Thursday, August 31, 2017

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

Source of book: Audiobook from the library - but we also own this in hardback.

My first introduction to A Connecticut Yankee was as a fairly young child, in the form of an abridged edition someone gave us. Yeah, yeah, I know. No, it wasn’t great, and yes, it omitted a lot of the book - the stuff that makes the book a good satire, not just a story. But whatever. I went back and read the real thing in my teens. However, I wonder if I still had some of the abridgement in my mind even up till now, because I had forgotten a few passages that I am thankful my children did okay with, because the are a bit traumatic.

The basic story is pretty well known, so I won’t worry about spoilers. An American engineer, Hank Morgan, is bopped on the head in a fight, and awakens to find himself in King Arthur’s england in the 6th Century CE. He escapes being burned at the stake by accurately predicting a solar eclipse (making this a perfect book for our eclipse trip…), and rises to power due to his scientific and mechanical knowledge. He attempts to modernize the kingdom through 19th Century technology - and more importantly, Enlightenment values - but eventually fails to overcome the superstition and prejudice of the time. 

Original illustration by Daniel Carter Beard, 1889

Twain had a purpose in writing this book: to combat the idolization of the Middle Ages, particularly the class distinctions, religious superstition, glorification of violence, and the view that the law should protect the powerful at the expense of the poor. Twain had particular ire toward Sir Walter Scott, whose historical novels about the middle ages were popular in the American South. In Twain’s view, Scott’s romanticized views of a society wherein the nobility practically owned the serfs gave cover to the enslavers of the South, who imagined themselves to be great lords, beneficent to their dark skinned vassals, even as they brutalized and dehumanized them.

This is a bit unfair to Scott himself, who hardly intended that sort of result. However, there is some truth in Twain’s charge. Many Scots settled in the South, and in fact did idolize Sir Walter’s works. In the most extreme case, the Ku Klux Klan adapted the Highland call to arms - the burning cross described in The Lady of the Lake - as a symbol of violence against African Americans. You can even draw a depressing line to the present. The Scottish Presbyterian tradition (which Sir Walter portrays in The Heart of Midlothian) was a dominant religious tradition in the Antebellum South. That Reformed tradition continues to be central to the Southern Baptist Convention - a denomination founded as a bulwark against the abolition of slavery. In the present day, the loathsome Doug Wilson makes much of his Scottish heritage and his Reformed beliefs. And also defends slavery and claims the Middle Ages were the most perfect “Christian” society ever. (Second is the Antebellum South, of course…) Kind of an interesting, um, let’s call it a coincidence. Or not.

So anyway, Twain attempts to de-romanticise the Middle Ages by portraying the often brutal realities of the era. In this, he is a bit anachronistic. The setting is the court of King Arthur, and that legend is itself anachronistic. Such things as plate armor didn’t exist back then in reality, Arthur historically didn’t rule much more than a portion of Wales, and feudalism was hardly as developed as we tend to think. But Twain isn’t striving for historical accuracy anyway. He is addressing the myth as it stands. So he accepts and uses the blend of early and late Middle Ages and the legends from Arthur on down as it existed in popular imagination. To this end, he quotes extensively from Mallory’s Mort D’Arthur - the characters tell some of the tales - and has Hank comment on the passages, usually by noting the endless and senseless violence. (For what it is worth, Stephen Pinker gives a more scholarly look at violence in the Middle Ages in The Better Angels of our Nature and confirms the truth that violence was indeed shockingly routine…)

Another case in which Twain takes a historical liberty is in the matter of Droit du seigneur, the right of a lord to have sex with any peasant girl on her wedding night. This probably did not officially exist as a right - instead, there was a tax the peasants had to pay when they married (and pretty much for everything else - as a book I read once about the society of the Middle Ages detailed in excruciating detail) - but later writers such as William Blackstone mention it, so it was popularly believed to exist. More likely, powerful men raped whomever they wished without any meaningful penalty - when you are rich, you can get away with anything, right? This particular scene in the book is one I hadn’t remembered, and I am glad I didn’t get awkward questions about it. What is most interesting to me about it, though, is the fact that Southern enslavers did believe they had the right to rape their slaves - and the genetic evidence is that it happened all the time.

This isn’t the only instance of oppression Twain illuminates. The nobility generally gets to abuse the lower classes at will, and they have no recourse. Seemingly minor crimes are punished by death - at least if you are a peasant. (This too is historically accurate. I was shocked to find in law school that ALL felonies were capital - even theft. The only way out was to be aristocracy, in which case you were pardoned by the king, or clergy, which gave you a right to imprisonment instead of execution…) This, alas, isn’t something we have entirely outgrown. While a fundamental American value is that we are all equal under the law, this has not always been true in practice. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into the details of that, but it is impossible to avoid the evidence that money and social class can indeed determine all too many outcomes in our society, from stop and frisk to arrest rates to prison terms to implementation of the death penalty. And then, those in power can literally get away with murder all too often. (See Tamir Rice, for example.)

In this respect, Twain’s satire fits today pretty darn well. He intended it to be a pointed commentary on his own society - particularly on the social and racial inequality that existed in the Gilded Age - but it still seems fresh and relevant. There is still the idea that it is okay that the working poor starve so that the rich can have even more. There is still the belief that people are expendable, and that their lives do not really matter. And there is still the idea that wealth and power mean a person is morally “better” than those below him.

Twain is brutally hard on the Roman Catholic Church in this book. He wasn’t particularly fond of religion in general, but he believed that the worst of all was the unholy marriage of political power and religion. Throughout the book, he makes the case that church and state should be separate, and that there should not be an established religion of any sort. I thoroughly agree (as did C. S. Lewis) with that principle. Twain further castigates religion for preaching submission to the masses as a way of making them accept abuse and injustice. Marx too noted this, and it is to the everlasting shame of religion that it has allowed itself to be used to this ignoble end. (I’ll also note that Saint Augustine encouraged the poor to seek social justice. That was 1600 years ago too - the Church hasn’t always been a tool of the rich.) It would do us good as Christians to note that the founder of our religion said that a sign that he was from God was that “the good news is preached to the poor.”

Other concerns of Twain also appear in this book. He advocates for universal suffrage. And yes, that includes women, who he noted could, with a little education, show better judgment than most men. Twain had an interesting marriage for the time. He married Olivia Langdon, who came from a family that was fiercely in favor of the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. She was a fiery feminist, educated and intelligent, and Twain’s match. Until her death, she edited his works and gave him opinionated feedback. By all accounts, it was an egalitarian marriage, and he was devastated by her death.

More surprising, though, was Twain’s take on racial issues in this book. Twain was, alas, of his time in some respects. He said some pretty horrid things about Native Americans in some of his books (particularly Roughing It, which was an earlier book), and shows some of the racial prejudice of his age in others. However, for his era, he was rather progressive, and appears to have become more so as time went on. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, for example, he imagines a slave baby and a free baby which are switched at birth, and makes the case that nurture, not genes, are the difference. Likewise, in Huckleberry Finn, his deeply human portrayal of Jim shows his abiding belief that all men are created equal.

In this book, there is a jarring observation early on. Hank decides that the denizens of Arthur’s England are “savages,” directly analogous to the Native Americans of his time. So, ouch, a bad stereotype, and not exactly an accurate one. But Hank is equally clear that he believes that in both cases, the cause is a lack of education, not an unbridgeable deficit, and that both would be equally “civilized” with that deficit remedied. For its time, that was nothing less than a radical idea. Likewise, Twain draws direct comparisons between the oppression of the serfs in England and the oppression of free Blacks through sharecropping and segregation in his own America. Again, very radical for his time, when it was still taken for granted by most that non-whites were genetically inferior and thus should be kept from mixing with the superior race.

Twain’s philosophy - or at least Hank’s philosophy - is also very pro-science. To our postmodern ears, sometimes this seems a bit optimistic. After all, we have lived through two world wars and the Cold War. (Although, as Raymond Aron pointed out, the parts of the globe that have enjoyed the most peace in the last half century are the ones that have superpowers with nukes aimed at each other…) On the other hand, though, Twain was right. We should celebrate the fact that superstition is increasingly superseded by knowledge. For Twain, who grew up in the age after the Smallpox vaccine was developed, the idea that whole families - whole communities - would succumb to that disease was horrifying. A return to the idea that incantations work better than vaccines would not be an improvement. (Um, anti vaxxers, take note…) Modern sewer and water systems likewise are a blessing brought to us by a scientific understanding of germ theory. Science doesn’t solve every problem, obviously, but it has made vast improvements to our lives.

The second part, though, is also valuable. Twain believed strongly in human rights, the dignity of all, regardless of sex, race, wealth, or religion. Hank isn’t just intent on introducing technological advances to Arthur’s England, he wants to bring the core values of human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, equality under the law, representative government, just laws, and empathy to that society as well. And Twain wishes to bring them to his own, affirming the primacy of these core values to the ideal American society and government. To a large degree, those of us with these Enlightenment values have the same goals as Twain. We too wish to see that sort of a society, informed by truth, driven by empathy, and devoted to equality and justice.

That Hank fails is a given. After all, had he succeeded, he would have changed history, and we would be speaking of Arthur’s England in the 6th Century as one of the great democracies. But he almost succeeds. And he would have succeeded had he been able to break the hold of superstition. Today, we too face that challenge. “Alternative Facts” are still widely believed, and many cling to a belief in some form of “karma” as a better explanation of what is better termed “injustice” - something that the prophets and Christ himself spoke about - as did many of the church fathers. Twain’s tale is a reminder that positive change doesn’t just happen by magic. People have to go out and make it happen by reforming institutions, educating, changing laws and society to protect the vulnerable and limit the power of those would oppress others. Infrastructure doesn’t grow, it is built, whether physical like sewers and roads, institutional like schools and hospitals, or metaphysical like empathy.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court suffers a bit from some long winded sections. It isn’t as tightly written as his very best works. It is also a transition between his more obviously humorous works and the sharp satire of later writings, so it has a peculiar mix of hilarious farce and bitter edged rants against deserving targets. But despite the flaws, it is a worthy work, ahead of its time politically, and perceptive of the faults of societies past and present.

My older son particularly enjoyed this book, and got more of the satire than I expected. I think it was a bit over the head of my youngest, but she laughed at the slapstick moments. The hilarious spoofs on chivalry and quests are classic, and never grow old. My eldest had to head home for school before she heard the end of it, so she will need to finish it on her own. This book is probably best for teens, but advanced tweens might find it interesting as well.  


  1. I chose this book to do a major report on in 9th grade, and I got so sick of analyzing it that I've never been able to go back and read it again.

    1. It is a shame when that happens. I avoided The Scarlett Letter for a couple of decades for that same reason.