Mark Twain was one of the first authors I ever claimed as my favorite. I fell in love with his humor by reading a collection of short stories left over from my mother’s college days. As I grew older, I read the requisite famous Twain works. I pored over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn like every good English major should.
For some reason, I had never before read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court until this year. I must have been under the mistaken assumption that the novel would deal with courtly matters in medieval England, not my favorite genre.
In fact, the novel is set primarily in medieval England, but the story is told through the eyes of a time-traveler from Twain’s present. Hence, the title.
A Connecticut Yankee finds himself transported to sixth century England. He uses his future knowledge to advance civilization in many small, but important ways. He starts a newspaper, spreads the message of hygiene, attempts to distill self-respect into serfs. In short, he attempts to make medieval England into modern (for Twain) America.
The novel is funny, very funny. Twain’s sly humor creeps up on you, unexpectedly at times and almost always, without the knowledge of narrator or supporting characters.
Reading through the lens of the twenty first century is interesting, in that the novel includes a frame story of one of Twain’s contemporaries meeting the time-traveler in Twain’s present, and reading his accounts of the past. In my college days, I would probably have expounded on the distance of narrative to narrator as mirroring the distance of past and present, but presently, I shall merely make note of the fact that there is one.
What the novel really is, at heart, is a defense of democracy, the American sort, to be exact. Our fearless narrator lovingly remembers the free press and voting rights of the nineteenth century. He rails against the privileged nobility and monarchy of medieval England. He decries the power of the Church to make mice of men (though he does mention the goodliness of some lone priests). He even notes the painful and inhumane effects of slavery.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a humorous time travel novel that creates an alternate history for medieval England. It is also a sharply written political treatise that touches on topics important in Twain’s America and our own modern day United States.
Here are a few choice quotes from the novel:
“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the substantial thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags–that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.”
“There it was, you see. A man is a man, at bottom. Whole ages of abuse and oppression cannot crush the manhood clear out of him. Whoever thinks it is a mistake, is himself mistaken. Yes, there is plenty good enough material for a republic in the most degraded people that ever existed–even the Russians; plenty of manhood in them–even in the Germans–if one could but force it out of its timid and suspicious privacy, to overthrow and trample in the mud any throne that ever was set up and any nobility that ever supported it.”
“Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle bow in his hand who sits in the midst o a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him–why, certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair–but there it is: and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also. “