Thursday, June 15, 2017
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
Check another great book off my list! I love Mark Twain's irreverent sense of humor and his ability to poke fun at society and expose its hypocrisies. His characters are brilliantly drawn and the plots engage in twists and turns keeping you turning the pages. So I looked forward to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
He brings that same humor and irreverence to the sixth century in the form of an unnamed (?) man from Connecticut who finds himself mysteriously transported from the nineteenth to the sixth century. In this book, Twain's target is clearly the church. Perhaps that is the reason this book is not as popular as those that take aim at slavery or southern backwardness. Those topics clearly have more marketable appeal. Even so, he has written a funny and thoroughly enjoyable book.
The story begins with the narrator, it seems to be Twain himself, in Warwick Castle looking at the relics. When he notices a suit of armor with a small, unexplained hole in it, a stranger approaches and answers the mystery. He put the hole there with a gun when he shot the knight wearing the armor. The stranger slips away, leaving the narrator to ponder this fantastic tidbit in his room while reading the latest best-seller, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Sir Thomas Mallory. Inexplicably, the stranger knocks on his door and begins to tell his tale. It starts with a blow to the head during a fight. Fortunately for the narrator, the Yankee has written up his tale for posterity. He leaves it in the hands of our narrator to peruse.
Our man wakes up in a field and is shortly confronted by a knight. He tries to explain the situation by thinking himself caught up in the middle of a reenactment. Taken prisoner by the warrior, the Yankee is dragged off to Camelot. It is beginning to dawn on him that he may, in fact, be in the sixth century. Using his expansive knowledge, he remembers an eclipse that should be taking place on June 6th. This will tell him definitively when he is. Meanwhile, he proceeds as if he is probably back in time when he hears the Merlin describe for apparently the infinite time, the story of King Arthur and sword.
Eventually his case is brought forward by the knight, who lavishly embellishes it, and King Arthur sentences the Yankee to death for the crime of being odd. Zinger number one to the church. They fear and repress all that challenges the status quo and their orthodoxy.
But being a man of science, he sees he can easily take advantageous of these superstitious people. He will use his knowledge of the coming eclipse to prove himself a sorcerer more powerful than Merlin. In a dramatic fashion, with the unwitting help of a page he has befriended, Clarence, the Yank turns the sun black moments before his scheduled execution and promises not to restore it unless he is pardoned. This works like a charm, and he is freed and made a powerful minister in the court. Of course he is now fully convinced he has traveled back in time.
Obviously, one miracle demands another. Again, using his scientific knowledge, he arranges to blow up the tower in which he has been holding Merlin. He spares the ancient sorcerer, but his triumph seals his position. As he settles in however, he sees how the monarchy, nobility, and church leaders are respect more than he. He has no title. Finally they settle on calling him The Boss. This suits him wonderfully.
Taking his time to get lay of the land, The Boss decides what they need is a patent office and a newspaper. He enlists his trusty aid, Clarence in his endeavors. Together they will drag the sixth century into modernity. But an ill-timed word during a joust puts him in the ill graces of Sir Sacramore. Challenged to a duel, the Yankee begs for time to prepare. Fortunately Sir Sacramore is about to go off on a three-year trek to find the Holy Grail. The Boss and Clarence use this time to begin building a modern infrastructure, hidden from the public for now.
Unfortunately, his plans are interrupted when he is forced to go on a quest with a damsel in distress to rescue forty-four of her fellow princesses trapped in a castle by evil ogres. His astonishment at their gullibility is matched only by their belief in her story. He cannot shake the primitive lack of reason and common sense. So off he goes, covered head to toe with suffocating armor and a chatty young woman as his guide.
His first encounter on the road is with a group of ostensibly called "freemen." He cannot possibly see how they can call themselves free when almost all their earning are reserved for lords and the church. One man seems responsive to his thinking and the Yankee sends him off to rendezvous with Clarence and ask for entrance into the "man-factory." This is a school he has started to rid the country of superstition and implement logic and a scientific way of thinking.
He next encounters a group of knights, who, like all good knights, immediately challenge him. Fortunately he has discovered the harrowing power of pipe smoke. If he fills his mouth with smoke and then breathes it out through his helmet, the benighted ancients will fall to their knees in submission. Sure enough, it works. His girl, whom he calls Sandy, works out a deal with the knights. They, too, will report to Clarence and pledge their life-long fealty to The Boss.
They continue on the long and winding road to nowhere with Sandy's constant chatter of knight errantry. Each drawn-out tale begins, proceeds, and ends in exactly the same manner. The Yankee is losing his mind with the monotony. Unfortunately, poor Sandy cannot understand his modern words of contempt and feels stupid faced with his superior intellect.
They next run into the castle of King Arthur's evil sister, Morgan la Faye. She is a diviner herself and at a slight insult has them sentenced to her dungeon. But Sandy saves the day when she reveals the man to be none other than The Boss, himself. His reputation leaves Morgan in a state of panic and she declares she was joking of course. She throws him a ball instead. After securing her confidence, he tours her dungeons. The poor prisoners languish insensitive of time or their surroundings. He makes an executive decision to free them all. She cannot say much to this. As a final bow to justice, he moves the official torturer to the position of musician knowing la Faye kills those musicians who displease her. And off he goes on the road again.
Suddenly, Sandy declares they have reached the long-awaited, unknown destination when they arrive at a common pig sty. The "princesses" wallow in the mud and the "ogres" are nearby pig herders. When the Yankee questions his companion, he is told there is clearly an enchantment taking place. Surreptitiously paying the farmers for their animals, they lead the ladies off to a place of refuge. Sandy calls on the first homestead they encounter and waits on her sisters hand and foot. Unclear of how to proceed, The Boss asks what will happen. Sandy assures him that the "princesses" relations will come to retrieve them as soon as possible. Relieved of the responsibility, the Yankee leaves the charges to the owner of the home and the set off back for Camelot. Thinking he will be at last done with his interminable companion, Sandy assures him she would never leave him until he is defeated by another knight.Then she would be obliged to join the victor. This is not likely to happen.
On their journey homeward, they meet up with a band of pilgrims making a trip to the Valley of Holiness. The story has it that the oath of the monks never to bathe has engendered the blessing of God and their well miraculously flows. However, some inadvertent sin seems to have caused the well to run dry again. The Connecticut Yankee is intrigued and decides to journey to this valley to see if he can be of service. He is pretty sure he knows the problem and sends word to Clarence to provide him the necessary supplies. While stalling for time, he allows that Merlin must have the first shot. Professional courtesy. Meanwhile, he visits the settlement and sees the hermits and monks and their ridiculous ways of earning God's favor. In his contempt for their superstitions, he plans a miracle of all miracles to show that science and reason are the way to go. Finally the day arrives. He patches up the broken well under cover of darkness and works out an elaborate system involving pumps, hoses, and fireworks. When the crowd gathers, he repeats the magic incantation, lights of the fiery display and opens the valves. The waters flood the town and he is even further elevated in the eyes of the people. In addition, he has the added benefit of convincing the monks and hermits to bathe. This is another way he believes will undermine the authority of the church.
While spending some additional time in the valley, he discovers that his telephone operators have already been there. He is able to get the news of King Arthur's trip to see the miracle waters. When a rival magician shows up at the monastery claiming to be able to see in real time the actions of rulers all over the world, The Boss challenges him to a magical duel. Each must predict what King Arthur is doing and whether or not he will show up at the monastery in a matter of days. Of course the Yankee's technological advantage wins the day and the rival is banished.
Upon his return to Camelot, The Boss discovers that while Arthur has put his plan into action to develop a standing army, he only allows nobles to fill the role of officers. Thinking he can prove those he has trained at his man factory much more suited to the job, he is humiliated when his well-taught recruits are still rejected. So he forms a parallel army with his hand-picked men in charge. Realizing he can't beat them, through as system of incentives, he combines his desire to get rid of the "royal grant," money bequeathed from the national treasury to those of royal blood, to staffing the military. The nobles will now work for their money.
On the festive day of the "King's Evil" when the king lays hands on the sick and sends them off with a nickel (an advent of a new monetary system created by the Yank), a young newsie shouts the day's headlines. The Connecticut Yankee has started a newspaper. The illiterate masses are fascinated with this development, if somewhat confused. This is yet another stab at a church The Boss feels benefits from an illiterate congregation. He wants to give the people motivation to learn to read. At first it is only yellow journalism that strikes the fancy of the writers and editors, and he is ashamed the he once found this entertaining, but The Boss is confident they will improve their reporting.
With all his plans coming to glorious fruition, the Yankee believes it is time to venture off into the countryside, disguised as a peasant, in order to truly understand the culture. Unfortunately, King Arthur, too, thinks this would be fun and insists on joining him. The royally-raised monarch has a difficult time maintaining the illusion and winds up getting them involved in a duel. The Boss is forced to use his one allotment of dynamite to escape the danger.
They finally arrive at a tiny hut. Here small pox has taken its toll. They hear the heart-breaking story of the troubles of the family and the ways in which taxes and the church further impoverished them. But Arthur, raised to believe in the righteousness of the status quo, cannot be persuaded to rethink any of the policies. Later, when they discover the only three remaining members of that family have escaped prison and inadvertently set a house on fire, the king, rather than reacting in a merciful manner, demands law and order.
Once they settle into the town, the Yankee becomes very disturbed with the pretended nobility of the middle class. He decides to throw a lavish party with eventually shames the upper crust townsfolk. In desperately trying to then reason with them about the benefits of another, more modern system, he inadvertently causes them to feel threatened. They react by seeking to imprison the both for their strangeness. The king appears mad to them and they believe The Boss to be a huckster.
Eventually the pair are captured and sold as slaves. Despite their dire predicament, The Boss continues to hope the king will see the reality of their detrimental system. As they tramp through the countryside, they see story after story of injustice, but Arthur is impervious to it all. In a moment of desperation, the Yankee escapes his bonds with a plan to free all their fellow slaves. But he is quickly recaptured. In the meanwhile, his ranting have caused the other slaves to rise up and kill the slave master. All are now in dire straits with death hanging over them. In desperation, The Boss puts in a call to the palace. Eventually they are rescued, worse for wear and King Arthur is no further enlightened.
The Yankee settles back into courtly life. Sir Sacramore has returned, empty-handed, and demands satisfaction. Fortunately the ill-equipped Yankee has a lasso at his disposal. His miraculous weapon astonishes the crowd, and challenger after challenger enters the arena. Finally, letting his arrogance get the best of him, he challenges every knight to take him on. When Merlin steals the lasso, the Yankee must resort to his final weapon, his pistol. This overwhelming advantage quickly destroys the knighthood and dueling as an institution.
The Connecticut Yankee now sees his opportunity to fully modernize the ancient world. He reveals all his factories and various inventions. He marries Sandy, declaring her to be a wonderful wife and mother. He introduces baseball to contain the competitive spirit of the nobility and settles into a good life.
Yet tragedy soon invades. His daughter, Hello-Central, falls ill. He and Sandy take the child to France for the restorative sea air. While away, the church finds its legs and reassert its authority. It imposes an interdiction on all things modern. Curious as to why their supply ship never returned, The Boss heads back to England on his own.
Clarence alone has had to deal with the crushing blow. He has taken the precaution of booby-trapping all their factories and outposts. King Arthur, the last to realize Queen Guinevere's infidelity, is killed in a battle over her. Having no heir, the Yankee seizes the long-awaited opportunity to lead a revolution and declare a Republic. Unfortunately the church's power and the power of superstition is too great. The country will not join The Boss and his small group of factory-trained men. But through Clarence's foresight, the battle will be devastating and they will destroy the country and the nobility on their way out.
In trying to graciously help the wounded, The Boss is grievously wounded and taken into custody. A postscript by Clarence describes the incantations read over him by Merlin, putting the Yankee to sleep for thirteen hundred years.
And so he awoke, wrote his story down, and eventually went mad over his loss of wife and child.
I think Twain's purpose is to show the overwhelming power of an authoritative and backwards church. His overarching theme is the destruction and injustice caused by its primitiveness and irrationality. He certainly succeeds in making the church out to be insatiable, stupid, and relentless in its quest for power. However, I believe it falls flat. He provides funny and notable caricatures, but not real, live human beings. True humans are unrecognizable as all are forced to conform to the will of the author. The people act so superstitiously and irrationally, one wonders how they managed to survive at all. If a life-giving well dries up and all you have is magic to fix it, how do you form any kind of lasting society? And yet this is the nascent bud of Western Civilization. Somehow, they managed to give us limited government, Magna Carta, trial by jury, free speech, due process, capitalism, and habeaus corpus. It's a little like ridiculing the engineers that got the United States to the moon. You might be able to do if we didn't know how the story ends. But we do. So by setting his modern criticisms in an ancient time, I think Twain fails to make his case.
But it is funny!