Friday, August 30, 2013

Classic Fiction: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

It's been awhile since I have posted about a classic novel, door stop or otherwise. So I decided to write about Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Much like anything else written by Twain, this novel is incredibly humorous while also managing to be very serious as Twain addresses the economy, religion, slavery, personal freedom, education, technology, and the destructive nature of war, amongst other things. 

The Situation: Hank Morgan is a highly skilled mechanic in 19th century New England, where he works in an arms factory. One day, during a quarrel, he is struck on the head, and wakes up in 6th century England. It is the time of King Arthur's Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. A time when the only thing more powerful than the divine right of the king is the influence of the church. At first, Hank believes he is simply dreaming, but when hours lead to days, he realizes he is in this unfamiliar place to stay. 

The Problem: Aside from the obvious issue of being transported away from your home to a time and place that is completely unfamiliar to him, Hank also finds himself in trouble almost immediately upon arriving in Camelot. One of the Knights of the Round Table captures him as prisoner, and once Hank realizes he has been sentenced to die, he starts to think of how he can not only save his own life, but also influence these people to change what he sees as their backwards way of living and improve upon their quality of life, while profiting from it of course. But in saving his own skin, Hank also manages to make a powerful enemy of Merlin, the most renown magician of King Arthur's time. During Hank's years in Camelot, he becomes a knight, a king of industry and business, a slave, and even a ruthless autocrat responsible for one of the worst wars King Arthur's England will ever see.

Genre, Themes, History: In true Twain style, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a satire that contains much of his trademark dark pessimism and quick wit. There are moments that are laugh out loud funny, and then in the next page there may be a scene that will make you audibly gasp in horror. From Hank's first few days in Camelot, it becomes fairly easy to see why the English did not much care for this book when it came out (and they actually still may not care for it). Twain pulls no punches in mocking and ridiculing the monarchy, the church, the economy, the laws, and even the people of England. Sure, it can be argued that he is making fun of the England of the past, but much of what he is pointing at still remained true in the 19th century. It is also no small thing to make fun of the Arthur legend. And while Hank puts down the practices of 6th century England, he simultaneously elevates and praises American ingenuity and laws and education. 

Twain also uses many stories concerning the Knights of the Round Table as they appear in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The author gives Hank a history that intertwines with that of the knights. Hank even goes on a long tour of the country with King Arthur at his side as they both pretend to be traveling commoners.

My Verdict: When it comes to Twain, I prefer this novel over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They both have that dark, quick wit that can turn incredibly serious within the same paragraph, but for me, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is much less frustrating. And while Hank may be the hero of the story, Twain makes the point that he may not actually know what is best for Camelot, despite the "advancements" and ideas he is able to put into place. Material progress isn't always a good thing, and better weapons do not necessarily mean better wars. But even with the brutality and awful truths, there are scenes that are genuinely touching and endearing. And of course, Twain still gives us plenty to laugh at.

Favorite Moment: When King Arthur and Hank visit the smallpox house. It is possibly the saddest moment in the book, but it gives Arthur a kind of humanity that you often don't see in other stories about him.

Favorite Character: While she may be a bit vapid, I do like Hank's companion on his first adventure, Sandy. She can talk for hours on end about nothing, with no interruptions deterring her from her story. And while Hank may complain about her, he is good enough to humor her, and even ends up loving her. 

Recommended Reading: It stands to reason that I would recommend Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I never cared for that book, so I won't. I do believe that everyone should read it, but it is not one of my personal favorites. Instead I'll recommend Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Yes, it is a door stop. Yes, it is totally worth it. 

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