Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

(Book Review)

I haven’t read a lot of Mark Twain in my life, but I've liked what little I have read. After reading “Pudd’nhead Wilson” this summer, and remembering how I used to enjoy Mark Twain in high school, I decided to try out another Mark Twain story.

And I figured, what better one to try than “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I would get all the epic myth of the King Arthur legend, plus all the humor of Mark Twain.

Actually, this was not the first time I tried this book. I picked it up once when I was in 6th grade, struggled through a couple chapters, and then gave it up. This book probably is a bit advanced for a 6th grader. And even if I would have stuck with it, I have a feeling most of Mark Twain’s ironic humor would have been wasted on me at that age anyway.

So, like Sherlock Holmes, this was a lot more pleasant the second time around. And, like Sherlock Holmes, I suspect this is the kind of book many of us try and read when we are young, give up on, and then never pick up again when we get older.

If that is the case for you, I can’t recommend enough that you go back and give this book another try. It is one of the funniest things I've ever read. (Note to self: read more Mark Twain).

As the title makes clear, this is the story of a 19th century Connecticut industrialist who travels back in time and wakes up in the middle of 6th Century during the reign of King Arthur.

And then wacky adventures follow. There are so many funny parts in this book I’d be hard pressed to name my favorite. Like the part when the Connecticut Yankee introduces baseball to King Arthur’s court.

Or when the King commands the Yankee to accompany a young maiden on a quest to rescue a bunch of noble ladies from ogres, and the Yankee is convinced the whole thing is made up. (“There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant. Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger would be to ask for credentials...But nobody ever thought of so simple and common-sense a thing as that.”)

Or the part where the Yankee and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants, get captured and sold as slaves, and all the King can think about was that he was sold for less money than the Yankee.

Or there is the attempt by the Yankee to introduce 19th century “Arkansas style journalism” to King Arthur’s court. (“Expedition No. 3 will start about the first of next month on a search for Sir Sagramour le Desirous. It is in command of the renowned Knight of Red Lawns, assisted by Sir Persant of Inde, who is competent, intelligent, courteous and in every way a brick, and further assisted by Sir Palamides of Saracen, who is no huckleberry himself. This is no pic-nic, these boys mean business.”)

And his struggles to get his apprentices to understand journalism style:
“The ‘Court Circular’ pleased me...But even it could have been improved....The best way to manage–in fact the only sensible way–is to disguise repetitiousness of fact under variety of form...Clarence’s way was good, it was simple, it was dignified, it was direct, and businesslike; all I say is, it was not the best way:

Court Circular
On Monday the King rode in the park.
" Tuesday " " " " " "
" Wednesday" " " " "
" Thursday" " " " "
" Friday " " " " " "
" Saturday " " " " " "
" Sunday " " " " " "

Also Mark Twain the literary critic has a lot of fun at the expense of the Medieval writing style. One character will tell a story, usually quoting directly from Morte de Arthur, with the Connecticut Yankee interjecting his criticisms as the story progresses.

“The truth is the archaics are a little too simple; the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough picturesque detail; this throws them about a certain air of monotonous; in fact the fights are all alike...Dear me, what would this barren vocabulary get out of the mightiest spectacle?–the burning of Rome in Nero’s time, for instance? Why, it would merely say, ‘Town burned down; no insurance; boy brast a window, fireman brake his neck!’ Why, that ain't a picture.”


“This is not good form. Sir Marhaus the king’s son of Ireland talks like all the rest; you ought to give him a brogue, or at least a characteristic expletive; by this means one would recognize him as soon as he spoke, without his ever being named. It is a common literary device with the great authors. You should make him say, ‘In this country, be jabers, came never knight since it was christened, but he found strange adventures, be jabers.’ You see how much better that sounds?”

Looking back over what I have written, I see my quotations have not done justice to Mark Twain because I have committed the double sin of first ripping them out of context, and then gutting them with ellipses. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. This is a pretty funny book.
It does however have its dark side, which is why it is referred to as one of Mark Twain’s dark comedies. Mark Twain spends a lot of time focusing on the injustice of the 6th century feudal caste system, and does so often in very heart wrenching detail. He describes the suffering of this or that family that was utterly destroyed on the whims of the nobility.

Mark Twain, in addition to being America’s greatest humorist, was also one of it’s great social consciouses I am convinced that if he were alive today he would be against the Iraq War as strongly as he was against the Philippine War in his own lifetime. (In fact, if you've got a free minute, go and read “The War Prayer” or Mark Twain’s comments on Imperialism, and see how much of it applies to the War in Iraq today).

But in this book, why Mark Twain choose to expend so much energy on social ills that were already 1300 years old by his time, is a bit beyond me. He spends a lot of time talking about the evils of slavery in feudal England, and sometimes one gets the feeling that what he is really talking about is slavery in the US (which was still a recent memory at the time he wrote this book).

Also at times one gets the feeling Mark Twain is using all of this as a set up to defend the French Revolution, which was still being maligned by conservative historians in his time. (“Why it was like reading about France and the French before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood–one; a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the wary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of Terror”, if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horror” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror–that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”)

In fact, much of this book reads like the first act in “A Tale of Two Cities” when Dickens is setting up the misery of the people in preparation for the viciousness of the revolution. The melodramatic style of Mark Twain when writing about the sufferings of the poor also likens comparison to Dickens.

However, Mark Twain’s primary target in all of this seems to be the Catholic Church, which he holds responsible for maintaining the Feudal system. And as a lifelong critic of the Church, I suppose this is the part where his criticism of the 6th century overlaps with his more current criticisms.

Definitely put this one on your reading list. You won’t be sorry.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In discussing the 2004 American presidential elections, Wallis said "Jesus didn't speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question ... [t]here are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation." [2]

Link of the Day
From Tom Tomorrow:
A few readers thought this cartoon from a few weeks back unfairly targeted college Republicans. (Actually, a few impressively dense readers interpreted it as a swipe at all 18-to-22 year olds everywhere, but that sort of thing is just an occupational hazard.) At any rate, my friend August alerts me to this impressive act of self-sacrifice on the part of GWU College Republicans:

1 comment:

Guamo said...

I read "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" in 8th grade and remember it quite fondly. Twain is uproariously funny for the most part so reading his take on medieval England was just icing on the cake. I add my recomendation for this one. Definitely a good read.