Reading and becoming informed about the past is part of a well-rounded education. Still, it is not always easy. An especially difficult task for modern readers is to determine the proper approach to a work that was not only written decades prior, but whose setting is centuries in the past. Published in the late 1880s, the book is about history; at the same time, for the contemporary reader, it is history. Twain wrote about the Middle Ages, setting his novel in the year 587. His central idea concerns explaining the changes that had come over the world over the course of thirteen centuries. There is nothing in the novel to explain the changes of the past hundred and fifteen years .
Contemporary readers are presented with the world Twain was writing about and also the world that he assumed his readers would know. That is a lot of information to synthesize. To make matters worse, a good case can be made that in the twentieth century the rate of social change accelerated at a pace quicker than it did in many of the pretechnological centuries that separated Twain from his subject. The book focuses on the developments that occurred between King Arthur’s time and Twain’s, such as the locomotive, the telephone, the newspaper, and the gun; these are all significant advances, but they do not really hold up in magnitude to the automobile, airplane, television, laser, DNA mapping, and thousands of other achievements that have occurred. The time that has passed since Twain lived might easily be characterized as the age of the nuclear bomb and the computer. Both destruction and knowledge have become global, not provincial, realities.
It is common to blame contemporary American students for their lack of historical perspective; studies regularly quote students saying that they do not see how incidents in the distant past matter to their lives, and tests show that they cannot identify the dates for milestones in world history like the French Revolution, the Renaissance, or even the First World War. In the case of a novel like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it would be easy to sympathize with their sense of alienation. Readers of this book are not only required to look backward through history, but also have to line up two separate historical points and determine their relationship to each other. Students might approach the book armed with a dictionary, but an astrolabe might be more appropriate.
Students will commonly express their frustration with fiction that was written long ago or about ancient times and their inability to relate to the strange settings and surroundings depicted in both. The standard response is that good readers will look beyond the cultural differences and concentrate on the work’s characters. Literature is about the human condition. Regardless of where a story takes place or what happens in it, the characters should still, at heart, be human. No one says that a reader has to be a student of the sixth century or of the nineteenth century in order to appreciate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The behavior of Hank Morgan, the Yankee of the title, is all that one really has to relate to. In some regards, Twain makes it easy for readers of any generation to join Hank in his adventure, but in other regards, Twain complicates things by making Hank more complex than people expect to find in an adventure yarn or satire.
This type of story should be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched TV. It is a standard stranger-in-a-strangeland myth, a variation on the old fish-out-of-water formula, which throws its protagonist into an unfamiliar environment and studies how he reacts to what he finds there and how the people there react to him.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain continually refines this formula. When Hank becomes a...
(The entire section is 1587 words.)