What’s it about?
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a novel by Mark Twain, employs his famous wit and satire to blend time travel, humor, and social commentary. The story follows Hank Morgan, a practical and resourceful 19th-century American, who finds himself transported back to the medieval era of King Arthur's reign. Armed with his knowledge of technology and “modern” advancements, Hank becomes a powerful figure, challenging the superstitions and backwardness of Arthurian society. Through the frame of Morgan’s story, Twain takes aim at the romanticized notions of the past and sheds light on the absurdities of the present through witty observations and clever juxtapositions, highlighting the clash between progress and tradition.
Why did I like it?
The first thing that made me fall in love with this story was that Twain seemed absolutely unconcerned with explaining the mechanics by which our protagonist is transported back in time. He simply falls unconscious and wakes up in the presence of a not-too-friendly knight. And soon enough, we’re off to the races. What follows is what I can best describe as “reverse science fiction.” Instead of revolutionizing our contemporary (or near future society) with a novel invention, Hank Morgan takes 1800s technology and drags 6th century Britain kicking and screaming into modernity. Each of several chapters features Morgan utilizing various anachronistic technologies to get himself out of tight spots, eventually leading to his soft-power take-over of Britain. Hank’s wit does not overstay its welcome, as each new counter-factual is thought-provoking and interspersed with Twain’s own commentary.
As the story progresses to its conclusion, the true villain of the piece, the Roman Catholic church, reveals itself as a radical reactionary force and course-corrects back to the sacred timeline. Twain’s views are clearly on display in this story, but the lack of subtlety does not harm its overall effectiveness. On a separate, but related note, Twain’s time period gets plenty of its own romantic portrayal, and we should note that this book’s portrayal of women is not what you might call “sufficient” for modern sentiments. As Morgan looks upon Arthurian Britain, we must also look upon Twain’s world.
Why should you read it?
In stark contrast to another famous story written some years later by H.G. Wells, Twain’s entry in the time-travel genre is merely a vessel to help dispel unfounded notions about the past. You might hear such notions even to this day on social media. “Did you know a medieval serf labored for fewer hours per week than today’s wage-slaves?” Even if it were true, that leaves out the horrific conditions they worked under, the near constant threat of violence, the dismal state of medicine, and the brutally enforced social stratification. The book’s narrative is relatively straightforward and brings the whole adventure to a satisfactory conclusion. I highly recommend taking it for a spin if you’ve ever had a phase in your life when you were fascinated by either the 6th or the 19th century, or if you’re looking for a bit of classic science fiction turned on its head.
What do you think?
Have you read this book? Leave me a comment below to tell me what you thought about it.