Rereading: A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT by Mark Twain

First edition from 1889, not the one I read. The word CONNECTICUT was added later.

I titled this “Rereading,” but I found I remembered almost nothing from the book, but only parts of the Bing Crosby film, so I may never have actually read this one before.

Hank Morgan is an engineer in then contemporary Connecticut who, after a blow to the head, finds himself in the sixth century court of King Arthur in England. At first Hank is captured by a knight, Sir Kay, and taken as a prisoner to Camelot, where everyone is astonished by his modern clothing and thinks him a magician. Merlin sees him immediately as a rival and tries to have him killed, but Hank happens to remember that a total solar eclipse is about to happen, and uses it to convince everyone he is a much more powerful wizard than Merlin. Hank joins Arthur’s court, where he soon takes on the name “The Boss.” Merlin is still working against him, so Hank creates a second display of his power by creating gunpowder and using it to blow up Merlin’s tower. From then, Hank’s power is not questioned, but he never gains the complete support of the knights and lords of the court and country because of his admittedly peasant upbringing.

Hank learns the ways of the land with help from an assistant, Clarence, and soon sets up factories and schools and other institutions in secret with hopes of creating a new generation of peasants who will rise against their feudal lords and bring democracy to the country. Hank has utter distain for the superstition and slavery rampant in England of the time, and even when sent on a quest as a knight himself, he finds plenty to laugh at. His travels bring him to a holy valley where a holy well has dried up. Hank assesses the situation, sees how to fix it, and makes the restoration of the well another magical miracle. Later, he and Arthur go on a journey through the land disguised as peasants so that Arthur can truly learn what difficult lives his subjects have. The problem is that Arthur has a very hard time pretending to be humble, and the pair end up in prison together about to be hanged.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I didn’t think this book was nearly as successful as The Prince and The Pauper, though they share some ideas. Here Hank is portrayed as the only smart person. Everyone else is not only ignorant and superstitious but stupid, from Arthur on down. This makes for a poor story with lots of lectures from Hank on the glories of his own world in Connecticut, and it’s hard to like him or really anyone else in the book. When this world turns against Hank, he does his best to kill everyone in sight, also not a good story idea. The setting is drawn largely from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur published in 1485, itself drawing on older texts and legends, but largely myth rather than history, and the supposed 6th century setting is completely wrong even for that. As a fan of the Arthur legends, I didn’t much like Twain’s handling of them, even if he did make some good points along the way, and there are some amusing and entertaining segments.

Mildly recommended.

A Connecticut Yankee on Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.