A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Chapters 17–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17: A Royal Banquet

Hank Morgan and Sandy are guests at Morgan le Fay's banquet, but it is interrupted when an old woman appears in the doorway. She is the grandmother of the young servant boy Morgan murdered, and she curses Morgan. Morgan orders her to be killed, but Sandy, with Hank's permission, intervenes and the woman is spared. After the party, Morgan shows Hank a man being tortured on the rack because he is accused of killing a royal deer. Hank objects and insists Morgan allow him to speak to the man. Hank is sure the man is innocent, but when he questions the man and his wife, he learns the man was guilty of killing the deer. The man wouldn't confess, even under torture, because if he admitted his guilt his wife and child would suffer after his death. Hank packs up the whole family and sends them off to his "colony," where they can be safe.

Chapter 18: In the Queen's Dungeons

Hank Morgan tries to talk to Morgan le Fay about the young man's case, but she cannot understand his point of view. By the laws of her time, Morgan is totally justified, and Hank cannot get her to look at it any other way. Hank persuades Morgan to allow him to look over the people in her dungeons. He finds a man and woman who were both imprisoned on their wedding night. The woman had refused le droit du seigneur to their lord, a neighbor of Morgan's, and the man defended his wife. They have both been imprisoned so long they have lost their minds and no longer even remember each other. All in all, Hank frees 47 prisoners from Morgan's dungeons.

Analysis

Twain uses these two chapters to highlight the horrors of medieval justice. Torture devices, long imprisonments, and a ruler's ability to execute anyone she chooses: Twain was not exaggerating. There is historical evidence to support these occurrences in real life. Twain assigns them to his fictional England as well. He chooses to illustrate these horrors in Morgan le Fay's dungeon, though, rather than King Arthur's. It seems highly unlikely that a king, even Arthur, would be any better than any other ruler of his time. However, Hank Morgan's experience in Arthur's dungeon was benign compared to what he witnesses in Morgan's castle. Part of this is in keeping with Twain's interpretation of Morgan as an evil woman, but Twain also wants Hank to like Arthur. It would be difficult to explain how Hank could do so if he saw Arthur being as wantonly cruel as Morgan is.

Although most of these horrors are well-documented as historical facts, Twain does stray a bit into less proven territory when he brings up le droit du seigneur. This is a medieval custom by which the lord of a region could claim the first night with a new bride and, theoretically, claim her virginity. It is often cited, as Twain cites it here, as an example of the abuse of power by feudal lords. But in fact it is not well-documented as to how much droit du seigneur actually occurred. Twain uses it for effect. The image of a bride and groom, separated on their wedding day because the bride would not sleep with another man, is a striking one.

Twain does not draw a directly comparison between Morgan's cruelties and the evils of slavery in the United States, but he was probably aware of them. By the time this book was published, Twain's feelings on slavery were quite clear. Also, there is nothing Twain describes in these chapters that a slave owner could not have done to one of his or her slaves. Slavery, both literal and figurative, is a significant theme in the book. Slavery had been illegal for some time in the United States by the 1880s. However, many former slaves were suffering under cruel laws and poverty, just as the "freemen" of Arthur's kingdom suffer.

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