A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurís Court PDF Print E-mail

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

Reviewed by John Hertz
June 2009

Retrieved from the Internet Archives (originally published June 2009 at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.

Six years before Wells’ Time Machine (1895) this story, operated by time travel but barely exploring it, is placed in the theater of Aristocracy and the Common Man, like The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), and perhaps Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

It has inspired a dozen versions in film, on stage and television, one a Rodgers & Hart musical (with "Thou Swell"), others featuring Will Rogers, Bing Crosby, Bugs Bunny, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Our protagonist Hank Morgan, the Yankee, is so severe against “those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship” (ch. 28) that his book is often made out to be an attack on them. Perhaps. But let us consider it as science fiction.

“Why ‘but’?” you ask. “Isn’t science fiction social satire?” Perhaps.

There is a framing story. Its narrator, who at the end of the book proves to be Mark Twain, tours Warwick Castle and meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger is more interesting than the tour guide. After a surprising remark he is gone. That evening he knocks on the narrator’s door at the Warwick Arms. He is welcomed with a pipe, a chair, a hot whisky — a few whiskies — in hopes of a tale. After the fourth he begins, “I am an American.” After the day at the Castle this is another surprising remark. The stranger goes on awhile, finds himself drowsy, and takes us to a manuscript called, perhaps by our first narrator, The Tale of the Lost Land, which at the end of the book the first narrator has just finished.

That inner story, whose title is not at all insignificant, and points to Twain’s pioneering treatment of what is now a well-known s-f device, is the story of Hank Morgan and his years with King Arthur — Hank Morgan, born in 19th Century Hartford, and King Arthur, ruling in 6th Century Camelot.

Today’s s-f readers presented with time travel are used to explanation. In science fiction we expect to hear about a machine, or some principle of physics; in fantasy, magic or some mystical idea; on the unclear border, perhaps both, or ambiguity, as in Tim Powers’ Three Days to Never, or Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars whose author believes time travel is fantasy but whose characters don’t know that and think they’re in science fiction.

This is not Twain’s chosen subject, and he is far too masterly to dwell on inessentials. The first words we get from Morgan are on the second page.

“You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about transposition of epochs — and bodies?”
I said I had not heard of it. He was so little interested ... that he did not notice whether I made him an answer or not.

Four pages later we are told barely of his travel away: struck on the head in a fight, he falls comatose, to wake an hour’s walk from Camelot. Four hundred forty-four pages later we are told barely of his return: stabbed in a fight, amid rampant disease he falls comatose; we are not given his moment of awakening.

Nor is the book history. When Morgan first wakes he meets a knight armored in plate of a millennium later. When Morgan rises to power he makes use of a solar eclipse for which he happens to have the exact date, but there was no solar eclipse in 528. Throughout he rails against domination by the Roman Catholic Church, which first made an Archbishop of Canterbury in 597, first baptized an English king — of Kent, not England — in 601, and first employed the Interdict, Morgan’s doom, in the 9th Century.

We do not need to know Twain’s previous achievements to be sure this is no slovenry. Every step shows us what we are in for.

At the start we learn two essentials about Morgan:

My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse-doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade ... to make everything: guns ... boilers, engines.... it didn’t make any difference what....
I became head superintendant.... full of fight.... with a couple of thousand rough men under one, one has plenty of that sort of amusement. I had, anyway. At last I met my match, and I got my dose. It was during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars.

and as he wonders what and where he has come to:

if it was still the nineteenth century and I was among lunatics and couldn’t get away, I would presently boss that asylum or know the reason why; and if ... it really was the sixth century ... I would boss the whole country inside of three months [ch. 2].

He is no tyrant; he is as benevolent as he is feisty and slangy. In his capacity and character are the seeds of his triumph and tragedy.

He does not start as an antagonist. But the first words he gets upon awakening are “Fair sir, will ye just? Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for —” and, when Morgan retorts “What are you giving me? Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you,” the knight charges, Morgan flies up a tree, and the knight takes him prisoner.

By the 21st Century we have innumerable First Contact stories.

Twain mostly sustains the main characters we know from Malory’s superb Death of Arthur: Arthur, Lancelot, Guenevere, Kay who captures Morgan. Twain makes Merlin a charlatan, but shrewd and vital enough to be potent. We can be sure Twain knows Malory, not only because Twain quotes him, but because Twain wields him: his poetry and drama are the tools of this book.

Among Twain’s achievements in Yankee, the people we meet are so painted that we see how they could be what we find they are.

By the 21st Century we also have what we call Clarke’s Law, although Sir Arthur Clarke formulated more, Sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic. That is the matter of this book, before Clarke, before (speaking of Niven) The Flying Sorcerers, and a host of others. Morgan finds that the people who without inspection imprison him, and would execute him, are in dread of magic, perhaps because they are poor at inspection, so he seizes his technology and stands as a magician.

The 19th Century performer Robert-Houdin said A [stage] magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. Twain grasps this and shows Morgan doing it. That is some of the entertainment of this book. I may never forget the appearance of the Constantinople Bagpipers’ Association, with proper complementary details, in the Valley of Holiness (ch. 23).

We love Morgan for his impatience with pretension. We love Amyas le Poulet too, a flippant page whom Morgan finds like-minded, calls “Clarence”, befriends, trains, and is almost succeeded by. Merlin is the figure of pretension. Twain knows that neither of these characters is enough to balance Morgan; this must be the King, who is thus seen, at first glance, noble, benign, and pure (ch. 3), then shown generous and faithful (ch. 6), then found hidebound (ch. 25) — a grave flaw to the likes of Morgan — then revealed wise (ch. 27) — then at the smallpox hut, in Morgan’s own words, sublimely great (ch. 29). Thus Morgan and the King are in the title.

Tragedy needs sympathy. Morgan finds 6th Century England not only credulous and primitive but unjust and in pain. He determines to right these wrongs. During four hundred pages of adventure, hair-raising, comical, or both, he is, off-stage, building workshops, schools, factories. At last Twain brings Morgan to the top and Morgan can throw aside the curtain. Three years later he has slavery abolished, taxation equalized, and the telegraph, telephone, railroad, phonograph, typewriter, sewing machine introduced. But we are almost at the end of the book. What is going to happen?

If Hank Morgan were like Dorothy Gale in The Emerald City of Oz he could stay in this fairyland — or if Twain were writing what Frank Baum wrote. Instead it all crashes. The land is lost.

We have seen Morgan, the alien with advanced technology, arrive in a benighted world and try to enlighten it. He seems to succeed. Since the world is our past, and our 6th Century did not become the 19th, and Twain does not choose to write an alternative history in which it did and so stayed, the success must collapse. Twain says nothing of what we now call the time-traveler’s paradox; he has bigger fish to fry.

Morgan is gotten out of England. While he is gone, various bad elements of human nature arise, a quarrel flares into war, the King is killed, and the Church shuts down everything with an Interdict — including Morgan — as he learns when he comes home to darkness fallen — it is his home by then — and Clarence tells him Church agents had lured him away. Fifty young men stand by him. Thirty thousand knights attack. High technology destroys them. Disease from their corpses destroys the rest. Morgan’s manuscript journal returns with him, as his 19th Century clothes went with him to Camelot.

At the beginning of the end Clarence asks, “Did you think you had educated the superstition out of those people? You may unthink it” (ch. 42). Is this a despondent book? That would be a disaster, not a tragedy. Also the remark is made by a character in fiction, revealing his viewpoint, not necessarily ours.

What kind of teacher is Morgan?

He must be good to have set up all that technology. In his first four years (ch. 10) he has a thousand trained men and fifty brilliant experts; at his height later, surely more. Since Twain puts thousands of men to death so that we see this was not good enough, how was it lacking?

Twain has Morgan tell us.

Inherited ideas are a curious thing.... I had mine, and the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have a long contract on his hands [ch. 8].
Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in this world. It transmits itself like physical form and feature; and for a man, in those days, to have had an idea that his ancestors hadn’t had, would have brought him under suspicion of being illegitimate [ch. 22].

True? Perhaps. But we are in a novel, not a treatise in epistemology; this is a character speaking; and it is, repeated, his confession. The grapes are sour; he could not get them. Yet these are the very grapes at which he set himself.

Great as Morgan is — and he is heroic, or no tragedy — he makes himself the opponent of what he would change, not the ally of the people he wants to improve; he is a fighter, not a lover; and who joins him?

Practicality is the particular care of the s-f author. If the characters and their world are wholly alien, how shall we understand? Not for nothing are there so often youths who must learn as they grow, ignorant or even slow companions who must be explained to. Twain, sending a man from his own day into a distant past, writes a science fiction story from the viewpoint of the alien.

It would be too much to call this a story of an unreliable narrator. Twain’s own love of humankind is great enough that he can satirize his hero. So far his tale is timeless.

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