Jason Mills's Reviews > A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
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's review
Mar 06, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: classics, fiction, fantasy, history, humour, period
Recommended for: Seekers of good laughs
Read from February 20 to March 06, 2012 — I own a copy , read count: 1

An odd book. Our nominal narrator meets a fellow who claims to have fallen through time to the court of King Arthur, and the bulk of the book is this Yankee's own memoir of his time there. Finding the knights and nobles to be largely fools, our hero works his way into power through knowledge and cunning. (Handily, for instance, he happens to have memorised the dates of all the eclipses visible from 6th-century England - like you do.) He begins quietly transforming the feudal society with a concealed industrial revolution and furtive education for any bright sparks he can root out (mostly boys, mind you). Sucked into a knightly quest, he wanders the land to meet its inhabitants, gets sold into slavery, takes on an army of knights single-handed, and confronts the might of the church.

It's very funny, let's get that clear, packed with dry wit and cheerful contempt for authority:
"Kings" and "Kingdoms" were as thick in Britain as they had been in little Palestine in Joshua's time, when people had to sleep with their knees pulled up because they couldn't stretch out without a passport.

Twain's language is also strikingly effective on occasion:
...sometimes when a bright remark was made at one end of the procession and started on its travels toward the other, you could note its progress all the way by the sparkling spray of laughter it threw off from its bows as it plowed along; and also by the blushes of the mules in its wake.

My unease with the book stems from its sensibilities. At one point a queen means to hang a bad musician. Our hero, finding this harsh, stalls by asking to hear the band again - but then agrees with her and hangs the lot of them! It's a ho-ho moment, to be sure, but it is immediately followed by his rescuing other prisoners of the Queen from torture in her dungeons, a scene in which we are invited to share in his perception of cruelty and injustice. It's a change of tone that jars with the broad humour preceding it. This swinging from Swiftian wit to Dickensian compassion goes on throughout the book: the most tender scene is that depicting a family of peasants dying from smallpox; yet towards the tale's end we are seemingly expected to sympathise with our hero as he engineers (literally) a massacre.

Twain clearly wishes to praise the acquisition and use of knowledge and reason (albeit the Yankee's achievements in just a few years are implausibly grand, and helped by the fact that this version of Merlin is a mere charlatan); but while he nods to humanity, individualism and justice throughout, he also applauds the arbitrary slaying of opponents by this supposedly benign dictator, the self-described "champion of hard unsentimental common-sense and reason". It could be that Twain's intentions are more sophisticated than I'm giving him credit for, and that the Yankee (as a type) is as much an object of satire as the sleepy, sheepish society into which he is flung; but to me it feels more like a rollicking yarn whose values are all of tumble, so that it's not clear what, if anything, is being advocated.

(This was, incidentally, my first Kindle read, and the numerous excerpts from Malory were partially unreadable due to poor formatting. Buyer beware.)

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