A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Magill Book Reviews)
Hank Morgan sees himself as the epitome of democratic principles and is shocked by life in feudal England. Proclaiming himself “the champion of hard unsentimental common sense and reason,” he sets out to reform this society but creates chaos instead.
Taking advantage of an eclipse of the sun, Morgan supplants Merlin as the most powerful force in Arthur’s court. Known as “The Boss,” he sincerely intends to right wrongs by reforming the feudal system, reducing the power of the nobility and the Church, and creating industrial and other technological advances, but his successes blind him to his original goals.
He considers anyone who does not share his view of the world to be his enemy. His insistence upon reducing everything to financial terms causes him to reject the quest for the Holy Grail because there is no money in it. His own quest eventually leads him to employ a flooded moat, electrified fences, and guns to kill 25,000 knights in the name of reform.
The novel makes fun of chivalry and chivalric romances, but Twain is much more interested in addressing various evils associated with industry, technology, business, religion, slavery, war, and the idea of progress itself. Twain frequently interrupts his narrative with didactic asides about these and other matters.
Too often categorized as a children’s classic, this cynical satire is much more than that. It is one of the best explorations of the ambivalent...
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The novel is told within a frame set around 1889. During a day tour of England’s Warwick Castle, the anonymous frame-narrator meets an American— later identified as Hank Morgan—who relates how he was transported back to the sixth century. When he was a foreman in a Connecticut arms factory in 1879, an employee knocked him unconscious; he awakened in En-gland in c.e. 528. That night, Morgan leaves a manuscript containing his story with the narrator, who stays up reading it. Morgan’s own first-person account forms the novel’s main narrative.
Morgan’s narrative spans roughly ten years. After awakening in England, he is captured and taken to Camelot, where he is denounced as a monster and sentenced to be burned. He knows that a solar eclipse occurred at the very hour when he is scheduled to die, so he threatens to blot out the sun. When the eclipse begins, people conclude that he is a powerful magician. King Arthur not only frees him but also agrees to make him his prime minister. Morgan then enhances his reputation by blowing up the tower of Merlin the magician. Soon dubbed the “Boss,” Morgan reorganizes the kingdom’s administration and gradually introduces modern inventions and innovations, such as matches, factories, newspapers, the telegraph, and training schools. Although he is eager to introduce democracy and civil liberties, he proceeds cautiously to avoid offending the powerful Church.
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*England. Apart from the frame that surrounds the main narrative and a brief interlude in Gaul toward its end, the entire novel is set in southern England during a roughly ten-year period that begins in June, 528 c.e. Before selecting this time period, Mark Twain contemplated writing a novel contrasting the feudal institutions of the Hawaiian kingdom, which he had observed in the 1860’s, with those of the modern West. He decided instead to set his story in England of the sixth century after reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur (1485). As is typical of literary treatments of Arthurian legends, Twain’s depiction of sixth century England is far from realistic. What interested him was not the details of any specific period, but resistance of old and entrenched institutions to change. He was particularly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated England through the Middle Ages. His Yankee’s noble efforts to implant modern technology and democratic social and political institutions in medieval England meet the implacable resistance of the Church and end in apocalyptic failure.
*Warwick Castle. Castle on the Avon River, near modern Birmingham, in which the novel begins and ends. The castle links distant past and present and may be seen as Hank’s emotional portal to the sixth century. In the book’s prelude—set around 1889—the frame narrator meets the...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Combining elements of science fiction, adventure tales, broad burlesque, and social satire, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a scathing commentary on injustice and oppression in all ages.
In England in 1889, a frame narrator meets an American at Warwick Castle. The curious stranger visits the narrator’s room, introduces himself as a “Yankee of the Yankees,” and tells how a blow to the head transported him to sixth century England. The visitor, later identified as Hank Morgan, becomes sleepy and leaves a yellowed manuscript detailing his story. With the exception of two postscripts, one by Clarence in the sixth century and another by the narrator, the remaining forty-three chapters are Hank’s first-person account of his ten years in the sixth century.
Hank Morgan awakens in a strange place and is captured by Sir Kay, a knight in armor, who Hank thinks is from either an insane asylum or a circus. Forced to march to Camelot, Hank learns that he is at King Arthur’s court in 528 a.d.
Condemned to death by Sir Kay, Hank uses his knowledge of an imminent eclipse to dupe his captors into believing that he has blotted out the sun. Terrified by Hank’s sorcery, King Arthur makes Hank the kingdom’s “second personage.” Hank demotes Merlin to performing mundane tasks.
With the help of page Amyas le Poulet, whom he calls “Clarence,” Hank reorganizes the...
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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,...
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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...
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Compare and 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...
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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 twentyfirst 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 twentysecond 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...
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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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Foner, Philip S. Mark Twain, Social Critic. New York: International Publishers, 1958. Explains the novel’s vindication of democracy as a response to such foreign critics as the British historian Matthew Arnold, and analyzes Mark Twain’s fear of American sympathies toward monarchy, aristocracy, and established churches. Includes a bibliography.
Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain in the Margins: The Quarry Farm Marginalia and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Alabama, 2000. An examination of the marginalia that Fulton finds revealing of the development of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.
Hill, Hamlin. Introduction to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. San Francisco: Chandler, 1963. Hill’s introduction to this fully illustrated facsimile reprint of the first edition explains the caricatures of illustrator Dan Beard, and Mark Twain’s attitude toward them.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts On File, 1995. Contains a detailed synopsis of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, cross-referenced to analytical entries on both real and fictional names, places, and events. With additional entries on Mark Twain’s illustrators and publishers, this volume is an excellent resource for placing...
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