Friday, March 5, 2010

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 
© 1889 Mark Twain (alias Samuel Clemens)
Bantam Classic edition, 274 pages



I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court along with other highly-esteemed literature as a child through the 'Great Illustrated Classics' series. In the summer I decided to begin revisiting these classics in their original form. Yankee is the story of one Hank Morgan, a machinist who is rudely transported through time and across an ocean to the time of King Arthur by a simple blow to the head.  Quickly captured by a knight and taken to Camelot to be burned as a tresspassing lunatic, Morgan manages to save himself and achieve power by using "Yankee ingenuity" and the preemptive power of Clarke's third law.

Happily, the date of his arrival to the world of King Arthur coincides with that of a full solar eclipse. Morgan uses this to his advantage, threatening to block out the light of the sun forever -- relenting only when King Arthur agrees to make Morgan his right-hand man. Morgan quickly overtakes the wizard Merlin as the land's preeminent magician, using his scientific and mechanical knowledge to gain the fear and respect of Arthur's court.  Morgan aims to take command of the country -- not overtly, but by guiding its progress into a new world. While earning his keep in making the country's bureacracy run more effiencly, Morgan lays the foundation for a cultural takeover -- establishing secret factories and schools that will create the 19th century thirteen hundred years early.  To do this, he must render Merlin impotent, destroy knight-errantry, and erode the power of the church. Only by abandoning superstition, tradition, and authoritative religion can Morgan successfully create the kind of progressive society he believes himself to have formerly been part of.  Alas, the newly-styled "Boss" of England will become a victim of his own success and all of his hopes will hinge on one battle.

When I read the book as a child, I saw it only as a simple story of speculative fantasy:  if Twain's satirical humor and commentary were present in that manuscript, they were completely lost on me. Not so, this time: Twain uses the book to lambast medieval romanticism, spending much time to describe the miseries of the general period. As the world of King Arthur  never truly existed -- being a world that evolved in the imaginations of centuries of men, changing as the given culture demanded -- Twain is not criticizing any specific timeframe, but rather a dark-age or early medieval stereotype. Twain also pokes fun at the 19th century idea of progress, one that is limited to the progress of technology and not necessarily of the human spirit. Morgan also comments repeatedly on the power of mental "training", what we might call indoctrination or conditioning. He regards the medieval man as being woefully ignorant and credulous in part because he is relentlessly trained to be so: not all the rational arguments of the world can budge a lifetime of mental apathy or credulity.

Yankee makes for a entertaining read, with much thought-provoking humor. Its commentary says as much of Twain's day as it does of Arthur's.

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