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 nature of the American character: inventiveness combined with self-destructiveness.
(The entire section is 645 words.)
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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 “Yankee,” Hank Morgan, at the castle. Later, at an inn, Hank begins telling his story and lets the narrator read his manuscript, which becomes the core of the novel. The novel ends with the narrator revisiting Hank just before the latter dies. Connections between the historical Warwick Castle—which Twain visited and admired—and Arthur’s Camelot are entirely Twain’s invention. The castle’s location is several hundred miles north of the novel’s sixth century settings.
*Connecticut. New England state that is home to Hank, who styles himself “a Yankee of the Yankees.” As befitting the stereotype of a no-nonsense New Englander, Hank calls himself “practical . . . and nearly barren of sentiment.” Twain was born and raised in the South but lived in Hartford, Connecticut, at the time he wrote A Connecticut Yankee, and he strongly admired New England culture and values.
*Hartford. Connecticut city in which Hank is head superintendent in the great Colt Arms Factory until he is sent back in time by a blow on the head he receives in a crowbar fight with a factory ruffian. Hank’s job makes him even more versatile and inventive than the typical Yankee. At the factory, he “learned to make . . . anything in the world, it didn’t make any...
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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...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
(The entire section is 399 words.)