Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can be seen as looking both backward and forward in Twain’s career. It is a further version of the historical fantasy that he used in The Prince and the Pauper, in which the commonly accepted inhumanities of early Renaissance life were exposed to civilized, liberal ideas which were not to have much support for some centuries to come. It also looks forward to the bleaker, more deeply pessimistic work which was to be so common in the Twain canon in the 1890’s. Some of that savagery had been shown in The Prince and the Pauper, but in this book there is a predominating line of outright cruelty.
Surprisingly enough, Twain’s hero, Hank Morgan, the enlightened nineteenth century man of science and democracy, is not without a tendency to violence; he may be on the right side, but he is no romantic. He does not intrude on the gratuitous cruelty of King Arthur’s world unless he can do so safely, and he is often inclined to use force in ways that would make any nineteenth century reader somewhat cautious about praising him.
This change from the hero or heroes of reasonably romantic character is a mark of the darkening nature of Twain’s artistic sensibility, and it is a long way from the fairly minor misconduct of a Tom Sawyer or a Huck Finn. Hank Morgan may want to civilize a vicious, savage, ignorant populace, but he has in himself disturbing inclinations to what, in the twenty-first century, would be recognized as a fascistic zeal for power, if strongly tempered by his desire to bring an entire civilization out of the Dark Ages and into the nineteenth century in one lifetime.
In Twain’s previous work with the idea of confronting the modern sensibility with the ignorance of the past (which begins with his nonfiction account of Americans on tour in Europe in The Innocents Abroad and continues in The Prince and the Pauper), there was still room for the comic and the satiric to operate, although the latter book had a serious tonality. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,...
(The entire section is 866 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Struck on the head during a quarrel in a New England arms factory, a skilled Yankee mechanic (later identified as Hank Morgan) awakens to find himself being prodded by the lance of an armored knight on horseback. The knight is Sir Kay Seneschal of King Arthur’s Round Table and the time is June, 528 c.e., in England. So a foppish young page named Clarence informs the incredulous Hank as the knight takes him to white-towered Camelot. Remembering that there was a total eclipse of the sun on June 21, 528, Hank decides that should the eclipse take place, he will know that he is indeed a lost traveler in time turned backward to the days of chivalry.
At Camelot, Hank listens to King Arthur’s knights as they brag of their mighty exploits. The magician, Merlin, repeats his story of Arthur’s coming. Finally, Sir Kay tells of his encounter with Hank, and Merlin advises that the prisoner be thrown into a dungeon to await burning at the stake on June 21.
In prison, Hank thinks about the coming eclipse. Merlin, he tells Clarence, is a humbug, and he sends the boy to the court with a message that on the day of his death, the sun will darken and the kingdom will be destroyed. Just as Hank is about to be burned, the sky begins to dim. Awed, the king orders the prisoner released. The people shout that Hank is a greater magician than Merlin, and the king makes him his prime minister. Soon, however, the populace demands another display of his powers. With the help of Clarence, Hank mines Merlin’s tower with some crude explosives he makes and then tells everyone he will cause the tower to crumble and fall. When the explosion occurs, Hank is assured of his place as the new court magician. Merlin is thrown into prison temporarily.
The lack of mechanical devices in King Arthur’s castle bothers the ingenious New Englander, and the illiteracy of the people hurts his American pride in education. He decides to raise the commoners above mere slaves to the nobility. After several years pass, he has a title of his own, for the people call him “The Boss.” As the Boss, he intends to modernize the kingdom. His first act is to set up schools in small communities throughout the country. He has to work in secret, because he fears the interference of the Church. He trains workmen in mechanical arts. Believing that a nation needs a free press, he instructs Clarence in journalism. He has telephone wires stretched between hamlets, haphazardly, as it turns out, because there are no maps by which to be guided.
After Sir Sagramour challenges Hank to a duel, the king decides that Hank should go on some knightly quest to prepare himself for the encounter. His mission is to help a young woman named Alisande, whose precise story he is unable to get straight. With many misgivings, he puts on a burdensome suit of armor and on his heavy charger starts off with Alisande, whom he calls Sandy. Sandy tells endless tall tales as they travel through the land. Along the way, Hank marvels at the pitiable state of the people under the feudal system. Whenever he finds a man of unusual spirit, he sends him back to Clarence in Camelot, to be...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)