A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtIntroduction
Throughout the centuries, people have looked to the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as the standard for a harmonious society. In the stories that have been passed down, knights were bold and chivalrous, fighting real and supernatural foes for the honor of themselves and the ladies they pledged themselves to. The king wisely watched over his subjects with an eye toward justice. In 1889, Mark Twain published the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to debunk the myths. The book has a man of Twain's era magically transported back to Camelot, the court of King Arthur. What he encounters is not a mystical time of dragons and sorcery, but a time of ignorance and suffering, when anyone who claims to have witnessed a supernatural event is believed by all. The King's court is balanced atop an unjust social system that ignores the rights of the working people and confers divine rights upon nobles who, having been born to wealth and power, have no idea of justice. The book's protagonist makes himself more powerful than the legendary magician Merlin by performing tricks that are simple for a man with contemporary knowledge. In addition, the protagonist sets about making wide-reaching social reforms, only to find that enlightenment ultimately does not work with superstitious, naïve people.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court continues to be as relevant today as it was in Twain's time. As a social satire by one of America's great humor writers, it remains one of the funniest books in our nation's literary history.
Mark Twain (the most well-known pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemons) was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, and grew up in Hannibal, a Missouri town along the Mississippi river. Hannibal was to play a significant role in some of Twain's most popular books and stories. When Twain was twelve, his father died. Twain then helped support his family by going to work as a printer's apprentice. After several failed business partnerships with his brother Orion, he took off across the American west, selling travel pieces to newspapers.
In 1857, Twain left on a trip to South America, with a contract to write about his adventures. While traveling down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, Twain struck up a friendship with a riverboat captain named Horace Bixby. Twain abandoned his plan and instead became Bixby's apprentice, earning his own license to pilot steamboats in 1859. It was around this time that he adopted the name Mark Twain.
During the Civil War, Twain served for a short time in the Confederate army and then went out west, first to Nevada and then to San Francisco. In both places, he ran into trouble with the local governments for his sarcastic writings and had to leave each city in a hurry. It was at this time that Twain published his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which was printed in newspapers across America, making him famous. Twain's humor sketches and travel pieces provided him with a comfortable living. He married Olivia Langdon, who came from a wealthy, established family, and they eventually settled into Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived for the next twenty years.
Twain's first novel, The Gilded Age, was co-written with his friend and neighbor Charles Dudley Warner and published in 1873. Soon after that, he wrote the two books for which he is best remembered today: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court followed in 1889.
Twain was as famous during his lifetime as a lecturer as he was as a writer, traveling extensively across the United States and Europe, telling his humorous anecdotes before crowds of thousands. He received an honorary master's degree from Yale in 1888 and an honorary doctorate from the same institution in 1901. In addition, Twain received honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri in 1904 and from Oxford University in 1907.
In his later years, Twain became increasingly angry with the moral weaknesses of the human race. This anger only solidified after the deaths of his oldest daughter in 1896 and then his wife in 1904. Twain's later writings and lectures were marked by the dark bleakness of his vision of humanity's future. When he died of heart disease on April 21, 1910, Twain was recognized as one of the greatest authors that America had ever produced.
In the first chapter of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain addresses readers as himself, telling of a trip he made to England when he made the acquaintance of a stranger at Warwick Castle. This stranger tells him that he was in England at the time of King Arthur. That night, the narrator reads a story about Sir Launcelot fighting giants, and the stranger comes to his room.
The stranger, Hank Morgan (his name is never actually revealed until Chapter XXXIX), explains that he was a gunsmith in Hartford, Connecticut, when, during a fight, he was hit on the head with a crowbar. When he came to, he did not recognize his surroundings and was told that he was in Camelot. He gives the narrator a manuscript of his journal from that time, and the rest of the novel is told as if he (Hank) wrote it.
Soon after arriving, Hank meets a young man he calls Clarence, who tells him that the year is 513. Hank is taken prisoner by Sir Kay the Seneschal and taken into the palace, where he observes the familiar characters of legend. However, Hank finds them to be exaggerators, liars, and naively superstitious. Sir Kay tells exaggerated tales about how he conquered giants; Sir Dinadan tells jokes that Hank knows from his own childhood. Merlin tells how King Arthur gained his enchanted sword, Excalibur. Hank explains that he himself is a magician and has been familiar with Merlin, in different guises, over the course of centuries. Because Hank knows that the date of a solar eclipse is eminent, he threatens to block out the sun if not released from custody. Just as Hank is being led to his execution, the eclipse occurs, and everyone marvels at Hank's powerful magic. Hank follows this trick by destroying Merlin's tower, which he manages by inventing gun powder, hiding it in the tower walls, and attaching a lighting rod as a detonator.
Hank is then accepted as the most powerful magician in the country. He is made an advisor to King Arthur and given a title: "The Boss." Over the next four years, Hank undertakes social reforms, such as starting a school system, reforming the mining system and the currency, and developing a telegraph and telephone system. Hank's employees in these adventures are kept separate from the rest of the population.
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was adapted as a light-hearted musical in 1949, starring Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, Cedric Hardwicke, and William Bendix. The music is by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. It was released by Universal on VHS in 1993.
- Iconic American humorist Will Rogers had the starring role in the 1931 adaptation of Twain's story, called simply A Connecticut Yankee. Directed by David Butler, it was released by Twentieth Century Fox and is available on VHS.
- In 2001, comedian Martin Lawrence starred in Black Knight, a movie that was an adaptation of Twain's basic premise. In this version, Lawrence plays a contemporary amusement park operator who is transported back to medieval times. It is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Video.
- A two CD recording of an abridged version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is available from Naxos, published in 2001. It is read by Kenneth Jay.
- Comedian Carl Reiner recorded an abridged version of the novel for Dove Audio's Ultimate Classics series in 1993. It is available on three CDs.
- Blackstone Audio has an 8-cassette version of the book that is unabridged. It is read by Chris Walker and was released in 1999.
- The entire text of this novel is available on the Internet at http://www.literature.org/authors/twain-mark/connecticut/index.html in a searchable format.
- Almost anything that a student would want to find out about Arthurian legend is cross-referenced at the University of Rochester's web page at The Camelot Project: Arthurian Texts, Images, Bibliographies and Basic Information. This web page can be found at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cphome.stm
A woman, Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, comes to Camelot and tells the tale of forty-four maidens being held prisoner for twenty-six years by three one-eyed, four-armed brothers. Hank is skeptical, but King Arthur believes her tale and sends Hank out in armor with the girl to rescue her friends.
Traveling the countryside with Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise, whom Hank nicknames Sandy, Hank sees the political situation as it really is. He finds that free men are not free at all because they have to pay large portions of their crops to the king and the church. Hank stops at the castle of Morgan Le Fey, Arthur's sister, and sees how a really cruel despot treats her subjects. He tours Le Fey's dungeons and meets a man imprisoned on the testimony of a masked, anonymous stranger: the man accepts cruel punishment because his wife would lose all that she owns if he were to confess. Hank sends the man and his wife to the Man Factory, a brain trust of the smartest and bravest citizens. Hank finds dozens of prisoners in the castle's dungeons who were put there so long ago that no one knows what they were convicted of. Hank frees them.
When Hank and Sandy eventually reach the castle that Sandy has described, it turns out to be a common pigsty, and the maidens that she said were being held prisoner are the pigs. She tells Hank that it just seems that way to him because of a magic spell, and he admits that it might be his view and not hers that is wrong.
On the way home, they join a group of pilgrims going to the Valley of Holiness, where they find that the sacred spring has stopped flowing. Hank examines it and finds a way to fix the well that feeds the spring. This act increases Hank's reputation.
After returning to Camelot and establishing more improvements in law and journalism, Hank decides to travel the country disguised as a peasant. King Arthur decides to join him. They run across all sorts of social injustices while traveling, such as the fate of a family unable to maintain their farm because the adult sons are in prison for a crime they did not commit.
Presenting themselves as a farmer and his bailiff, Hank and King Arthur lunch in one town with the local tradesmen and argue about politics. Offended, one of the men manages to have King Arthur and Hank arrested and put into slavery. In London, Hank eventually manages to escape and goes to a shop that has one of the telephones on the network he has devised. Hank calls Clarence to send help from Camelot. Just as Hank and King Arthur are on the gallows ready to be hanged, Sir Launcelot and five hundred knights, riding bicycles, arrive and save them.
Back in Camelot, Hank is forced to face up to a challenge to duel that was made years earlier by Sir Sagramor, who has been off seeking the Holy Grail. Hank, without wearing armor and without carrying a lance, faces Sir Sagramor. Hank wears Sir Sagramor down with deft horse riding and then pulls him off his mount with a lasso. Other knights rise to challenge Hank. He uses the lasso seven more times before Merlin steals it. Hank then starts shooting the other knights with his pistol before the knights give up.
Three years pass. Hank is married to Sandy, and they have a daughter. When the baby becomes sick, Sandy and the baby go to France for a warmer climate. Hank returns to England to find the country practically deserted. Clarence informs him that King Arthur found out about the romance between Guenever and Sir Launcelot and ordered her burned at the stake. Clarence also tells Hank that Launcelot, in trying to rescue Guenever, killed several knights, leading to a massive Civil War. When all of the knights were dead, including King Arthur, the Catholic Church invaded the country.
Hank and Clarence organize fifty-two young men at Merlin's Cave to defend the free political system that has grown over recent years; however, the people side with the church. Practically the entire country rises against Hank and his men. A clever system of explosives and electrical fences traps the invaders, killing around 25,000 soldiers. Once their bodies start decomposing, the air becomes thick with pestilence. Clarence writes the last chapter of the journal, explaining how Merlin came to them in the cave and put a spell on the injured Hank to sleep for 1,300 years.
In the final chapter of the book, Mark Twain describes finishing the manuscript and going to the room of the stranger who gave it to him. The man is in the room, muttering to Sandy (his long ago wife), and then he dies.
Hank's general impression of King Arthur is that he is too sure of himself and too unaware of the realities of his country. From this assessment, Hank feels that King Arthur is therefore destined to rule poorly. While traveling on his quest to free the damsels, Hank becomes outraged at the inequities of the English economic system and disgusted at the way that peasants are refused any say in their fate. When King Arthur offers to go traveling with Hank (with the king and Hank traveling in disguise), Hank sees his opportunity to show the king what life is like for the large segment of the population. Hank finds King Arthur's regal bearing pitiful because he knows that the king understands only one set of behaviors. Hank also finds the king's actions annoying because he (King Arthur) expresses his own thoughts when he should be listening. Ultimately, King Arthur's behavior proves dangerous because his proclamations while dressed in common clothes are taken to be signs that he is insane, which makes it easy for Dowley to arrange to have Arthur and Hank sold into slavery.
While traveling together, however, Hank sees the admirable side of King Arthur. Entering a house infected with smallpox, King Arthur does not hesitate or think of his own health when bringing an infected child to his mother, who is too weak to stand. King Arthur's belief in the rights of royalty extends to his power over illness, which Hank finds ridiculous when peasants line up to have the king's hands laid on them. But, Hank is impressed that King Arthur thinks nothing of facing death to bring mother and child together.
While Hank thinks King Arthur is a fool for believing that he has powers beyond those of ordinary men, the rest of the population admires him, except in one thing: everyone in the kingdom except King Arthur knows of the affair between King Arthur's wife, Guenever, and Sir Launcelot. For that, the king is silently laughed at by his subjects.
See Hank Morgan
Clarence is a nickname that Hank gives to a young page that talks to him when he first arrives in the sixth century. At first, Clarence seems as slow-witted as all of the peasants around Camelot, but Hank sees potential in him. Clarence turns out to be a useful surrogate for Hank as the he travels around the country. Hank sends people in need to Clarence, and he telephones Clarence to give him instructions. Hank teaches Clarence how to be a good newspaper reporter, which he says is necessary in molding a civilized country. During the final war, when Hank returns to England, Clarence tells him all that he has missed while traveling with his wife and child, and Clarence writes the final chapter of the ancient manuscript, describing how Hank was injured and then put under a spell by Merlin, which enabled him to live until his own time.
Sir Dinadan is the Round Table's humorist. Sir Dinadan is more amused by his jokes than anyone else in the court. Sir Dinadan writes the very first book, which is a collection of jokes. Sir Dinadan includes a joke about a lecturer that Hank hates, and so Hank has Sir Dinadan hanged.
Dowley is the blacksmith in a small village the king and Hank stop in while traveling. Dowley has a big mouth and is unintelligent. He cannot understand that the wages in his town buy less than the wages where his guests come from, and so his wages are valued less overall. Hank humiliates Dowley with a stunning argument, and as a result, Dowley has the two strangers arrested and put into slavery.
Puss is Hank Morgan's girlfriend back in his own time. She lives in East Hartford, Connecticut, and is only mentioned once in the novel when Hank is considering how improper it would be for him to go traveling unchaperoned with Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise.
Guenever is the wife of King Arthur and the lover of Sir Launcelot. In most sources, her name is given as "Guinevere," but Twain gives it as "Guenever."
Hercules is a strong man who works at the blacksmith shop with Hank in the nineteenth century. Hank explains that, during a fight, Hercules hit him on the head with a crowbar, which is what causes him to go back to the sixth century.
Hugo is the man Hank finds imprisoned in Morgan Le Fey's castle. Hugo is charged with killing a deer. Hugo is tortured, but he will not confess to the crime. Hugo eventually tells Hank that he did kill the deer but does not dare confess because his wife will lose all that she owns. Hank has Hugo and his wife sent to join his Man Factory.
Sir Kay is the knight who takes Hank into captivity soon after he arrives in the sixth century and brings him to Camelot, telling the knights there is a fantastic story about how he conquered Hank. Sir Kay refers to Hank with exaggerations like "giant," even though his listeners are standing right in front of him and can see that Hank is an ordinary man.
Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise
In the legend that Hank reads in the book's introduction, Sir Launcelot presents prisoners to the ladies of the court on behalf of Sir Kay. Later, Sir Launcelot leads the army of five hundred knights who storm London by bicycle to save Hank and the king from being hanged. As in the traditional stories, Sir Launcelot is in love with King Arthur's wife, Guenever, and she is in love with him.
The book explains that it is Sir Launcelot's affair with Guenever that destroys the kingdom. Sir Launcelot makes a shrewd investment that financially ruins King Arthur's nephew, Mordred, who, in retaliation, tells King Arthur about the affair. The war that ensues between Sir Launcelot's knights and King Arthur's knights decimates the social order, making it easy for the church to come in and take control.
Morgan Le Fey
Morgan Le Fey is King Arthur's sister and a familiar villain from the Arthurian legends. Hank Morgan stops at her castle while he is on his quest with Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise. Le Fey is a cruel dictator, but she gives in to Hank when she realizes that he is the sorcerer that everyone has heard about. She grudgingly allows him to free prisoners in her dungeon and to show mercy to the mother of a page whom she (Le Fey) killed.
Amyas le Poulet
Marco is a charcoal manufacturer. When the king and Hank are traveling incognito as a farmer and his bailiff, Marco and his wife, Phyllis, have them over for dinner. Marco worries when Hank invites a number of other tradesmen, thinking that he cannot afford such a party, but Hank pays for a sumptuous meal and furnishings to accommodate all.
Unlike the way Merlin the magician is presented in legends, the Merlin here is a braggart and a fool. His reputation is based on the way that he takes tales of ordinary events and adds details that make it look as if his supernatural powers were involved. When, in the third chapter, Merlin tells the story of how Arthur came to be king (with Merlin's help), Hank Morgan is charmed, but everyone in court, who has heard the story numerous times before, falls asleep. Merlin soon gets on Hank's bad side by insisting that he (Hank) be executed. When Hank has a chance to impress people with his own brand of sorcery, he does it by first bettering Merlin and then destroying his tower. Later, when Hank is facing one knight after another in a duel and besting them with his lasso, Merlin steals it from him and then tells King Arthur a lie about the lasso being good for only a set number of uses before it would vanish back to where it came from.
At the end of the book, Merlin proves to be a true magician and a wise politician. When Hank and Clarence and their supporters are fighting to establish a republic, Merlin is present, disguised as an old woman. When Hank is injured, Merlin puts a spell on him so that he will sleep for thirteen centuries, waking up in the time that he came from, thereby sparing him defeat in the war. Merlin dies laughing.
Most of the novel is presented as Hank's journal about his time in the sixth century, which he presents to Twain in the nineteenth century. In it, he tells of how he was transported by a blow to the head back to the court of King Arthur and the changes that he (Hank) made to their backward time. Hank brings them technological advances, such as railroads, telephones, telegraphs, sewing machines, and firearms. Hank promotes political reform, convincing King Arthur to abolish slavery and equalize the tax system so that it does not unfairly burden the poor.
Hank's one personal flaw is that he does not suffer fools well. When dining with Marco and the other tradesmen, for instance, Hank explains that he should not argue with Dowley to the point of humiliating the man, but he cannot help himself. The end result is that Hank and the king are perceived as a threat and sold into slavery. Hank makes a big show of pointing out the fraudulence of Merlin and the rival magician from the East who claims to know things that others are doing far away. Given that most of his attempts to bring nineteenth-century technology to the sixth century are kept in private, it is counter-productive for Hank to take such pride in unmasking the phoniness of the established world. While traveling with King Arthur, Hank actively struggles to suppress his opinion that the king is no better than any other man, knowing that no good can come of insulting the king.
After the kingdom has been torn apart by internal war and then taken over by the Catholic church's interdiction, Hank is the leader of a band of young men who try to keep the country free. When the battle is lost, Merlin, whose power Hank has previously unmasked as fraudulent, places a spell on him so that he will sleep for thirteen hundred years. This explains why, having been transported to the past at the beginning of the narrative, he is able to interact with Mark Twain in the nineteenth century.
Early in the novel, Hank Morgan offends Sir Sagramor when he comments unfavorably about the stale jokes of Sir Dinadan. Sir Sagramor thinks Hank is talking about him. A duel is arranged, but Sir Sagramor has to leave almost immediately on the quest for the Holy Grail, so the duel is postponed. Years later, after Hank returns from slavery, the duel is called on again. Sir Sagramor, dressed in heavy armor, is unable to maneuver himself. Hank beats Sir Sagramor by throwing a cowboy lasso over him and pulling him to the ground.
Sandy is the nickname Hank gives Demoiselle Alisande la Carteloise. She comes to the court in chapter XI with a story about a castle where maidens are being held prisoner by four-armed, one-eyed giants. When Hank is sent out to free the maidens, Sandy travels the countryside with him, boring him with long-winded discussions about her backward views. At the end of the quest, the maidens turn out to be a herd of pigs and the castle they are held in is a sty, which Sandy says just looks that way to Hank because of a magical spell. Their travels end with Hank leaving Sandy at a convent to rest.
Much later, Sandy is reintroduced into the book as Hank's wife. They have a very loving relationship and have a daughter together. When Hank has to leave Sandy and the child, he writes to her every day. Hank's final words on his death bed, hundreds of years later, are to her.
Science and Technology
With his modern technological knowledge, Hank Morgan is able to quickly make himself one of the most powerful personages in King Arthur's realm. Hank commands respect by appealing to the superstitions that the common people usually follow. Hank presents himself as a sorcerer more powerful than Merlin, who Hank sees as holding great political influence simply because he knows how to make himself sound important in his stories. When Hank displays knowledge of astronomy in predicting the solar eclipse and knowledge of pyrotechnics by blowing up Merlin's castle, he is doing things on a large and conspicuous scale so that the common people can marvel at what they perceive to be his powers.
Having earned the sobriquet "The Boss" by fairly simple applications of scientific principles, Hank develops more complex technological advances in private, so that the superstitious population will not revolt in fear. He has telephone and electrical lines run, but close to the ground or underground. When railroad lines are run and newspapers are sold on the street corners, Hank takes care to introduce them gradually so as to not over-whelm the population. The result of this gradualism is that he relies on a secret network of intellectuals to understand his concepts, develop them, and maintain them. When war ravages the country, the forces of ignorance rise up, and all of the scientific and technological advances that he brought from the future are destroyed before they can be misused by the wrong people.
By putting Hank into the royal court, Twain directly addresses the question of the rights and responsibilities of King Arthur. Hank Morgan is quite outspoken about his opinions of royalty. He calls it a delusion, a comfortable myth that the people believed in because it had been taught to them all their lives and had been taught to their parents and grandparents, too. At one point, Hank says that the concept of the divine rights of royalty was developed by the church in order to keep the masses meek and self-sacrificing.
In the book, King Arthur's abuses of his royal power are presented as a result of his being kept separate from the main population and being ignorant about the realities of their lives. After King Arthur has traveled among the common people and been sold into slavery, he abolishes the practice of slavery. King Arthur is shown to be an overall noble person who does the best that can be done with the monarchical tradition. The malicious abuse of the concept of divine right is presented through Twain's characterization of Morgan Le Fey, who thinks nothing of taking the lives and property of peasants on a whim. She is so careless about the lives of her subjects that, when she does not understand what the narrator means when he says that he would like to "photograph" the peasants, she is prepared to casually take a sword and kill them, rather than admit that she does not understand the meaning of the word.
In just one of the many places in the novel where he rails against the Roman Catholic Church's corrosive influence on society, Twain's narrator notes that, "In two or three little centuries it had converted a nation of men to a nation of worms. Before the day of the Church's supremacy in the world, men were men, and held their heads up, and had a man's pride and spirit and independence." Twain's rage is not confined to just the Catholic Church but also applies to any established church, which he sees as an instrument for suppressing the rights of people by taking their inherent power away from them, making them slaves to the whims of the powerful people who claim to speak for God.
Topics For Further Study
- Think of a period in history that you would like to visit. Write a short story detailing what it would be like if you went there and how you would influence the citizenry with your twenty-first century knowledge.
- The late nineteenth century was a time of great industrial progress; the late twentieth century was considered the Information Age. Research what people think the coming trends are and write an essay about what you guess will be the important social movement of the twenty-second century.
- The year that most of this novel takes place, 528 a.d., is also the year that the roots of Buddhism were established, when Siddhartha Gautama, who was to be called the Buddha, found enlightenment. Explain what would have happened if Twain's protagonist, Hank Morgan, had ended up in the presence of the Buddha instead of in the presence of King Arthur.
- In one chapter of this novel, Twain explains that there were actually two "Reigns of Terror." Research the French Revolution and explain what he means by this. Also, explain whether you think the French Revolution was more important to the world's history than the American Revolution. Provide facts from your research to support your claim.
- Twain explains newspapers as being essential to any civilized society. In what ways is he right? Are newspapers still important now that we have the Internet, or has their day come and gone? Pick a position and try to defend it an essay or debate this topic with another classmate.
Though Hank mentions the church frequently throughout the course of the novel, it does not play a very prominent role in the plot. In part, this is by design. Hank explains that he designs his political reforms specifically so that they will not attract the attention of the church and bring out its opposition. At the end, when Guenever's infidelity is pointed out to King Arthur, the battle between the Knights of the Round Table creates such an obvious rend in the social fabric that it would be impossible for the church to not notice it. As a result, they send troops to take over the country. All of the technological and social advances that Hank brought from the nineteenth century are destroyed, and English culture is reverted back to the primitive, enslaving mindset that it had when he arrived. The church is held responsible for opposing progress, and, therefore, for causing widespread suffering.
Twain has been faulted for the structure, or lack of structure, of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In the broadest term, the story has a clear structure, beginning and ending with the speaker, Twain, visiting England, then introducing the character of the Yankee, and then settling into the story that the Yankee has written out, which takes up most of the book. The book returns to Twain at the end, at which point the Yankee dies.
Within the Yankee's story, however, there is little consistency. Plot elements begin and end haphazardly, characters enter and leave with little notice, and long episodes conveniently arise just as others end. The most egregious of these inconsistencies is the way that the character of Sandy disappears from the story some time around the Restoration of the Fountain, and then reappears, surprisingly, more than a hundred pages later, as Hank Morgan's wife and the mother of his child.
The plot's inconsistencies, and its segmented format, are attributed to the fact that Twain wrote this novel in sections, over the course of three years. Instead of having an organic unity that it would have if it were edited after the final section was written, the story was put together one piece at a time. The final product reflects a growing understanding of the implications of what started out as a light fantasy.
In some novels, setting is unimportant, but the setting is the whole reason for this book's existence. As an examination of Middle Age customs through modern sensibilities, it seems at first to be an indictment of the naïve notions that people had in the past. Because Twain is a careful and humane writer, though, the people of that time prove to be worthy of sympathy, despite their strange notions. King Arthur turns out to be a truly kind and stately person, and Merlin turns out to have supernatural power after all. Twain uses the bare outline of Arthurian legends, which often wax nostalgic for the loss of such chivalric customs as loyalty to the court, bravery among knights, and devotion to one's lady, and he infuses them with real-life problems, such as the court existing by exploiting peasant labor. Cutting through the haze of sentimentality that has surrounded these stories throughout the years allows Twain to create a setting that is at once familiar and new.
The Gilded Age
During the last one-third of the nineteenth century, after the end of the Civil War, America experienced a boom in manufacturing that catapulted it into position as one of the world's economic leaders. From 1870 to 1900, the country's consumption of bituminous coal, which was the leading source of energy of the time, multiplied tenfold; production of rolled steel was twelve times greater; and, the overall economy grew to approximately six times its former size. The number of people employed in manufacturing tripled during the same time, to 7.6 million.
At that time of expansion, fortunes were made. The railroads, which were stretched across the continent, and the telephone, invented in 1876, made the growth of nation-wide corporations possible. With these distribution and communication networks, corporations were able to reach markets anywhere in the land. Millions were made in such areas as steel, shipping, retail stores with catalog sales, and oil. The luxurious lifestyles of society's upper crust caused the era to be termed the Gilded Age, an expression coined by Mark Twain himself in the title of an 1871 book.
Unfortunately, only a small portion of the population was enjoying such wealth. Much of society was suffering in poverty during the Gilded Age. A flood of immigrants drove wages down, and rural Americans flocked to the cities, which could not provide jobs for all. With the boom in manufacturing, tenements arose, and with them the unsanitary conditions that spread diseases. Taking advantage of the largess of the wealthy and the ignorance of the masses of new voters, politicians earned a reputation for corruption that would last until reforms of the early twentieth century. It was out of this period in which the abuse of cheap, expendable labor enabled only a few individuals to become unbelievably wealthy that America's labor movement arose.
There is much debate about whether the King Arthur as mentioned in the legends ever truly existed. Most scholars agree that there was an Arthur who lived in the sixth century and ruled Britain, but records from the time are incomplete, so there is no conclusive evidence to show whether this Arthur and the King Arthur of the stories are one and the same.
Compare & Contrast
- 528: The vast majority of the population is uneducated. Only a few men associated with the church are educated in the ancient languages of Greek and Latin.
1889: The King James Bible, an English edition that was finished in 1611, is in many homes and is a primary text for teaching children to read. School is not mandatory and is only attended regularly by a minority of children.
Today: School attendance has been required in the United States for nearly a cent0ury, up to the age of 16 in most states.
- 528: During the Middle Ages, little machinery exists, which means that all physical work has to be done by hand.
1889: The past hundred years have brought an industrial revolution, with machines making it possible to create things on a grander scale than was ever imaginable before.
Today: America is in a post-industrial age: most jobs that require physical labor are consigned to poorer countries, leaving the country with a service economy.
- 528: Peasants followed the aristocracy unquestioningly, having been assured by the church that blind obedience is what the church required.
1889: American political discourse thrives on diversity, to such an extent that a war has actually separated different factions of the nation.
Today: America is solidly but informally a two-party political system, with power control held at any given time by either the Democrats or the Republicans.
- 528: There are no news media: news travels by word-of-mouth, making it difficult to verify the truth.
1889: The only real news source is the newspapers, leaving the truth at the mercy of the newspaper owners.
Today: Although the ownership of newspapers, television, and radio is falling into fewer and fewer hands through corporate consolidation, the Internet has made it possible for individuals to tell their stories directly to strangers.
- 528: Medical treatment is mostly unheard of. Magic is considered as effective as science.
1889: When faced with a sick relative, as Hank is when his daughter comes down with the croup, a smart individual knows what steps to take.
Today: Science has identified the cellular and molecular causes of many diseases, and there are high-tech medicines and treatment centers that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.
The first legends of King Arthur have been traced to Welsh sources in the seventh century. These sources linked King Arthur to Celtic mythology, which explains the story's legendary, supernatural elements, such as Arthur earning his throne when the Lady in the Lake gives him the enchanted sword Excalibur. For hundreds of years after that, the stories about the king and his court expanded, and the characters and locations that are currently associated with the story, including Camelot, the Round Table, Sir Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, and the rest, were added. At the same time, a romantic tradition grew up around the characters in the
legends, particularly in the French versions of the stories. Like modern soap operas, these stories concentrated on the loves and betrayals and moral decisions that the knights and ladies faced.
The first person to write a continuous narrative of the accounts of King Arthur and his knights was Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh writer who told the story that is most familiar today. This narrative was called the History of Kings of Britain (1137). After that, there are frequent references to the story. The first major literary treatment of the tales in English was Sir Thomas Malory's L'Morte d'Arthur (or, The Death of Arthur), published in 1485. Twain refers to Malory's work in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. For instance, the end of Twain's story is almost directly taken from Malory, with some modifications: Arthur finds out about Launcelot and Guenevere, orders her burned at the stake, Launcelot rescues her, and there is a fight for the kingdom between King Arthur's men and Launcelot's. Through the ages, each generation has taken Malory's story and expanded on it, reflecting the morals of contemporary society.
Twain is considered to be one of the most significant novelists in American history, but A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is generally thought of as an unstable effort. In his lifetime, Twain was greatly admired and immensely popular as a humorist, and he was widely read in newspapers. This popularity dwindled in his later years, from about the turn of the century until his death in 1910, when his writing became increasingly dark and his vision of humanity bleak. After his death, Twain received the attention that had been waning in his later years. Typical of this attention was the great journalist H. L. Mencken's observation (quoted in A Mencken Chrestomathy) in 1919: "The older I grow the more I am convinced that Mark was, by long odds, the largest figure that ever reared itself out of the flat, damp prairie of American literature." Perhaps the greatest single boost to Twain's reputation came when Ernest Hemingway, himself a deeply respected novelist and an eventual Nobel Prize winner, is said to have declared Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the source of all modern American fiction.
One of the things that has always maintained the reputation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is its appeal to many different political perspectives, even gathering together those who do not agree with one another. Some, particularly those of Twain's own time, have seen the book as a "celebration of modern values," as Robert Keith Miller put it in his book Mark Twain in 1983. Others, Miller points out, have considered it a condemnation of all optimism. One good example of this flexibility is the way Charles L. Sanford, in an article originally published in American Quarterly (reprinted in Readings on Mark Twain) called "A Classic of Reform Literature," calls the novel Twain's "symbolic attempt to persuade himself that all was right in the American garden after all." Although Sanford says that this statement "takes into account both those critics who interpret The Connecticut Yankee as a veiled attack upon American business practices and those who take his praise of modern times at face value," there are very few critics who would agree in characterizing Mark Twain as wishing to be self-deluded.
While Twain has always had a reputation as a master satirist, critics have had trouble identifying just what is being satirized in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. John C. Gerber, writing in his book Mark Twain, refers to the novel's problem as "literary schizophrenia," noting that "[o]n the surface it is a tall tale that lampoons chivalric romances, while underneath it is a compendium of Mark Twain's increasingly gloomy thoughts about human behavior in both the past and the present." Because of its inherent contrasts, Robert Keith Miller tells his readers, "Clearly, this is a work that deserves to be read closely."
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at two schools in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly examines how the character of Hank Morgan makes Twain's story difficult for modern readers.
Reading and becoming informed about the past is part of a well-rounded education. Still, it is not always easy. An especially difficult task for modern readers is to determine the proper approach to a work that was not only written decades prior, but whose setting is centuries in the past. Published in the late 1880s, the book is about history; at the same time, for the contemporary reader, it is history. Twain wrote about the Middle Ages, setting his novel in the year 587. His central idea concerns explaining the changes that had come over the world over the course of thirteen centuries. There is nothing in the novel to explain the changes of the past hundred and fifteen years.
Contemporary readers are presented with the world Twain was writing about and also the world that he assumed his readers would know. That is a lot of information to synthesize. To make matters worse, a good case can be made that in the twentieth century the rate of social change accelerated at a pace quicker than it did in many of the pretechnological centuries that separated Twain from his subject. The book focuses on the developments that occurred between King Arthur's time and Twain's, such as the locomotive, the telephone, the newspaper, and the gun; these are all significant advances, but they do not really hold up in magnitude to the automobile, airplane, television, laser, DNA mapping, and thousands of other achievements that have occurred. The time that has passed since Twain lived might easily be characterized as the age of the nuclear bomb and the computer. Both destruction and knowledge have become global, not provincial, realities.
It is common to blame contemporary American students for their lack of historical perspective; studies regularly quote students saying that they do not see how incidents in the distant past matter to their lives, and tests show that they cannot identify the dates for milestones in world history like the French Revolution, the Renaissance, or even the First World War. In the case of a novel like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, it would be easy to sympathize with their sense of alienation. Readers of this book are not only required to look backward through history, but also have to line up two separate historical points and determine their relationship to each other. Students might approach the book armed with a dictionary, but an astrolabe might be more appropriate.
Students will commonly express their frustration with fiction that was written long ago or about ancient times and their inability to relate to the strange settings and surroundings depicted in both. The standard response is that good readers will look beyond the cultural differences and concentrate on the work's characters. Literature is about the human condition. Regardless of where a story takes place or what happens in it, the characters should still, at heart, be human. No one says that a reader has to be a student of the sixth century or of the nineteenth century in order to appreciate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The behavior of Hank Morgan, the Yankee of the title, is all that one really has to relate to. In some regards, Twain makes it easy for readers of any generation to join Hank in his adventure, but in other regards, Twain complicates things by making Hank more complex than people expect to find in an adventure yarn or satire.
This type of story should be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched TV. It is a standard stranger-in-a-strange-land myth, a variation on the old fish-out-of-water formula, which throws its protagonist into an unfamiliar environment and studies how he reacts to what he finds there and how the people there react to him.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain continually refines this formula. When Hank becomes a familiar figure around Camelot, he leaves it to travel across the country on several extended journeys. While Hank is out on his travels, a war breaks out in King Arthur's realm. Hank returns to find a devastated landscape where almost all of the people he has come to know over the years are dead and the social order he personally constructed no longer exists. Rather than seeing him act throughout the downfall of Arthur's court, readers see him plunged into another unfamiliar situation, learning about what kind of man Hank Morgan is by watching how he reacts.
It would be easier for readers to float through this book, experiencing new worlds with Hank Morgan, if Hank were the ordinary man that he is often assumed to be. Twain does not give much background about his life before being transported back in time. Readers are told only that he was a foreman in the Colt firearms factory; that his father was a blacksmith and his uncle a horse doctor, and he has practiced both trades; that he had a girl in his time that he was "practically engaged to," although she seldom passes through his thoughts; and that he considers himself "a practical Connecticut man." From these details, one can assume a penchant for problem-solving and a high degree of impatience with sentimentality and romance. What one does not assume is the fact that Hank Morgan is not a very nice man.
Hank tells the story and, therefore, readers tend to identify with him. When he looks at the barbaric practices of Camelot, from the inequity of ownership to the government-supported cruelty of nobles to the people's ignorance of the physical world, his directness is admirable. When Hank sees problems, he sets about fixing them, which is a huge improvement over the people who are accustomed to accepting their troubles because of tradition or fear. And, in fact, one sees a few benefits when Arthurian society begins to run the Hank Morgan way. Slavery is abolished, prisoners are freed, and despots learn that they are accountable for the suffering of their subjects.
What is not as openly pronounced in the novel is the weakness of Hank's reforms. Readers hear about railroads, gold currency, a stock market, newspapers, etc., but, really, what effect do these have? The ones that are shown to have any value have value to Morgan, for securing his claims of being a great sorcerer, like his fixing of the pump at the Holy Fountain or his synthesis of gunpowder specifically to destroy Merlin's castle. Some reforms, like his miller-gun for dispensing currency, seem to have been forced on the Middle Age peasants because Hank, a gunsmith, thought to invent them. Hank does not comprehend that his reforms might never be appropriate for these particular people. His faith is in technology and machines, not in the democratic spirit that he so often evokes.
The idea of understanding a strange social setting by relating to the protagonist of the book is much more difficult in this book than it is in other novels because the protagonist has been written to be ignorant of his own flaws. Hank is aware of the shortcomings of Camelot and, like any good mechanic, he can suggest means to fix particular problems, but he cannot see beyond the repairs he suggests. He does not think about the problems that he might create when his programs fall into place. Hank is not a social planner. Twain himself was unimpressed with Hank. Edmund Reiss (in his afterward to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) quotes Twain as having said "this Yankee of mine has neither the refinement nor weakness of a college education; he is a perfect ignoramus; he is boss of a machine shop; he can build a locomotive or a Colt's revolver, he can put up and run a telegraph line, but he's an ignoramus, nevertheless." Readers who find it difficult to understand King Arthur's society and who are unfamiliar with the way people thought in the eighteen hundreds will find Hank Morgan himself no less perplexing. He thinks that he knows more than he does so readers who take him at his word are bound to misinterpret the book's overall significance.
In Twain's time, it would be easy to judge Morgan as a meddler who has gone and interfered in another culture, finding them to be too lacking in modern conveniences, forcing his own social standards on them. Modern readers, though, see two historic cultures at work, each one with its positives and negatives, but neither one our own. Contemporary readers therefore tend to miss out on the story's careful moral balance.
The story of the stranger finding himself suddenly catapulted into an unfamiliar culture has been told time and time again. Usually, writers focus their attention on the clash of the cultures, and so they make their protagonist either benign, so as to not draw too much attention away from the cultural issues, or wise, so that the author can use the story to show how the world ought to work. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain takes the more difficult path by having two cultures converge in the life of one complex character. This gives modern readers a lot to analyze, and they understandably might fail to notice just how much Twain expects of them.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
What Do I Read Next?
- At about the same time that Twain was writing his version of the Arthurian legend in America, Great Britain's poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was working on his masterful poem about the same subject, Idylls of the King (begun in 1859, completed in 1885). Tennyson's version of the story is beautifully lush, dreamy, and considerably more reverent than Twain's version.
- The version of the story of Camelot that Twain used as a basis for his novel was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). In 2003, Cassel published a complete version of Malory's work called Le Morte D'Arthur: Complete, Unabridged, Illustrated Edition, which is edited by John Matthews and lushly illustrated by Anna Marie Ferguson.
- Journalist T. H. White retold the story of King Arthur in his book The Once and Future King (1958), which made the tales accessible for modern readers. White's version became a bestseller and is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece of fantasy literature.
- Twain's own masterpiece is considered to be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Similar in episodic plot and political indignation to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, this work is considered by many to be the elusive "great American novel."
- Twain was a well-known personality of his day and has become almost as recognizable to readers of American literature as any of the characters he created. The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959), edited by Charles Neider, gives Twain's story directly. This book was assembled from various autobiographical writings and is available in paperback from Harper Perennial.
- Of the many biographies of Twain that are available, one of the most user-friendly is Mark Twain (2001), by Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan. This book was produced to be the companion piece to Ken Burns's documentary miniseries about Twain and reflects the most current (at the time) research on his life.
In the following essay, Dalrymple explores how Twain's immersion in the events of the U.S. Civil War at the time of his writing A Connecticut Yankee influenced characterization and events in the novel.
We are able to document the genesis of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court quite precisely. During Twain's "Twins of Genius" reading tour with George W. Cable in December 1884, the two entered a Rochester, New York, bookstore where Cable introduced his friend to Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Alan Gribben has convincingly shown that this episode was not Twain's first encounter with Malory—his daughters owned an 1880 children's version of Malory, which their father must have known about, and in a letter dated August 1883 Twain had alluded to Sir Kay and Sir Launcelot—but the first notebook entries for the novel did appear in December 1884, just after the Cable incident. The first entry reads "Dream of being a knight errant in the middle ages," followed by a hilarious exploration of what it was like to wear medieval armor. Serious work on the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee, however, did not begin until mid-December 1885 and January 1886. After Howard G. Baetzhold's solid and informative genetic study, it has been accepted that Twain wrote the novel in sporadic bursts until publication of the first British and American editions in December 1889.
Apparently a dark cloud hung over the novel's ending from the start of its composition. As early as December 1884, Twain had jotted a note about a battle between a "modern army, with gatling guns… 600 shots a minute,…torpedoes, balloons, 100-ton cannon, iron-clad fleet &c & Prince de Joinville's Middle Age Crusaders" (Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, 86). And although the artistic seams and contrasts may be visible between the bulk of the book and its shocking conclusion in the Battle of the Sand-Belt, strong evidence leads us to think that Twain thought of the ending as tragic all along.
In a notebook entry of December 1885, Twain wrote about his newly created Sir Robert Smith, later to be called Hank Morgan:
He mourns his lost land—has come to England & revisited it, but it is all changed & become old, so old!—& it was so fresh & new, so virgin before. Winchester does not resemble Camelot, & the Round Table… is not a true one. Has lost all interest in life—is found dead next morning—suicide. (Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, 216)
Twain's early intent seems consistent with the final version: the ending sounds a tragic note. Hank does not commit suicide, but he apparently dies of a broken heart as he "mourns his lost land."
During the period from 1885 through 1889, while he was writing the book, Twain had other relevant concerns. Not least among them was money; his obsession with the Paige typesetting machine, which he financed and thought would revolutionize the printing industry, would combine with other business blunders and drive him to bankruptcy. James Cox has shown how this obsession manifests itself in A Connecticut Yankee. But perhaps of greater importance during 1885 was Twain's major literary project: publication of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, of which Twain speaks at some length in his autobiography. Twain had encouraged the aging hero, who was then living in near-poverty, to relate his experiences to the world. He convinced Grant to decline the Century company's offer and to accept that of his own publishing house, Charles L. Webster. Twain's only literary accomplishment that year was "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (first titled "My Campaign Against Grant"), a short and ostensibly true account of Twain's own Civil War experience. The article appeared in the December 1885 issue of Century magazine. This short work stands as his only memorable literary achievement in the five year period immediately before and during the composition of A Connecticut Yankee.
Early in 1885, Twain had been asked to write an article for Century's "Battles and Leaders" series, a collection of personal reminiscences of the Civil War. But he did not finish "The Private History" until November. During the nine months from inception to finished work, the essay changed from a lighthearted anecdote to a more serious, realistic, disturbing record of his experiences. Justin Kaplan finds this shift directly related to Twain's close contact with General Grant and with the manuscript and proofs of his Memoirs.
Much of what Twain has to say about the Civil War regards Grant; Twain was fascinated by him. It seems inevitable that Grant would surface somewhere in Twain's fiction. Kaplan has pointed out the importance of the General, mentioned both as a historical figure and possibly as the symbolic "stranger," in "The Private History." Grant and the Civil War seem to have had a largely unrecognized influence, however, on A Connecticut Yankee as well. During the composition of the book, when Grant's Memoirs were part of Twain's everyday life and when "The Private History" was his most recent literary output, the American Civil War was both consciously and unconsciously at the forefront of his imagination. Civil War imagery pervades the strange and oft-criticized conclusion of A Connecticut Yankee. Viewing it in this light, we may shed light on one of Twain's most fascinating novels.
After the novel's two picaresque sequences, which relate Hank's travels with Sandy and then with King Arthur, there is a civil war in sixth-century England that ultimately leads to the catastrophe of the book's conclusion. As Clarence explains, King Arthur has learned of the love between Launcelot and Guenever; when a trap is laid, and Launcelot falls into it, the knights divide into parties loyal either to the King or to Launcelot. Friends take up arms against friends, and Launcelot even mistakenly kills Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, whose "love for Launcelot was indestructible." Clarence tells Hank "the rest of the tale is just war, pure and simple." This medieval civil war eventually prompts a Church edict, under which Hank has been condemned. Clarence recognizes the seriousness of the situation and provisions Merlin's old cave for a siege against all of England's remaining knights, now under the unified command of the Church. The ensuing Battle of the Sand-Belt not only suggests parallels to the American Civil War, but it so surprisingly and particularly resembles a specific campaign—Grant's siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi—that it seems likely Twain's creative mind was reshaping this crucial siege in his novel.
Grant's long but successful siege of Vicksburg was seen by many, including President Lincoln, as the key to Union victory in the War. With control of the city, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, came command of traffic on the river's southern half. Grant led a six-week bombardment and siege upon Vicksburg that ended on July 4, 1863. "The fate of the Confederacy," Grant wrote in his Memoirs, "was sealed when Vicksburg fell." Twain knew precise details about the siege of Vicksburg and its crucial impact on the war. In Life on the Mississippi, he devoted an entire chapter, "Vicksburg During the Trouble," to the siege, and originally he had planned more. He was fascinated by the survivors' tales of the siege and he questioned them in detail about their experiences.
Many specific details which Twain relates about Vicksburg reappear, with imaginative transformation, in the Battle of the Sand-Belt. Most apparent is the use of caves as hiding places during a civil war siege. Twain tells us of his first impressions of post-war Vicksburg in the following observation from Life on the Mississippi:
Signs and scars still remain, as reminders of Vicksburg's tremendous war-experiences; earth-works, trees crippled by the cannon balls, cave-refuges in the clay precipices, etc. The caves did good service during the six weeks' bombardment of the city—May 18 to July 4, 1863. They were used by the non-combatants—mainly by the women and children; not to live in constantly, but to fly to for safety on occasion.
In an interview with a civilian survivor, Twain was told of the often "desperately crowded" conditions in the caves during a heavy bombardment, with "air so foul, sometimes, you couldn't have made a candle burn in it." In A Connecticut Yankee, when Clarence tells Hank about the cave he has picked for the siege, he is careful to say "that old cave of Merlin's—not the small one, the big one," even though there is no reason for Twain to distinguish for readers since we know nothing about either cave. And in Clarence's postscript to the novel he tells of the "poisonous air" that pervades the aftermath of the battle, sickening the Boss and his followers who are trapped in their cave.
Even exact numbers cited in Twain's novel are suggestive: in Life on the Mississippi, Twain says the people of Vicksburg numbered "twenty-seven thousand soldiers and three thousand non-combatants," or 30,000 in all. Hank says that the mounted host of mailed knights is, significantly, "30,000 strong." The fact that Twain keeps the number of 30,000, but reverses the sides (in the novel there are 30,000 attackers, rather than 30,000 under attack) suggests an unconsciously-made correlation between the 30,000 medieval chivalric knights and the 30,000 citizens of Vicksburg. The latter belonged to a society that turned back progress "with decayed and degraded systems of government; with sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society." What better description of the society Twain derides in A Connecticut Yankee? In the novel, however, caves are more than places of occasional refuge for non-combatants. Unlike the people of Vicksburg, Hank and Clarence and their fifty-two young followers want the enemy to strike. The group under siege here is not composed of women and children (though it is a group of boys between 14 and 17 who are "as pretty as girls"), and their strength as warriors is great. During the battle, Hank is in total control. It has been suggested that here Hank is a kind of wish-fulfilling figure of Mark Twain, because "both are showmen who love gaudy effects."
But in many ways Hank is also a superhuman likeness of General Grant, leading the "Republic" in battle against the archaic, slave-holding, nontechnological South. Hank and Grant are similar in some very specific ways. The terms of surrender that Hank, at one point, intends to offer the knights resemble those originally offered by Grant at Vicksburg. Hank orders the English knights to "surrender unconditionally to the Republic." Grant was famous for his demand of unconditional surrender, which was considered uncivilized by Confederate generals; Northern newspapers dubbed him "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. There is also another, more intriguing parallel between Hank and Grant. Grant had tried repeatedly to create a new river channel by cutting into the west bank of the Mississippi, hoping to bypass Vicksburg altogether; he was unsuccessful. Twain knew about this effort from Grant's Memoirs, and he mentioned the effort in his notebook. In a compelling similarity, Hank does succeed in re-routing what he first describes as a "mountain brook," but which later approaches with "a sudden rush and roar," and a thousand knights are drowned by the water, now "raging through the big ditch and creating a river a hundred feet wide and twenty-five feet deep."
But in addition to these circumstantial images, a similarity of narrative style also reveals Hank's and Twain's debt to the General. The Connecticut Yankee and General Grant—called by Confederate forces "The Yankee"—begin their stories the same way. "My family is American," reads the first sentence of Grant's Memoirs, "and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral." Similarly, the first sentence of A Connecticut Yankee is, even more simply, "I am an American." Such opening statements seem fitting for fullblooded Yankees who are proud of their heritage—and Hank describes himself as "a Yankee of Yankees," just as Grant was a Yankee of Yankees during the American Civil War.
Both men, as narrators, often recount grotesque scenes with realism and impassivity. The following is a passage about the mining of Vicksburg from Grant's Memoirs:
On the 25th of June at three o'clock, all being ready, the mine was exploded. A heavy artillery fire all along the line had been ordered to open with the explosion. The effect was to blow the top of the hill off and make a crater where it stood…[A]ll that were there were thrown into the air, some of them coming down on our side, still alive. (Grant, I, 551)
And of the bloody battle of Shiloh, Grant writes:
I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground. (Grant, I, 356)
Such passages represent Grant's detached, unemotional tone in the face of extraordinary actual events. The images of a hill turned into a crater by a massive explosion, of human bodies flying through the air or littering the ground, are related with only as much emotion as an inventory of food rations. Such detachment is certainly necessary in a great war general; Grant's willingness to engage in combat, while harboring no love for it, was the reason he finally replaced George McClellan et al. as commander of the Union forces.
These realistic passages resemble many in A Connecticut Yankee. Take, for example, Hank's description of the scene outside his electric fences:
One could make out but little detail; but he could note that a black mass was piling itself up beyond the second fence. That swelling bulk was dead men! Our camp was enclosed with a solid wall of the dead—a bulwark, a breastwork, of corpses, you may say.
Both Hank and Grant offer subjective comments in their narratives, but these statements are usually secondary to the major purpose of giving a detailed, realistic account of experience. Although Hank stretches the truth to his own ends, his eye for detail commands respect. After the first wave of knights reaches the torpedoes hidden under the Sand-Belt, Hank describes the scene. It is not sufficient to mention a large ditch created by the blast; he must tell us its precise dimensions:
No living creature was in sight! We now perceived that additions had been made to our defenses. The dynamite had dug a ditch more than a hundred feet wide, all around us, and cast up an embankment some twenty-five feet high on both borders of it. As to destruction of life, it was amazing. Moreover, it was beyond estimate. Of course we could not count the dead, because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons.
Although Twain allows Hank an exclamation point to show some emotion, it does not lessen the effect of his cold report of the "homogeneous protoplasm" of the slaughtered knights. In fact, the exclamation point, along with many of the other expletives in this section of the novel, were late manuscript additions. The above passage was originally followed by an even more graphic image describing "some trifle over 4,000,000 pounds of meat, that is, knights" on the battlefield; this phrasing was later deleted.
Grant's writing style—attacked by Matthew Arnold and vigorously defended by Twain—is simple, unaffected, and effective. And like Hank's narrative, Grant's "Personal" memoirs are, on the whole, not very personal at all. His narrative is filled with direct statements, supporting dates and facts, and a great deal of tactical explanation and justification. More personal details, such as mention of his family, are inserted almost apologetically within the text. Grant recounts details of his marriage with military succinctness, as if he feels guilty of rambling. Hank offers even less detail; when he speaks of his marriage to Sandy, rather late in the book, it comes as quite a surprise to the reader.
Although both narrators are fierce competitors in battle, they are not ashamed to show compassion afterward. Grant writes that during battle "one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, with great composure," but when the battle is over, "these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend" (Grant, I, 521). Hank, at the very end of A Connecticut Yankee, seems modeled after Grant in this way, but his humane feelings lead to sinister results. Clarence tells us that Hank insists on helping the wounded after the Battle of the Sand-Belt, even though he had been advised against such actions. The first wounded man he comes across "was sitting, with his back against a dead comrade. When the Boss bent over him and spoke to him, the man recognized him and stabbed him."
On the whole, Grant's Memoirs give the impression of an honest, humble, realistic account of a great leader's life. Grant constantly downplays his accomplishments, unlike the proud Hank, who glories in his. Hank is a sort of amalgamation of Grant's and Twain's personal characters in this regard. Perhaps ultimately it is this sense of hubris that makes the great "effect" of Hank's baffle morally offensive to some readers. His victory is a hollow one; very soon it will become a defeat. Still, Grant could almost be speaking of the aftermath of the Battle of the Sand-Belt when he writes: "The enemy fought bravely, but they had started out to defeat and destroy an army and capture a position. They failed in both, with very heavy loss in killed and wounded, and must have gone back discouraged and convinced that the 'Yankee' was not an enemy to be despised" (Grant, I, 356–7).
One final detail strengthens the Civil War imagery in A Connecticut Yankee's conclusion. After the first onslaught of the knights, and after the destruction of thousands by the "torpedoes" (the contemporary name for land mines) in the Sand-Belt, Hank addresses his followers:
SOLDIERS, CHAMPIONS OF HUMAN LIBERTY AND EQUALITY: Your General congratulates you! In the pride of his strength and the vanity of his renown, an arrogant enemy came against you. You were ready. The conflict was brief; on your side, glorious. This mighty victory having been achieved utterly without loss, stands without example in history. So long as the planets shall continue to move in their orbits, the BATTLE OF THE SAND-BELT will not perish out of the memories of men. THE BOSS.
This proclamation alludes to and contrasts with certain phrases from Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." Lincoln spoke of a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," much like Hank's "champions of human liberty and equality." Lincoln, with characteristic humility, thought "the word will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," but Hank, with characteristic self-aggrandizing "effect," is emphatic about the planetary consequences of his accomplishment. Furthermore, the final words of Lincoln's speech express a hope that democratic government "shall not perish from the earth," a phrase quite similar to "General" Hank's assessment that his battle "will not perish out of the memories of men." Twain was very familiar with Lincoln's Address; he once quoted a passage from Malory and said its "noble simple eloquence had not its equal until the Gettysburg Speech took its lofty place beside it." Appropriately, the Battle of Gettysburg was decided on the very same day as the siege of Vicksburg: 4 July 1863.
It seems inexplicable to many readers that A Connecticut Yankee, for most of its length an enjoyable "good read," could end in the tragic, grisly, and bizarre Battle of the Sand-Belt. One critic has called the ending "one of the most striking representations of aborted effort in our literature." What does it mean, if anything? On the surface, there certainly seems to be a boyish playfulness at work in the Battle. As David Sewell has recognized, using all of the neatest modern weapons to blow up an enemy is a typical boyhood fantasy. In the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary, we might be cautious in assigning great meaning to the destruction wreaked by Hank's forces. After all, when modern audiences see an action film, they witness dozens of violent deaths in the span of two hours; but viewers don't necessarily find (nor do the filmmakers imply) any great significance in them.
But two pieces of evidence seem to make the Battle of the Sand-Belt fundamentally different. The first is contextual. There simply were very few nineteenth-century novels that dared to include graphic descriptions such as the "homogeneous protoplasm" of the dead knights. Therefore the images of the Battle were that much more shocking to Twain's contemporary audience. Second, and more importantly, it is clear that Twain took great care to construct his ending, and it seems evident that he based many of its details on American Civil War facts. Given the amount of thought he apparently invested in it, it seems unlikely that Twain intended the Battle of the Sand-Belt merely as a Tom Sawyeresque diversion.
If indeed Twain was alluding to Grant and the Civil War, then we should view the Battle of the Sand-Belt as a parallel with the bloody war between Union and Confederacy: a clash between a chivalric, slave-owning, agrarian society and a modern, technologically advanced republic led by a generalpresident. As such, it is utterly consistent with the rest of the novel. Throughout, the object of Twain's satire has been primarily the culture of sixth century England, which parallels the ante-bellum American South. Knights, the icons of chivalry, are reduced to wearing sandwich boards. The Church is portrayed as power-hungry and evil. Arthur himself is a well-meaning buffoon. It so happens that most objects of satire in the novel lend themselves to such comedy.
But when it comes to war, even Twain can find little humor. He wrote in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," which appeared in the December 1885 issue of Century:
And it seemed an epitome of war; that all war must be just that—the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it. My campaign was spoiled. It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child's nurse.
This is the voice of the author who writes about the carnage of the Battle of the Sand-Belt. As the American North and South tragically learned, and as Twain and his audience well remembered, real war feels nothing like the romantic battles of Sir Walter Scott's heroes. It truly is an "awful business." Men do not engage in grand oratory on the battlefield; instead they are more likely to be blown into "homogeneous protoplasm" by land mines. This graphic realism leaves the reader disturbed, but as Robert E. Lee observed, "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it." Far from a failing, Twain's relentlessly realistic portrayal of war may be recognized by future readers as one of the novel's triumphs.
Source: Scott Dalrymple, "Just War, Pure and Simple: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the American Civil War," in American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1–11.
Lawrence I. Berkove
In the following essay, Berkove contends that A Connecticut Yankee is "a successfully united novel of tragic vision—specifically a vision of universal damnation."
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is centrally important to the effort to identify and chart a level of basic consistency in the life and works of Mark Twain. The novel should bring us much closer to the goal of establishing that there are particular ideas and values which are characteristic of Mark Twain, and that they exist in an unbroken chain from the formative years of his youth to the end of his life. However, the prevailing critical position on A Connecticut Yankee, that it fails because excessive autobiographical intrusions by Twain destroy its fictional unity, leaves the thrust of the novel in doubt. As a consequence, what almost all commentators agree has the makings of a major novel is instead regarded as a disappointment, and its author is seen as being in a state of vacillation or declining power. This critical position is based on a great deal of evidence, especially biographical, which indicates what Twain's overt attitudes and intentions probably were at various stages of the novel's composition.
Although this position is valid as far as it goes, it is not necessarily compelling for it does not account for other evidence that points to the novel's unity. More importantly, it either underestimates or overlooks entirely the deep control of the brooding concerns that were always on Twain's mind but were seldom—until his late period—explicitly discussed at length. Alan Gribben has recently encouraged scholarship that would peel away Twain's mask and "curtail Twain's posthumous control of his own legend, however compelling the works he left behind to imprint forever his version of people and events." In this spirit, therefore, I wish to advance an interpretation of A Connecticut Yankee's structural and thematic unity and to indicate how much more is to be gained by pursuing this approach than by continuing to assume the incompatibility of its parts, and hence its artistic failure.
A full treatment of this powerful novel's complexity is beyond the scope of a short discussion, but enough may be said of its deep structure and artistic strategies to support a claim of its internal unity and its integral consistency with Twain's life. It is my contention that A Connecticut Yankee is a successfully unified novel of tragic vision—specifically a vision of universal damnation. This is achieved by the novel's pointed use of dreams first to undercut the notion of objective reality and then to replace it gradually with the growing sense that this world is truly hell.
The idea that one can be in this world and literally in hell also is one that other authors have also proposed. In Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, for example, occurs the following exchange:
Faust: How come it then that thou are out of hell?
Meph: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
What is unique in A Connecticut Yankee is that Twain, raised in Calvinism and acutely in mind of its doctrines all his life, has generalized Mephistophilis' condition to all humans. But unlike Mephistophilis, who understands his situation, none of the humans in this novel are quite conscious of the true nature of their existence. All live and struggle in a dream. Some move from one dream to another, but they remain deceived about their state. The novel blurs and dissolves first the distinctions between dream and reality and then between reality and hell. At the end, when Hank Morgan in his delirium speaks of the "strange and awful dreams" that were "as real as reality" ("Final P.S. by M.T."), he is summing up the main point of the novel: that there is no difference between the nightmare of hell and what is thought of as reality; they are one and the same.
The blurring of the distinctions between reality and dream is an important motif in Twain's writing, one that grew out of the lifelong importance he attached to dreams, and his susceptibility to nightmares. There were originally two different kinds of dreams that disturbed Twain: dreams of the night and waking dreams. The night dreams were more obviously alarming, but Twain appears at an early stage in his career to have come to regard the waking dreams as both more insidious and more ominous. Even in so early a work as Roughing It (1872), for example, all of the references to the waking dreams which are frequently mentioned in it have some negative connotations. Beneath the humorous anecdotal level, the entire phenomenon of the silver fever's infectious hope of striking it rich is exposed by Twain as only a dream, but a mad one which wasted the lives of the miners deluded by it. And Twain's experience in the Eden of Hawaii could not be better summed up than by his own rueful description of it "It was tranced luxury to sit in the perfumed air and forget that there was any world but these enchanted islands. It was ecstasy to dream, and dream—till you got a bite. A scorpion bite" (Ch. 63).
Twain's apprehension of romantic daydreaming appears frequently in his middle period, in forms as diverse as his open diatribe against Sir Walter Scott in Life on the Mississippi (1883) or his more subtly disparaging characterization of Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn (1884), especially in the climactic evasion chapters. The ground of Twain's animosity is not that such daydreaming is immature, foolish, or even unrealistic, but that it is perilous. The great danger of waking dreams consists of their taking control of the actual lives of the persons affected and fatally misleading them.
The preoccupation with dreams in the literature of Twain's late period is well known, but the most chilling feature of this tendency is its focus on the tangible takeover of reality by dream. In "The Great Dark" (1898), for instance, not only does dream appear to usurp reality but reality itself is relegated to the status of dream. A mysterious and sinister character called the Superintendent of Dreams appears to the narrator Edwards first in a service role, but soon assumes more power and dominates him. When commanded by Edwards to end the dream sea voyage which has become a nightmare, he stuns Edwards with his retort: "The dream? Are you sure it is a dream?… You have spent your whole life in this ship. And this is real life. Your other life was the dream!" Twain repeated this idea in The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. Discussing the last chapter of "No 44, The Mysterious Stranger," Gibson sums up its central paradox: "mold your life nearer to the heart's desire; life is at best a dream and at worst a nightmare from which you cannot escape."
As we have seen, this gloomy meditation was not a late development in Twain's thought, but the culmination of an entire lifetime of brooding on the nature of dreams and their portents. Against this background of a distinctive thought pattern, which affected Twain even before his writing career began and lasted until his death. A Connecticut Yankee must be seen as a natural link in the pattern. The novel's abundant references to dreams are purposeful and crucial parts of both its structure and its themes. It is obvious at the very least that the dream motif is the structural frame of the novel. But a close look at almost any episode in which dreams play a part will reveal that dreams are even more important as message than they are as structure.
By the novel's end, for example, Hank Morgan dreams a final dream—that he is with his wife Sandy again and is telling her of some "hideous dreams" he had had: of a revolution against him, of his extermination of England's chivalry, and of his flight forward into the "remote unborn age" of the nineteenth century. And that last dream was the most torturous of them all ("Final P.S. by M.T."). Given Twain's supposd attack in the novel upon the barbarities of the sixth century, one might have expected something different than Hank's total alienation from his real or, rather, his original era.
Hank cannot be looked to for help in understanding what has happened to him. Like the Ancient Mariner, he has had a strange and distressing experience and has brought back a detailed report—but he doesn't understand the full meaning of it. This is evident from the lack of reflection he gives to the dreams which massively dislocated his existence in the first place and more subtly shaped it thereafter.
His first, contradictory impressions of sixth century England bear this out. He notices that before him was "a soft, reposeful summer landscape, as lovely as a dream, and as lonesome as Sunday." This pair of contradictory impressions (reposeful but lonesome) is immediately reinforced when a young girl appears, her head adorned with "a hoop of flame-red poppies"—beautiful but suggestive of opium "She walked indolently along, with a mind at rest, its peace reflected in her innocent face" (Ch. 1). Again, pairs of contradictory judgments: indolence and innocence, a mind at rest (by implication drugged) but peaceful.
Later in his tale, Hank observes how lack of thought characterized the inhabitants of this dreaming age. Of the knights at the Round Table he notices that "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, and indeed would have marred it, hindered it spoiled its symmetry—perhaps rendered its existence impossible" (Ch. 3). Once again, a contradictory judgment a brainless society but an attractive one in which brains would have been a blemish. And although the "child-like improvidence of this age and people" (Ch. 13) prevented the development of civilization—as Hank knew it—on the other hand, it had a symmetry and a peace, a charm, that Hank increasingly grew to prefer to his own age. Because these contradictions escape his consideration, or even his notice, Hank becomes absorbed in developing his schemes to modernize England. He admits that they are dreams but never suspects that they are just as illusionary as the dreams of everyone else, whom Hank loftily assumes to be his inferiors in perception and acumen. Thus blinded by hubris, Hank quickly accepts his new situation at face value. Once he does this, he unwittingly seals his doom, for by accepting his situation so unreflectively he forfeits his only opportunity of understanding it. Hank also becomes an unreliable narrator when he abandons himself to his dreams. The perceptive reader, therefore, can no longer look to Hank for a satisfactory account of objective reality but must seek it through interpretation, by paying closer attention to Twain's strategies.
At first, Hank does keep in mind that he is dreaming. As he awakens in the dungeon of Camelot he thinks at first, "well, what an astonishing dream I've had," but with the re-appearance at Clarence, he resigns himself: "All right…let the dream go on; I'm in no hurry" (Ch. 5). However, Clarence brings news that Hank will be burned on the next day and evokes a reaction from Hank which unexpectedly discloses an essential similarity between "dream" and "reality," and illuminates how arbitrary and unimportant the distinction between the two states may be. "The shock that went through me was distressing. I now began to reason that my situation was in the last degree serious, dream or no dream; for I knew by past experience of the life-like intensity of dreams, that to be burned to death, even in a dream, would be very far from a jest, and was a thing to be avoided…" (Ch. 5). Hank's pregnant insight is paralleled by a comment that Twain made in an 1893 letter to Mrs. Theodore Crane: "I dreamed I was born and grew up and was a pilot on the Mississippi and a miner and a journalist in Nevada and a pilgrim in the Quaker City, and had a wife and children and went to live in a villa at Florence—and this dream goes on and on and sometimes seem so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is? But there is no way to tell, for if one applies tests they would simply aid the deceit. I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real." However it was in "real life" for Twain, for Hank at this point the distinction between dream and reality dissolves. Once he boldly steps forward into the dream to defend his existence, the dream becomes his reality from then on and his former reality the dream. He soon finds the exchange gratifying and by Chapter 8 "wouldn't have traded it [the sixth century] for the twentieth." His optimism, however, is blind. It is one of the major ironies of A Connecticut Yankee that while Hank boasts about his shrewdness, and compliments himself on his successes in remaking sixth century England into his dream of a nineteenth century republic, he is at the same time fatally insensitive to the implications of living in a dream.
In contrast to Twain who, inwardly at least, constantly questioned the accuracy of his perceptions and the truth of his experiences, Hank never doubts himself nor the world of appearances. As a consequence, Hank chronically over-estimates himself and under-estimates his situation. Twain's scorn for this brash cockiness can be inferred from the pattern of ironies which turn every one of Hank's "successes" into sad failures.
A case in point is the old married couple whom Hank releases from Morgan le Fay's dungeons They had been imprisoned on their wedding night in separate and lightless cells and kept there for nine years. Their cells are opened but the woman sits dumbly on the ground, unable to disturb "the meaningless dull dream that was become her life" (Ch. 18); the man is no better. Hank brings them together, rhapsodically predicting that they will renew their love and lives. But after looking curiously at each other they resumed their "wandering in some far land of dreams and shadows" (Ch. 18). Hank's naively unintentional cruelty in trying to awaken them from their dream refuges to a sharp and painful reality contrasts strongly with Twain's very different way of handling a similar situation in his own family. In a letter to his brother Orion on July 2, 1888, on the care of their aged mother, whose senility was at least dulling the pains of her infirmities, Twain chided Orion for attempting to disrupt the comfort of her "dream" and urged him to take pity on her and restore it. The incident in the novel represents more than a chiding of Hank by Twain; it is an ominous exposure of a significant weakness in a man who would change history. He is not only unable to awaken the captive couple from their dreams, he is shown as being in the grip of a dream himself, a dream of his own power and importance.
It is this dream which manipulates Hank through most of the novel, and it is this dream which is his ultimate undoing. Believing himself free and powerful, Hank focuses his efforts on realizing his "dream of a republic" and remains enthusiastically hopeful about this dream until it collapses violently in the debacle of the Sand-Belt. That this dream was a delusion and not only could not happen but was never meant to happen can be demonstrated both by the logic of the dream structure of the novel and by the plot itself. All dreams in the novel lead to the same event: the Battle of the Sand-Belt. How that happens and what its significance is will now be made clear.
The inevitabiliy of that battle and its true meaning are established as early as Chapter 10. In a passage dense with ironies, Hank, while bragging about his surreptitious achievements, unconsciously prophesies the frightful consequences, totally unforeseen by him, that would attend England's "awakening" from its sixth century dream to Hank's dream of nineteenth century civilization. "Unsuspected by this dark land, I had the civilization of the nineteenth century booming under its very nose. It was fenced away from the public view, but there it was, a gigantic and unassailable fact… and as substantial a fact as any serene volcano, standing innocently with its smokeless summit in the blue sky and giving no sign of the rising hell in its bowels… I stood with my finger on the button… ready to press it and flood the midnight world with intolerable light at any moment" (Ch. 10). The passage, of course, conveys Hank's intended meaning that sixth century England was sleeping or dreaming ("dark land"—"midnight world") and that he was about to awaken it. Hank's boastful pride, however, is undercut by Twain's irony. For one thing, the internal logic of the passage is marred by contradictory impressions: a serene and innocent volcano hiding the rising hell within it, and an unsuspecting dark land about to be surprised by intolerable light. But if the passage is compared to the account of the Battle of the Sand-Belt, the point is quickly seen. The verbs "booming," "fenced," and "flood" and the adjective "unassailable" anticipate what happens in that awful holocaust, and "flood" even does triple duty suggesting the fatal spotlights, the surge of current through the electric fences, and the release of the torrent that drowns three-fourths of the besieging army. What Hank reveals when his hand touches the button in Chapter 42 is nothing less than the "rising hell" that is the nineteenth century.
Twain's famous—and sincere—references to the "damned human race" were expressions of the deeply characteristic gloom that was implanted or reinforced in him by his early Calvinistic training. It is present in all stages of his writing career, though it tends to be somewhat submerged in his early and middle periods. It surfaces openly and frequently in the works of the last two decades of his life, and has unmistakably theological associations despite his avowed attraction to determinism. In 1896 he suggested that humans had "no need of any hell 'except the one we live in from our cradle to our grave.'" And should anyone believe that Twain seriously subscribed to the belief in the progress of civilization, it might be well to recollect a relevant passage in Chapter 8 of "The Chronicle of Young Satan" (1897–1900). It is 1702 and Young Satan is speaking of the history of the human race:
It is a remarkable progress. In five or six thousand years five of six high civilizations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world, then faded out and disappeared; and not one of them except the latest, ever invented any sweeping and adequate way to kill people. They all did their best, to kill being the chiefest ambition of the human race and the earliest incident in its history, but only the Christian Civilization has scored a triumph to be proud of. Two centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christian; then the pagan world will go to school to be Christian: not to acquire his religion, but his guns.
Twain might have had some illusions, but nineteenth century life was not one of them. Hank carried his dream of a modern republic to Merlin's cave in the midst of the fortifications in the Sand-Belt. One more, and very important, clue to A Connecticut Yankee's essential unity is implicit in the symbolic significance of those fortifications. They are set in the midst of a belt of sand, itself a symbol of transience of time. They consist of twelve fences around a cave; thirteen concentric circles in all, one for each century from the sixth to the nineteenth. In Chapter 39, "The Yankee's Fight with the Knights," just after he used guns for the first time and killed nine knights with them, he crowed "The march of civilization was begun." If the march of civilization was begun with the shooting of nine knights in a tournament then it must be that the slaughter of twenty-five thousand men in the Battle of the Sand-Belt meant that the nineteenth century had arrived in its fulness. Each circle was filled with men; the closer they got to the center, the cave where the future extension of their civilization was now concentrated, the more their doom was sealed.
One of Dan Beard's illustrations of Morgan le Fay's dungeons shows a barred slit window with an arch over it bearing the inscription, "All hope abandon ye who enter here" (Ch. 18). The line, from Dante's Inferno, is not in the text; Beard supplied it as part of his graphic interpretation of the first edition, in 1889. But Twain knew of Dante and he certainly approved the illustration. Dante's hell consists of nine circles and is a function of sin. Twain's hell has thirteen circles and is a function of the human condition and time. Dante's hell is complete; Twain's is not; it is as endless as time. The story begins in the deepest circle of the nineteenth century, moves across thirteen centuries to the circle of the sixth century, then returns again to the nineteenth. In this scheme, there is nothing, no time that is outside of hell. All human beings are in it, all are damned and "progress," therefore, is a delusion. As in the Inferno, the closer one gets to the center, the deeper and more awful is the damnation. The innocent little girl with the "mind at rest" whom Hank saw when he first arrived in Camelot is damned, born into a cruel and barbarous age and destined to a hard life. Her damnation is ameliorated, however, by her inactive—her dreaming—mind. By the same token, the married couple in Morgan le Fay's dungeon have achieved some degree of peace by the escape of their minds into dull dreams; they would have been caused additional torment by the restless but chimerical plans such as those Hank devises to change his environment to his liking (Ch. 7). In Twain's circles, the more the human mind is exercised, the more it conceives of hell; the more conscious it is of its situation, the more hell it suffers.
Mark Twain, like his contemporary Dostoevsky, pondered what hell was. In A Connecticut Yankee, Twain used a pattern of dreams to intimate, by analogy, that human civilization's nightmarish decline to hell is more plausible as a model of reality than is the familiar daytime world's dream of progress ever onward and upward. Dante described hell as a place where the last kind ward that damned souls receive before entering it is the advice to abandon hope, because in hell hope is a delusion, a burden, and therefore even a form of needless punishment. Were Hank not in hell he would not have dreamed such cruelly impossible dreams. Not from the first page of the novel was there ever any chance of his realizing the slightest degree of success in his endeavors to reform society and bring modern civilization to the sixth century; it was not meant to be; it had not been predestined. The course of past history is, by definition, fixed, beyond change. Thus when Hank found himself in sixth century England, he was in an era whose events had already occurred and whose history had already been whiten.
Twain therefore represents the process of time as having already been determined by some superior decree, fixed into an inflexible pattern of eternal repetition, and completed in advance. This view of time is shocking in its remorselessness and the enormity of its deceit. But it is a view that is consistent with the idea that this world is hell. It is a view, moreover, that could have had its origins in Twain's Calvinist past or, even more basically, in the gloomy reflections of the Preacher. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under th sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The eclipse of the sun, therefore, which Hank "providentially" remembers at the beginning of the novel is an event doubly ironic and ominous. Hank's very ability to predict it implies a fixed order in which it was already an accomplished fact. And the very existence of such a fixed order of accomplished fact implies that not only are eclipses predictable, but also all other events—because they had already happened. Hank knew from the beginning details of the historical period in which he found himself names, dates, and events. In other words, they had already happened and were fixed. But when he was unable to understand the consequences of his knowledge of the "future"—that he was in no way free to alter what had been decreed (and also accomplished), he was doomed to a dream existence, in reality a Sisyphean labor of the damned.
A Connecticut Yankee is the last of Twain's major works in which his artistry veils the deep-rooted and desperate pessimism that was always central to both his inner life and his art. After 1889, the awful dreams which he had hitherto successfully suppressed or contained, and which are still subordinated with brilliant subtlety in A Connecticut Yankee, finally surfaced and increasingly became the overt subject matter of his writings. Though Twain fought Calvinism, he did not defeat it. The doubts it implanted in him about the truth of the objective world and the nature and destiny of man were supported over the course of his lifetime by his own observations and reflections and became near-convictions. In his inner and artistic life, Twain was not divided. His distinctive note was the edged jest; it was a peculiarly appropriate talent for one whose deepest and most persistent purpose was to expose life as a cruel jest.
A Connecticut Yankee, therefore, is not really about Hank, or sixth century England, or nineteenth century America either, for that matter. Twain has proposed in it a paradigm whose extrapolations bear upon his readers, whose present could be as immutably fixed to the people of "a remote unborn age, centuries hence" as that of the sixth century was to the people of the nineteenth century. In a life where individuality is only a sole "microscopic atom" (Ch. 18) or just a thought, and existence, in Hank's words, is a "plodding sad pilgrimage…[a] pathetic drift between the eternities" (Ch. 18), he who hopes the most is plunged into the deepest torment. As Mark Twain portrayed hell in A Connecticut Yankee, the best that can be done is to submit to it humbly, put one's mind at rest, and perhaps be allowed to dream of life in one of its outer circles.
Source: Lawrence I. Berkove, "The Reality of the Dream: Structural and Thematic Unity in A Connecticut Yankee," in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 8–14.
Gerber, John, Mark Twain, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 535, G. K. Hall, 1988, p. 115.
Mencken, H. L., "The Man Within," in A Mencken Chrestomathy, Knopf, 1967, pp. 485–89.
Miller, Robert Keith, Mark Twain, Frederick Ungar, 1983, p. 113.
Reiss, Edmund, "Afterward," in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Signet Classic, 1990, p. 320.
Sanford, Charles L., "A Classic of Reform Literature," in Readings on Mark Twain, Greenhaven Press, 1996, p. 170.
Cox, James M., "The Ironic Stranger," in Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, Princeton University Press, 1966, pp. 222–46.
Cox considers this novel's place in Twain's long career and finds it to be the point at which he started entering the final, worst stage of his writing life.
Davis, Sara de Saussure, and Philip D. Beidler, eds, The Mythologizing of Mark Twain, University of Alabama Press, 1984.
This book is a compilation of essays by and about Twain, charting the growth of his reputation.
Michelson, Bruce, "The Quarrel with Romance," in Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, pp. 95–171.
This long chapter from Michelson's excellent examination of Twain's career looks at the American Romantic tradition and Twain's relationship to it.
Robinson, Douglas, "Revising the American Dream: A Connecticut Yankee," in Mark Twain, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 183–206.
Robinson's analysis of the book is steeped with philosophy and complex literary theory.
Snyder, Christopher, The World of King Arthur, Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Snyder has assembled a richly-illustrated book filled with thousands of details about the time that Twayne was exploring.
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