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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 | Symbols


Merlin and Magic

In this book magic is a symbol of ignorance and superstition, and Merlin is the symbol of magic. When people cannot explain how something happened, they blame magic. Hank Morgan uses that to his advantage and is able to promote himself as a great magician through a little scientific know-how and some good showmanship. As Hank himself says, "Somehow, every time the magic of fol-de-rol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of fol-de-rol got left."

In other versions of the Arthurian legend, Merlin is all knowing and all powerful, a wise councilor for King Arthur. In this book he's a grouchy old man who doesn't like it when a new guy shows him up with better tricks. Twain is well known for his hostility toward quacks and con men like the King and the Duke in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). He doesn't treat Merlin much differently. The only excuse Hank seems to offer for Merlin is that he truly believes the con he is selling. This makes him slightly less of a scoundrel but much more of a fool.

Technology or Machinery

Machinery, or what we might call technology, represents the way of the future. Twain lived in a time when new inventions were appearing all the time, and many people felt the future was almost within their grasp. To be thrust into the medieval period, when invention was almost nonexistent and education was restricted to a very few, would be particularly painful for Hank Morgan.

At the same time, Twain does not present technology as an absolute good. He had seen the horrors of the American Civil War and how machinery like Gatling guns could lead to many more deaths. He is still on the side of the innovators, but he recognizes there are consequences to invention.


Twain spends quite a bit of time talking about armor in this book. When the unnamed narrator meets up with "the stranger" in the framing story, he notes how the stranger speaks so expertly about ancient armor. Hank Morgan's first clue about his new whereabouts is seeing a knight in armor. When Hank has to wear armor, he is miserable, and several chapters of his quest contain more details about his armor than about his quest. Finally, Hank defeats Sir Sagramor dressed in "gymnast" attire while Sir Sagramor lumbers around in the very finest armor, enchanted by Merlin himself.

Armor is a symbol of the old way of doing things, the European way, which no longer works. This is made abundantly clear when Hank shoots and kills Sir Sagramor and several other knights in armor, but the previous incidents reinforce the idea. Armor is heavy. You can't even get on a horse in armor. When the knights ride bicycles to rescue Hank and the king, Hank notes they are "mailed and belted." In other words, they are wearing chain mail, a more innovative form of armor, not the plate armor which Hank despised so much. Plate armor is uncomfortable and makes you slow to move, much as Twain portrays Europe as too slow for the speed of progress.

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