A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Mark TwainIt’s taking longer for me to finish reading books. I ditched reading merely for fun and followed some good advice from an elder. I’m now beginning to carefully engage with the texts, or so I think. Perhaps, I’m just doddering on book paragraphs that should have been done with swiftly. But anyway, it should comfort everyone to know that only small parts of that engagement would find its way here.

Once more, I picked up a book that should have been read when I was younger. My mother gave me Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court during my first year in high school. I read up to page 48 only (I encircled the page with a pen). The book has been lying in the shelf since then. I found the classics boring and was more interested with Crichton’s Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Star Wars novels and Star Trek comics. *

Opening the book again today, I am surprised to find how mislead my past (mis)appreciation of Twain’s classic was. The book is lively, quick-paced, and damn right funny with its satirical commentary of 19th Century America veiled in the humorous depiction of life in 6th Century England.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells the tale of an American factory foreman who was suddenly transported to the past. He saves himself from execution by pretending to be a wizard, proving this lie by deluding everyone that a solar eclipse was his doing. He blows up Merlin’s tower using gunpowder and usurps the magician’s position in King Arthur’s court. Suffice to say, his experience of living in the future gives him great advantage. The hero becomes the most powerful man in King Arthur’s realm and is called “The Boss.”

Eventually, the hero sets out in a series of adventures around the country like in Cervantes’s Don Quixote. But in Cervantes, it was Quixote who deluded himself to jousting giants which were in fact windmills. The people around him tried in vain to jolt him out of his knight-errant fancies.

In Twain, this is reversed. The hero is forced by the King’s court to set out in search for adventure. The knights and the ladies of the court were neither noble nor refined as pictured in most books. Instead, they were the ignorant lot that they were. For the hero’s lady companion Sandy, a pigsty was an enchanted ogre’s castle. The swines were enchanted nobles and he must protect them from herdsmen who were in fact ogres. A whole society was mired in feudal practices and superstitions whereas in Cervantes’s time the march of reason has begun to gnaw on these myths because of socio-economic changes that brought the enlightenment closer.

The hero mused:

“Here she was, as sane a person as the kingdom could produce, and yet, from my point of view she was acting like a crazy woman. My land, the power of training! Of influence! Of education! It can bring a body up to believe anything. I had to put myself in Sandy’s place to realize that she was not a lunatic. Yes, and put her in mine, to demonstrate how easy it is to seem a lunatic to a person who has not been taught as you have been taught. If I had told Sandy I had seen a wagon, uninfluenced by enchantment, spin along fifty miles an hour; had seen a man, unequipped with magic powers, get into a basket and soar out of sight among the clouds; and had listened, without any necromancer’s help, to the conversation of a person who was several hundred miles away, Sandy would not merely have supposed me to be crazy, she would have thought she knew it. Everybody around her believed in enchantments; nobody had any doubts; to doubt that a castle could be turned into a sty, and its occupants into hogs, would have been the same as my doubting, among Connecticut people, the actuality of the telephone and its wonder – and in both cases would be absolute proof of a diseased mind, an unsettled reason.” (p. 129)

As a great German philosopher once put it: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Another of Sandy’s amusing accounts is of the monastery monks who had their “first sin” after having “been of perfect life for long.” The monks, who after building and enjoying the pleasure of a bathhouse in violation of their vows of holy austerities, wallowed themselves in “prayers, tears, and torturing of the flesh” after finding their water source all dried up. For Sandy, the monks should have stuck to the “study of pious books, and spoke not the one to the other, or indeed to any, and ate decayed herbs and naught thereto, and slept hard, and prayed much, and washed never.”

The hero’s observation on the matter is incisive: “How odd to find that even this industry has its financial panics, and at times sees its assignats and greenbacks languish to zero, and everything come to a standstill…” Indeed, hypocritical religious pedantry in feudal society had its crises in the same way that the hocus-pocus in the finance industry and the entire capitalist system suffers its own crisis today. Feudalism crumbled in the face of insoluble contradictions. Likewise, the present oppressive and exploitative order will inevitably lead to an egalitarian post-scarcity society. ■

* At around the same time, I was also given a selection of stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and other classic Russian authors. I liked it but that’s another story.

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2 thoughts on “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

  1. Pingback: 2008: A Year of Reading | (Mis)readings

  2. Actually, Twain’s portrayal of Medieval culture was blatantly unfair. The very science that the protagonist depends on had its roots in the scholastic philosophers in the middle ages. The very roots of the scientific method came from Aristotle, whose works were preserved after the collapse of the Roman Empire by the monks who Twain savages. One these monks – a Franciscan friar, actually – was Roger Bacon, one of the first scientists to use empirical methods.
    Twain’s depiction of medieval culture is a cartoon, using the most crude stereotypes imaginable.

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