Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866
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, however, is comparatively bereft of comic effects, and its satire has a hectoring shrillness which suggests that Twain no longer finds the idea of human frailty—however fictional or, at least, long since dead and buried it may be—amusing.
The novel is a very dark one which, significantly, does not have the happy ending which draws The Prince and the Pauper back into the fairy tale genre with a kind of Dickensian sweetness, with the villains punished and the good people living happily ever after. No such resolution is available in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which ends in destruction of the dream.
Along the way, however, Twain’s abundant imagination is used with great skill, not only to tell an interesting tale but also to provide him the opportunity to make his points about superstition, religion, and politics with an earnestness that forces the reader to realize that this is not simply an excursion into fancy. The structure of fantasy is used to make serious comments upon human stupidity, and particularly upon people’s stubborn refusal to learn, timidity, and tendencies to respond to authority with sheeplike devotion.
Hank Morgan is not simply trying to get through an unfamiliar situation with some vestige of moral integrity intact, as was often the case with previous Twain characters, including Huck Finn. He sees this accident as a chance to anticipate history, to eliminate hundreds of years of pain and suffering, and to bring Camelot kicking and screaming(as it surely does) into the enlightened nineteenth century.
The richness of incident, particularly the various ways in which Hank Morgan adjusts the scientific knowledge he possesses to the limited resources of the Arthurian times, manages to rise above the gloom of the novel, and the battle between Morgan and Merlin has a kind of comic energy that is expected in Twain’s work. How his baby comes to be called “Hello, Central” reminds readers of Twain’s earlier, happier works. The center of the novel is not in the fantasy, the trickery, or the adventures, however; it lies in Hank Morgan’s character. Just as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ultimately finds its real quality in the development of Huck’s personal set of moral standards, this novel gets its strength from Hank Morgan—at first bemused, then outraged, then seizing and working his way through to the dream.
In the battle to civilize, the author is able to make Morgan his mouthpiece for Twain’s concerns about society, sometimes without breaching Morgan’s character (although the shrill, repetitive attack upon the clergy sometimes is more didactic than artistically appropriate). It is, however, another example of the way Twain makes obviously simple literary forms work in more than one way, and it possesses tonal range which, if sometimes excessive, indicates how ambitious and daring he can be. This book may have a title suitable for a child’s bookshelf, but the book is a rough and powerful attack upon human nature, ancient and modern.
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