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 39–40 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 39: The Yankee's Fight with the Knights

It is time for Hank Morgan's fight with Sir Sagramor. Hank admires Clarence's editorial in the paper, encouraging people to attend the match. Clarence also notes, "This is the first tournament under the new law, which allows each combatant to use any weapon he may prefer." The tournament is sparking great interest because Merlin is helping Sir Sagramor, so the duel is really between the two great magicians: Merlin and The Boss. Hank, for his part, sees this duel as another step toward ending knighthood entirely.

When the battle begins, there is a lot of laughter. Sir Sagramor is armored as a knight usually is, while Hank wears what he describes as "gymnast" clothes. He has a horse with a light saddle and bridle only. Sir Sagramor charges Hank repeatedly, and Hank and the horse just move out of the way. After a few failed attempts this way, Sir Sagramor changes tactics, and so does Hank, using a lasso to drag Sir Sagramor to the ground. Sir Sagramor withdraws and they nominate another knight to take his place, but the lasso takes him down, too. Hank repeats this trick five times, even lassoing Sir Launcelot off his horse, and then the knights begin to get really angry. Sir Sagramor comes back to try again, and he is determined to kill Hank. As Hank is distracted Merlin stealthily steals Hank's lasso. Sir Launcelot and King Arthur are concerned Hank will have to fight weaponless, but Merlin and Sir Sagramor insist. Hank agrees and allows Sir Sagramor to charge at him. At the last minute he pulls a revolver out and shoots Sir Sagramor dead.

They can't understand how this happened. Hank refuses to explain, but instead challenges all the knights to attack him at once. A large number do attack, and Hank kills nine of them before they begin to waver. Knighthood—and Merlin's magic—were on their way out in Hank's world: "Somehow, every time the magic of fol-de-rol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of fol-de-rol got left."

Chapter 40: Three Years Later

Three years have passed. Hank Morgan has brought his schools, newspapers, and so on into the open. Many new technologies exist: "The telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the typewriter, the sewing machine, and all the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity." Slavery has been abolished. Hank has a standing challenge against any knights who wish to take him on, but none have. His long-term plans include universal suffrage for men and older women—after King Arthur's death—and the abolishment of the Catholic Church in favor of a "go-as-you-please" religious practice. Clarence isn't sold on universal suffrage, so Clarence suggests a ruling family of cats, who would make as much sense and do less harm than human monarchs.

Their discussion is interrupted by Sandy, who comes racing in crying that their child is near death. Yes, Hank has married Sandy, and they have a young daughter named Hello-Central. The child isn't dead, but she is sick with croup, which Hank manages to cure. He is helped by Sir Launcelot, who is more businessman than knight these days, and who views Hank's daughter as his own particular "pet." Sir Launcelot puts his own business aside for multiple days to help care for the child.

When the child is mostly better, Hank and Sandy take her on a sea voyage to get her some fresh air. They are gone a long time, and Hank sends a ship back for supplies and news. He is particularly interested in hearing about his newest invention: baseball, as played by knights.

Analysis

The long-awaited tournament has arrived, and Hank Morgan handles it in true Yankee fashion. The battle between Hank and Sir Sagramor provides a visual representation of how Twain views America and Europe. Sir Sagramor symbolizes Europe: he moves ponderously, hidebound by tradition, weighed down by history. Hank represents America: lighter, faster to move, more effective. Hank's initial response to the tournament is to simply move his horse out of the way as Sir Sagramor lumbers through. This parallels the way the United States avoided many conflicts because of its geographic location, separate from Europe. When Hank does begin to fight back, he uses a quintessentially American weapon: a lasso. Although animal tenders in Europe surely used ropes to control their herds, the lasso is typically associated with the American West. It is a long rope with a loop at one end, and cowboys learn how to throw it so it will loop over an animal's head, preventing it from running away. The lasso can also be thrown around a person, pulling that person off his or her horse, as Hank uses it in the tournament.

Twain clearly favors the American approach, but he carefully uses the tournament chapter to illustrate how not all Europeans were hopeless. Sir Launcelot loses to Hank and his lasso, but he considers it a fair fight and offers to defend Hank when Hank loses his lasso. King Arthur, too, is reluctant to see Hank get killed, even though Arthur knows he must follow the rules for combat. Twain differentiates between these Europeans, who are willing to change with the times, and Europeans like Sir Sagramor and Merlin, who dismiss or insult unfamiliar ideas.

The tournament also finally answers a question raised in the "Word of Explanation" framing story at the novel's start: how did a bullet hole end up in ancient armor? Hank put it there, killing Sir Sagramor and several other knights. Using a gun against people who do not even know what guns are is morally ambiguous, so Twain makes it clear Hank had no other choice. He began by simply avoiding Sagramor's charge, then used the lasso, which would do no permanent damage. It is only when Merlin steals the lasso and Sir Sagramor is ready to kill him that Hank uses the gun. When Hank looks at Sir Sagramor, he is blunt: "there was death in his smile ... Somebody was going to die this time. If he got the drop on me, I could name the corpse." Notice the phrasing of "if he got the drop on me." The phrase itself is often used to refer to one person drawing a gun on another person. Twain is also careful to highlight the potential weaknesses of technology. Hank wins his battle on a bluff, gambling on the others not knowing his bullets are limited and giving up before he runs out of bullets. He is right, but just barely.

Twain also knows which parts of the story will interest his audience, and he skips over the minutiae of progress. He jumps to three years later, when Hank has crammed over one thousand years of technology and social change into approximately one thousand days. Apparently it has all gone smoothly, and Hank delightedly lists the inventions and improvements he has implemented in the country. He has dealt with knighthood once and for all, or so he believes. Now he is contemplating life after Arthur's death and whether or not he might aspire to be the country's first president.

Why exactly he assumes he will still be alive when Arthur dies is unclear, since Hank acknowledges they are the same age (around 40). Hank certainly would have started with some advantages. The average person of the 19th century had been raised in a healthier and more sanitary environment, with better food and so on. But since Hank has now lived in the 6th century for years, it is unclear why he should be so convinced he would outlive King Arthur. It may be a symptom of Hank's optimism, which is certainly on display in these chapters. Twain slips in only one note of foreshadowing when Hank grieves about Launcelot: "no instinct warned me that I should never look upon him again in this world! Lord, what a world of heart-break it is."

Hank's grief is another way Twain advances his idea of the "good" Europeans who can change with the times, using Sir Launcelot as the prime example. Launcelot, the premiere knight of the Round Table, has become a 19th-century stock trader and businessman. To a modern reader, this may seem like a step down in life. But Twain and many 19th-century Americans venerated the titans of industry who had made a fortune out of their own hard work and cleverness. Launcelot has become the 6th-century equivalent of Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller, just as ruthless at business as he had been in knightly tournaments. Twain sees him as a good guy, though, as evidenced by his treatment of Hank's little daughter.

Evidently Arthurian England isn't the only thing which has changed in the last three years, as Hank is now married and has a young daughter. Twain offers little information about Hank's transformation, as Hank is preoccupied with his daughter's health. Rather, Twain shows us Hank in the moment. Between his familial changes and his professional pride in his inventions, Hank seems to have settled happily into the 6th century. He now has ties to Arthurian England that he never had to 19th-century Connecticut.

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