Themes Explored: fantasy, escapism, luck, wits, endurance, slavery, foolishness and folly, patriotism, society and class, injustice, wisdom, knowledge, technology, modernization, the supernatural, magic, wizardry, romance, adultery, betrayal, satire
Summary: A nineteenth-century American travels back in time to sixth-century England in this darkly comic social satire. (From Goodreads)
Review: I love King Arthur stories, the adventure, romanticism, and fantastical elements. Over the years I have read several dozen versions of the King Arthur legend; some better than others. My first introduction to the King Arthur legend was through Mark Twain’s satire, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Actually, I did not read the book until I was in my teens; my first introduction to the story came in the form of Disney’s 1995 film, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court. What is the story about? Well, it is a time traveling adventure about a Yankee from Connecticut. Who finds himself transported to King Arthur’s Court in the 6th century. Twain clearly did not want anyone to miss the gist of the story. After all, an all-American Yankee in Camelot is a rather absurd, yet hilarious, premise.
Mark Twain was the professional nom-de plume of Samuel L. Clemens. He was born in 1835 in the small town of Florida, Missouri, which still exists today but has a population of zero. The family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, when Clemens was four. After the death of father, Clemens apprenticed with a printer at the Hannibal Courier. This set off a long list of professional adventures. During the Civil War, he served in the Missouri Militia for two weeks before he and his whole company deserted. Shortly afterwards, he migrated West and worked as a prospector and a journalist in the then Nevada Territory and California. By 1867, he had moved to the Northeastern United States and embarked on travels in Europe and Palestine. Around this time, he began to start his literary career and published The Innocents Abroad in 1868. By the late 1880s, he was a well-respected author with several successful novels, especially Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884).
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court met with mixed-to-negative reviews when Twain published it in 1889. The British were not amused. Many Englishmen took offense at the contents of the novel, feeling that it mocked their history and cultural underpinning while also disgracing the glorified ideals of King Arthur and the Round Table. I wonder what their reaction would have been to the disastrous 2004 movie about King Arthur. Other critics hailed the book as a triumphant exploration of social injustices throughout the ages. However, most critics viewed the cynical ending as evidence of Twain’s own disenchantment with the promises of technology and progress.
Rather unusually, Twain opened the book with a preface explaining that while he does not know if 6th century England actually had the particular faults he attributed to its society, he knows they existed later on and that the 6th century probably had worse vices than he could imagine. At first glance, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems little more than a flight of literary fantasy. After all, it fulfills all the criteria of a fantasy novel: an unknown force whisks the Yankee away to a far ago land, there are numerous adventure, daring deeds, wrongs to be righted, and dangerous quests. While the narrative definitely qualifies as a fantasy novel, it is also one of the greatest satires of the epic journey genre. Twain clearly wanted to mock the highly stylized and flowery worded world of high Arthurian legends. The fantasy and adventure elements set up the subtle jokes and point out how ridiculous the 6th century can appear to modern audiences.
Twain liberally borrowed text and plot points from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which is the best known version of the King Arthur legend and inspired many retellings of the tale. Numerous excerpts appear throughout the narrative in a silent acknowledgement of Twain’s debt to Malory and provide a grounding in the Arthurian tradition. Authors in the 1800s used literature as a way to highlight injustices they witnessed in society. Twain was no exception. In this particular novel, the Yankee is a product of 19th century America and detests the unfairness of 6th century institutions, particularly those of inherited rank and social stratification. He blames the Catholic Church, a huge influence in society at the time, for providing justifications for social inequality. His solution is to destroy the Church’s potential for abuse by breaking it into separate sects, thus obliterating its influence over cultural norms.
At his heart, the Yankee is an idealist and firmly embraces the idea that technology can improve people’s lives and cause positive social change. In the end, though, the character loses his idealistic tone because the promise of technology falls short of his lofty goals. While Twain mocks the English monarchy, he also makes a mockery of Hank Morgan’s (The Yankee) dream that technology would improve the morality of mankind. This is a tone that Twain carried into his later works.
From a literary perspective, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court provides an excellent example of a “framed story.” The opening chapter describes how a tourist in England, heavily implied to be Mark Twain, meets a stranger at a castle. This Stranger, aka the Yankee, begins to tell the tourist part of his story. He begins by talking about how his childhood in Connecticut, growing up in a practical manner, and becoming highly skilled with machinery. One day the Stranger got into a fight and took a blow to the head from a crowbar. This blow knocks him unconscious. After a while, he regains consciousness only to have a knight in armor inexplicably take him prisoner and transport him to Camelot. Naturally, the Stranger assumes the knight is either a circus-performer or insane and that Camelot is the name of the asylum. During this conversation, the Stranger becomes drowsy, so he brings the tourist back to his room and bestows a manuscript upon him that tells the rest of the strange tale. The rest of the book comes from this manuscript. In the last chapter, the tourist finishes reading the manuscript and frantically searches for the stranger, only to find him dying and calling out for the wife and daughter he left behind in 6th century England.
When giving commentary on the book, Twain wrote that the Yankee is a perfect ignoramus. He runs a machine shop, can build a locomotive and a Colt’s revolver, construct and run a telegraph line, but he is nonetheless an ignoramus. Twain clearly meant this description to imply that the Yankee was not an intellectual, but, rather, a person of Yankee ingenuity. A 19th century intellectual would not have survived in the cutthroat 6th century England. Only an inventive and ingenious person with a strong will to live would have been able to survive such a mind boggling adventure. Overall, I would highly recommend reading this excellent novel. Especially if you just starting to read Mark Twain’s body of work since this is easier to read than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In addition, fans of the King Arthur genre of literature will especially enjoy this book since it mercilessly lampoons the mysticism that has grown around the legend.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Barnes & Nobles, 2005, ISBN: 9781593082109