A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Mark Twain’s novel, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,’ discusses various weighty issues such as the abolition of slavery, injustices carried out by the early Catholic Church, nobility, issues regarding succession and heredity, knighthood and its ridiculousness and the usage of unjust and biased laws. Mark Twain has managed to criticize these issues in a fanciful manner that is captivating to the reader. This essay weighs the advantages versus the disadvantages of civilization from Mark Twain’s point of view. After a detailed analysis of the Connecticut Yankee, one is left in doubt that man, in an attempt to adapt technology, ends up destroying his peaceful environment.

B. Book Summary

Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee has however received criticism for presenting at least two major concerns which contradict each other. The first contradiction is conveyed through the actions of Hank Morgan. In an attempt to civilize Camelot, he destroys the beautiful, peaceful and idyllic civilization that existed long before his arrival. Twain greatly ridicules and criticizes man’s attempt at civilization through Hank. This is illustrated in his attempts to enlighten and improve the lives of the villagers through the adoption of modern innovations and inventions. His failure, in the end, illustrates Twain’s criticism of the world’s civilization. The second contradiction is conveyed through Morgan’s return. At the end, he rants about his wish to go back to the 19th century Camelot. In fact, his deathbed wish was to return to the ‘lost land,’ home, friends and ‘all that is dear . . . all that could make life worth the living.’(p. 479) He is desperate to join his wife Sandy and their child Hello-Central. In his hallucinations, he sees himself holding their daughter and he feels that ‘now all is well, all is peace, and I am happy again.’(p.479)

Therefore, all condemnation against the feudal 16th century England is contradicted by Hank’s nostalgic return to the pre-civilized, happy and laid-back Camelot. Twain condemns various aspects of the 16th Century England such as slavery and knight-errantry, which is exemplified by his long digressions. He despises the concept of people being governed under a monarchy and reiterates that when two people are dressed alike, the difference between a commoner and a royal person is the same. However, his criticisms are not overly biased for he lists the outstanding, chivalric nobility displayed by Sir Lancelot.

 On the other hand, his depiction of Hank’s character, especially his nostalgic return to the simple, innocent and pure society, negates the positives of civilization. In addition, Hank reiterates that King Arthur comes from a line of royal persons, a fact that cannot be disguised. This brings about a major contradiction. While Twain’s criticisms are sharp and well-directed, Hank Morgan’s character and his view of Camelot are not in agreement to these criticisms.

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  i. Opening a Patent Office

Among his very first acts as the Boss, Hank opens a patent office so as to register all of his future works in Camelot. Hank feels that Camelot should be transformed into a highly civilized society and embarks on this agenda. Through his witty innovations, great steps are taken that rapidly increase the state’s revenue. In a four-year span, Hank manages to set up industries and recruits the top minds into his service. He starts public schools and numerous other Protestant Sunday schools.  He goes to great lengths to hide his strategy from the ever-watchful eye of the Catholic Church. His agents secretly tour the countryside dispelling myths while his men lay telephone and telegraph wires at night. While he is busy planning how Camelot will be run, King Arthur and his Knights of the Table Round engage in weekly tournaments. Hank feels that these tournaments should be improved and he attends some so as to study how this is to be done.

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In one particularly long tournament, Hank sends ‘an intelligent priest from the Department of Public Morals and Agriculture.’(p.73) He is meant to report on the proceedings. In so doing, Hank paves the way for journalism in readiness for the first newspapers. 

  ii. The Patent Office as a Civilization-Incubator

The Patent Office is where all inventions made in Camelot were recorded so as to avoid duplication of other people’s ideas. Hank intended to use this office as the ‘hatching place for all his technological strategies. Through this office, significant developments are made such as the introduction of newspapers. Hank believes that he has all the necessary solutions and his mandate is to instute these changes as exemplified in his belief that ‘unlimited power is the ideal thing when it is in safe hands.’(p.82)By introducing Protestant Sunday schools, he hopes to reduce the almost absolute power held by the Catholic Church. This is characteristic of modern dictators who vie for absolute control of the political system.

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i. The Duel

In Camelot, tournaments are held regularly. The Boss attends these tournaments so as to see whether there are any improvements that can be made. In one particular tournament, Sir Dinandan comes over and begins regaling The Boss with his old jokes. This is only cut short when Sir Dinadan is called over to fight Sir Gareth. Sir Dinadan is well beaten, forcing The Boss to involuntarily say ‘I hope to gracious he's killed!’(p.78)Unfortunately, at that particular moment, Sir Gareth crashes into Sir Sagramor le Desirous. This makes Sir Sagramor to think that these words were meant for him. He takes offense and decides to challenge Hank in four years time.

During this period, The Boss supervises various development plans such as the introduction of the newspapers, the laying down of telephone and telegraph wires and the commencement of a military and naval academy. In spite of all these institutional and technological changes, the only significant change is the increase in state revenue.

ii. Technology as a Measure of Civilization

Twain ridicules the tournament through satire. He compares the tournament to a weekly get-together. He feels that tournaments are men’s way to boost their ego. Hank refers to them as ‘ridiculous and picturesque human bull-fights.’(p.71)Twain also ridicules the knight’s search of the Holy Grail by stating that it was ‘the Northwest Passage of that day, as you may say; that was all.’(p.79)


 i. The Final Battle

Chapter 39 and the following chapters describe The Boss desire to radically change the institutions of Camelot such as knighthood and the Church’s control. He launches an attack against knighthood by donning tights rather than armor. In addition, he uses a lasso instead of a lance and rides a small, fast horse instead of a huge, powerful steed. By downing Sir Sagramor in such an undignified manner, he illustrates the utter absurdity of such tournaments.

The Boss makes a farce by roping several knights together and is therefore forced to face Sir Sagramor without his lasso. This further undermines knighthood. He then pulls out his recently made pistol and shoots Sir Sagramor to death. Finally, The Boss makes a final blow to knighthood by challenging all of the five hundred knights to a battle. As they charge, he shoots them with both guns. After killing nine of them, the rest cowardly withdraw. This signifies the end of a way of life. Indeed, The Boss proclaims that ‘the victory is perfect — no other will venture against me — knight-errantry is dead.’(p.414)

Ironically, The Boss and his men make their last stand in Merlin’s cave. In ‘The Battle of the Sand Belt,’ the warfare tools exceed the reader’s imagination. This advanced weaponry, at the hands of fifty two youths, is sufficient to overpower the knights who have no know-how as to how to avoid land mines, electrified fences or Gatling guns. The vast number of deaths signifies the destruction of the once lovely and peaceful Camelot. At the end, Hank states that ‘twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.’(p.475)Yankee ingenuity finally surpasses knighthood and the Boss celebrates this victory by saying that‘the applause I got was very gratifying to me.’(p.463) This is however a Pyrrhic victory. The Boss, and his men, is trapped within the cave by the dead men. The rot emanating from these deaths putrefies the air thus leading to the death of the victors, one by one. This is illustrated by Clarence’s comments: ‘We had conquered; in turn we were conquered.’(p.476)These sentiments are echoed by Merlin in ‘Ye were conquerors; ye are conquered!’(p.477)

  ii. Twain's critique of civilization

Mark Twain greatly tests the reader’s credibility from chapter 39 henceforth. The Boss is, at first, well in his course of destroying the superstitions surrounding the Catholic Church and attaining a highly civilized, democratic society that is ‘given to men and women of the nation there to remain.’(p.319) However, in chapter 40 and 41, The Boss is tricked by the Catholic Church into taking a voyage out of Camelot. The Church takes this opportunity to announce the Interdict. This supports Twain argument that the Church opposed all advancements towards civilization.

In chapter 42, a lot of events take place. First, railroad conductors were introduced. Secondly, the Round Table was converted into a stock exchange market. However, noble persons, such as Sir Launcelot, began manipulating how it worked. Jealousy and greed led to Camelot being divided into two, whereby one camp is led by King Arthur and the other by Sir Launcelot. The peaceful idyllic Camelot was no more; instead, it was replaced by a greedy, materialistic 19th Century society. Twain feels that man, through his technological achievements, will only destroy his peaceful environment.

F. Conclusion

At the very end, The Boss is put into a deep sleep and the narrator, Mark Twain, enters Hank’s room, only to find him ranting about his wife and the ‘lost land.’ Hank wishes that he could go back to the peaceful, lovely and idyllic 16th Century Camelot. He is not defeated by Merlin’s men; rather, it is his own technological advancements that overwhelm him. 



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