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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)