Connecticut Yankee first editionFirst U.S. edition

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur

Also called
A Yankee in King Arthur's Court

First publication
1889, England

Literature form(s)
Novel

Genres
Literary, science fiction

Language
English

Author's country
United States

Length
Approx. 120,000 words

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT

Mark Twain's dark ages

If your first exposure to Mark Twain's time travel tale was the Disney or other screen adaptations, you may be shocked by your reading of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Shocked by how rough it is. Not just satirical in the genial way Twain is usual thought of but downright angry, bitter and often vicious.

And this isn't even the author at his most cynical—that's still to come. This is Twain who's worked his way through the increasingly pointed satire of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper and Huckleberry Finn. Two decades after the Civil War, he's ready for his sharpest attack yet on the Southern culture he had grown out of.

More specifically he takes aim at the British medieval tradition he felt provided inspiration for the aristocratic delusions of the antebellum South, leading to its catastrophe.

The legends of King Arthur are thought now to have been built up around a military leader who led Britain's Dark Ages to push out the Anglo-Saxon invaders from Northern Europe who were trying to take the place of the recently withdrawn Roman rulers. If he existed at all, he did not live in a storied stone castle. He did not lead chivalric knights in shining armour. He may not even have been a king.

Twain couldn't have known this when he was writing A Connecticut Yankee, but it doesn't matter. His target is the stories of the noble knights and their derring-do, true or not, that supported the feudal class system, making life miserable for the majority of people and perpetuating oppression across Europe and eventually part of the New World.

A different revolution

One of his most vituperative attacks in this novel is directed against the French aristocracy who met their end in what he calls "the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villany away in one swift tidal-wave of blood." The Yankee of the novel, Hank Morgan, doesn't quite excuse the violent excess of the French Revolution but puts it in a larger context:

There were two "Reigns of Terror," if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the "horrors" of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Hank is reminded of pre-revolutionary France when he witnesses the misery of the people in Arthur's time. Later, when the minions of the Church and the nobility and their minions turn against him, he doesn't hesitate to slaughter them by the thousands.

Before things get to that point, however, his revolution is of a different sort. He uses his knowledge of nineteenth-century science to discredit the superstition of the day and magic in the person of Merlin, impressing everyone with his own magic and making himself "The Boss", second only to Arthur. He uses his knowledge of nineteenth-century technology to create industry, set up communications, and communications, and produce deadlier weapons. He introduces business, a new monetary system, and even a fledgling advertising industry.

In short, he carries out a largely peaceful—though many deaths and injuries occur along the way—capitalist revolution in the midst of an early feudal society.

This is all highly unlikely of course. It's ahistorical to say the least. Hank doesn't go into great detail explaining how he can make such foundational changes in an entrenched social system in just a few years. It all seems to be racked up to good ol' Yankee know-how, American energy and trust in progress. (Significantly the hero is from a northern state.) The tone throughout the novel is light, at least between the serious rants, and the Yankee is consistently brash, always with the big plans and a self-confidence that runs right over any obstacles.

In the end though, one of those entrenched social forces, the Roman Catholic Church, brings about the Yankee's downfall. Perhaps Twain recognized how ridiculously incredible his story was and wanted to acknowledge how difficult change is in the real world.

Or perhaps he was just making a comment on Yankee self-delusion. It is unclear how much the author recognized his novel exposed the greed, the shallowness and the danger inherent in the system of which his Yankee was a proponent, while ostensibly striving to repudiate an earlier corrupt system.

Science fiction or fantasy

Some commentators have pointed out how description of the final battle in A Connecticut Yankee—with machine guns mowing down attacking troops, bombs creating craters, and bodies piling up—resembles the battlefield carnage of the Great War. Twain could not have been predicting the world to come twenty-five years later, but the similarity of the scenes from fiction and history is striking.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is often categorized as science fiction. It's heralded as an early time-travel story in the field, though the mechanism by which the traveller is thrown back into the past is not scientifically explained. He's just hit on the head with a crowbar and wakes up in Arthur's world. For much of the time you might wonder if perhaps he's in a coma dreaming of the past—which would explain his unrealistic success in that world. In the end he is returned to the present by being put to sleep by Merlin for thirteen hundred years.

These details would seem to place the book on the fantasy shelf. But the Yankee's use of science and technology, the whole alternative history angle, tips it over into the science fiction end of the speculative section.

Regardless of this distinction, one genre it does not fit into is that of humour, though it has often been classed as such. Sure, several humorous moments occur in this novel, but they do in many serious literary works. Perhaps it's satire, a dark satire.

One shouldn't let the lively language, the wit and, especially, Twain's early funny work, blind one to the very serious and dark material in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT