Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Connecticut YankeeA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain begins with a group of people touring a castle. The writer notices another man who is unusually knowledgeable about armor and seems from “some remote era and old forgotten country.” They begin talking and end up at the writer’s room, where the other man is persuaded to tell his story. He begins, but becoming sleepy, he shows the writer a manuscript he had compiled from his journals and invites him to read the rest there.

The manuscript tells of Hank Morgan, born of a blacksmith and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, who grew up to learn to make guns and “all sorts of labor-saving machinery” until he became head superintendent of an arms factory. In a fight with one of his men, he was hit on the head with a crowbar and passed out. When he woke up, he was in a meadow he didn’t remember and a man in armor on a horse was claiming him as a prisoner. At first he thought the man was from a circus, or perhaps an asylum, but deemed it safest to go with him for the moment.

He is taken to King Arthur’s court in Camelot where he is told the year is 513. A page tells him that his captor is Sir Kay, and that after dinner the knights will display their captures for the day, and afterward he, Hank, will be thrown in the dungeon until his friends could ransom him. Being newly arrived, of course Hank had no friends. In that case, he learned, he would be put to death along with the other prisoners.

Somehow he happened to remember that an eclipse was due the next day, so he told the king and his company that he was a magician, and if he was not released, he would blot out the sun. When the eclipse begins to happen, everyone is terrified, and Arthur begs him to restore the sun. Hank says he will if Arthur will “appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state.” Arthur agrees and Hank becomes known by the title “The Boss.”

Hank reasons that, having been born 13 centuries later, he’s the most educated person in the kingdom. While he misses many conveniences (books, tobacco, candles, etc.) and it takes him a while to really settle into the fact of his circumstances, eventually he uses his position, the people’s superstitions, and “Yankee ingenuity” to create schools, factories, newspapers, and a whole host of other inventions and institutions. He wants to correct what he sees as social ills, but that must be done a little more carefully and stealthily. He doesn’t like the fact that someone of poor character who is a noble has advantages and rank and a person of good character but no nobility was basically a slave. He also doesn’t like knight errants and the control of the Catholic church and sets about to undercut their power..

The rest of the book tells of his experiences, discussions, adventures, inventions, battles, etc., until the ultimate end of it all.

I had gotten this book both because I am trying to familiarize myself with classic I’ve missed and also because I thought this would be humorous. It was, in some respects, but not as much as I would have thought. Maybe it was more so when it was published in 1889.

The ending was not at all what I was expecting: in fact, it was sad and discordant: one source said cynical. Perhaps Twain – and/or Hank – realized that technology wasn’t really the answer, or at least that it came with its own problems. I spent a lot of time looking at analyses in various places trying to determine whether this story was just meant as a humorous jab at idyllic medieval literature or whether it was trying to say something else, but the responses were mixed. The Wikipedia article says it is “a satire of romanticized ideas of chivalry, and of the idealization of the Middle Ages common in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other 19th century literature. Twain had a particular dislike for Scott, blaming his kind of romanticism of battle for the southern states deciding to fight the American Civil War.”

Hank spends much of the book highly critical of the sixth century, particularly its customs and superstitions, yet at the end, he longs to be back in it (it’s no spoiler to say he does come back to his own time since the opening chapter has him talking to someone from his modern century). One source said this was inconsistent, but I think perhaps it shows he learned that the people he came to love were the most important part of his time there, not the inventions or improvements.

Some of my favorite humorous exchanges:

[A boy] arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.

“Go ‘long,” I said; “you ain’t more than a paragraph.”

“I was born modest. Not all over, but in spots.”

“His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.”

“I allowed silence to accumulate while I got my impressiveness together.”

“We had a solemn stage-wait, now, for about twenty minutes—a thing I had counted on for effect; it is always good to let your audience have a chance to work up its expectancy.  At length, out of the silence a noble Latin chant—men’s voices—broke and swelled up and rolled away into the night, a majestic tide of melody.  I had put that up, too, and it was one of the best effects I ever invented. When it was finished I stood up on the platform and extended my hands abroad, for two minutes, with my face uplifted—that always produces a dead hush—”

But the parts I enjoyed most weren’t the humorous ones, maybe because the bravado is gone. They seemed the best written to me. My favorite section is when Hank and King Arthur go out disguised as commoners to see how the people really live. In one area they come upon a family dying of smallpox, and the humaneness of both of them is very touching.

Hank sounds quite arrogant in much of his narration, calling the people “ignorant” often (“The populace uncovered and fell back reverently to make a wide way for me, as if I had been some kind of a superior being—and I was”; “There was something very engaging about these great simple-hearted creatures, something attractive and lovable.  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.”) But he owns up to the blunders he makes and learns from them, and, in the end, came to appreciate at least the people dearest to him. And though he thinks kings are “dangerous” and wants eventually to establish a republic, he saw value even in the king at times:

There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was.  It was the king descending.  I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other.  He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen.  She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox.  Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel.  He was great now; sublimely great.  The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition—I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.

Well, it was noble to see Launcelot and the boys swarm up onto that scaffold and heave sheriffs and such overboard.  And it was fine to see that astonished multitude go down on their knees and beg their lives of the king they had just been deriding and insulting. And as he stood apart there, receiving this homage in rags, I thought to myself, well, really there is something peculiarly grand about the gait and bearing of a king, after all.

(When Hank and the King were in disguise and taken as slaves): The king’s body was a sight to see—and to weep over; but his spirit?—why, it wasn’t even phased.  Even that dull clod of a slave-driver was able to see that there can be such a thing as a slave who will remain a man till he dies; whose bones you can break, but whose manhood you can’t.  This man found that from his first effort down to his latest, he couldn’t ever come within reach of the king, but the king was ready to plunge for him, and did it.  So he gave up at last, and left the king in possession of his style unimpaired. The fact is, the king was a good deal more than a king, he was a man; and when a man is a man, you can’t knock it out of him.

I’ve never been much of a Mark Twain fan, and this book didn’t really make me eager to pick up any of his others. And though this won’t go down as one of my favorite classics, there were parts among those I have quoted that I particularly enjoyed. I’m glad to have read it and to be familiar now with the story.

You can find this book online free at Project Gutenberg, and there is a free Kindle edition here. I went back and forth between the audiobook and Kindle versions.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

  1. Barbara, I always wanted to know what this book was about. Thank you. Such a good description of the book. I know that there was a movie out with that title starring, I think, Bing Crosby. I thought it was a comedy too. Thanks for the good review.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your review. I guess this one has been on my radar for years, but never got around to it. Still undecided if I should read it, but then again, I’m sure I will one day… just because it’s a classic!

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