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In Search of the Once and Future King: A Stranger In A Strange Land

By James Turner

The Arthurian Legend comes to America with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The past, if you will permit me to begin in the fashion of a high school book report, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. It is, or was, inhabited by people so very similar to us but whose modes of thought and world view were nevertheless informed by their differing social, cultural and political circumstances. The conventions and contextual underpinnings of these historical societies were plastic, changing over time in reaction to internal pressures and outside stimulus just as the shape and character of our own society is inevitably shifting around us. If the polities and civilizations of the past were malleable and occasionally even volatile constructs, so too were the cultural touchstones and inheritance that passed through them.

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At its heart, this series is a reflection upon this process of tracing, examining and I am willing to admit admiring how one of the great unifying pillars of medieval culture, the Arthurian Legends, were repeatedly and consciously curated to better reflect and appeal to contemporary tastes and aspirations. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fascinating anomaly in an investigation that has hitherto stressed the Arthurian legends’ role as a bridge and point of continuity with an imagined past. Instead, it is the perceived disjunction between the America of the 1890’s and the medieval period that forms the great engine upon which the poignant satire of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court turns. Yet while lambasting and reveling in the incongruity of the cultural and societal norms he projects onto the middle ages and the Camelot of the story, Twain infuses the novel with an integral humanistic element, with the titular Yankee finding friendship and even love amidst the farcical hierarchies of the past.

One of the most obvious distinctions between A Connecticut Yankee and the meticulously arranged political allegories and cresting predestination of Perceforest or the fervent almost rabid moralizing of Idylls of the King is that its separation from its primary source material is geographical as well as chronological. These works, alongside the majority of the reworkings and permutations of the Arthurian legends produced within the British Isles, use their setting as a means to cultivate political and cultural capital through the illusion of continuity with the golden age of Arthur’s kingship. This process continued far past the point where antiquarians and historians could all but conclusively discount Arthur as a historical personage, as seen by the myth’s effective colonization, in the latter half of the 19th century, of the Victorians’ earlier fascination with medievalism.

While such overt self-mythologizing and jingoistic qualities are absent from A Connecticut Yankee, a book published by an American author and satirist in 1889, some of their constituent components remain. After all, for satire to be successful, it must retain the basic DNA and the distinguishing, albeit often distorted, features of its host. In addition to repeating Arthur’s long-established use in British, primarily English, political and cultural propaganda, the prominence of medievalism in Victorian literature succeeded in familiarizing late 19th-century American audiences with the motifs and imagery of the Arthurian legends. Indeed, even before the resurgence of Arthurianism in the 1850’ and ’60s, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe had enjoyed great popularity within America. American audiences it transpired were just as likely to be enthralled by the pageantry and conspicuous courtly gallantry of Ivanhoe’s Potemkin medievalism as their British counterparts.

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Twain draws up the audience’s assumed familiarity and comfort with the wildly fantastical, ahistorical, and already exaggerated conventions of the genre to provide a large part of the novel’s humor and satirical bite. He does this by teasing out the ornate self-referential absurdities of chivalric culture and aristocratic government here and there before ruthlessly cutting it off at the knees. As we shall see anachronisms and rogue elements abound throughout A Connecticut Yankee which is gloriously unburdened by concern for historical or geographical coherency, let alone accuracy. In replicating and exaggerating the imagery of the medievalism craze of Victorian Britain, A Connecticut Yankee transposes the tone and iconography of Arthurian literature into a sort of medieval theme park, a chimeric jumble of clashing concepts rendered all the more recognizable and entertaining by lurid caricature.

In some ways A Connecticut Yankee marks a return to the court subsidized fantasy and adventure found within the 12th-century works of Chrétien de Troyes and his contemporaries. These works of romance literature created a world that consciously abetted chivalric exploits and the slow-burning dance of courtly romance in their most extreme forms, providing the audience with a vision of engagement with chivalric ethos unadulterated and unhampered by the practicalities and concerns of reality. Chrétien’s original aristocratic audiences viewed the heightened reality presented within the romances as not only entertaining but outright aspirational and utopian in much the same manner as modern audiences find themselves drawn to the drama and effortless glamour of modern media. In contrast to the escapism of romance, Twain reconstructs this chivalry addled fantasy world to lampoon and satirize not only the contrasting values, etiquette, and social structure transmitted through medieval romances but more poignantly, those portions of contemporary American society which saw something reassuring and worthy of imitation within these gilded systems and ornate social codes.

Crammed in alongside familiar elements such as the ever-present shining armor, pathological regard for gallantry, and the high spectacle of the ubiquitous tournament are newcomers sprang whole from the fevered milieu of 19th century America. Peasants and members of the lower social orders who appear within the aristocratic annals of Arthurian romance literature only as part of the scenery, play an important role within the novel’s plot and emotional core. The systematic horror and cultural paraphernalia of institutionalized slavery, as it existed in the antebellum South, is transplanted firmly into the soil of Camelot and its faux-medieval world. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church plays an important part in the story’s conclusion, appearing every bit as powerful, hawkish, and willfully regressive as the most paranoid of American protestants feared.

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Throughout the novel, Twain draws implicit links between the patently ridiculous monarchial and aristocratic traditions and culture of Camelot which was shaped and preserved by the knight’s ostentatious self-regard and the privileged gentry of the American South, the very class that had led it into the Civil War as a means of protecting their own privilege and power. The antebellum south, and Twain cogently and forcefully argues its postbellum incarnation, was an economically and socially stratified society of a distinctively aristocratic character. The cotton barons and great landowners of the South were insulated by their wealth and further protection from outside intrusion by intricate and baroque codes of conduct of social niceties. This was the very demographic which had in the decades before the outbreak of the Civil War read, relished, and absorbed medievalism infused romantic literature and marveled at how the values and social order contained within seemed to echo their own.  In a similar manner to Chrétien de Troyes original audience, the plantation owners and their cohorts really only had to concern themselves with the opinions of their peers and neighbors leading to a marked emphasis on personal honour and conspicuous gallantry as the source of social credit and acceptance.

In writing A Connecticut Yankee Twain was taking aim at a phenomenon closely related to but more pernicious than the continued economic and social disparities of the American South. The instability and economic uncertainty that followed the American Civil War and the ongoing anxiety over the direction and success of Reconstruction had led to the flowering of the myth that before the war and the shattering of its equilibrium the South was an unspoiled paradise. According to this narrative, the South was a sort of Camelot come again, its ancient and simple way of life was practiced by a happy population and tended to with paternalistic benevolence by an upper class infused by a chivalric ethos. A corrosive revisionist fantasy that obliquely endorsed systemic racism and slavery. Twain attacked this regress myth by showcasing and parading its excesses, antiquated nature, and absurdities by dressing them within a familiar and enjoyable anarchistic medieval guise. A Connecticut Yankee subsequently extracts a great deal of its narrative and satirical mileage from the sheer incongruity of the tropes and mannerism of medieval romance literature. In framing such behavior as inherently bizarre and foolish, Twain is also ridiculing nostalgia for the antebellum South through its consciously paralleled or inserted conventions.

While the Romanticism movement which fueled the earlier revival of medievalism and the Arthurian legends within Britain was created in large part in reaction to anxiety regarding the transformative effects unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, Mark Twain writing at the end of the 19th century was in a position to include a somewhat more layered and nuanced commentary about the massive sociological effects of industrialization which, almost needless to say, had its missteps and teething problems. This tacit discussion discreetly occupies a near central role within the novel, supporting and expanding the work’s central metaphor and the comparison between the antebellum South and the Camelot of the story. In the novel, the titular Yankee, using his specialized expertise to rapidly replicate the Industrial revolution in the pastoral fantasy world in which the novel is set, ch to an extent parallels the intrusion of Reconstruction into the postwar South.

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A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur,” cover of the book by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), published in 1889 by Chatto & Windus, London

The main character remains largely uncritical of this process, seeing it as a natural and almost wholly beneficial step on the path to progress. At first, he utilizes his knowledge merely as a way to survive in the hostile and suspicious world he finds himself in but as the story progresses, increasingly wields it as a tool to secure and consolidate power, somewhat suddenly and cold-bloodedly subverting and then replacing the knight’s monopoly on violence. While he necessarily educates others as part of this process, including peasants and those disregarded by the story’s primary social institutions, this knowledge does not seem to fully permeate society. Instead, it is shared within an emergent circle of technocrats, largely centered around the main character, that is grafted on to the existing power structure altering but not dismantling the division between the Haves and Have Nots. Similarly, the egalitarianism and democratic values that the main character introduces and propagates leads to a tragic and monumentally bloody clash with the preexisting structures of power.

Even while it revels in tearing apart the antiquated and thoroughly risible aspects of medieval romances, the aristocracy and more pointedly the behavior and aspirations of some of his contemporaries A Connecticut Yankee sounds a note of caution in regard to the kind of society advocated for and espoused by its main character. Far from an endorsement of either mythologized past or a glossed and idealized present, the story warns the reader of the importance of remaining critical and clear-eyed about the organization, conventions and values of their own society. It was a reserved almost cynical conclusion which articulated and foreshadowed Twain’s evolving remit as a writer and growing concern for society and human nature.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835, a citizen of the confusingly named township of Florida, Missouri. Samuel hailed from a prosperous family of recent settlers to the region but following the tragically early death of his father, Samuel dropped out of school to take up work as a printer’s apprentice and occasional columnist at his brothers’ newspaper. Leaving home at the age of eighteen, Samuel travelled extensively throughout the United States blitzing through a number of careers as a printer, steamboat pilot, miner and then finally journalist. This is significant to our current endeavor because as Samuel began to gain traction as a writer and humorist, he adopted the pen name of Mark Twain, a nom de guerre with a suitable folksy twang derived from the rich traditions of the Mississippi Steamboats. A brazenly comic and irrelevant writer, Twain’s first flourishings of success as a writer had a significant autobiographical component, principally taking the form of travelogues and humorous anecdotes or think pieces on frontier life such as the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County or Roughing It a gleefully embellished account of his time out West. The sentiments and wry sensibilities of these earlier works were further reflected in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which when published in 1876 propelled Twain to stardom and its 1884 sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Prior to A Connecticut Yankee, Twain had cut his teeth on the satire of contemporary American society with The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today published in 1873 and had in 1882 previously ventured into the medieval period with The Prince and the Pauper which similarly looked askance at the practices of aristocratic and monarchical regimes.

An aspect of Twain’s character that is somewhat refreshing in our polarized age is that he wasn’t frightened to admit when time and experience had changed his mind about an issue, for instance in 1900 the sheer horror of the war in the Philippines led him to recant his earlier support for American imperialism and enthusiasm for American exceptionalism, the validity of which he had come to doubt. Less dramatically but more pertinently to the charting and examination of depictions of Arthurian legends is Twain’s dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the moral and artistic merits of the Romance movement which he explored in Old Times on the Mississippi published in 1876 and its 1883 reworking and expansion Life on the Mississippi. Indeed, Twain’s antipathy towards Romanticism ran so deeply that he perhaps hyperbolically blamed Ivanhoe’s author, Sir Walter Scott, for the American Civil War. Suggesting that the author’s work had beguiled the Southern elite, fueling their preoccupation with status and dignity, implicitly reinforcing their belief in the elegance and righteousness of their place at the pinnacle of a stratified society. It was this very sentiment that A Connecticut Yankee sort with such style and vivre to deflate.

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The novel begins in a typical 19th-century manner with a first-person narrator avowing that everything you read within, no matter how strange or fantastical, is true. This nameless narrator supplies the novel’s framing device by recounting the story of a fateful encounter he had with Hank Morgan a stranger with an even stranger tale. The novel then launches into a passage directly cribbed from one of the most enduring and famous works of Arthurian literature, Thomas Mallorys Le Morte d’Arthur. This extract, a carefully selected and archetypal chivalric romp in which Sir Lancelot slays some monsters, both establishes the narrator’s credentials within the genre and re-familiarizes the audience with the conventions of romance literature which the book then gleefully peels back and distorts.

Pen and ink over graphite underdrawing. Frontispiece in: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court / Samuel Clemens. New York : Charles L. Webster & Co., 1889. Knight in armor tilting at man in modern dress in tree onto which a man in modern dress has climbed for refuge.

Other often relatively lengthy extracts from Mallory’s magnum opus are peppered throughout A Connecticut Yankee establishing a baseline of chivalric behavior which is mocked and contrasted within the tone and substance of the plainer and more direct narrative of Hank’s absurdist adventures. Indeed, these extracts from Le Morte d’Arthur are primarily used to keep the reader abreast of the steadily unfolding progress of the classic Arthurian legend, creating a parallel story insulated from that of Hank’s despite their direct and extensive interactions elsewhere.

Hank, the titular Yankee, is an American engineer turned manager who finds himself magically transported across time and space to the court of King Arthur. In contrast to its near-contemporary H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, this feat was not achieved through genius or breakthrough technological innovation but rather with the help of that other great innovation of the late 19th century, an enraged factory worker. During a heated labour dispute Hank is knocked out by a rather nasty blow to the head and wakes up in the faux-medieval fantasy world in which the vast majority of the story takes place. This method of time travel is interesting not only for its unorthodoxy and uncanny similarity to a concussion but because Twain himself was consistently and vehemently pro-union. Hank’s participation in a violent confrontation, provoked by the clashing priorities of the management and the workforce, is an early indication on Twain’s part that the industrialization which will soon sweep over Camelot, is not simply an unambiguous or unqualified force for good. The very novelty and strangeness of time travel as a concept and plot device help to further reflect the ludicrous behavior displayed within the setting and propel Twain’s incisive satire.

Whatever romantic notions of medievalism and chivalric excellence Hank held are summarily quashed as he finds the kingdom’s inhabitants to be not only belligerent and surprisingly unencumbered by notions of honour and fair play when it comes to persecuting outsiders but shockingly gullible. After using his oddly specific familiarity with the history of solar eclipses to stave off execution at the hands of his superstitious hosts, Hank sets about using his wider frame of reference and technical aptitude to carve out a position of authority within Arthur’s court. This meritocratic rise to power is framed as a triumph of democracy with some reference to popular acclaim and elections but the exact mechanism of this process remain opaque; Arthur’s support and recognition of Hank as his principal official remain far more pertinent to the story and the time traveler’s position within it.

Hank secretly beings to construct a 19th-century industrial base and infrastructure within Camelot, initiating his friends into his technocratic secrets even as he uses this attitude to compete with rival and fellow charlatan Merlin. During this period, Hank also dons armour to participate in a few quests and adventures of his own, all of which lampoon the overwrought airs and self-regard of the knights, and thereby depicting the squalid and uncomfortable reality of such endeavors. Over the course of these adventures, Hank discovers that the kingdom’s peasantry is, for the moment at least, complicit in the mass delusions of status and chivalric enterprise that envelops the kingdom, as well as successfully importing elements of his late 19th-century morality when he helps to persuade King Arthur to outlaw slavery. Both these incidents are particularly pointed in their mockery and ridiculing of the proponents of aristocratic virtues within contemporary American society as well those who perpetuated a romanticized view of the antebellum South.

Hank, who explicitly refused to participate in the institution and trappings of knighthood, remained a controversial and divisive figure within the story, beset by enemies and rivals despite or rather because of his great success and closeness to Arthur. Some of this building narrative tension is relived rather abruptly when Hank agrees to face one of these naysayers in combat only to gun him and several others down with his revolvers. This surprisingly violent incident marks not only the full unveiling of Hank’s modernizing efforts, complete with firearms and telephones but also a permanent disjunction between the story of Hank and Arthur who from now on in the story exist as the rulers of almost parallel kingdoms.

Arthur, just as he does within Le Morte d’Arthur, discovers Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair resulting in a cataclysmic conflict that sunders Camelot and leads to Arthur’s subsequent death at the hands of Mordred. This plays out entirely unhindered or unaffected by the presence of the new technology and democratic ideals introduced by Hank. Camelot and the golden age of Arthur are still brought to their knees by human pride and fallibility, the only difference being the possible presence of more bicycles. The strange, hybridized Camelot of the Yankee increasingly unanchored and unsupported falls soon after. Hank, now a family man having married a woman he met during his adventure amongst the peasantry, returns after an extended leave of absence to find Arthur dead and that the Catholic Church, which had long opposed Hank and his technological innovations, in the process of seizing power.

Throughout the story the Church is depicted as a willfully regressive institution primarily concerned with the maintenance of its own power and the credulity of England’s citizens. Twain had a rather complex history with Catholicism, having originally been raised to despise it, his views on religion and its various permutations shifted considerably over the course of his life. Giving Twain the benefit of the doubt, it seems that the Church’s pugnacious role in the novel is foremost a satirical jab at the exaggerated fears of American protestants rather than a warning that the Church’s contemporary incarnation desired the creation of Luddite infused theocracy.

The resulting clash is rather horrifically prescient on Twain’s part as Hank and his small band of followers uses machineguns and rows of electrified barbed wire to slaughter the thousands of knights the Church sends against them. By the time this unknowingly harrowing predecessor to the trench warfare of the First World War reaches its conclusion Hank and his troops are sealed within the cave they fortified by the multitude of the dead. The novel concludes with Merlin, who it transpires did know magic all along, cursing Hank to sleep within the cave for a thousand years, forever separating him from his family.

For all Twain’s skill and the novel’s undeniable emotional weight, the revisionist specter of a harmonious and romanticized antebellum South proved hard to banish, persisting in the face of Twain’s skepticism and skewering satire. The opening crawl of 1939’s box office record-breaker Gone With The Wind repeated uncritically the grotesque assertion that prior to civil war and emancipation, the South was a haven of chivalry and gallantry, a highly stratified society in which everyone was content in their allotted place. Gone with the wind? One fervently hopes so, but I have my doubts.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, however, remains an enjoyable and riveting read not to mention a highly influential piece of satire. That the book has remained so popular and is the subject of so many spinoffs, remakes and homages is a testament not only to the premise of this intriguingly idiosyncratic novel but peoples enduring interest in medievalism and the Arthurian legends. Balancing the novelty and entertainment value presented within the spectacle and pageantry of medievalism with the opportunity to harvest social commentary and cheap laughs from the incongruities of the setting A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has been reworked as everything from a Bing Cosby musical to an episode of The Transformers. It is a rare work that can be referenced by both Carl Sagan and Bugs Bunny.

Naturally playing up different themes and aspects of the novel with varying degrees to fidelity with its source material and original intent. An episode of MacGyver extracts some lighthearted fun out of the protagonists’ shared attitude for improvised technology while the 2001 comedy Black Knight starring Martin Lawrence emphasizes and explores the perceived incongruity of dissuasions and portrayal of race and ethnicity within medievalism.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court found some of its greatest and most engaged champions with Soviet artists, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider the novel two-pronged critique of both the inherent corruption and excesses of aristocratic society and its cautious approach to the cold heart and supposedly self-defeating exploitation of workers under the capitalist system.

The enduring popularity and success of both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and its many imitators demonstrate the great versatility and continued relevance of the medieval romantic tradition and the Arthurian legends.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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