I am an ardent fan of Mark Twain generally but struggle with rating “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” On the one hand it was genuinely funny. It’s the classic man-out-of-time storyline:
“I was a Unique; and glad to know that that fact could not not be dislodged or challenged for thirteen centuries and a half, for sure.”
“…at last I lost my temper and said hang a man that would make a suit of armor without any pockets in it…I made up my mind that I would carry along a [purse] next time, let it look how it might, and people say what they would. Of course these iron dudes of the Round Table would think it was scandalous, and maybe raise Sheol about it, but as for me, give me comfort first, and style afterwards.”
Mark Twain with his characteristic wit, shows the dark side of an era idealized by the Romantics of his time, highlighting the often overlooked cruelty and oppression and demonstrating how easily a superstitious and illiterate culture can be taken advantage of and fooled. But just as there is a dark side to the glorious tales of knighthood and chivalry, there is a dark side to Mark Twain’s story as well. Beneath the good-natured humor is a marked cynicism.
“There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fishhook with…”
“His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.”
“…they were a childlike and innocent lot; telling lies of the stateliest pattern with a most gentle and winning naivete, and ready and willing to listen to anybody else’s lie, and believe it, too…”
“If [Merlin] had stepped in there and used his eyes, instead of his disordered mind, he could have cured the well by natural means, and then turned it into a miracle in the customary way; but no, he was an old numskull, a magician who believed in his own magic; and no magician can thrive who is handicapped with a superstition like that.”
“If you have ever seen an active, heedless, enterprising child going diligently out of one mischief and into another all day long, and an anxious mother at its heels all the while, and just saving it by a hair from drowning itself or breaking its neck with each new experiment, you’ve seen the king and me.”
“I will say this much for the nobility: that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.”
Even while I laughed at Mark Twain’s wisecracks I also was affronted by the irreverence of it. To see my beloved heroes so belittled–Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table–seemed an act of sacrilege (and Mark Twain would count this a victory).
The world King Arthur is born into is unabashedly cruel and dark. The original stories do not seek to hide this. Oppression, injustice, strife, immorality, and mayhem are normal. Kings are heartless and selfish. Women, children, and slaves are robbed of possessions, dignity, and life. The good die young and the wicked prosper. It is because of this backdrop that the story of King Arthur is so wonderful. The glory of King Arthur’s reign was its exceptionalness. Even in his own time, no other King ruled like him, no other kingdom flourished like his. King Arthur is not like other kings, his kingdom is not like other kingdoms.
The reason his story arouses the longings of modern hearts is because it was born out of the longings of ancient hearts, which turn out to not be so different than ours.
The tales of King Arthur are and always have been legends, and legends of that peculiar quality common to all true fairy tales. They possess a special “otherness” that has nothing to do with life as we know it, but of life beyond it, of hope and of “joy beyond the walls of the world,” as Tolkien described it.
The King Arthur of legend embodies goodness and virtue–absurd though his exploits be at times–and to renounce them, to mock them, is to mock the belief in goodness itself. The tension between hope and despair of the human condition is something Mark Twain fought all his life to resolve without ever reaching any satisfactory conclusion and this tension is central to understanding “A Connecticut Yankee.”
The cynicism only increases as the story progresses, spiraling downward into a shockingly pessimistic finale’ with a death toll greater than Hamlet and “progress” but a lonely, delirious, dying man’s shattered dream.
I have yet to read the specific works Mark Twain is satirizing: to wit, the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Sir Thomas Malory, but I do know that it was Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that inspired Edmund Spenser to write The Faerie Queen which in turn, inspired C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to pen their masterpieces of fantasy, fantasies that have stood and continue to stand as bastions of hope in these Shadowlands. Mark Twain rejected this tradition as foolish will-o’-the-wisp.
The irony is, that in the place of a fantasy of a Good King to save the world from Evil, Mark Twain substituted a fantasy of progress, democracy, and technology* then tore down even that with his own hands.
*I owe part of this observation to T. E. D. Klein who wrote a splendid afterward to “A Connecticut Yankee” which I highly recommend reading.
Note: this review was written in 2015