Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Written in 1889, the novel follows Hank Morgan, an modern day (19th century) engineer from Connecticut, who gets hit in the head and wakes up in the 6th century. Early in the story, Hank is captured by one of the knights of the Round Table and brought to the court of King Arthur and Lady Guinevere. He narrowly escapes public execution by convincing the pathetically naive and gullible courtiers that he is a magician. As a sign of honor and deference, Arthur allows Hank to appoint himself prime minister and is henceforth referred to as “The Boss.”

As Hank comes to understand that he is permanently stuck in history, he decides to fully embrace the predicament and use the public’s ignorance to his advantage. He quickly trains one of the page boys, Clarence, to be his most trusted assistant and promptly begins “righting” the wrongs of the medieval caste system.

“… you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

The only Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) tale I had previously read was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Reading it in high school English class, the purpose of dissecting the book was to expand our knowledge of American literature and discuss racial inequities that the book covers.

The purpose of reading this Twain title for “fun” was to better acquaint myself with American literature since I’ve mostly avoided American classic titles since high school English class. I’m glad I did because this story was a treat and I found the book to be fascinating on so many levels.

  1. Reading A Connecticut Yankee in the 21st century was a little bit difficult. Readers at the time of publishing would have understood and laughed at Twain’s comparisons of medieval Europe to Gilded Age America. However, due to rapid technological changes over the past 140 years, I had to spend time in the recesses of my brain trying to decipher the “modern” references and I’m sure I missed some of the humor.
  2. Woven throughout the plot and into the character development, Twain has a lot to say on the obvious wrongs of social and racial discrimination. At one point, Hank “The Boss” and King Arthur take an undercover tour of the kingdom to experience life on the other side of privilege. Hank notes that no matter how hard he tries to take the pomp and circumstance out of the king’s appearance, it’s basically impossible to drive the confident authority out the royal – perhaps alluding to the idea that nurturing has a bigger impact on self-worth that human nature does. If someone grows up thinking they are loved and valued, it’s very difficult to strip them of their dignity. Unfortunately, the poignancy of the sentiment is lost on Arthur. While Hank is heartbroken by the inequalities of the caste system (and horrified by its similarities to slavery), the king is simply confused why people would “choose” to live in abject poverty.
  3. The story was very entertaining, but viewing it as a comedy does a disservice to the author. A Connecticut Yankee really serves to highlight and question centuries worth of poor international relations. While enormous strides in technology and education are made through Hank’s reforms, the penultimate failed state of King Arthur’s realm is allegorical proof that social and governmental development has to start at the grassroots level in order to have long-term success. Twain posits that Imperial rule does much more harm than good for developing nations. You can’t just tell people they need a new way of life. They may find novelty in the changes, but they will quickly revert to their habits when the rule-makers leave or the strong-minded rebel. Hank’s hard work to build a thriving economy and social structure crumbles the moment he leaves British territory.
  4. Mark Twain very blatantly plagiarizes Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The notes in my annotated version do give credit to Mallory, but there are huge chunks of Le Morte used by Twain’s characters to recount dramatically exaggerated supposed anecdotes of the conquests of the Knights of the Round Table.

This books is for you if you like: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, A Knight’s Tale, The Sword in the Stone, England, Medieval Times dinner theatre.

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