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

Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Context


The Arthurian Legend

King Arthur has been a legend in Great Britain for hundreds of years. It is unclear whether there was an actual King Arthur in ancient Britain. The Arthur stories have been revised and adapted throughout the centuries. They were popular in Twain's time, and Arthurian legends are still part of pop culture.

According to legend, Arthur was the king of England, and he ruled from Camelot. He was married to Queen Guenever, and he was advised by the wizard Merlin. He led Sir Launcelot and the Knights of the Round Table, who embarked on heroic quests and performed chivalrous deeds. In some versions, Launcelot and Guenever had an affair, and their affair destroyed Camelot. Sir Mordred, Arthur's son from an incestuous relationship, tried to overthrow Arthur. Arthur either died or was wounded and hidden away to sleep magically through the centuries until a second coming.

During Twain's time, the most popular Arthurian stories were Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1470) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1842–88). These works seem to have heavily influenced Twain. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Authur's Court he sticks pretty closely to the traditional Arthurian characters and plot points, but he punctures the grandeur of the mythology. In Twain's Camelot, the knights and ladies swear and tell profane jokes. People smell. Things are dirty. Twain rejected Tennyson and Malory's eloquence, nobility, and elegance, and he wanted to bring these characters into a more realistic medieval world.

America versus Europe

Mark Twain is in many ways the quintessential American writer. More than any other writer of his day, Twain came to represent the American voice. His books often focus on American ideas: self-reliance, slavery and freedom, capitalism and self-promotion. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain says something emphatic about America, as represented by his "Yankee," Hank Morgan. Similarly, he says something about Europe, as represented by the court of King Arthur. Twain believed America was the way of the future, and the American people were the ones who would lead the world forward. He saw Europe as bogged down in past history and old traditions that no longer mattered. Twain's ideas came from his travels in Europe and America and also from his study of history and literature.

Twain traveled in many parts of the world. His books The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Following the Equator (1897) described his international travels. Twain never hesitated to express his American viewpoint regarding foreign cultures, including his disinterest in nobles or monarchs, which also appear in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Twain was heavily influenced by the works of the Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky (1838–1903). These works included Lecky's History of European Morals (1869) and his History of England in the Eighteenth Century (1878–90). Lecky was critical of previous elements of European history, and Twain adopted many of his critiques to inform the character of Hank.

British writer Matthew Arnold spoke for many Europeans when he decried America as "primitive" and "rude." A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is Twain's rebuttal. Twain embraces American identity with Hank the Yankee, originally a British term used to insult Americans. Hank is proud of his country, and he regularly refers to his home in Connecticut and the things accomplished by him and other Americans. Early during his time at Camelot, Hank decides he will be the boss of the place because, although he is only an ordinary man in his own century, he is extraordinary in Camelot. Certainly Hank is better educated than anyone in Camelot, but Twain also seems to imply one American is worth an entire country of Englishmen.

Time Travel

Stories of heroes "lost in time" have existed as long as people have told stories. English writer H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine (1895), which was published only a few years after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Wells was the first popular writer to promote the idea of a machine that moves people through time, something which was borrowed by many other writers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Twain skips the "how" of Hank Morgan's journey: he is sent back in time by a hit on the head and sent forward again through an unspecified "enchantment." In that sense Hank is closer to the protagonist of American writer Washington Irving's 1819 short story, "Rip Van Winkle." In it, a man falls asleep before the American Revolution (1775–83) and wakes up after it. His journey goes forward, but not backward. In contrast, Hank goes back in time and returns to his original century.

Hank uses his knowledge of the future to benefit himself in the 6th century: everything from using an eclipse to prove his magical powers to reinventing things that already exist in the 19th century, like the telephone. In spite of that, Twain avoids most of the typical tropes of modern time travel stories. Hank never wonders whether his actions will change the future. He does not go back in time to try to prevent a catastrophe or to make sure two people meet at the right moment. For Twain, Hank goes back in time because Twain views all of Europe as behind the times or stuck in the past. Hank's journey through time gives Twain an opportunity to emphasize how much better and more modern American ways are than old-fashioned British ways. The larger implications of time travel are left for other writers to explore.

Attitudes toward Technology

Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee, is a firm believer in "machinery," or what modern readers might call technology. Hank is a factory superintendent, and he is eager to introduce the 6th century to 1880s technology. He "invents" everything from a patent office and the telephone to the telegraph and the steam engine. Hank raves about the wonderful changes he has brought to 6th-century England.

Twain too was interested in the technological advances of his day. During his lifetime, he saw many great inventions spread across the United States and the world. Twain had a telephone installed in his house the same year American inventor Alexander Graham Bell patented the idea, and he purchased—and used—early typewriters as well.

However, Twain does not intend for the reader to take Hank's words about the wonders of technology at face value. Hank's inventions also include gunpowder, the revolver, bombs, and Gatling guns (an early type of machine gun). During the war at the end of the book, Hank describes slaughtering 25,000 knights through his superior technology. Hank is troubled, not triumphant: there is too much death. Twain lived through the Civil War, which was the first time the Gatling gun was used in battle. Hank expresses his author's ambivalence about technology. It could bring wonderful advances, but it also permitted faster methods of killing. Not even Hank, with all his enthusiasm for machinery, can deny that fact.

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