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 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3: Knights of the Table Round

Hank Morgan admits some of the knights have a noble appearance—he specifically mentions Sir Launcelot—but he dismisses all of them as acting like little kids. Hank compares them to small boys who start a fight just to show who's tougher. Clarence has warned Hank the knights all brag and exaggerate. Hank witnesses this as Sir Kay describes an exploit of Sir Launcelot's which sounds suspiciously like an excerpt of Le Morte d'Arthur. Merlin the magician steps forward to tell a long story, glorifying his own achievements. Almost everyone falls asleep rather than listen. Merlin's story describes how he protected King Arthur during his travels and helped him obtain the sword Excalibur. Merlin presents himself as all-knowing, a wise guide and councilor to Arthur.

Chapter 4: Sir Dinadan the Humorist

Hank Morgan says he is not troubled by Merlin's lie, but acknowledges he only heard it once. Next up is Sir Dinadan the Humorist, who plays a mean joke on a dog which makes everyone—except Hank—laugh. Sir Dinadan follows it up with a series of jokes which Hank already knows. Hank is disheartened to find jokes from his childhood are actually over 1,300 years old.

Sir Kay tells the story of how he captured Hank, who he describes as a giant protected by 13 knights, wearing magical clothing which prevents injury. Sir Kay ends his story by sentencing Hank to die at noon on the 21st. Hank is bothered by the "indelicacy" of how these people talk. He is even more troubled when the court decides to solve the problem of his "magical" clothing by stripping him naked. The courtiers, including Queen Guenever, are "naïvely interested" in his naked body, but eventually he is sent to the dungeons with little dinner and no clothes.

Analysis

Based on the book's title, readers could safely assume Hank Morgan would attend at least one courtly banquet. Twain plays with the reader's expectations, and then subverts them. Hank admires the appearance of some present at the banquet, but dismisses them, unexpectedly, as naïve children. In Arthurian legend and other epics, courtiers may be beautiful, noble, or cruel, but childlike? Hank sticks to it, offering numerous examples of their naïveté.

Twain does this for two reasons. First, he is intentionally poking fun at the courtly nobles of history and legend. Twain is no friend to the nobility, as he demonstrated with the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Second, Twain is laying the groundwork for Hank's eventual plans. If King Arthur and his courtiers were harsh and evil, Hank wouldn't live through the book. By painting them as children—capable of cruelty, but also capable of amazement—Twain has given Hank an effective audience for his future endeavors.

Sir Dinadan the Humorist gives Twain an opportunity to critique after-dinner speakers. Like other 19th-century writers, Twain himself made money by giving lectures. Thus, he had some very definite opinions about how to entertain an audience, and "petrified" jokes, as Clarence says, are not recommended. The "petrified" comment, however, gives Twain an opening. He has Hank say Dinadan's jokes could be classified "by geologic periods," which means nothing to Clarence. Hank says he made note of the joke anyway: "It is no use to throw a good thing away merely because the market isn't ripe yet." He hopes to educate the audience enough to appreciate the joke, if he lives long enough.

With this brief exchange, Twain accomplishes several things. He makes a joke his audience can understand. He also reminds the audience of the limitations of scientific thought in the 6th century. And lastly he foreshadows many later events in the book.

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