The Bookworm: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. 410 pages. Penguin Classics. 1889.

The newest prisoner’s crime was a mere remark which he had made. He said he believed that men were about all alike, and one man as good as another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you were to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he couldn’t tell the King from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel clerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reduced to an ineffectual mush by idiotic training (p. 167).

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court was among the required readings for the class on Twain I took in college. I didn’t read it, though. I don’t remember why but I guess I decided to take a break. Ever since, though, A Connecticut Yankee remained a hole in my Twain collection and was something I knew I needed to read at some point. Last fall, I found a used copy at The Haunted Bookshop and decided it was high time to finally read it.

A Connecticut Yankee is the story of Hank Morgan, a Connecticut mechanic and foreman in the 1880s, who wakes up in sixth century England after being knocked unconscious in a fight. Morgan is unsure where he is at first, is captured by a knight, and taken to Camelot, which Morgan figures is an insane asylum. He eventually learns that the year is 528 and that he is in King Arthur’s court. Morgan is condemned to death after being presented to the court as a “prodigious giant,” a “horrible sky-towering monster,” and “tusked and taloned man-devouring orgre.” Morgan, though, is spared execution when he predicts a solar eclipse and convinces everyone he is a great sorcerer. He becomes “the second personage in the Kingdom,” second in power only to the king, and uses his newfound prominence and technical knowledge to discredit wizardry and gradually introduce 19th century innovations, economics, and democratic ideals to sixth century England.

As mentioned in the introduction by Justin Kaplan (which at times seemed too dense for its own good), A Connecticut Yankee was written after Twain’s investment in the ill-fated Paige Typesetting Machine ruined him financially. Kaplan wrote, “Mark Twain, as it turned out, had fully understood the implications of an automatic type-setter. His mistake, which drove him into bankruptcy, was in backing the wrong horse in the right race (p. 12).” The book and the failure of the typesetting machine were, as Kaplan wrote, “twinned” in Twain’s mind. In classic Twain style, A Connecticut Yankee presents the double-edged sword of innovation and mechanization: machines can make life so much easier, but they be destructive, as is shown with a massacre of knights at the end of the book.

In that sense, A Connecticut Yankee is a very morbid book, especially for Twain. I am sure he held himself back, but his descriptions of life in his imagined sixth century England — the peasants’ struggles, the treatment of criminals, and the lives of slaves — had an intended effect. The book is a commentary on the evils of cast systems, monarchy, established religion, and slavery — in both the sixth and 19th centuries. The ordinary English that Morgan encounters during the book are an impoverished lot, both of means and mind.

There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fish-hook with; but you didn’t seem to mind that, after a little, because you soon saw that brains were not needed in a society like that, and, indeed, would have marred it, hindered it, spoiled its symmetry — perhaps rendered its existence impossible (p. 54).

The English commoners had been battered and beaten into submission by the nobility, gentry, and Catholic church. They had been trained well to believe whole heartedly in being subjects and no more. Those that did not toe the line were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly, like the prisoner in the opening quote. Morgan cannot stand it and dreams of dismantling the monarchy, abolishing slavery and nobility, and placing the government “in the hands of the men and women of the nation.” He dreams of turning England into a republic.

Dream on, Hank Morgan. Dream on.

I abhor monarchy and aristocracy, so I thoroughly enjoyed how Twain dragged both through the mud. A Connecticut Yankee was a joy to read in that sense. I especially liked the part of the book when Morgan convinces King Arthur to disguise himself and walk from town to town to get an idea of how the lower classes live. (Though fiction, A Connecticut Yankee was in certain ways a travelogue like The Innocents Abroad — a book I did read for that Twain class and would like to read again.) They are eventually enslaved and King Arthur, who had no problem with slavery before, quickly becomes an abolitionist.

However, I was very happy to finish this book. I was just not a big fan, especially of the long-winded English characters who droned on and on in a sometimes incomprehensible Middle English. Sure, Twain probably had a riot writing their dialogue, but it was tedious reading. The book also fell flat at the end. It was not necessarily deus ex machina, but the ending was very convenient. Or purposefully confusing. The book is supposedly a journal given to Twain by a stranger while visiting England. Hank Morgan’s story is bookended by short chapters were Twain is given the journal and begins to read it, then finishes it in the morning and visits the stranger, who babbles like a madman. The ending left me wondering if Twain wanted us to believe Morgan’s fantastic story, make us think that he did live in the sixth century, or if Morgan was an unreliable narrator.

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