr, her king.
She shut her eyes, and as the life sighed gently away from her, she finally answered his question.
"Yes," she whispered, "I will follow you." (7.4.25-28)
Those are the words that started their whole crazy journey together. Because Merle agrees to go with her love, she is able to live again with him. In the 10th century, Melle and her twin brother go everywhere together—they even sleep in the same bed; in 1902, Merle keeps coming to Eric's house everyday and leaving apples for him; in 2073, Merle keeps telling Eric Seven that she followed him, which makes her sound a bit like a stalker until we realize that she means for over a thousand years. That's less stalker and more super dedicated.
The most extreme example of Merle's following comes from the story Erika tells in 1848, in which Merle swears to her love that she will never ever go away. Not any easy promise to make:
"Say that you will never leave me," he said, holding her hands.
"I shall never leave you," said Merle.
"Is it so easy to say?" Erik asked, surprised.
"It is, since it is you I speak of," Merle answered. "I will never leave you. No matter what happens, or where you go, or what you do. I will never leave you."
"But it might not be so easy," Erik said. "Our love is forbidden. It might become impossible for us to be together."
Merle shook her head.
"I will find a way," she said. "I will always find a way." (5.4.15-21)
And eventually, she goes insane, turns herself into a hare, and dies trying to keep her promise. Yikes. Is Merle a bit clingy? At times, but generally, her devotion is sweet, though it does turn tragic in this story. Does that mean there's such a thing as too much love? Too much loyalty? Can a woman follow a man too closely and lose all sense of herself? These questions are totally fair game in this book, even if they're left up to personal interpretation.
We could say that Merle is just sort of tagging along with Eric here, that she is following him throughout his lifetimes. But this isn't quite the case. Though Merle starts off as a mysterious beauty, with each story we delve deeper and deeper into her inner life, and as we do, we see that she's not just blindly going where Eric leads. She's following the man she loves, devoting her existence to him over and over again. This isn't an accident, then, but an intention Merle sets; it isn't blind following so much as it is steadfast devotion, then.
What to make of this devotion, though, is entirely up to you, Shmoopers.