Mark Twain – A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (Book Review)

Since my copy of the book had no cover image, here is an internal illustration.

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is the most famous of the Mark Twain books that nobody reads anymore. So I read it, and concluded that that’s probably the right status for it to have. It’s not bad, but it hasn’t held up nearly as well as his best-known works.

As promised by the title, this is the story of Hank Morgan, a man of Twain’s era, who finds himself back in the time of King Arthur. Realizing that his yankee ingenuity and science make him superior to the people around him, Morgan quickly establishes himself as a magician more powerful than Merlin and attempts to reform the country to match his ideals. He is often successful in the short run, but can’t always overcome the nation’s obstinacy and superstition.

Twain was a master satirist, though the target of his satire isn’t always obvious to a 21st-century mindset. I really couldn’t tell what to make of Morgan, for example: At times, he seems selfish and materialistic, announcing his plans to take over the medieval country and become rich. As the book goes on, though, he is clearly a mouthpiece for Twain’s own politics and values, bemoaning slavery and the tyranny of the upper class, while holding surprisingly vicious opinions of the church.

The main target of the satire is the mythical courtly system of King Arthur, though, and that holds up well today. In fact, his deconstruction of the traditional tale feels surprisingly modern, occasionally reminding me of my recent read of The Magicians. According to the book, the fantastical stories we have today are remembered not because they were real events, but because the people at the time were too stupid to question the grandiose claims that knights made. In fact, people even believe their own lies as soon as they make them. One section involves a woman so confident that a pen of pigs is a group of captive princesses that she can’t even believe that anyone else would think they look like pigs.

While the traditional stories of King Arthur focused on the upper classes, Twain gives equal time to the starving peasants, who are horribly abused by an unjust system. Though the narrator comes off as silly or selfish at times, his American belief in freedom and hatred of monarchy definitely makes him into the hero of the book.

The story was obviously intended to read as a light farce, though the 19th-century prose makes it a heavier work today. It’s not too bad once the reader adjusts, but it does skew the feel of the story. It also doesn’t help that Twain’s style recalls the episodic stories of the Knights of the Round Table. Though a plot is continually progressing, it does so in fits and starts. One of the most important developments, Morgan’s training of a secret group of scientific, freedom-loving men, happens almost entirely behind the scenes. More than once, the story skips over long stretches of time, and most of the progress in both Morgan’s life and his plans occur during these gaps. Twain’s skills lie in a humorist’s eye for the little details of life, but his characters and their lives always feel two-dimensional.

Of course, Twain is more than just another humorist. His scathing anger at injustice is both the book’s best and worst quality. His skewering of the knighthood is relevant today, when people still celebrate an idealistic version of those times. However, that anger culminates in a very bloody ending, with thousands killed in a war against the forces of tyranny. Exaggerated but unsatisfying, the conclusion doesn’t feel like a natural progression of the story. It seems that Twain’s own emotions ran away with him, and he lost control of his own story. That’s not a bad way to describe the book as a whole.

Grade: C+

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