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

Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Preface | Summary

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Summary

The Preface is a brief statement by Mark Twain. He acknowledges the book is not historically accurate.

In "A Word of Explanation," a narrator (presumably) meets a "curious stranger" in Warwick Castle. The stranger is surprisingly familiar with ancient armor and speaks of people from King Arthur's time as if he knew them personally. The stranger laughs at a bullet hole in ancient armor and says he put it there, which surprises the narrator greatly.

That night the narrator reads old Arthurian tales, including "How Sir Launcelot Slew Two Giants, and Made a Castle Free." This tale describes how Sir Launcelot, one of Arthur's knights, killed two giants and freed "three score ladies and damsels" who the giants had kept prisoner. Later, Launcelot sees one knight attacked by three others and he helps the lone knight, who turns out to be Sir Kay. Launcelot defeats the knights and orders them to present themselves at the court of King Arthur.

After finishing the tale, the stranger appears and begins to tell "The Stranger's History." He describes himself as an American, a "Yankee" from Connecticut who was head superintendent in an arms factory. One day he got in a fight at work and was knocked unconscious. When he woke, he found himself sitting in a "country landscape" with a knight in armor in front of him. The knight challenges him and he climbs a tree to avoid being attacked. He is convinced the knight came out of a circus or something. Still, he agrees to go with the knight since he has no idea where he is. As they walk, they see a town in the distance. The man asks if it is Bridgeport, and the knight responds, "Camelot."

The stranger feels too sleepy to continue, but offers the narrator his written account of what happens, which the narrator accepts.

Analysis

Modern audiences are familiar with disclaimers in books and movies, which try to protect the creators from being sued if people dislike how they are presented. Twain's preface ostensibly starts out the same, claiming the "ungentle laws and customs" he presents are "historical." He promptly undermines the claim by admitting the laws and customs were not all historically accurate. But since laws of this type had existed in "English and other civilizations of far later times," he could safely insert such laws into the 6th century. He asserts, "whatever one of these laws of customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one." Already in the preface Twain tackles European traditions with his unique combination of sarcasm and practicality. Twain was celebrated for being a quintessentially American voice, and he lives up to it from the very beginning of this book. He sizes up European customs and literary traditions through a highly Americanized perspective.

Twain uses a framing story, or a "story within a story" device for this book. The book, therefore, has two narrators: the first, unnamed narrator appears only at the start and end of the novel, and the second, Hank Morgan, narrates the rest of the book. The unnamed narrator is traveling in England and hears Hank's story from "the stranger." Many authors have used the device of "a stranger told me a story and here it is." In this case, the narrator is distinctly un-Twain-like—or at least, unlike the Twain style which he most often used. Instead, this unnamed narrator is a neutral voice which mostly serves to transition the reader into Hank's tale.

Twain not only takes on the political traditions of Europe in this book, but also the literary traditions such as the Arthurian legend. To prepare his readers for what he is going to attack, he actually quotes a large section from Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1470). Le Morte d'Arthur is one of the primary Arthurian texts, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469. It pulls together many of the primary elements of the Arthur legend, some of which had been established in earlier texts. Le Morte d'Arthur includes the characters most modern readers expect: King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. The excerpt Twain quotes retells a story of Launcelot fighting giants and rescuing Sir Kay when he is attacked by multiple knights. It introduces elements which will become important in the novel as a whole: the formality of language, the traditions of chivalry, the emphasis on God.

"The Stranger's Tale" really functions as the first chapter of Hank's story. Although the stranger is never named, he is clearly the Yankee who travels to Arthur's Court. Unlike The Time Machine (1895), which would be published only a few years later, Twain doesn't give any scientific explanation for how Hank comes to Arthurian times. His approach is more like a fairy tale. It is also like Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" (1819), in which a man magically goes to sleep and wakes up in a different time.

Twain makes a few things clear about this new narrator: he is from Connecticut, where Twain himself lived, and he is proud of his American heritage. "I am a Yankee of the Yankees," he says, since "Yankee" can mean both a person from New England and a person from America. The choice of the word "Yankee" in the title and in this chapter is deliberate on Twain's part. "Yankee" was an insult, a derisive term used by the British to refer to American colonists until the Americans claimed the term as their own. Hank's prideful Yankee identity contributes to one of the major themes of this book: the contrast between American ideas and methods and British/European ideas. Twain also defines a Yankee: "practical ... nearly barren of sentiment ... or poetry."

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