book-reviews

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

by Mark Twain

Quite a cranky book, in many ways. Twain is here writing a much more bitter book than his Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, which were in many ways idyllic, even if stirring underneath. No, this time-travel story is motivated first out of a less-than-lovable impulse to critique contemporary Britain, and capped by an angry despair about progress and technology, wrought by his failure to launch a typewriting company. The dual messages -- that the past is no pleasant land, and the technological future is doomed -- come together for a rather bleak moral, given the narrator's generally chipper tone.

Twain sets out initially to demonstrate what is inaccurate in modern romances about Arthurian times, and on this point he was quite good -- he points out how boorish and dumb knights of ages past would be, how horrible the lot of the common person, and how even fair-minded men of the generation are blind to the evils they perpetrate. He shows he has done some research, both with his (albeit insufficiently) archaic English, and with his comments on how uncomfortable armour was, how bare and foul were even the residences of the upper classes, and how deprived compared to even the working classes of Twain's time. All this I think he did well, and the anti-romance was fairly fun.

Where he really annoyed me, however, was with his narrator's ridiculous, reality-bending level of effectiveness. Even if we allow that this man was used to managing people, and creating things, and was generally very practically-minded and filled with a very good grasp of how to make all sorts of useful items from scratch, and that his initial eclipse gave him credit to order whatever he liked, his achievements in the story are still ridiculous. One man cannot effectively train enough schoolteachers, engineers, officers etc. to the degree that they can function by themselves and train new recruits, despite having had no grounding education, while simultaneously doing everything else he claimed to have been doing. Even if you know the ingredients required to make gunpowder, finding all these ingredients requires skill, which even if you have it, then needs to be taught. There are a cascade of dependencies behind all the ideas that Twain has his character implement, which each themselves require massive investment, in time to develop people and in time to develop the tools that you need to refine the other tools to the degree that they can effectively process materials that you need to make other tools... Don't even get me started on him printing vernacular newspapers for a country where, as he acknowledged, the number of people who can read can be counted on your digits, and they all read Latin.

Anyway, yes, that lazy brushing-by annoyed me. The narrator in general did not appeal to me, being so full of himself, but Twain does hint that we are not meant to find him to extol the highest virtues -- several times the narrator's overconfidence is the cause of mishaps, and in a sense the terrible ending is itself a result of his blithe assumption that he can simply reshape a society. Pointedly, it is just after he calls England a republic which must vote for its future that he finds his side to be opposed by the whole country, and concludes that he must then kill its leaders. The will of the people is the guiding ideal, until it produces a ruling against him.

Twain rescues it a bit by being, well, Twain. There are lots of witty and quotable lines in the book, many on subjects of enduring interest, and the interleaving of segments of the Arthurian tales with Twain's own gloss on events was amusing in its own way. I have plenty to grumble about, but I can't hate the book.