Monday, November 05, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain

I like to take longer novels when I travel overseas as I haven't yet been sucked into the cult of the Nook and prefer a physical book. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court fits the bill (the edition I read clocked in at just shy of 500 pages) and having all the action set in the country to which I was traveling made it a perfect fit. I'd seen variations of this in other media—Bing Crosby's movie is probably my favorite quickly followed by the Looney Tunes version—but had never read the book. I knew the movie and especially the cartoon weren't exactly faithful to the source material going more for humor than satire, but I've always been interested in the original. While not as funny (hard to beat Bugs Bunny!) and surprisingly dark, I quite enjoyed it.

The basic plot has been rehashed by many writers since Twain's archetype (probably best by Leo Frankowski): a modern mechanic gets sent back in time to the Middle Ages and uses technology to attempt to change the world. Twain's hero, Hank Morgan, being a stereotypical American of the 19th century despises hereditary classes like the monarchy and slavery. He also believes in his heart that science can be used to improve society; when he discovers himself suddenly in King Arthur's Britain he immediately uses his training and experience to both modernize and moralize the past. Advancement in technology used to bring about social change is clearly possible, but as Twain plots and history proves, the result is rarely predictable.

While society itself is the main antagonist, the Church is painted as the single biggest threat. People can learn and adapt, especially when the benefits of change are made plain, but religion is always happiest with the status quo—especially when that status quo keeps the Church in control. "I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought." Sadly, over a century after Twain wrote those words their truth is still evident in our culture. If we've learned anything since 1889 it is that our government can be just as smothering as religion when it comes to our natural evolution as a society.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a complex story and far from the simple children's classic I expected. On the surface is a sometimes funny tale about a man trapped in the past. Underneath that is a critical look at the way the world worked in ancient times, but below that lurks the inherent dichotomy of "the ends justify the means." Hank wants the common outlook of the people to rise above superstition and religious fervor and embrace the credo "all men are created equal," but then exploits this same superstition to gain power and control. I often found myself asking what I'd do in various situations, and not always liking the answers. If you want an enjoyable tale with humor and adventure or a deeper novel that challenges your beliefs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court fits the bill.

First Sentence:
It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to to talk about.

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